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The Last of Us

“The world’s been hard on us. Hard on him. Joel’s done some terrible things. He tells me that on this journey, you hang onto your morals and die, or you do whatever it takes to survive… I guess I’ll find out.”

The Last of Us, recently released for the Playstation 3, is without question one of the most rewarding videogame experiences of my life. Emotionally tolling and morally challenging, it leaves you exhausted and unsettled, but also exhilarated and satisfied.

In The Last of Us, the world has been ravaged by a global fungal outbreak – based on the horrifyingly real “cordyceps” strain – that has infected the majority of humans and transformed them into deadly and disturbing creatures. Twenty years after the fungus eliminated most of the population, those who managed to survive eke out a living in militarized quarantine zones or try to make their way in the nature-reclaimed ruins of formerly great cities. One group – The Fireflies – offers fleeting hope by supposedly searching for a cure and attempting to rebuild civilization.

Caught in the middle is the principal protagonist, Joel: a hardened survivor and smuggler who, after suffering great loss, seems to have sacrificed any moral pretense in service of a “kill or be killed” philosophy. Anger simmers beneath his every utterance and the game makes it abundantly clear he is capable of extreme acts of violence. Joel is not a hero. And although he is haunted by regret and outrage, at his core he is a good man trying – and failing – to make the best of a bad situation.

Accompanying Joel throughout much of the game is the secondary protagonist, Ellie: an orphaned young girl of great importance for the Fireflies. Ellie was born and raised in a quarantine zone after the fall of civilization and has been toughened by her fair share of suffering. Despite this, she has not lost her youthful sense of adventure or morality and although she is often frightened by the world into which she is thrust, Ellie’s honest resolve drives her to survive.

Through a tragic set of circumstances, Joel and Ellie are unwillingly forced into a tense, sometimes adversarial, partnership that takes them on a year-long journey across the destroyed-yet-beautiful former United States. And like similar creative works (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road principal among them), the two are primarily concerned with living to see the next day, but it’s the relationship that develops between Joel and Ellie that is the focus of the narrative. Though the beating heart of the game is comprised of violent encounters and frantic scrambles for sanctuary, its soul is comprised of the quiet, emotional moments. A glance at a broken watch or a simple high-five carries tremendous emotional weight, unlike anything in any game I’ve played before.

Between the writing, art direction, graphics, motion capture performances, music, and voice acting, The Last of Us not only rivals, but surpasses the quality of some of my favorite films. Joel and Ellie are down-to-earth and realistic, and before long I found myself thinking of them as friends. The interactivity of the experience makes it easy to identify with Joel and Ellie’s plight, and although the world they inhabit is an irrevocably transformed version of our own, it and their reactions to it resonate deeply. Their odyssey is wild and strange, but the humanity and pathos the creators manage to convey to the player through Joel and Ellie is astounding.

The game’s thematic impetus is a multifaceted examination of the moral nature of survival. Hard choices and harder sacrifices are made by the characters, and the intrinsic morality of those choices and sacrifices becomes the central challenge of Joel and Ellie’s relationship. The game, by presenting the brutal, unvarnished consequences of Joel’s actions, asks two simple questions of the player: “What would you do to survive?” and “Do you deserve to survive?”

My answers took me down some intense paths of self-examination, and it’s these difficult philosophical conundrums that have led some reviewers to wonder if The Last of Us can be considered a “fun” game. There are unnerving acts of violence the game asks you to engage with. There are serious challenges to the validity of human endurance. And while I admit it is definitely not for everyone and is at times depressing, there are moments of overwhelming beauty and triumphant reward that cement the tough journey with Joel and Ellie as one of the most memorable and enduring in gaming history.

So begins another year and what better way to celebrate than a retrospective hodge-podge review of my most favorite recent versions of famous British stage and screen mainstays?

These revitalized pieces of modern film-making prove the idiom that “everything old is new again,” and their combined histories – a modern television show/series of films based on a late-19th century series of novels, a futuristic film adaptation of a play more than 400 years old, and the latest film in a 25-year-old franchise – are enough to make you feel like a well-known time-and-dimension-hopping-Doctor who will remain nameless as I have not yet been convinced of his preeminence.

