Saturday, May 7, 2016

Random Thoughts about Captain America: Civil War, a Movie Review about it, Objectivism, Ayn Rand, and Hell Joseon

WARNING: The following may appear to be the ramblings of a madman regarding various topics such as Captain America: Civil War, libertarianism, Objectivism, Ayn Rand, and Hell Joseon. And it's going to be a long read. In other words, it's going to be one of those K-blogger nerd rages. Also, this is not a movie review. Rather, it is a review of a movie review. So, if you are a productive member of society and you have better things to do with your time, I suggest you go on your merry way and continue living a rewarding life. However, if you can't take your eyes off train wrecks and you have an unhealthy obsession with watching people putting up half-baked ideas on the Internet, then, please, go on. You have come to the right place.

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The Movie

I went to the midnight showing of Captain America: Civil War (CACW) on opening day. In light of the fact that the last movie that I had seen prior to CACW was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (see my review of that movie here), a movie that I found thoroughly disappointing in almost every way, I found CACW quite enjoyable.

(Minor spoilers ahead)

In the movie, as a result of the destruction that the Avengers tend to leave in their wake, the United Nations has declared that it would have direct oversight of the superheroes.

Iron Man aka Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who is stricken with guilt over those who have lost their lives, directly or indirectly, because of his actions, is in favor of the decision. In light of the popularization and use of the term "blowback," which is a result of a series of tragedies all on its own, and the manner in which so many people have become desensitized to the phrase "collateral damage," I think that it is a good thing that at least a fictional character from a fantastical fictional world seems to be taking civilian deaths seriously.

On the other hand, we have Captain America aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who thinks that agreeing to acquiesce to the authority of the United Nations would mean that they would lose their freedom to do the right thing when they deem necessary and would force them to become pawns in a global chess game and is, therefore, against the decision.

This ideological divide pits various superheroes against each other to the point that they find it necessary to physically fight one another. And I don't care what anyone else says, that airport fight scene was awesome.

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The Random Review

The politics in the movie is not exactly subtle. The political rhetoric that was jammed into the movie was so hammy that Kevin Feige may as well have been bashing people on the head with Mjölnir. But that was fine. I doubt anyone went to watch the movie to learn about the basic principles of Lockean Natural Rights. I enjoyed the movie for what it was and that was that (for anyone who wishes to read an excellent review of CACW, check out Kevin Kim's review here).

Yesterday, however, by chance, I came upon a review (of sorts) of the movie on OhMyStar, which is the entertainment division of OhMyNews, a Korean online newspaper. I would have skipped it had it not been for the fact that I noticed that the opening paragraph started with Ayn Rand's name. 

For anyone who still doesn't know, I am a student of Objectivism (I know, booooo!), and therefore deeply interested in all topics related to Ayn Rand. I discovered Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism when I was in college and have read all of her major works. In fact, some time ago, I had the great pleasure of purchasing rare copies of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged that had been translated to Korean (I was pleasantly surprised to see that the translation was quite faithful to Rand's original work). However, the fact remains that the vast majority of Koreans have never heard of Ayn Rand. So, I tend to get excited when I see any mention of Rand and/or Objectivism in the Korean media.

I know, I know!
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While reading the review, however, I could not help but feel dejected as the writer seemed to have had only a surface understanding of Rand's philosophy.

The writer gave a very brief introduction about her childhood and explained how she eventually became "the godmother of the Conservative Right." Then the writer stated that her philosophy could be summarized as "absolute freedom for the elites" because Rand thought that society is able to progress only through the achievements of the elites and that elites produce their best work only when they have the most freedom. That is why, the writer explained, Rand opposed regulations and taxes.

On the other hand, the writer continued, her ideological opponents believe in the power of governmental regulations and reject the Invisible Hand of the Free Market while calling for welfare programs to help the poor.

The writer then placed Captain America into Rand's camp and Iron Man into the opposing camp, which he referred to as the libertarian camp and the communal camp respectively.

