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Symbols (noun): seemingly inanimate objects, or vague ideas, that acquire considerable personal significance or meaning.
There has been a lot of talk about symbols recently. The flag of the Confederate States of America has been one, as have some other symbols and icons of the Civil War era of American history. A lot of people love and cherish these symbols. The reasons vary from one individual to the next, and some of those reasons make sense. Others reasons make no sense at all, at least not to me. But regardless, for every person who loves and cherishes these symbols, there is at least one person somewhere who abhors them and would like to see them vanish from the collective memory. Sooner or later, there is going to be a conflict of interest. Where do I stand on this? Well, in order to answer that, I need to draw a parallel. (Come on, you didn’t really expect me to give a short and sweet answer, did you?)
Consider this symbol:
I suspect the first thing that came to your mind was Nazi Germany, with it’s legacy of racism, hate, and mass murder. Considering the stain on human history created by that regime, you would be perfectly justified in doing so.
But you know what? That’s not a Nazi swastika (sometimes called a hakenkreuz). It’s a swastika, yes, but it’s an ancient Sanskrit one, often called a gammadion cross. It figures in the religious writings and illustrations of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The symbol represents the cyclical nature of life and the universe, and was generally used to represent good luck and prosperity. In many parts of south Asia, it still does. In the West, the swastika was a largely benign, or at least neutral symbol, until the rise of Nazi Germany. The generally positive concepts related to the Sanskrit swastika were known to the Judaeo-Christian traditions, and were generally taken at face value.
Nazi Germany changed that. The totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime, and the devastation it caused, are well documented. When the Nazi’s came to power, Wiemar Germany was a mess. One of the reasons they came to power was their promise to “make Germany great again,” and the average German citizen was desperate enough, or despondent enough, to believe them. I personally believe that the Nazi’s chose the swastika because of it’s associations with good luck and prosperity. The only real change they made to the symbol was reverse the direction of the arms, so that the symbol appears to be rotating in a clockwise direction as opposed to counter-clockwise. I suspect that change was just a Western convention. Things rotating in a clockwise direction just “look right” to a Western audience.
But regardless of the changes, and their reasons for selecting it, the ancient Sanskrit symbol for good luck and prosperity, the swastika, was co-opted by an evil regime. And today, at least in the West, the symbol is inexorably linked to the Nazis. So much so that even if someone displays the gammodion cross within it’s original context, they are likely to be labeled a Nazi, or at least some form of racial supremacist. So deep is this reaction, that there are theologians and anthropologists who wonder if the ancient symbol will ever be acceptable again.
The swastika had been in use as a symbol of good luck for at least 2,000 years. But after a mere twelve years as the symbol of Nazi Germany, it became a symbol of racism and hatred. Symbols can be tricky things to work with, because perceptions can change or be changed. How does this relate to the various Confederate symbols that are currently under scrutiny?
For a long time, flags of the Confederate States of America have been used a symbols of southern pride, and are (at least theoretically) cultural symbols rather than political ones. The most common Confederate flag in use today is the “Navy Jack:”
This flag has often been called the “stars and bars” flag, and is assumed by many to be the official flag of the Confederacy. This is not the case. The national flag of the Confederacy actually changed three times during the Civil War, but the one that flew the longest was this one:
This flag has some nasty connotations with it, and even the Confederate Congress was unsure about it. According to an editorial by newspaper editor William Tappan Thompson, the white field was intended to symbolize the racial superiority of whites over all other races. As a result, this flag became nicknamed the “white man’s flag.” Needless to say, this one quickly became of flash point for controversy.
This flag was eventually phased out because it was often mistaken for a truce flag. The Navy Jack is the flag that most people associate with the Confederacy today, even though it was technically a battle flag. According to Snopes, the Navy Jack shouldn’t be a problem for this very reason, and as a symbol of southern culture it should be acceptable.
But it isn’t.