British pop culture has never been irrelevant, but in the wake of the Harry Potter books and films, the Lord of the Rings films, and rebooted version of Dr. Who (I guess I lied), it has recently experienced a kind of renaissance abroad (especially in the United States) and for me, the three properties below embody that “return to form.” Modern producers have re-forged and re-invented many of England’s most precious cultural icons, building on their eclectic histories to produce arguably the most effective iterations of those properties yet.

My over-analytical ramblings aside though, these are some of the coolest film or film-like entities of British origin that I’ve seen in some time.

Sherlock

01 Sherlock

It took me a while to catch on to the quality of this short series, which so far consists of only six film-like “episodes” ranging in length from 1.5 to 2 hours, but once I did, I was hooked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a favorite character of mine when I was younger, and I’ve since idolized not only him, but essentially every brilliant detective character of whom I’ve been made aware and who resembles Holmes in intellectual prowess and courage.

Like Doyle’s original stories, each episode of the show is a different “case file,” in which Holmes – the eccentric, borderline-sociopathic deductive genius – and Dr. John Watson – his infinitely patient, practically-minded companion – are tasked with the unraveling of a complex mystery. As the two confront each conundrum, they encounter a variety of allies and enemies and do their best to thwart nefarious plots. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but their efforts are invariably captivating.

A big part of what makes this adaptation so good in comparison to other recent versions (I’m thinking specifically of the Robert Downey Jr. films) is that the principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) aren’t just playing roles that have been carried forward through time, cob webs and all. This version is purposefully founded in the modern age and both actors wholly inhabit the roles, making the characters and the plots in which they are caught up feel genuine.

Furthermore, the series is laser-focused on a goal that I think is imminently invaluable and too often ignored in most television: The main character and the show as a whole strive to get you thinking. Intelligence is engaging and fascinating, and though there are plenty of foot chases through the streets of London, the mind is the principal battlefield on which Holmes and his adversaries are engaged.

Doyle’s stories always dealt with a morally grey world, but the modern setting of this series allows the writers to address relevant ethical questions that touch on a variety of issues, including government oversight, the dehumanizing effects of technology, sexual politics, and more. None of the episodes strictly adheres to the original book or story on which it is based and this willingness to do something new with the material makes it feel fresh and exciting.

Simply put, I don’t think Sherlock is for everyone, but I cannot say enough good things about this show. My only complaint is that I want more. Immediately.

Coriolanus

01 Coriolanus 2

How do you address and criticize a corrupt military-industrial complex on which much of the world’s stability depends? Well, if you’re Ralph Fiennes, you film a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s prescient and uber-relevant play, Coriolanus.

In his directorial debut, Fiennes stars as the severe-yet-effective Caius Martius, the most prestigious and lauded military commander in a time-shifted, modernized version of ancient Rome. During an especially brutal and decisive battle with the armies of Rome’s rival city-state, Volsci, Caius engages his military rival and commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), in mortal combat and emerges the victor, cementing a temporary peace. To celebrate his success, Caius is awarded by the Senate the honorary title “Coriolanus” as an additional moniker in remembrance of the pitched battle. Caius Martius Coriolanus is loved for his courage and becomes the darling of the military state, encouraged by those around him to pursue the powerful leadership position of “Consul” within the Senate.

But Coriolanus has no taste for politics, and staunchly refuses to pay homage to the teeming, non-military masses he sees as dishonorable parasites unworthy of his love. His elitist attitude is rejected by the egalitarian people who see his beliefs as a betrayal and Coriolanus’s tragic downfall is set in motion. A multitude of ethical and thematic questions arise as a result of Coriolanus’s steadfastness, and it is this complexity of thoughtful reflection that is one of the most appealing aspects of the film.

