Video Games

REVIEW: Pyre Delivers and Disappoints

Supergiant Games have had a pretty good run so far. Their first two titles, Bastion and Transistor, were met with critical acclaim and instantly created a community around the studio’s work. In some ways Supergiant had become the poster child for the best of the game industry. A small crew with limited resources created two of the most stylistic and unique games in recent memory. Those two games capitalized on the team’s strengths and although they had differences in the details, the broad strokes were largely the same. Very few people had anything but praise for those two games at the time. Instead, another worrying question emerged: Is Supergiant capable of diverting from their established formula?

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant and the concern for distinguishing itself from the other two titles seems apparent. The core mechanics of Pyre are a huge departure from not only Supergiant Games, but all of the industry’s current trends. These departures make Pyre an intensely unique experience, but Supergiant’s reliance on its signature touchstones make it difficult to shake the feeling that the game could’ve achieved much more.

Like all of Supergiant’s games, Pyre’s gameplay is tightly intertwined with its story. You play as an outcast of the Commonwealth, a society that has outlawed reading. As a reader, you’ve been banished to a redemptive land called the Downside where various outlaws compete in religious rites to win their way back into high society. These rites take the form of a mystic sport similar to Basketball where the objective is to score a ball into the opponent’s goal. Each side has three teammates but only one person can move at a time. There are various attributes that effect each player’s role in the game. For example, a larger character may have a wider presence to block opponents from advancing, but they’ll also be significantly slower. Alternatively, a quick character may be able to sprint across the field with ease but the amount of points they can score will be less than other characters. There are a few difference dynamics in play and it’s best to see gameplay yourself to get a better grip of how a typical match plays out.

The mechanical depth isn’t merely tweaking the values of traits like quickness (how fast you move), presence (how wide of an area you occupy), or glory (how many points you score). New characters tend to be unique races to the world of the Commonwealth. These party members have backstories that fill in the lore of the world and playstyles that expand on the gameplay’s depth. For example, Pamitha is party member from a race of bird people who have allegiance to a nation historically against the Commonwealth. Her great wings allow her to fly over the map with increased mobility. Another character is a talking tree with revolutionary tendencies. His movement is quite slowly but can teleport short distances and leave saplings for defense around the map. These different races also appears as your opponents in the game. Different teams have varying strengths and weaknesses meaning that there’s rarely a strategy that works for all of them. It also helps that Pyre encourages experimentation with your roster by having characters gain “inspiration” when they sit out a match, which allows them to gain twice as much experience when you use them again.

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As the story progresses, Pyre introduces more elements to keep the gameplay fresh and these elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played another of Supergiant’s games. Each teammate can be equipped with a unique item that alters their stats in some meaningful way. These items can be found in the world, purchased at a store or unlocked through a character-specific challenge. Later in the game the player has the option to make each match more challenging by fighting under specific religious constellations that give buffs to the opposing team or debuffs to your own. These additional elements are fine on their own but they contribute to the feeling that Pyre is more of the same. A good sports game doesn’t necessarily need a new twist every 30 minutes to keep the player’s interest. Instead the cascade of gimmicks act as a distraction. In the later matches I focused more on discovering what team/item composition broke the game instead of improving my skills and strategies.

At some point it becomes apparent that the gameplay was intended to be the focus, as made evident by the overbearing amount of dialogue and storytelling. On its own, the writing and world building of Pyre is fantastic. As opposed to Supergiant’s previous games, the player directly interacts with most characters instead of reading about them in description texts. The various personalities come to life with these one-on-one interactions but there is simply way too many of them. For every ten minutes of gameplay there’s an accompanying 30 minutes of talking to party members or advancing the story by pressing X over and over until your input is needed again. Sometimes you’re given options on how to respond to character inquiries or make decisions for the group, but many of these “choices” seem half-baked since none of these choices have a narrative or mechanical consequence. The strangest example of this is when the game prompts the player as if they’re being tasked with deciding the future of the groups’ journey, but there’s only one option. These moments give the impression that Supergiant planned for worthwhile choices, and perhaps branching paths, but chose not to pursue it.

