Friday, 9 October 2009

I Am Iron Man

No, I'm not really. But wouldn't it be cool?

Romanticism means a number of things to a number of people. My researched and considered view is that Romanticism describes a zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, for the period from roughly the late Eighteenth to early Twentieth Centuries.

I disagree with Ayn Rand who pits Romanticism in-between the two opposing deterministic forces of Classicism before it and Naturalism after it. The events of the Classical Period, though certainly based on religious determinism, paved the way for the Romantic with the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Republican Radicalism, and the Rise of Capitalism. Likewise, in many ways the social determinism of Naturalism can be seen as a twisting or misreading of Romanticism.

I'll pause here for a little background. Rand saw Romanticism as the aesthetic aspect of her approach to the five philosophical branches (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics). So she focused on Romanticism as an artistic movement and a manifestation of the other four branches. For her, Romanticism in art is based on the central premise that man possesses volition.

In contrast, Classicism saw man's existence determined by God or the gods whereas Naturalism replaces the divine with the social. For the Naturalist, your existence is determined by society and therefore, by extension, the state. Where Romantic art seeks to glorify man's existence vis-√°-vis the individual, Naturalist art sees man as a cog in the great social machine cast about by the tides of cruel social forces.

I differ only slightly from Rand in that I also see Romanticism as a greater social and cultural movement resulting from the affects of the underlying philosophy found in Romantic art forms.

The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand was published in 1969. Given the date of publication, we see how she charted the advance and eventual manifestation of Naturalism from the late Nineteenth Century through to it entering the mainstream culture in the Sixties. Today, many of those Sixties socialists are in power in the United States government.

In 1963, six years prior to the publication of The Romantic Manifesto, Stan Lee decided to create a superhero that embodied everything the Naturalist popular culture of his day would hate. Enter Tony Stark, a wealthy arms manufacturer, industrialist, capitalist, and womanizer based on the real life Howard Hughes. Unlike most super-heroes, Iron Man's only powers are his intellect and his wealth which he uses to created a powerful suit of armour.

Steve Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man with Stan Lee and a follower of Ayn Rands philosophy of Objectivism. He went on to create two "Objectivist" heroes in 1967, The Question for DC Comics and Mr. A for Witzend. Mr A was recently the subject of the song "Good-Bye Mr A" by The Hoosiers and both The Question and Mr A served as the inspiration for the character Rorschach in the Watchmen graphic novel and 2009 film.

All three of these characters embody elements of Ayn Rand basic philosophy and yet they lack the Romanticism she praises in characters like James Bond. These men are social outsiders and hardly reflect the spirit found her own characters from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. For that, you have to look to Tony Stark.

Personally, I have never been an Iron Man fan. I knew the basics but that was about it. I preferred the X-men, particularly the swashbuckling Nightcrawler and the feral Wolverine. What caught my attention was the 2008 film. Not only did I see it in the cinema, I pre-ordered the DVD, and these days its been on the movie channel, as a result I have probably seen in close to ten times.

The last time I watched it, I noticed how Victorian the story is. I say Victorian, but it is also Romantic and indeed Objectivist.

The word Romantic is taken from the Medieval Romances in which brave knights battled dragons and saved fair maidens or indeed the kingdom. The knights embodied the best of humanity through the chivalric code of ethics, their wealth as noblemen, and their sheer physical power as heavily armoured mounted infantry.

The Nineteenth Century popularity and cultural influence of these Romances cannot be over-emphasised, particularly through Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. Two books influenced by Ivanhoe are The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper (aka Last of the Mohicans) and The Virginian by Owen Wister. These books in turn form the foundation of The Western genre.

So Ivanhoe the lone knight riding through the countryside righting wrongs trades in his armour and lance for a six-gun. Then in the Twentieth Century he puts on tights, or in this case a high-tech suit of armour equipped with advanced weapons systems.

Tony Stark is the son of Howard Stark, a wealthy industrialist and owner of Stark Industries. In this sense he is of "noble" birth in that he is born into privilege as the prince of the kingdom of Stark Industries. His parents die in a car crash while the teenage Stark is attending MIT and he inherits the kingdom his father created.

As an adult, Stark is wounded by shrapnel while in a foreign land (originally Viet Nam and most recently Afghanistan) while on company business involving the US military. He is captured by the enemy and builds his first armour as a means of escape.