What allegiance do leaders owe to those they lead and vice versa? How does one balance the demands of popular power and personal beliefs? Are codes of ethics and public office at their core incompatible? What kind of leader should we admire and aspire to emulate? What does it mean to be a “good” man? These questions and many more are raised throughout and though Fiennes does not definitively answer any, they are all so incredibly relevant to our modern world of war, political scandal, and moral despair that I was taken aback these were all issues that were also relevant more than 400 years ago, when Shakespeare’s play was written. To quote another cliche: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The plot and thematic elements of this tragedy aside, I should also mention a few of the more technical aspects. The imagery is often bleak, but this film is shot beautifully, with an eye for framing human frailty within unforgiving industrial environments. Though this may be a turn-off for some, the script is composed of reorganized and mildly retouched passages of verse from the original play, all delivered by an extremely capable and excellent cast, including Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave. Every event in this story’s plot is emotionally charged, and the principal cast perfectly elucidates the unforgiving pressures of tenuous power.

In all, if you want to watch a well-made film adaptation of a more-relevant-than-ever Shakespeare tragedy that touches on a multitude of issues facing the modern Western world, check out Coriolanus.

Skyfall

01 SkyfallSimilarly to Coriolanus, Skyfall – the most recent (and in my opinion most excellent) James Bond film – deals head-on with the decline of an empire’s founding ideals and those people working to pick up the pieces. I won’t go into the specific details of the plot because one of the pleasures of this film is watching the action set pieces unfold and morph into something different from moment to moment, but I do include below a brief review of the ideas and themes. There are no outright spoilers, but I touch on things that may influence a first-time viewer’s impressions.

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Bond myself, but I can assert with confidence one of the most appealing aspects of Skyfall is that, like any good movie, it is built of many varying and complex layers of plot, character, and theme. Each of three main characters constitutes a vital aspect of what the director Sam Mendes is trying to say with this entry in the series.

The most vital layer is of course focused on Bond. After a near-death experience, Bond (Daniel Craig) is forced to come to terms with his aging body’s limitations and his strained devotion to the country and organization that made him who he is. There is an overarching theme of “reflection across time” throughout the film and though Bond has been referred to as a “relic of the Cold War,” Skyfall attempts to make a legitimate case for the relevancy of old-school operatives like Bond and the role they must play in the security of contemporary society. As one character begrudgingly admits, no matter how many things you can do on a computer, “sometimes a trigger needs to be pulled.” The film lets you make of that moral indictment what you will, but it’s telling that many of Bond’s standard operating procedures in this film backfire. In response, he is forced to adapt; to evolve and become something more efficient.

Bond’s personal struggle for relevancy reflects the larger struggle of MI6’s leader, M (Judy Dench), to prove that an espionage organization and way of life is still relevant, despite the proliferation of technology, modern progress, and the decline of the greater British empire. She is under threat of replacement and is feeling the pressures of age and irrelevancy even more intensely than Bond. It’s important to note that though James Bond is a cultural icon for the country, this film is probably the only one in the series that is predominantly concerned with England itself. There are a few different exotic locales visited–Shanghai, Istanbul, a deserted island reminiscent of one in Japan–but the main action of the second half of the film all happens in London, and then in another part of Great Britain. It becomes clear that Mendes, a Londoner himself, is at his heart ambivalent about the history and future of the country he calls home.

To that point, there is security and danger in the past, and Bond and M are confronted by an antagonist who embodies this idea. Bent on revenge, Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative similar to Bond, utilizes the most cutting edge computer technology to wage war on the country, organization, and person (M) he feels left him for dead. Obsessed with the past, but employing modern methods to rectify it, Silva epitomizes the potential pitfalls of an individual’s misguided attempt at moving on without letting go. But Silva’s most important piece of the thematic puzzle is in proving that dangerous enemies still lurk in the shadows.

There are a ton more aspects of the film worth discussing–including the nature of home, one’s responsibility to legacy, the line between hero and villain, the loyalty of surrogate “sons” to their perceived “mother,” and more–but I think this “review” has gone on long enough.

If this sounds heavy, it definitely is at parts, and I would say this is perhaps the darkest of the Bond films. But luckily, the more serious tone is often balanced by fun quips, snappy exchanges of dialogue, and references and call-backs to elements of Bond’s days of yore. Moreover, the entire film is one of the most well-photographed in recent memory. Every single shot looks amazing and most importantly, often visually reflects the thematic elements of the film. It is easily the best-looking in the series, and this high quality also permeates the acting. Though the series is best known for silly camp, there is an earnest effort in Skyfall to make the world of Bond more real, and all of the actors turn in great performances to that end.