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Narrative choices would have gone a long way to remedy how boring the game becomes when it starts unloading its story on the player. It’s bad enough that Pyre has a very slow start, but it never gets into a groove of leapfrogging between action and story. Eventually I found myself so overwhelmed with party members wanting to talk to me that I skipped through a lot of the tangential dialogue. In the past, Supergiant has woven a lot of its story in its gameplay. Transistor masterfully tied gameplay experimentation with revealing more of the world by tying each individual ability to a backstory of a specific character. In Transistor the more you used an ability, the more story you got. That’s not the relationship in Pyre. Clicking through character text unlocks even more text via the religious book the party keeps with them at all times. I tried my best to read a few pages of this codex but gave up around page 15 (there’s over 50 in total). Supergiant’s past games have had their own worlds with deep backstories, but it was always optional for the player to explore if they wanted to. In Pyre, everything is front and center.

The biggest crime of the oppressive story is it diminishes your time with playing the game. Pyre is easily the most mechanically dense game from Supergiant, but just as its true potential is revealed the game ends. There is a local versus mode offered in the game, but without any competition or consequence it’s not enough. Had the game included traditional mode available in sports games — such as tournaments, challenges, or online multiplayer — the thirst to play more of the game may have been quenched, but there’s none of that. On the other hand, the narrative is never truly explored either. Pyre’s world has conflicting nations, racial tensions, political plots, unique backstories and complicated relationships but they all have to be condensed into one minute dialogues. It feels like Supergiant finally struck gold and found a concept worthy of spending more time on, but they cut it short. I suppose Supergiant could feel flattered that the biggest critique of their game is that it seemed like it could have been even better, but it also means it’s hard to walk away from the game without feeling disappointed.

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The individual elements of Pyre are fantastic. The clean visual style creates unique vistas for the landscapes of the Downside. Every party member and stage have their own soundtrack that adds a sense of character to the entire world. Political intrigue and individual motives draw the player into the intriguing storyline and the memorable cast give reasons to care about the outcome. Mechanically, this is Supergiant’s best work. Pyre is an easily recommendable game to anyone with an appreciation for video games, but the question that shrouded Pyre’s release is not answered after its completion. Is Supergiant capable of anything else?

4/5

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Music

REVIEW: Tyler the Creator Finds His Wings with Scum Fuck Flower Boy

When I was at my college newspaper I decided to expand my horizons and wrote my one and only music review on Tyler the Creator’s Wolf. In retrospect you can see a lot of my ignorance about the music world and rap industry, but that’s what started me on the journey of becoming a fan of Tyler the Creator. In many ways, Tyler has been one of the most frustrating artists to follow. He’s always shown he has a lot of potential, but tended to lean on his reliable ability to stir critics and create controversy. Every new release I asked the same question: Is this going to be the moment he finds the sound he wants? For his latest release, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, I can finally say the answer is yes.

I want to say that Tyler’s success with Scum Fuck Flower Boy is one of the greatest stories in the music industry today, but to understand the weight of this destination you have to know the context of the journey.

Tyler’s style started from a place of misanthropy and juvenile pranks. He was the guy who rapped about raping girls and dumping their bodies. He’s the guy who ate that cockroach in that video where he shittalked Hayley Williams and said he wanted to stab Bruno Mars. For most of the mass public, that’s who Tyler is to them. He’s a shock artist that wants to ride the wave of controversy to stardom. A lot of his music reinforces that like Yonkers, Tron Cat, Rusty and BUFFALO.

The people who got invested in Tyler the Creator quickly learned the he was more than an edgy teenager. No matter which album you started with, you saw a side of Tyler that most casual listeners did not. You saw that he’s kind of depressed, has “father problems,” and feels lost. Speaking from personal experience, I know that the feelings of hatred for others and hatred for yourself often go hand in hand. Tyler’s music embodied that dynamic more than any other artist in the past decade. But Tyler also liked to have fun. The early days of Odd Future were defined by Tyler’s playfulness. It was a group of talented artists making music, hanging out and making silly videos. Tyler led the charge on this image with his ridiculous music videos, on-track teasing of fellow artists and rapping about riding bikes with friends.

Tyler’s personality perfectly represented being a young adult. You have a lot of strong emotions about the world, about yourself, about your circumstance, but you also want to boogie to some Marvin. His appeal to millennial existential dread mixed with desire to laugh about your problems might be why the majority of Tyler fans are suburban white kids – including myself.

This made listening to Tyler very therapeutic and that made up for a lot of the deficiencies in his music. He had a lot of potential to become more legitimate that never quite made it to the finished album. Songs like Treehome95 and Find Your Wings showed that Tyler was more than a rap artist. The sheer artistry of his music videos showed that this guy was clearly in a class of his own but most people didn’t see that. Despite whatever talent he showed on his albums, his public image created a consensus that he was an artist that dealt in controversy, not expression.