The Navy Jack, along with many other symbols related to the Confederacy, has acquired a very negative connotation, especially in the African-American community. The flag has been associated with various branches of the Ku Klux Klan and other racially motivated hate groups. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, it was associated with the “Dixiecrat” movement, which promoted racial segregation and several of the infamous “Jim Crow” laws. Today it is often associated with any number of white supremacist groups. So it doesn’t matter that the Navy Jack was a battle flag and didn’t stand for anything political. What does matter is that it is a flag associated with the Confederate States of America, and the social evils that it stood for. Sports journalist Steven A. Smith summed it up nicely when he said the Navy Jack has come to represent a dark and offensive period in American history.
For years historians of many persuasions have attested that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about Federal authority and state’s rights. For me, that never rang true, even when I was in primary school. I understood the words and I could see the logic, so I went along with it because I wanted a good grade on the final exam. But slavery was a fundamental and necessary characteristic of the Confederacy. It was so pervasive that it simply cannot be ignored. So when my teachers said that the Civil War wasn’t over slavery, I couldn’t accept it.
The Confederate States of America have been romanticized to the point of absurdity, especially in the southern states. It was essentially a feudal system, where manor lords exercised control over their lands, and where the national political structure was a strict hierarchical chain based on property ownership (which included slaves) and social standing. This type of political structure had fallen out of use almost three centuries earlier, at least in Europe, so attempting to implement it in 1860’s North America seems rather silly in hindsight. It was an anachronism from the very start. And for most people who actually lived in the Confederacy, it was probably a very harsh life. (Actually, in those days so was life in the North, but for different reasons.)
A very important point to remember is that feudal systems require some type of slave caste in order to function. There needs to be a very large population of people tied to specific plots of land for the feudal structure to exist. Without such people the Manor system can’t exist, and without the Manors, the political structure will implode. In Europe these imprisoned people were called serfs. In the Confederate States of America, the role of the serfs was played by African and African-American slaves. So like it or not, when you talk about the Confederate States of America, you’re talking about a political entity for which slavery was an essential characteristic.
So let’s get back to the symbols. The Confederate Navy Jack was a battle flag, and during the actual Civil War wasn’t very wide spread. It was the “Stainless Banner,” and later the “Red Stained Banner” that were the ones that stood for the political ideals of the Confederacy. For this reason, it’s just as well that the political flags of the Confederacy can only be seen in history books and museums. But the Navy Jack is still a common sight in many parts of the United States.
For many African Americans, the Navy Jack often triggers the very same level of hatred, fear and anger that the hakenkreuz does for modern Jews (especially in Europe). Flaunting the banners of the Confederacy – a nation that promoted white supremacy and defended the practice of slavery – is ultimately an insult to African Americans and many other ethnic groups. It can even be argued that it’s an insult to the United States in general. No matter how you look at it, the Confederacy doesn’t deserve the nostalgic, favorable view it currently enjoys.
The Confederate States of America are part of history, and cannot be forgotten. But history – as preserved in books and museums – is where that failed political experiment belongs. It no longer belongs on flag poles.
Statues of Confederate war heroes have also come under fire in recent months. That issue, while related, is different from the flags, so I’ll talk about that later.
A while back, I read a fascinating book by Ed Regis called Monsters: the Hindenburg Disaster and the birth of pathological technology. The book caught my interest because it was about large dirigibles and the ill-fated Hindenburg, which has long been an interest of mine. I find dirigibles to be fascinating things. In fact, I’ve ridden on one! Actually that’s only partly true. What I rode was one of the Good Year blimps, probably a GZ-20 class, back in the 1970’s. They weren’t dirigibles, but blimps (semi-rigid balloons). But close enough.
I can’t remember the details of my blimp ride at all well, given my age at the time. But I’m pretty sure that the one I rode was the Mayflower, shown here. It used to visit Cortland, New York, once or twice a year, as a perk for people who worked for the Brockway Motor Company. I think most people got rides through some sort of lottery. I managed to get my ride because my father made a few strategically timed telephone calls to some friends, and one of the scheduled passengers didn’t show up that day.
Even though I’ve always liked large airships, I can’t ignore what the engineering and the math say: they are not practical. Count Ferdinand Zeppelin spent most of his life promoting these vessels as having all kinds of applications, both military and civil. But history proved that they aren’t suitable for most tasks. Airships are big, hard to handle, expensive to operate and maintain, and have a surprisingly small payload capacity for something so large.