Sure, all of the above is wrapped up in an intense, action-packed franchise film, and some viewers may be skeptical of an action movie’s attempts at intelligence, but Skyfall proves that with the right script, emotional heart, and philosophical drive, an action film can have as much to say as a more austere drama. For that reason, I think Skyfall far exceeds the expectations of a genre too often dominated by mindless garbage to become something very special and definitely worth watching. Oh, and it has a pretty great theme song.

Every kid wishes they could fly.Man of Steel

A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is in development, and after seeing the most recent trailer, I couldn’t be more excited. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, whose visuals are usually excellent despite so-so story-telling, produced by Christopher Nolan of single-handedly-reviving-the-superhero-film-genre-with-Batman fame, and stars Henry Cavill, who appears to have been genetically engineered for the role.

Judging by the trailer alone (some say I have too much hope), it seems like the film has the potential to become something really special: a big-screen adaptation of the ultimate superhero that does justice to what he means to many fans (myself included). The excellent narration of the trailer, provided by Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (played by Russel Crowe – there is another version featuring narration by Jon Kent, played by Kevin Costner), sets a lump in my throat and my eyes to watering, and captures perfectly the purpose and significance of the character:

“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, is an incredibly complex character both in terms of his comic book incarnations and the public’s perception of him. Weighed down by decades of campy adaptations, inaccurate Christ comparisons, and sub-par storytelling, Superman is poised for a comeback on the more serious dramatic stage set by the recent Batman films. And given the relationship between the characters as two of the most popular of all time, it’s impossible not to compare them. It is common among people my age to dismiss Superman in favor of the Dark Knight, and that preference is an interesting touchstone with regards to the state of Western culture’s psychology.

If it wasn’t already clear, I am a fan of Superman, though not at the expense of my Batman fandom (friends know my faithful feline companion’s name to, in fact, be “Batman”). But it makes me sad to hear the tone of derision and cynicism with which many in my generation speak about Superman. I encountered this over the summer when the Man of Steel trailer above played ahead of The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the trailer’s obvious earnestness, it was met with murmurs of dismissal and scoffing. I was dismayed.

Like any good character, Superman has evolved since his creation and the most significant iterations have been fantastic (see Superman: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and more). But for many, he is unfortunately nothing more than a cliched Boy Scout Christ allegory, without a place or relevance in today’s more hard-line, knife-edged age.

The gritty, depressing terror of the Batman films has dominated the pop-culture conversation regarding these types of characters and brought into question what they mean to the culture at large. Don’t get me wrong: I love Batman. The darker, more pragmatic side of me identifies with and idolizes the character for his ingenuity, steadfastness, seriousness of purpose, and many people obviously feel he’s very relevant.

But Batman inhabits a world of pessimism. Though he’s highly-skilled, the man in the suit is emotionally wounded. He rectifies wrongs, fights injustice, and helps others cope with the unfortunate ramifications of crime, but he cannot prevent crime. His most admirable qualities are generated in response to a world that reflects our own, but I find myself wondering if his is the kind of example we should seek to emulate. Any thoughtful reader or viewer knows that there is always too much injustice to combat permanently, so although we are entertained and satisfied by the stories, what do we take away? When we internalize the actions and ideals of a character like Batman, what do we do with his example? Is his path the one we need to walk?

Superman, on the other hand, offers the complete opposite, and although they differ, the characters are often presented as two sides of the same coin. Where Batman accepts a cynical reality, Superman encourages optimism with a vision of the individual as we would like ourselves to be. Where Batman is a human who is more super than any human will ever be, Superman is an alien who at his core possesses a humanity we wish we could emulate. Where Batman is distrustful and reticent, Superman is honest and joyous.

Superman is a metaphor that soars among the clouds, unhampered by the world that is, bringing into existence a fictional world we all wish could be reality.

As a recent ComicsAlliance piece demonstrated, the ideological significance of Superman cannot be understated. To celebrate Suicide Prevention Day, they posted a page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman graphic novel. The page deals poignantly with a young woman’s intended suicide. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, she mistakenly concludes that no one – not even the doctor she came to trust – cares for her. Before she can kill herself, Superman assures her otherwise: “It’s never as bad as it seems. You are stronger than you think you are.”