In some ways Tyler’s potential reflected the frustration I had with my own young-adult life. I felt like I had so much to offer and so many different things I could do, but often get characterized as one specific thing that people can’t look past. Tyler tried to undermine his pigeon-holing by saying he had multiple personalities. In many songs the different sides of himself are represented as totally different people (Wolf Haley, Sam, Dr. TC, etc.). The suggestion being that he’s not one-note, that’s just the only side of him they’re familiar with.

To add to these frustrations, Tyler has said before that he wished he could do more than rap but felt his voice limited what he can do musically. After Cherry Bomb came out — arguably his most experimental album — some fans criticized the album for lacking the misanthropic depression that had become Tyler’s signature style. Tyler was pretty frustrated by these comments and actually responded to a few of them on internet forums:

“it was cool when i was raping girls and telling you how sad i was on records, but when shit changes and im feeling great and i fuck with myself you cant deal with it?”

So there’s been high points and low points in Tyler’s career but it has still been defined by frustrations. Tyler’s frustrated he hasn’t been able to make the music he wants to make. Some fans are frustrated that he’s changing his tone. Other fans are frustrated that he’s clearly trying to do something but never gets where he wants to be. There are all these elements and personalities mixing around inside of Tyler and it’s been hard to figure out which would prevail. Is he a shock artist? Is he a soul-inspired musician? Is he a Death-Grips inspired rapper? Who is Tyler the Creator?

This album is the answer. He’s all of those things. He’s a Scum Fuck, but he’s also a Flower Boy. He made an album that represents everything about himself and it’s incredible.

I think the greatest compliment you can give this album is that it has a lot of variety but it all sounds like it’s from the same project. This is the sound the Tyler has been trying to make for a long time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the sounds used on SFFB are very similar to elements of previous songs. I’m not good at recognizing/describing noises so here’s some points of comparison:

Garden Shed (02:46) and Rusty (00:02) – The synth in the background

911 / Mr Lonely (00:26) and Find Your Wings (00:15) – The bubbling bass line / progression.

Bordem (1:11) and FUCKING YOUNG / PERFECT (5:25) – This style of harmony vocals.

Even if you can’t follow me on that line of thought, it’s fair to say that SFFB has a very consistent sound. It evokes the imagery of a “garden” with the use of spritey sound effects in See You Again, or the prominence of strings across the entire album. Even with that established sound the album finds a way to deviate when Tyler wants to do something new. Songs like See You Again, Bordem, 911 / Mr. Lonely and November are part of the album’s serene garden theme but other songs like Who Dat Boy, Pothole, I Ain’t Got Time and Droppin’ Seeds are deviations reminiscent of Tyler’s mainstream work that seamlessly flow with the overall tone. On paper many of these songs sound completely different but there are consistent motifs and concepts across the whole album that make the transitions sound like a new branch on the same tree.

With the sound established, everything else on the album is of the quality you’d expect from Tyler. He’s always been good at bridging concepts or capitalizing on dual meanings to transition to another idea and that’s on full-display throughout the album:

How many raps can I write ’til I get me a chain?
How many chains can I wear ’til I’m considered a slave?
How many slaves can it be ’til Nat Turner arrives?
How many riots can it be ’til them Black Lives Matter?
When niggas click, clack, splatter, pew, pew that nigga
Life a game of basketball, you better shoot that nigga
‘Cause if that cop got tricky, he better pull
‘Cause when I get pulled over, I usually play it cool
‘Cause I know what I’m driving is usually paid in full

I also like this one where he goes from sexual thirst to Beyonce’s Lemonade to Tesla in four lines:

My thirst levels are infinity and beyond
Sippin’ on that lemonade, I need a Beyoncé
Can’t see straight, these shades are Céline Dion
Sucks you can’t gas me up, shout out to Elon

Tyler’s rapping ability isn’t new, but there has been a significant shift in the content of his rhymes.

Tyler’s songs have always been about things that happen in his life. He hates X, Y and Z. His father left him. He had a bad break-up. He uses these as the backdrop for his aggressive tone and offensive tendencies, but we never really know how Tyler feels about any of it. Scum Fuck Flower Boy is all about Tyler and what he’s feeling. Take a song like IFHY and compare it to See You Again. They’re both love songs, but IFHY seems to be Tyler expressing his anger over catching feelings whereas See You Again is relishing in them.