These superheroes, by fault of birth or accident or some other reason, are the elites, the writer claimed. And these elites are often forgiven for the destruction they cause because it is often perceived that their violence is carried out in the service of a greater good. But now, these elites have decided to square off against one another. And Captain America, who has decided that he can neither retire nor be part of "the system" decides to stand his guard -- even though that means opposing every government in the world, much like the way Rand and her disciples like Alan Greenspan insisted on doing things their own way.

The writer then ended his review by stating that the question that people have to ponder is what the difference is between Rand and Captain America.

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Team Captain America?

I felt almost depressed after reading the whole thing because of how much Rand had been misunderstood by this writer and how much more misunderstanding is likely to be caused among even more people who have never had any first hand information about Objectivism.

For one thing, it is absolutely amazing to me that anyone could think that Rand advocated "absolute freedom for the elites!" Although it's certainly true that Rand thought that the masses owe a deep sense of gratitude to producers, none of her heroes could ever be seen as "elites." Howard Roark, Rand's protagonist in The Fountainhead, was a penniless architect throughout most of the novel and his mentor, Henry Cameron, died broke. Many of the villains in Atlas Shrugged such as James Taggart and Wesley Mouch were wealthy CEOs and high-ranking government officials who often colluded with one another.

If anything, Rand had nothing but disdain for the collectivist notion of "elites."

As for Captain America himself, his words in the panel that I shared above could just as easily have been said by Howard Roark or John Galt. After all, one of John Galt's more succinct quotes from his 60-plus-pages-long speech in Atlas Shrugged was "There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil."

So on the surface, it might seem that Ayn Rand would have been on Team Captain America. But to be honest, that's not entirely clear. The heroes that she created, Roark and Galt, were an architect and an engineer respectively. As heroically as Rand may have portrayed those occupations, in real life, they are just a couple of regular Joes with white collar jobs -- just some guys who want to do what they think is right and make an honest buck preferably while being left alone.

Captain America, on the other hand, is an enhanced supersoldier who uses a physics-defying shield to pummel Nazis and aliens into pulp. And to be frank, Captain America's popularity notwithstanding, his superpowers aren't that impressive. At least not when you compare him to some of his other teammates like Thor and The Hulk -- a literal god and a monster that smashes puny gods. In fact, they get compared to thermonuclear weapons in CACW.

This is an important distinction because Ayn Rand was quite specific regarding the use of physical force, which she defined as the threat of physical destruction. According to Objectivist ethics, no one is allowed to initiate the use of physical force against others. The only time that Rand thought that people could legitimately use physical force is only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. In other words, Rand championed self-defense, but not murder. Nothing controversial, right? So far, all of that sounds quite libertarian.

- Practically almost everyone who thinks Ayn Rand is evil but that Che Guevara guy seems cool
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Objectivism =/= Libertarianism

And this is one of those points where Objectivists and libertarians part ways. Admittedly, libertarianism, like any other political philosophy is not a monolithic idea. Hell, Bill Maher used to call himself a libertarian before Ron Paul showed up and turned it into a political movement, which later morphed into the Trump-supporting Tea Party that people know today. Yes, the whole thing has turned into one giant clusterfuck.

Anyway, when libertarians take their philosophy to its logical conclusion, quite a number of them begin to champion a form of anarchy. To be specific, it's called anarcho-capitalism. And many of these anarcho-capitalists, who have been influenced by the likes of Murray Rothbard and Lysander Spooner, are inherently hostile toward anything that resembles a State. They see the existence of the State itself as immoral because they view it as a coercive entity, which by definition violates the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), a cornerstone of libertarian tenets.

By using the word "libertarian" in his review, that writer from OhMyNews gave meaning to Rand's philosophy that she never intended. For many who have only second-hand knowledge about Ayn Rand, it comes as a surprise when they learn that Rand despised libertarians. She called them second-handers and accused them of stealing some of her ideas and perverting them because libertarians did not accept some of the underlying ethics and metaphysics that went into her philosophy. Further, she never had anything nice to say about anarchy in any of its forms.