Morrison wisely doesn’t have Superman show up in time to catch the girl after she’s jumped, making a cliched show of superheroics. Instead, Superman prevents disaster by offering a more human and inspiring solution: kind words and a hug. With this, Superman demonstrates the superheroics we could and should all engage in on a daily basis; to save a life is the kind of wonder we could and should all hope to achieve.

Sure, I may be ascribing more hope and credit than a big-budget film deserves, but the character of Superman – like the legends Robin Hood, King Arthur, Musashi, Gilgamesh, and countless others – holds special significance for culture and history. And sure, the stories from the comic books and movies don’t always embody the lofty paragon I’ve described here.

But in a time when you don’t have to work hard to witness the losing battle good, thoughtful people fight against true evil and horror every day in the real world, I personally cannot wait and sincerely hope that Man of Steel does what Superman has always done: Inspire hope for a better tomorrow among countless new and old fans everywhere. And that’s something I think the world could really use right now.

And if that’s not enough, bolting through the sky at the speed of sound is unarguably awesome.

ThatGameCompany, Journey

Austin Wintory, “Apotheosis”

Journey Stories

I’m sure everyone imagines from time to time what it would be like to embark on a journey into the unknown; to explore an untamed landscape, and uncover hidden truths about one’s self that would otherwise remain undiscovered. For a precious few that is a reality and I envy those lucky individuals, but for most that idea remains an elusive fantasy, one which is at the heart of ThatGameCompany’s recent videogame Journey.

Available exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Journey puts the player in the desert-wandering shoes of a red-cloaked, lone adventurer on a quest to reach a mountaintop many leagues in the distance. Beyond the game’s title and a brief tutorial, the player is supplied with no information they do not discover for themselves. With its breathtaking aesthetics, meaningful story, stirring score, and captivating gameplay, it is clear before long that Journey promises and delivers a uniquely profound experience. For an idea of the artistry of that experience, I strongly recommend the first two links above to watch the game’s trailer and listen to one of the pieces of the soundtrack.

Beyond the literal journey undertaken by the protagonist, the entire presentation acts as a moving storybook allegory for spiritual and emotional transformation. The mountain toward which you are constantly advancing is a practical goal for the game, but as you traverse elaborate ruins and uncover the land’s history, your imagination runs free and the mountain takes on a multitude of significant meanings both inside and outside the game world. The stylish microcosm in Journey celebrates the highs and lows of life and what it means to persist in the face of adversity.

There is beauty and magic to be found in even the destitute ruins of a once great civilization and motivating much of the action of Journey is the conceit that you cannot take wing and fly toward a better understanding of what lies ahead without understanding what has come before. This concept is woven – literally – into the fabric of the game. As you explore, you learn to harness the power of flight, granted to you by mysterious scraps of enchanted scarves, remnants of a history consumed by the desert. This is a great place to mention that despite the harsh environments, every creature, location, and character is imbued with fantastic liveliness, embodying the enigmatic energies they represent. 

One of the greatest philosophical and emotional achievements of the game (and the one that prompted me to write about it now) is its unique implementation of multiplayer elements. Unless you are playing offline, the quest is not one you need undertake alone. At some point along the way, you will undoubtedly encounter another traveler also intent on pilgrimage to the mountain. With regards to your interaction, the game remains minimal. Each of you are given nothing more than a unique symbol and scarf-recharging “shout” to communicate. Adding another layer of symbolism, when two players move close to one another, they restore each other’s energy.

Actions speak louder than words in Journey, and to great effect. Contrary to what you would expect, the limitations foster a more profound connection to the companions you meet. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from. All that matters is that you are on the journey together and that through partnership you can make magic and fly.

As in life, you may lose track of one another, or a different traveler will join you along the way, but there are moments of true beauty to be found in almost every interaction. The last link above, to a blog entitled “Journey Stories,” speaks volumes about the significance of some of these online interactions. As the name implies, it features stories about players’ experiences in the game. Here I will tell you mine. I’ve done my best to avoid any spoilers; there’s nothing below besides the banal revelation that the game has an ending.