The wounding of Stark means that he must constantly wear an electro-magnetic chest plate to prevent the pieces of shrapnel from entering his heart. Here we see the theme of the wound that doesn't heal found in the Romances, The Fisher King in the Percival stories and Lancelot in the film Excalibur come immediately to mind.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is the one where Stark's enemy, Obadiah Stane, is trying to recreate the power cell used in chest plate for the armour. The chief scientist on the team says "Sir, the technology doesn't exist. Honestly, it's impossible." Obadiah Stane retorts yelling, "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!" He meekly replies, "Well, I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark."

Few scenes illustrate the greatness of Tony Stark like this one. Stark is born into wealth and therefore power. However, he also has another form of power in abundance; he has intrinsic genius. When he is reduced to nothing but a wounded hostage in a cave, he is able through his genius to rise above and conquer by achieving "the impossible" while making it look easy. Stark is determined, but not stressed, strained, or broken.

The Romantic walks through the world with ease. This is the most obvious external manifestation of Romanticism in a person. It is the Romantic temperament, or attitude, in action. There are no obvious indications of any fear, self-doubt, pressure, or confusion. There is an easy going air that conveys the sense that everything is going to turn out alright. When things do go wrong, they are not the focus of brooding or worry. If Plan A fails, then move seamlessly to Plan B without anyone noticing the difference. This attitude is portrayed to text book perfection in Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Stark.

But Tony Stark is one of the richest men on the planet. Of course he "walks through the world with ease". There is a Celtic Christian saying from St. Columba, "The man to whom little is not enough will not be satisfied by more." Yes, more power makes more possibilities available, but it is attitude that is the key to success. Be content with yourself and the powers, both material and immaterial that you have, but also constantly strive for more. Not because more will make you happy – it won't – but because more creates more opportunities and greater freedom of self-expression and therefore happiness.

Besides, when we makes excuses for someone else's success as means of justifying our own lack of achievement, well, that's just quitter talk. We all have obstacles to overcome. The path to and the maintenance of success is nothing but a series of obstacles. If you cannot jump the small hurdles at the start, then what makes you think you can jump the big ones at the end?

Two of the recurring themes I see among many Victorians are progress and legacy. Victorians loved their tech and were constantly pushing for technological advances. People like Bell, Edison, and Tesla were heroes to be admired and emulated. For proof, just look at some of the goofy gadget advertised in Victorian newspapers.

They were also concerned about their legacy. What kind of world will we be establishing for future generations? Today, people speak of the world they will leave to their children. The Victorians were thinking great-grandchildren. They wanted the history books to recognise their achievements. On a small scale this sense of legacy is revealed in the elaborate funeral customs and the monuments they left behind.

In Tony Stark, we see a genius promoting technological advances and the desire to create a world dominated by the American values of freedom for the sake of future generations. In the comics, his original enemies were Communist in nature and in the film they were terrorists. In both instances, Stark is supplying weapons to the American military to battle these threats while taking the initiative to battle them himself.

Here is another aspect of that. When you watch the news and you see something you find morally wrong, who do you look to for action? In the Flashman novels, George MacDonald Fraser through Harry Flashman credits the spread of the British Empire to four words. Something Must Be Done. These are usually spoken by the wives of generals, governors, politicians, or civil servants over tea.

The American tradition is different. Something must be done means that I must do something. The most immediate examples that come to mind are the volunteers to the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War or the Americans who joined the fight in the two world wars before the US government officially declared war.

When Tony Stark saw that something must be done, he did not use his enormous power and influence through the US government. He put on the armoured suit that he built himself and he took action. This is not unique to Stark. All superheroes feel the sense of personal responsibility to make a difference themselves and not sit back and expect the government to pass legislation or use its power in their name. They take responsibility for their values.

I have seen clips of the new Iron Man film due out next year. One scene has Tony Stark appearing before a government committee demanding that he turn the armour over to them. The government does not like the idea of an individual or a group of individuals to have that kind of power unless it is under government control. Society, through government, must control the individual in the name of securing the safety of society but in practice to restrict personal liberty.

Here is where Naturalism returns to the equation. Naturalist literature portrays a world of the lowest common denominator with a journalistic approach to narrative sometimes lacking plot, and therefore purpose. The characters are pushed through their journey by oppressive social forces and not individual volition.

If we are all merely swept by the ebb and flow of social forces, then it stands to reason that society can be improved if only the right people were in control of it. But who are the right people? Obviously those concerned with the well-being of the largest group of people, the masses, the poor, and oppressed. Once in power, the right kind of people will redistribute power, in the form of wealth, and thus improve society. There are no individuals, only members of social groups of various size and influence based on class, race, creed, or gender.