It’s also worth considering these songs with the context that Tyler being “bored with rap.” IFHY sounds like a song placating popular rap tropes at the time of its release, right down to the buzzing-synth hook. See You Again sounds like the type of song that Tyler has been wanting to make. He sings more than he raps, uses harmony vocals throughout, and there are more horns and strings than bass. There’s nothing wrong with traditional rap trends but I personally feel like Tyler has wanted to move away from the mainstream sound without knowing where to go instead. But he’s finally found it.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy sounds like a concept album. It’s one of those records that you start at track one and let it run till it’s over. I have tracks that I like more than others, but there isn’t anything that I feel the need to skip over completely. Even as a die-hard Tyler apologist, I couldn’t say that about Bastard, Cherry Bomb or even Wolf.

Finally, although I think Tyler deserves significantly more praise than he gets for a variety of reasons (writes his own stuff, produces his own stuff, doesn’t rely on samples), I think it’s worth acknowledging that the path to Scum Fuck Flower Boy was paved by other artists. Of course, Tyler has had these thoughts in his mind for some amount of time. But I can’t help but acknowledge that the success of albums like Coloring Book or Blonde allowed Tyler to feel like he could embrace this more low-key sound over the aggressive edgy tone he had before. But that doesn’t take away from his accomplishment.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy stands on its own musically, but more importantly it’s a huge landmark in Tyler the Creator’s career. He finally did it. He found his sound and created an album that’s both genuinely him and honestly one of the better albums this year. On a personal level, I feel a connection to Tyler’s work. If he can achieve what he’s always wanted, maybe all of us can too.

5/5

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Movies

REVIEW: Dunkirk, a Film Without a Purpose

I remember hearing a friend argue that Christopher Nolan was a one-note director. They didn’t say that there was anything wrong with the note he had played wonderfully for years, but Nolan seemed incapable of stepping out of his comfort zone. In my mind, a Nolan film is based on two core components: a darker more realistic film universe and an interest in asking the audience puzzling questions. This has stayed consistent across his career. Memento, one of his earlier films, asked if memories created meaning and poked at if satisfaction through revenge is legitimate. His most recent film, Interstellar, probed at the concept of destiny and asked if human emotions play a part in our species’ intergalactic survival. Across every film, Nolan always grounded the fictional universe in possibility. Inception’s dream infiltration is depicted as an established practice, Interstellar is rooted in quantum physical theories, and even the Batman trilogy explains the eccentric villains’ superpowers with scientific or psychological truths. Nolan’s ability to make fantasies seem possible mixed well with his interest in asking bigger questions. His films have created some of the best movie magic in the past decade. He could stick to his one-note because he was the only one playing it.

The problem with Dunkirk is it abandons what Nolan is good at. There’s no spectacle in grounding a historical event in reality and there are no bigger questions asked to the audience. This vacancy isn’t replaced with other ideas or skills, they’re left void. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk feels like an empty film. It has no real purpose or justification for its existence. It’s easy to keep occupied with the action set pieces and convince yourself that good production equates to a good film, but the only question you’re left with after the film is: Why did he want to make this?

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Historical films can be great because they give context and connection to events from the past. Some things cannot be conveyed in textbooks or lectures. You can read all the source material there is about the Colosseum, but seeing gladiators fight inside of it is a completely different experience. The best historical films act as a type of virtual tourism. You’re visiting a time in history that no longer exists. You get a glimpse of what it was like to be there and intermingle with the people who were part of the event. The best historical films take the dead relics of the past and bring them alive.

By this metric Dunkirk is an absolute failure. The empty husk of Dunkirk is embodied by the lifeless characters in the film. There are three different narratives followed: one on the ground, one at sea and one in the air, each are anchored by a specific character but none of them provide any meaningful connection to the audience. There are no personal stories shared, no character flaws, no character strengths, no consequence to any action and I don’t even remember hearing any of the characters’ names. Creating a distinction in soldiers who all wear the same thing and have military regulated haircuts can be difficult, but other World War 2 films achieved this through charismatic actors or notable traits and decisions. You might not remember who Adrian Caparzo is from Saving Private Ryan, but you probably remember Vin Diesel was in the movie. Alternatively, you may not recall any of the actors from Letters from Iwo Jima, but you do remember the Japanese soldier who was ordered to commit suicide and chose not to. Dunkirk doesn’t use either of these strategies. The characters have nothing to distinguish them and they don’t do anything worth remembering. Nolan has hinted that his goal for the film was to focus on the events themselves but as it turns out, it’s hard to care about people you know nothing about.