My Journey Story:

Though I had already played it once from start-to-finish, I sat down recently to enjoy the game for a second time. After having worked with and parted ways with a few different travelers, about halfway through this play-through, I met one that would stick with me until the end. His scarf – the length of which depends on the discovery of in-game secrets, and determines the amount of time you can fly before needing a recharge – was short, indicating that he was a new player, unfamiliar with the mechanics or progression of the game. For what it’s worth, my scarf was quite long.

We met at one of the most trying sections of the game, one that is made all the more bearable by having a reliable companion. I was resolved to help this traveler evade every obstacle along his way, waiting and leading him across the difficult landscape. Through trials and tribulations, and one of the most emotionally-rewarding scenes I’ve ever watched in a videogame (or otherwise), we made it together to the very end. At this point, the main action of the game has subsided and there is little more to do than complete the journey. It may sound silly to some, but this is where I get choked up.

Eager to complete the game, I rushed forward, arrogantly intent on leading my ward to the ending. To my surprise, however, surrounded by the beautiful environment in this closing segment, my companion suddenly sat down. Steps from the end, he crossed his legs and took a seat, waiting for nothing. Puzzled, I turned around and approached him, wondering what could be wrong. We’d come so far together and I wanted nothing more than to complete the journey side-by-side. My friend continued to sit, seemingly meditating on what we’d done and where we were going.

Still confused, but appreciative of the quiet moment, I sat down beside this stranger. Nothing happened, but somehow… it was one of the most sublime, transcendental experiences, thinking on the time we’d spent. After a few minutes of watching our red-cloaked wanderers – and by extension, ourselves – peacefully reflect, he got up and started walking. I watched him move away for a few seconds, wondering what he would do. He stopped and turned around, waiting for me. I couldn’t help but smile. My character rose and strode toward my companion. Together, we did indeed finish the game, walking side-by-side.

Like I said, it probably sounds pathetic to some, but my heart swells at remembering those moments. I’m incredibly thankful to that companion – who I thought knew less than me – for reminding me to take time to reflect, because great things wait behind as well as ahead. To me, it’s this kind of story that makes games like Journey important. The story, art, music, and presentation are impressive, but it’s the simple celebration of human interaction that truly inspires.

Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf, “The Enemy Within”

Besides the hilariously appropriate metaphor Rothkopf uses to frame his editorial (the U.S. as burger-guzzling ground-pounder on the fast-track to the cemetery), he makes excellent points as he runs down the list of perceived foreign threats politicians routinely use as bogey-men and swiftly dismisses them all. This is one of the most succinct write-ups I’ve come across that explores why the U.S. needs to stop worrying ad nauseum about external enemies and focus on its domestic issues. This attitude of fear-mongering has been present in politics for as long as I’ve been aware of politics as a thing people care about (admittedly, not long), but given the economic instability of recent years and the advent of terrorism as a front-and-center FEAR in the popular consciousness, people seem to be in overdrive.

That’s not to say there aren’t domestic “terrors” that inspire ridiculous amounts of mental exhaustion among some people (tax laws, abortion rights, gay marriage/civil unions), but it’s so much easier and more common for politicians to point in fear out over the oceans at something that simply is not there or so far over the horizon as to be irrelevant. It sounds like a tired old complaint, but it would be great if those who claim to want to lead us actually did some, you know, leading.

David Rothkopf: “If America stopped searching for goblins under the bed, it might actually be able to reset its economic priorities and start investing in the things that would make the country stronger, more prosperous, and safer again, from infrastructure to energy security to better schools. What’s more, Americans might find that a foreign policy that identified real risks but kept them in perspective and was more about deepening ties, finding common ground, and avoiding unnecessary conflict would work better than the tired us vs. them formulations of the recent past.”

TED, Rory Stewart, “Time to End the War in Afghanistan”

This is another excellent TED talk from July of 2011, this time regarding western military intervention in Afghanistan. The closing of his talk is too good to miss, so I’ve transcribed it below for anyone who doesn’t want to watch. Besides it being an honest analysis of western involvement in the region from someone who’s spent a tremendous amount of time there, Stewart constructs a clear, well-reasoned, thought-provoking argument that should be a positive example of debate for anyone interested in engaging in public discourse about topics like this.