In such a world Tony Stark is the enemy, just as Stan Lee had intended. He is a rich, white, male, industrialist, pro-American capitalist. He is a member of that minority group who oppresses and exploits the majority of the Earth population. And yet he is also the hero Stan Lee intended. Why?

Because Naturalism is unnatural. It's double-speak. Individuals don't come in groups. They come individually with individual consciousness, individual lives, and individual goals. This is what Nietzsche called our innate will to power as the driving force of mankind. Freedom without the means (power) of expressing that freedom is meaningless. We have an inborn need to exercise our free will, our volition, to accomplish our values. This is why Romanticism is natural.

So we look to characters like Tony Stark as examples and inspiration. If Tony Stark can be that Romantic, cool, suave, gallant knight in shining armour and over-come his big obstacles, then why can't I do the same to overcome my small obstacles?

So how does one become Iron Man? The answer is so simple that it stings of cliché. Believe in yourself, know what you want, believe you deserve it, and constantly strive for competency. Oh, and walk through the world with ease, and why wouldn't you? Hey, you're Tony Stark. Cool.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Fall of McDonalds

To my knowledge McDonalds, the global fast-food giant, the restroom with a cafeteria attached, is not going to be falling in the near future. However, a couple years back I read a newspaper article saying that for the first time in decades McDonalds was not the number one fast food company on the planet for that year. It was Subway.

Institutions like McDonalds, Coca-cola, and other global brands may seem like great unassailable and eternal stone edifices, but they are not. Like any other company providing a product (or value), they are only as powerful as the choice consumers make in buying what they are selling. If another company comes along with something the public prefers, then good-bye McDonalds.

There was a study done in which a group of five people enjoyed a nice meal. Each of them cleaned their plates and praised the meal. The follow day, the same five people were served the same meal in the same restaurant and prepared by the same cook. The only difference was the blindfold. None of the participants could see the meal. The results were that the meals were not finished because the subjects felt full and they also noted that the meals did not taste as good as the one the previous day.

This study highlighted the role vision played in eating. By seeing all the food on the plate subjects felt the need to eat more than their bodies required. By eliminating the visual stimulus they ate more slowly, therefore they were more aware of the physical cues from their bodies that told them that they had eaten enough. Also, the absence of vision gave them a more objective approach to the flavour of the food. The lack of vision made consumption a self-aware and conscious activity rather than a habit.

McDonald provides a product, a value, that which we act to gain or to keep. A value is only a value if it is of value to someone. The value requires a valuer. When customers decided that they no longer valued the values McDonalds was offering, they went to someone else. The executives concluded that Subway represented healthier eating, so McDonalds changed their values on offer to include a new healthy range to their menu, thus aligning their available products to the values of their customers.

As for the customers, something changed in them. Perhaps they were habitual McDonalds customers since childhood, but then one day, or perhaps gradually, there occurred a shift in their awareness and therefore a change in their values. When the time came to act on their values they chose Subway over McDonalds when given a choice.

People do not consume merely food. Food, as a value to be consumed, is but one of many. People also consume clothes, entertainment, leisure time, books, magazine, newspapers, and even friendships and ideas. Since we live in a value-driven society there are a myriad of value choices given to us on a daily basis. Collectively the choices made in consumption define an individual's style of life.

The question for each of us is how many of our choices are conscious and how many are a matter of habit or whim? Just as blindfolding the participants in the eating experiment made them more aware of their bodies and their tastes, so too must we become aware of our values. Perhaps if we are, then we may take the time to savour our values and perhaps realise that certain values do not taste as good as we had once thought.

I have noticed a small up swell in people consuming according to their values instead of through habit. This is most obvious to me in the media where the values on offer do not fit the values of the consumers.

When McDonalds dropped to number two it realised that it had to change the values on offer to fit the values of its customers. And yet, rather than change as McDonalds had done the traditional mainstream media outlets continue to drive their messages even harder. So consumers of values do what they have always done. They consume from someone else.

As a result, newspapers are failing across America; mainstream news outlets are loosing their audience to cable and the internet. I think the same might hold true of the celebrities turned social and political pundits as their comments become increasingly disconnected from mainstream values. More and more, nobody is listening to them anymore.

The lesson here is that if the mighty leviathan that is the McDonalds Corporation must change its ways or fall, then so too must politicians, media outlets, and even celebrities. We live in a marketplace of values. As any purveyor of values will tell you, "first know your market". It is not your place to tell them what they want when they clearly do not want what you are offering.