Contrary to what many of Rand's detractors at Salon or Slate or Alternet have to say about her (most of whom I think have not actually read anything that she wrote), Rand thought that the government was absolutely necessary for a free society to exist. And in her ideal world, she thought that the government's function was strictly limited to protecting people's rights. And in order to protect people's rights, she thought that the legal use of all physical force had to be under the control of only the government.

In her book The Virtue of Selfishness, a collection of her non-fiction essays, Rand said:

The use of physical force -- even its retaliatory use -- cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under the constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbors at any moment. Whether his neighbors’ intentions are good or bad, whether their judgment is rational or irrational, whether they are motivated by a sense of justice or by ignorance or by prejudice or by malice -- the use of force against one man cannot be left to the arbitrary decision of another.
Visualize, for example, what would happen if a man missed his wallet, concluded that he had been robbed, broke into every house in the neighborhood to search it, and shot the first man who gave him a dirty look, taking the look to be a proof of guilt.
The retaliatory use of force requires objective rules of evidence to establish that a crime has been committed and to prove who committed it, as well as objective rules to define punishments and enforcement procedures. Men who attempt to prosecute crimes, without such rules, are a lynch mob. If a society left the retaliatory use of force in the hands of individual citizens, it would degenerate into mob rule, lynch law and an endless series of bloody private feuds or vendettas.
If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.
This is the task of a government -- of a proper government -- its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.
A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control -- i.e., under objectively defined laws.

Going back to the MCU, we have to remember that in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was revealed that SHIELD, which was a covert agency under the control of the United States government that the Avengers belonged to, had been infiltrated by Hydra terrorists on all levels and had to be disbanded. A big deal was made about how Black Widow aka Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) decided to hack into SHIELD's database to leak classified information in order to expose Hydra to the public. From that point forward, as far as the law was concerned, the Avengers were individual citizens (With perhaps the exception of Thor. I think it's safe to say that Thor is an illegal alien, but who's going to tell him, right?) who were taking action against a perceived enemy on their own free will without being held responsible to any higher authority -- i.e., vigilantes.

Ayn Rand would not have been all right with that. On some level, she might have sympathized with Captain America, but at the end of the day, she probably would have said that he needed to stand down.

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Team Iron Man?

So does this mean that Rand would have been on Team Iron Man instead, advocating the United Nations' absorption of the Avengers? The short answer is "Hell no!"

In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 2758, which recognized the People's Republic of China (PRC) as "the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations" and expelled "the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occupy at the United Nations."

In short, Taiwan was out and Red China was in for no other reason than the fact that the communist government seized control and used terror (see Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward) to stay in power. Rand used the word "monstrosity" to describe the United Nations that day. On her calmer days, she said that the United Nations was responsible for allowing the Western world to be swallowed in cynicism, bitterness, hopelessness, fear, and nameless guilt.

So, no, Rand would not have been on Team Iron Man either. She would have despised Iron Man's capitulation, and she would have called it that. And the irony is that Iron Man is the closest thing that Marvel has produced to an Objectivist character! Think about it. Iron Man is a wealthy entrepreneur and brilliant industrialist, and above all, an intelligent and rational man who is driven strictly by his own ego and who will only work on his own terms. And he has none of that obsession with guilt over his dead parents or unhealthy sense of obligation that Batman suffers from. Iron Man is an Objectivist through and through!

And for anyone who has ever seriously read either of Rand's novels, it would be as clear as day that even Iron Man's enemies are Randian villains. Don't believe me? Let's do a quick roundup.