Ultimately the airship proved to be a niche technology, but within that niche it has a good track record. In recent years airships have proven useful for aerial surveillance, search and rescue operations, and weather monitoring. They have also proven to be great for radio and television communication relay applications, such as news coverage after a major hurricane, and providing awesome television coverage of major sporting events. But for most applications that deal with actual transportation of goods and passengers, the airship isn’t a viable contender. In fact, according to Regis, it never was.
He called it a “pathological technology.” When he calls something a “pathological technology,” he’s essentially saying, in a polite way, that certain technologies are bat-shit crazy, and we as a species should have never seriously considered experimenting with them. Let alone try to implement or develop them! And if we foolishly have implemented them, then we should come to our senses and abandon the technology at the earliest possible opportunity
Regis gave four criteria for the dubious distinction as “pathological technology.” Roughly, they are:
- The technology usually embraces something exceedingly large, either in effect or in physical size.
- The technology creates a form of emotional fixation, bordering on hypnotic enthrallment, on its proponents.
- Proponents constantly ignore and downplay the risks, downsides, shortcomings, negative consequences, and outright dangers associated with using the technology.
- The benefits of the technology are ultimately dwarfed by the costs.
He is quick to point out that this isn’t a litmus test type of situation. One or more of these traits can be applied to almost every technology that has ever be used. These conditions exist on a continuum. It’s when a given technology falls into the extreme of all four characteristics that it can be considered pathological.
Anyway, Regis gives a case for why large airships, or zeppelins, were a pathological technology. He discusses the history leading up to it, and ultimately puts much of the “blame” for the technology on Count Zeppelin himself.
It should be noted that the Count did not hold the patent for rigid airships. That belonged to a Frenchmen, Joseph Spiess. Zeppelin did popularize and refine the technology, however.
There is a strong belief that much of Zeppelin’s motivation stemmed from the fact that a Frenchman made the first viable dirigible design, and the Count wasn’t going to be bested by a Frenchman. I’ll let psychohistorians deal with that question.
Count Zeppelin had a vision for the giant airships which was very different from what they became. He never imagined them as the flying luxury liners which became the claim to fame. Count Zeppelin saw the airship as a weapon of mass destruction. To him they were giant military leviathans, bristling with weapons, descending from the sky and leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. And when they were finished laying waste to the countryside before them, they would land, and up to 100 angry Prussian commandos would pour forth from the belly of the beast, to continue the carnage. The image sounds like something from a steampunk novel, and you have to admit it does sound cool. It was so cool, that enough people in 1890’s Germany agreed with the idea, and the Count received the venture capital he needed to develop his giant flying killing machine. According to Regis, this was a fatal mistake.
Sadly for the Count, physics agrees with Regis. When dealing with lighter than air aircraft, the ratio of cargo to lifting mass has always been top-heavy. Consider a hot-air balloon. In order to lift a payload of perhaps a half dozen people, you need a balloon the height of a five story building! What’s worse, this ratio doesn’t scale nicely. Increasing the payload mass increases the lifting mass requirement at an almost geometric rate.
At the time, the only way to make a flying machine was to make it lighter than air. Remember that the airplane didn’t show up until 1903, and it wasn’t taken seriously for another twenty years. The Count’s dream ship would have been beyond gigantic. Weapons are heavy, and so are fully equipped soldiers. Add the necessary crew for such a big ship, and the weight of the ship itself, and you have one honking big balloon! The payload of the Count’s machine would have to be equal to or greater than a modern jumbo jet. Note that the largest airship ever built, the Hindenburg, had a payload capacity only one quarter of what the Count envisioned. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Count Zeppelin’s airships were a problem from the get go. They had a tendency to weather-vane under the slightest of air currents. They were hard to handle in almost every weather condition. Their light metal frames tended to bend, buckle, and even snap if the ship wasn’t balanced right, and keeping those things balanced was a problem in itself. Changes in air pressure or temperature tended to change the craft’s buoyancy, so sometimes one end of the ship would go up while the other started to fall. And so on.