This reminds me of Betty Crocker and the egg. Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, invented the focus group and with it he invented public relations. Betty Crocker had just created instant cake mix and sales were poor, so they brought in Bernays.

By applying some of his uncle's theories to groups of housewives he discovered that they felt guilty using a cake mix. It went against their values. Bernays' solution? He told Betty Crocker to change the instructions on the packaging to read, "add one egg". The egg symbolised the housewife giving something of her own and made her feel as though she was actually making a cake for her family. Sales skyrocketed. The solution was not to change the customers' value system rather to work with it.

Contrary to popular opinion consumers of values are not a vast ignorant populace blindly buying whatever the mass media tells them to buy. Yes, people can be persuaded. Yes, not everyone consciously considers their value system when consuming. And yet, consumption is still driven by the individual value system of the consumer. When any purveyor of values, be they a massive corporation or a politician, fails to provide a desired value the consumer will go elsewhere. Without support from the consumer the seller fails and disappears from the market.

This is how the free marketplace of values, both material and immaterial, functions. But what about the unfree market? The unfree market can only operate with the force of government in the form of socialist, communist, fascist, and corporatist policies. In these systems the government decides what the individual may or may not consume according to its collective value system. After all, government and its academic lackeys know what is best, not the ignorant masses.

If the government favours McDonalds over Subway it will subsidize McDonalds, tax healthier food, give tax breaks to McDonalds over Subway, and run public service announcements highlighting the health risks of going to Subway. If the public still refuses to choose McDonalds over Subway and McDonalds goes bankrupt, then the government will bail-out McDonalds as being too big to fail and now the government is in the fast food business.

The public does not know what is best. It has to buy rubbish cars that are good for the environment or a light bulb that does not illuminate and costs a fortune to clean-up if it breaks. It should not smoke, watch Glenn Beck (or anything on Fox News), or eat fatty foods. It must not buy tires from China. It must send its kids to state-run schools and learn what the state says they should learn. It cannot buy health insurance across state lines and must take a prescribed policy. This is the unfree market at work. We, the state, will tell you what to value, when to value it, and for how long.

I'm no fan of McDonalds. I may have eaten at one five times in the past twenty years. Popular fashion is not always to my taste, nor is popular music. I do not own jeans, t-shirts, and trainers. I'm not a sports fan either. Nor am I a tech geek who needs the latest and greatest piece of kit to hit the market. I believe that global warming is a fraud, I smoke, and I do not trust in governments to make my life better.

All of these choices and beliefs are derived from my conscious and unconscious value system. Some I consider a matter of choice and others as moral imperatives. Most put me outside of the mainstream. I will always argue my corner, but never demand others to accept my ways as their own.

And yet in the media and online I see people not arguing their corner but insulting all those who do not agree with them. Worst of all, I see this coming from people in the US government as well. Idiot, fool, hate-monger, racist, astroturf. These arrogant politicians and pundits are mocking their customers.

The free market is about free choice. You may not like that people choose McDonalds, but that is the individual's choice. Accept it. If people choose Subway instead, then McDonald changes or it falls. Simple. At present, Glenn Beck's ratings are through the roof and both of his books top the New York Times and Amazon best sellers list. Why? The free market. He speaks to people's values, just as Obama speaks to the values of his audience. Is popular best? Not necessarily. But liberty is all about the right to choose from various values on offer.

In the world of material values companies recognise the need to address the values of as many potential customers as possible. In the world of immaterial values we are seeing ideologues condemn those whose values they fail to address. They are providing a product the public does not want and they seek to use the force of government or media pressure (in the form of public ridicule) to sell their agenda.

Unlike other countries in the world, the United States has a prescribed philosophical identity. To be an American is to accept a particular set of values and for every American liberty is one of the highest values. The simple truth is that you cannot have liberty without a free market of material and immaterial values.

It may be argued that the market has never been totally free. That is true. This is because there have always been powerful forces in the world that seek to control the market for their own ends usually with the excuse of helping society. Thus does the pendulum swing.

Just as McDonalds can fall by not meeting the desires of their customers, so too can ideologies, politicians and their parties fall. They become irrelevant and fade into insignificance. Republicans and Democrats/Conservatives and Labour are no more eternal than McDonalds or Coca-cola.

In a free market, the world will beat down the door of the company that can make a better sandwich. Therefore it is in the best interests of the authoritarian Statists and Corporatists to keep the marketplace of values as unfree as possible. Only then do they stand a chance of survival. So all lovers of liberty must be constantly vigilant in preserving the value of values by keeping the market place of values as free as possible.