  • Islamic militants from Iron Man -- Mystics. Enough said.
  • Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) from Iron Man -- Moocher who tried to steal Stark Industries from Tony Stark by subterfuge and then by murder.
  • Senator Stern (the late Garry Shandling) from Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- Looter who tried to force Tony Stark to turn over the Iron Man technology to the United States government because reasons.
  • Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) from Iron Man 2 -- Second Hander who lacks Tony Stark's ingenuity and tries to sell his own inferior war machines to the United States government via crony capitalism rather than by producing a better product that can compete with Stark's merchandise.
  • The Mandarin aka Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) from Iron Man 3 -- Nihilist who chooses to ignore good and evil or anything that resembles morality and just destroy everything.

Deal with it!
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So instead of being on one team or another, in my educated guess, Rand would have chosen neither. Instead, she might have suggested a third solution -- establish another governmental agency like SHIELD but this time, make it transparent and force it to be answerable directly to the White House and to Congress.

Or perhaps she might not have had an opinion because she didn't like any of the MCU movies because of the movies' growing focus on moral grayness, something which she found deplorable especially in works of fiction because she thought that the best works of fiction dealt not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be. Or maybe she might not have been that big a fan simply for no other reason than the fact that it's no Charlie's Angels, a show which she was actually quite fond of.

Either way, it's nowhere near as clear cut and simple as the way this OhMyNews reviewer made it out to be.

What does any of this have to do with Hell Joseon?

WARNING: Please note that I'm done talking about the movie or the movie review now and the remainder of this post will deal with Objectivism itself and how I wish for it to apply to Korea.

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As far as I know, the movie itself has nothing to do with Hell Joseon. What I do find sad is the dearth of knowledge about Objectivism in Korea, where I think a healthy dose of Objectvism can do wonders for Koreans.

When people speak of Hell Joseon, they are typically referring to the highly competitive education system and the lack of guaranteed high-paying jobs while the children of chaebol owners seem to do their utmost to become modern-day versions of little Neros.

However, I am convinced that it is more than just that. I am convinced that Hell Joseon is the verbalized admission that we are currently living in an age of moral crisis. During such times, conservatives are quick to say that people need to rediscover their traditions, their roots. Like Rand, I disagree. Too often people understand that something in their lives is wrong, but rarely do people question their morals. Instead of returning to past morals, I think Koreans need to discover new ones.

Conservatives are wrong? You don't say!
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When people hear the word selfishness, people immediately associate the word with people who will do anything, including harming others and committing immoral and illegal acts simply for their own benefits. It is for this very reason that Stephen Colbert rhetorically asked if the world really needed more selfish people. In Korean, the word is called 이기주의, which is closer to sociopathy or extreme narcissism than to the Objectivist notion of selfishness. Extreme altruism at the cost to one's own life or sociopathic narcissism at the cost to someone else's life -- those seem to be the only two choices people seem to think are possible when in reality, life need not be a zero-sum game.

One often hears that Koreans are a materialist group of people -- people who are obsessed with physical beauty, status (how else can people explain the business card culture?), college background, etc. And it's all mostly to get financially ahead. But why? Why is getting financially ahead the main goal? Money is certainly important in Objectivism, but it draws a clear line between deserved wealth and undeserved wealth.

Sacrifice is a word that one hears regularly. Every able-bodied man must sacrifice by serving in the military to serve the country. Senior citizens sacrifice their own livelihoods to support their unproductive adult children. The fact that Koreans once donated their gold and family heirlooms to the government when the economy crashed and burned in 1997~1998 is spoken of in reverent tones. But why? Why is that the good?

Objectivism does not deny compassion. Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one's selfish interests. No one loves simply for love's sake. People love for the joy, the good, the happiness that the object of one's love brings to them. Love is selfish. But Objectivism rejects the adoption of false compassion. It states that people should not sacrifice (which specifically means to give up something one values in exchange for something one values less) for the happiness of strangers if it comes at the cost of one's own happiness. Objectivism states that one's highest moral purpose is the achievement of one's own happiness.

Korea is often referred to as a highly competitive society. But what does it mean to be competitive? Rand stated that "competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal. A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."