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Not every movie has to be a character study, but Dunkirk offers nothing else to intrigue the audience. The personal stories are obviously not the focus, but the grand narrative is also ignored. A movie like The Big Short or All The President’s Men can let the character development take a backseat because the plot is more interested in telling the grand narrative. What caused the 2008 housing crisis? What led to Nixon’s resignation? Or in Dunkirk’s case: What was it like to be part of the Dunkirk evacuation? But the film isn’t interested in the greater context. There’s no explanation for why the evacuation was important. Who orchestrated it? How did it get to that point? Why was it successful? I won’t argue that Nolan was obligated to answer these specific questions, but without characters to latch onto — what is the point of the story?

It appears the point for Nolan was to practice crafting action set pieces and organizing large scale shoots. The best parts of Dunkirk are when the characters are faced with extreme peril. The sound design is exceptional and the editing effectively demonstrates the true horror of war. Enemy bombers swoop into scenes with loud engines getting louder until they nearly deafen the audience. Various scenes of scrambling soldiers clawing their way to safety show the chaos of survival. This is the biggest (and only) strength of the film and it’s evident from the first minute of the film, but it gets tiresome.

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The entire movie feels like a prolonged montage of action sequences without a rest. Early on in the film two characters decide to masquerade as medics to gain passage on a ship that’s leaving. This scene starts with a fast-paced score in the background as they race to get aboard the ship but they’re slowed down by crowds of soldiers and bomber attacks. It’s a tense sequence, but I got the sense that it never actually ended. There are peaks and valleys in the drama but the entire film is dedicated to keeping you on edge. There’s never a moment to pause and even when one of the three narratives have a quieter moment, these scenes are dizzyingly interwoven with other characters fighting for their life. Unfortunately for the film’s pacing, tension works like any other emotion, if you feel it for too long it loses its meaning. Which is why despite being a two hour action sequence, Dunkirk is one of the more boring films I’ve seen lately.

Perhaps the greatest sin of Dunkirk is its complete failure to convey the historical importance of the Dunkirk evacuation. Before the film was released I tweeted about a clueless audience member who saw the Dunkirk trailer and was convinced the movie was about the Normandy invasion. I suppose I shouldn’t judge that person too harshly, since not everyone knows about every battle and event in World War 2. But as the credits for Dunkirk rolled, I overheard another couple of adults in their late 20s discussing their confusion: “When did Dunkirk happen? Was it before Normandy? After Normandy? During Normandy?” They had no idea.

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In actuality, the Dunkirk evacuation occurred in 1940 after the Battle for France (and four years before the Normandy invasion). The allies had decisively lost that battle. With Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and now France eliminated from the war, with the Soviet Union signing a non-aggression pact, Britain stood alone against Germany, Italy and soon to be Japan. To add to the problems — 400,000 soldiers of the British army were still in mainland Europe. With the English Channel stuffed with minefields and covered by German U-boat patrols and Luftwaffe bomber raids, the evacuation seemed impossible. But the British pulled it off. An accomplishment the Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance.” You don’t get any of that historical weight or significance by watching Dunkirk. You get a two hour movie of guys standing on a beach.

Dunkirk is the story of Christopher Nolan stepping outside his comfort zone to disappointing results. There are moments of Nolan’s big-idea questions sprinkled throughout various scenes, but he never commits to them. It’s as if he wanted to prove that he could do something different and dove into the deep end without using his established talents to help keep him afloat. The man may have a remarkable crew, access to quality talent, and can craft a meaningful set piece but without a bedrock of purpose to support itself Dunkirk flounders and inadvertently proves the criticism against its director.

2/5

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Politics

Indoctrination through Enlightenment

There is a deep allure to knowing things that others don’t. Being informed is a virtue of modern society but being more informed than most people is even more desirable. Americans are filled with skepticism of the status quo and any fact that reveals everything is not as it seems is immensely satisfying to possess. American politics has become less about whose policies are best and more about whose conceptions of society are true. This shift has allowed left and right extremism to dominate the national discussion since they both refute society itself. The average American may have some thoughts on how poverty could be prevented in their neighborhood based on their own personal experience, but if a political opponent establishes that someone is ignorant of where poverty originates from, then their ideas for how to solve it are insignificant. This style of debate services extremism in two ways. First, it effectively invalidates anyone who isn’t initiated into a particular ideology. Second, it acts as a recruitment tool by directing the invalidated to learn the answers to questions that only extremists can answer. Well-intentioned people have a desire to know the truth, but when the bread crumbs to enlightenment are laid by politically-motivated institutions, the traveler will find themselves stumbling into indoctrination.