Rory Stewart: “When people talk about intervention, they imagine there is some scientific theory – the RAND Corporation goes around counting 43 previous insurgencies, producing mathematical formulas saying ‘You need one trained counter-insurgent for every 20 members of the population.’ – this is the wrong way of looking at it. You need to look at it in the way you look at mountain rescue.

When you’re doing mountain rescue, you don’t take a doctorate in ‘Mountain Rescue.’ You look for somebody who knows the terrain. It’s about context. You understand that you can prepare, but the amount of preparation you can do is limited. You can take some water, you can have a map, you can have a pack, but what really matters is two kinds of problems: problems that occur on the mountain which you couldn’t anticipate, such as, for example, ice on a slope, but which you can get around, and problems which you couldn’t anticipate and which you can’t get around, like a sudden blizzard, or an avalanche, or a change in the weather. And the key to this is a guide who has been on that mountain in every temperature, at every period; a guide who, above all, knows when to turn back, who doesn’t press on relentlessly when conditions turn against them.

What we look for in firemen, in climbers, in policemen, and what we should look for in intervention, is intelligent risk-takers. Not people who plunge blind off a cliff, who jump into a burning room, but who weigh their risks, weigh their responsibilities. Because the worst thing we’ve done in Afghanistan is this idea that failure is not an option. It makes failure invisible, inconceivable, and inevitable. And if we can resist this crazy slogan, we shall discover in Egypt, in Syria, in Lybia, and anywhere else we go in the world that if we can often do much less than we pretend, we can do much more than we fear.”

The Atlantic, Maria Popova, “E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer”

Beware: Random musings follow.

I find this article about E.B. White both inspiring and depressing. “Inspiring” because White is obviously a paragon in both the professional and amateur realms of writing with so many excellent things to say about the practice of writing as an art inherently vital to human existence, and “depressing” because of the unfortunately accurate observations Maria Popova makes in response to some of White’s ideas within the context of modern written expression, especially with regards to the internet. I imagine myself to be a “writer” in a few different senses, which makes it doubly strange and awkward for me to think about writing.

On the one hand, I am a professional whose job title includes the word “writer,” though I rarely feel like what I’m doing can be considered “writing.” It’s mechanical and uninspired, but does my completing my writing tasks with enough competency to be paid make me something of an authority? Is “writing” as a practice concerned primarily with the means of expressing? I don’t know. I don’t think so. My unquantifiable sense is that there’s something more to true “writing.” I’m not sure what I do from nine to five is “writing” so much as “engineering.”

On the other hand, when I can I do spend a great deal of time agonizing over my yet-to-be-fully-realized original creative writing projects. So, in another sense, I think of myself more in line with the typical idea of what a “writer” should be. Of course the difficulty in making that judgment is that I am the only one validating that thought – I am an amateur unfamiliar with the acid tests of publication. I could actually be terrible at writing, and thus a pretty awful “writer” when all is said and done.

Many of us write all of the time and for a multitude of purposes, but what is it that differentiates a creative writer’s more earnest efforts at clear, efficient, imaginative expression from the efforts of someone who is paid to do it or someone with little training and nothing more than a penchant to have their voice heard? Is the short-tempered commentator’s one-sentence response to a piece of writing as valid a response as a lengthy analysis of the same work? If, in the age of the internet, all voices essentially carry the same weight, who determines validity of effort and if no one can, why worry about it?

The question of validity is one that routinely plagues my creative endeavors, and obviously one that has plagued thoughtful writers for as long as humans have maintained written records. My only attempt at an answer to the question of validity is “enjoyment.” If the writing (either the act or appreciation for the end result of the act, i.e., reading) is something that brings one joy or satisfaction, I guess that’s all there is to it, even if that writing largely exists in a void. To write is to put forth ideas the writer thinks there is worth in recording. The best I can do is hope all of these ideas are of some value in the end.

E.B. White: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.”

Maria Popova: “One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of ‘responsibility to society.’ As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. “