Why do so many Korean children languish in hagwons after school for hours upon hours? Is it done so that the children can get better education so that they can become better versions of themselves? Or is it to beat other students for grades or bragging rights?

Objectivism also advocates laissez-faire capitalism to help to bring about real competition in the economy, which Koreans sorely need. There may be laissez-faire capitalism within the fried chicken restaurant industry, which has resulted in a cutthroat competition where many often find themselves losing everything. But what about competition in the overall economy? It becomes harder to find when we see chaebols being coddled and subsidized, when chaebol leaders are seldom held responsible for their wrongdoings and failures, when foreign companies are blocked or harassed.

Instead of seeking a new sense of life, a new morality, young Koreans have instead opted to embrace Hell Joseon, which is nihilism wearing a Korean mask -- a philosophy that rejects everything and condemns oneself to live in misery instead of doing what one can to achieve one's own happiness.

Koreans badly need Objectivism.

There is a glimmer of hope. Recently, Yaron Brook, the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute traveled to Japan and China to introduce new audiences to Objectivism and he mentioned that there is a tentative plan to visit Korea next year. He's certainly not a cultural icon like the way Ayn Rand was (and I doubt there will be another revolutionary figure like her ever again) and so it will be slow going, but it seems that maybe, just maybe, more and more people in Asia are ready and will be able to free themselves from their old morals and shackles. I think it is long past due.

I don't know if it is something that I will ever see happen in my lifetime. But one can certainly hope.

"If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulders -- what would you tell him to do?"
"I don't know. What could he do? What would you tell him?"
"To shrug."

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  1. I found your article to be very interesting. I think very few know of Ayn Rand these days. (Even the spell checker did not recognize her name.) I have to disagree about Tony Stark not being bothered or feeling guilt about the death of his parents. That was a strong element in this last movie and so he does share that with Bruce Wayne.

    1. Hello. Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Sergeant. And it's true that many people do not know Ayn Rand, and if they have heard of her, their information comes from places that have either knowing or unknowingly distorted her philosophy.

      I think we have to differentiate what Stark and Wayne feel toward their parents.

      Wayne's feelings of guilt are much more pronounced; and the movie makers make it a point to show his parents getting killed seemingly every time there is a new Batman movie. Survivor's guilt was quite prominent especially in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.

      As for Stark, I'd like to mention that I have not really read the comics, so I can only go with what I have seen in the movies. It's clear that Stark is certainly upset over his parents' death and understandably so -- especially when it is revealed how they died. But I did not see guilt. And that's an important distinction.

      Rand understood there to be guilt and unearned guilt. In Stark's case, his feeling of guilt over the people who have died, either directly or indirectly, as a result of his actions would have met Rand's approval -- though perhaps not his conclusion to make the Avengers fall under UN control. She would have said that his initial guilt is the sign of a psychologically healthy individual.

      She would not have said the same about Batman. Bruce Wayne's parents died when he was a child. He was powerless to stop his parents' murder. But he still harbors that sense of guilt and carries it with him throughout his life. She would have deplored this sense of unearned guilt.

  2. I'm so glad I've found this article. It really spoke to me.

    I feel that the longer I stay in Korea, the more I become like them.
    The korean society is probably better off if they did the things you suggested instead of being conservative and being unwilling to make some changes, etc.

    It scares me when I realize that I'm agressing to some of their values and beliefs--things I know it to be wrong in my head. I know that Korea needs to change ASAP but a part of me wants to accept the environment around me, to become like the others so I wouldn't feel isolated.

    I don't know what do to. I don't want to becone like most Koreans. Korea needs more people like you.

  3. About my earlier comment-I'm not trying to say that all Korean values are bad.

    Sorry if my first two comments have similar contexts and seem repetitive(if they both show up). I was logged out when I tried to post my first comment and wasn't sure if it was sent.

  4. Great article. Yaron Brook visiting Korea would be great since every single event he's at even with initially hostile attendees Yaron manages to make a fantastic case.