It’s true that knowing things is satisfying, but not knowing things is disproportionately unsatisfying. No politician has ever stood on a stage and said “I don’t know,” because it doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability. It seems citizens prefer a candidate who wrongly believes they’re correct than one who tepidly admits their ignorance. Part of the attraction of extremist ideologies is they diagnose a cause for all of society’s ailments, often the same one. What is the cause of inequality and suffering in America? Depending on which side of the spectrum you ask, it is either the result of an oppressive patriarchal structure or the machinations of a deep state globalist conspiracy. Framing society’s problems as the result of one overarching concept satisfies devout followers of ideologies but leaves many questions for any on-lookers who are not familiar with these views.

Questioning either of these framings is an effort in futility. To the extremists who dominate national political conversations, announcing that you don’t believe in the patriarchy or a globalist conspiracy is to announce your ignorance of how society works at all. Doing so inevitably puts the attacker on the defensive. Whenever a person inquires or argues against an extremist societal framing, they’re doomed to sit through a lecture detailing the specifics of the ideology or forced to dispute a variety of declarations made by it. This is a common tactic in debate teams known as “spreading” (or the “Gish Gallop”) where one side presents many weak points, forcing the opposing side to dedicate their energy to correcting each one. The corrections dominate the discussion and there’s no time left to suggest an alternative view. Failure to provide a satisfactory and concise explanation of society’s problems is used as proof that the ideology’s catchall diagnosis is more correct than any nuanced approach.

That feeling of dissatisfaction is pushed onto the observer of a debate. Even if an observer doesn’t agree with an extremist at first, their mystifying ideology demands further research. What is the patriarchy? What is the deep state? These are questions that lead to more questions that politically-motivated websites like Salon or Breitbart are happy to answer. If these questions capitalize on an ailment the individual has personally suffered, then the mainstream’s failure to answer them confirms this ideology they’ve discovered is the only true perspective in the world. They’ve convinced themselves they have found how society truly works. Even if they stumbled onto the ideology for one reason, its truth has invalidated previous conceptions of society. If an individual accepts that privilege or political corruption is the underlying cause for one problem, it is not unreasonable for them to conclude that it is the cause of many problems. Their logic is supported by scores of other followers who have all made the same conclusion.

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Perhaps most insidiously, these ideologies provide an explanation for why anyone would disagree with them. Even in the face of numerous experts disproving theories reliant on patriarchy or globalism, the ideology claims these experts are only publishing these arguments in service of the societal evil the ideology is against. If a woman disputes patriarchy, they’re suffering from “internalized misogyny.” If a conservative condemns the alt-right, they’re a “cuckservative” who hasn’t been “red-pilled” yet. Both of these explanations carry a thinly veiled condescension that says “I used to be misguided like you, but then I found the truth.”

These brain-washed extremists live a life of satisfaction believing they have found out the truth of how society really works and use it to counter opponents of their beliefs. All American political debates fail at this impasse. Supporters cheer on figureheads of their own views, regardless of whatever is said. This dualism seeps into all politically-themed events and the winners and losers are decided by the size of the biggest mob.

How did it get this way?

Americans would not feel compelled to question how society is structured if the structure was working in their favor. Yale Professor of History Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny, that “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability.” Our moment in history is dense with inequalities. Americans of all demographics feel a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and desperately seek an explanation for their strife. Unsurprisingly, extremists tend to be characterized by an obvious lack in their own life. Whether that be unemployment (or underemployment), the inability to surpass their parents financially (the first generation not to do so), or a lack of personal satisfaction, these political ideologues are drawn to their views by a dissatisfaction with how society has treated them. These spheres of extremism grow by explaining how these problems in their life are the result of an antagonistic action against them.

Despite these troubling trends there’s still hope for promoting sanity and reasonable discourse. The majority of Americans are silent in the political debate. Most are not convinced by these ideologies and are not satisfied with the answers extremists provide. They see the bread crumbs for the poisonous falsehoods that they are, knowing where those paths lead. Although these unimpressed citizens do not dominate the conversation, they do dominate the representation. Across all demographics, most Americans have stayed on the sidelines during this wave of extremism. Despite the difficulties all Americans have faced, it would seem that the most alluring truth is not that society is flawed for one specific reason but that these groups who pretend to know the truth are most certainly wrong.

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Politics

Losing a War by Winning It

Politics in America is now dominated by extremism. Every issue is made out to be the difference between protecting the disadvantaged and normalizing fascism. Your actions get conflated to ten times what they actually were so that people can easily categorize you into one side or the other. I don’t believe many people have such extreme views, but some will accept their prescribed side while others will choose to avoid the conversation entirely. This dynamic results in America’s important values being pushed aside for political expediency or personal well-being. There’s no question we live in extraordinary times that demand action. We have a President who seems to dismiss the core values of America in favor of his own interests, but his most vocal opponents have been willing to do the same for their own ends. In light of this, the true political battle in the United States is revealed and it is not good versus evil but universal rights against tyrannical extremism.

During the campaign trail, I was more disturbed by Trump’s flagrant approach to protesters at his rallies than anything else. Specifically the incident where he asked his crowd to “knock the crap” out of protesters and that he’d “pay for the legal fees.” That moment disturbed me because it was the bridge from ordinary disagreement to violence against your opponents. It wasn’t enough insult your detractors, now they had to physically pay for it. That moment was a glimpse into Trump’s values (or lack thereof) and how far his supporters would go with him.

It was a clarifying moment for me, because regardless of whatever your specific views are on issues, silencing opponents is not only un-American, but normalizing that action pulls at the fragile toothpicks that support our free society. America’s commitment to free speech has allowed the war of ideas to be fought with appropriate tools: arguments, logic and shared experiences. If you can’t talk to your enemy and explain your differences, you’ll surely fight them instead. Our system can survive a few incompetent politicians, or a few years of incompetent leadership, but it cannot survive removing the mechanism meant to reveal that incompetence.

Yet here we are on the other side of a Trump presidency and his critics seemed to have shed their “when they go low, we go high” mantra in favor of violence. Whether that’s literally punching people in the face, lighting their hair on fire or rioting to prevent a pro-Trump speaker. These actions would be bad enough on their own but the reaction for many liberals is not to condemn violence or make excuses – they endorse it. They don’t see this as hypocritical because violence against “nazis” is always justified.

Most of the people willing to endorse violence come from the younger generation. You can find endless tweets from people supporting the recent riots. They are self-appointed experts on how to beat toxic ideologies despite never reading a history book in their life. It’s natural that younger people have more energy while the older generation shares their experience and wisdom for how best to channel that energy through productive means. But the current younger generation has delegitimized everyone but themselves. Boogiemen come in the form of the patriarchy or identity politics, cutting off all influencers who are not fellow travelers. The few remaining figures who could dispel these toxic views are fearful that upsetting their base will diminish their chance to stay in office. This is predicated on the concept that America’s political battle is between the left and right, but as any political science expert will tell you – the two directions eventually curl back toward each other if you go far enough. This weariness for replacing one extremist with another is why the country remains so staunchly divided.

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Trump’s first weeks in office have been a disaster. He’s created a domestic crisis with his sloppy immigration actions, he failed his promise to “make Mexico pay for the wall,” he’s forced most of the state department’s higher-ups to resign and his administration has been the cause of more riots in the past dozen days than most of the past dozen administrations. In the face of spectacular failure, there’s no reason democrats shouldn’t be careening toward high approval ratings, but that’s not what has happened. Instead they’ve placated this dangerous anti-American extremism in hopes it will serve their own ends.

During the North African campaign of World War II, Supreme Commander of the Allies Dwight Eisenhower oversaw a deal with Vichy France’s Francois Darlan. The armistice was in effect, an alliance between the free world and the fascist regime of Vichy France. Tactically, the deal served the allies. They had better standing in North Africa, key strategic resources and spent less vital manpower fighting the French. After all, Germany was the true enemy. But the deal was harshly criticized by Free France’s Charles de Gaulle, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and several critics in America, including one Edward R. Murrow, who said:

“Are we fighting Nazis or sleeping with them? Why this play with traitors? Don’t we see that we could lose this war by winning it?”

What good is fighting a war against an ideology that has sunk the world into conflict if you’re willing to use those same ideologues for your own victory? Unlike that historic example, there is no literal war being fought on a battlefield. America is constantly in a war of ideas. Our country has stood the test of time because of its commitment to personal freedoms and choosing to fight the war of ideas before war between factions. America needs to revitalize a movement that adheres to the rights that made this country great if it hopes to survive the current wave of extremism.

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Music

52 Weeks, 52 Albums: December

A year ago I resolved to listen to one album a week for 52 weeks. Now we’re at the end of that goal and I’m glad to say I met it successfully. Here’s a quick wrap-up for what I listened to this month. I’ll write a retrospective piece on the whole thing in a few days.

The Microphones – The Glow, Pt. 2

I’m surprised how a few small differences in musical choices will decide if I hate something or love it. On paper, I probably shouldn’t have liked The Microphones. An acoustic-focused band with a vocalist who sounds barely inspired to be alive. But the album kicks off with a killer opening track so it got my attention. The mellow tone with an effective use of sound effects created an atmosphere that I liked. They kept it up for the first few tracks but sadly the album becomes irrelevant around track six (out of 20).

Heavily favoring one to two minute sample songs for the majority of the album, it takes a tragic turn when for some reason they decide to get into LOUD MUSIC! Songs like Samurai Sword or I Want TO Be Cold are balls to the wall trashing. The singer’s delicate vocals don’t transform with this change so you get really bizarre sound where an oppressively distorted bass and guitar trash your ear drums while a puny sounding lyric is muddled on top. There aren’t a lot of songs on the album that sound like this, which makes it even more bizarre that there are any at all.

When the album hits, it’s some good stuff. But the portion of good to bad isn’t very favorable.

3/5

Childish Gambino – Awaken, My Love!

I don’t like Donald Glover. Even if I get over my irrational hatred for him because I constantly confuse him with Danny Glover (including the first draft of this paragraph), I’ve never gotten into his style. I don’t think his stand-up is funny, I don’t think the shows he wrote for were any good (30 Rock, Community), I also did not like his foray into rap with Camp and Because the Internet.

But the praise for Awaken, My Love has been so hyperbolic, including claims that Glover is a modern day genius, I thought surely there must be something that I can enjoy. And there is.

This is a huge departure from Glover’s previous music projects. The sound of this album is closer to soul or funk then rap. As listenable as the whole thing is, it’s not quite there. The first track Me and Your Mama is an intense opener that peaks and valleys through all the exciting emotions you’d want to feel. It’s probably the best first impression I’ve had for an album this year, but it nose dives afterward. Two “spooky” tracks about zombies and the boogieman reset your expectations for what this album is supposed to be. Then other songs like Terrified, Riot and Stand Tall have all the right elements but don’t quite hit it. The last track especially feels like four drafts of the same song placed one after another rather than a cohesive idea.

As much as I’ll admit to listening to Me and Your Mama, Redbone and Baby Boy all day, this album could have easily been much better. Hopefully Glover’s dedication to the musical field means he’ll give it a second crack.

2/5

J. Cole – 4 Your Eyez Only

I’ll make a confession: I’ve never heard a J. Cole song in my life. Apparently I’m not alone in that due to his commitment to avoiding feature tracks. Unless you’re seeking out his music specifically, you’re not going to run into him.

Luckily, Cole’s musical style is approachable and right up my alley. Preferring laidback melodies and literal lyrics, he’s an easy artist to understand. Some rappers focus on clever word play or metaphors to get across their point, but Cole just says what he’s thinking. I ended up having some mixed feelings about the simplicity of his lyrics, sometimes they come across as corny. At the same time, it was easy to tell immediately what he was going for and I appreciated that.

4 Your Eyez Only is a personal album, packaged up as a letter to Cole’s daughter in the event he’s taken by the issues that face black males in America (incarceration or death). The framing of the album differentiates it from other artists who tackle the same subjects but might have a more view they feel compelled to push. Cole is talking about his own concerns with what faces him in his actual life. Whether that’s frustration over his friends and family demanding change without looking at what they can change in themselves or being persecuted as a drug dealer for living in a white neighborhood.

It’s a short album, with two lengthy songs dedicated to the same concept, so I found myself more disappointed that it ended so quickly rather than compelled to nitpick any of the songs. I probably could’ve done without Foldin Clothes or added a bit more to Neighbors, but in general it’s a solid album, if easily digestible.

4/5

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 3

Run the Jewels has been a joy to discover and see them explode in popularity over the past three years. I wasn’t a huge fan of RTJ2, but at least they tried some new things. Each of those albums have a distinct sound that differentiate them from each other.

RTJ3 is in an odd place between their second and first attempt. It’s obvious that the Killer Mike and El-P can work together and create some amazingly funny and catchy tracks, but the trend toward quality may finally be wavering.

My favorite tracks from the album touch on El-P’s quality production work mixed with Killer Mike’s lyrical dominance. Legend Has It, Call Tickertron and Oh Mama have the one-two punch of unique melodies and memorable lines. El-P somehow manages to say “Notice me, senpai” in a song without sounding like a total idiot.

I might still need some time to process this album, but for now it’s an average effort.

3/5

 

We’re done! Look for a retrospective on this whole process soon.

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