Oh yes, and there was one other big problem that supporters of the Zeppelin Company constantly glossed over or downplayed. The only lifting gas that was easily available and affordable at the time was hydrogen. Hydrogen, largely because of it’s low atomic weight, is very susceptible to changes in air conditions and temperature, which created the aforementioned problems with even buoyancy.
And I don’t think I need to mention hydrogen’s nasty property of catching fire for the smallest of causes! There was one case of a spark from two support cables rubbing against one another within the body of a zeppelin, ignited a small leak from one of the hydrogen cells. You can probably guess how that turned out.
The only other contender for a lifting gas was helium, which isn’t as fussy in terms of atmospheric conditions. But it doesn’t have as much lift, and until after World War I it was both formidably expensive, and very hard to acquire.
So, zeppelins were a technical problem, and no matter what anyone said at the time, they were inherently dangerous! But they still captured the imagination of the general public. The sight of those long, flying whales lazily floating across the sky was just too darn cool to ignore! So the quest for Count Zeppelin’s dream ship continued, far longer than it should have.
From 1900 until World War I, rigid airships emerged from Zeppelin’s facilities in Friedrichshafen with regularity. Most of them ended up getting torn apart by weather, going up in flames, or both. But the airship had captured the imagination and national pride of Germany, so they kept working on perfecting the design.
Count Zeppelin died in 1917, before the end of World War I. His airships were used during the war, mostly as bombers, but they never came close to the grand plans he had for them. In fact, World War I pretty much sent the notion of a flying military leviathan to a fiery grave. A new type of flying machine, the airplane, was showing far more promise as a military device than the airship ever could.
If airships are pathological, then why did they last so long?
One thing that Regis seems to have either overlooked or glossed over, is that when airships first appeared, they did provide something unique: they made it possible for people to fly. When they first appeared, there wasn’t another technology that could do that. The dangers of airships weren’t unknown by any means. But whenever one of them came to a tragic end, the general response was to try tweaking the technology so as to avoid a repeat of the problem. Also, a lot of people had invested considerable resources in making airships work, and a large number of people had jobs that depended on them. And again, without airships, it wasn’t possible for humans to fly.
The airplane changed the equation, but not right away. Airplanes have problems as well, and there were points in the development of the airplane where they were seen as equally bad-shit crazy as the hydrogen and helium filled leviathans. However, when airplane technology was tweaked to deal with a specific problem, viable solutions ultimately presented themselves. And gradually, the technology improved. The problems with airships generally stemmed from the lifting gases, of which there were still only two choices (one that easily caught fire, and one that was very expensive). And in order to lift anything off the ground, at least in a usable quantity, you need a very large quantity of lifting gas. The size requirement, and the unforgiving nature of physics and chemistry, made it impossible to change that. Airplanes gradually became safer, more efficient, and more versatile. Airships, by contrast, stagnated. So when the mighty Hindenburg met it’s fiery end on May 6, 1937, that was the end for airships. The risk/benefit ratio had ultimately resolved in favor of the airplane, and even the most hardened supporters of airships were forced to throw in the proverbial towel. The rest is aviation history.
But as for airships being a pathological technology, we can only say that in hindsight. During their heyday, airships were an accepted technology that fulfilled a specific need. They did demonstrate the potential of air travel, and for many years they were how it was done. It’s only when we look back through the lens of experience and history that we can see the design problems inherent with large airships.
Perhaps there should be a fifth condition to Regis’s test. Namely, if a technology meets a demonstrated need, and no viable alternative exists, it can’t be considered pathological.
Under this added condition, giant, rigid airships didn’t become a pathological technology until the airplane had advanced enough to replace them. That then begs a new question: was the giant airship a pathological technology from the start, or, is it just another technology that outlived it’s usefulness?
Later it the book, Regis talks about three other technologies that he considered pathological, and unlike airships, I tend to agree with him on those. I’ll be looking at these three monsters soon.
Regis, Ed. Monsters: the Hindenburg disaster and the birth of pathological technology. New York: Basic Books, c2015.
Wonder Woman: superhero film or morality play?
Recently, my daughter and I saw the new theatrical feature film, Wonder Woman. Superhero films have been abundant in recent years, and I have found most of them to be hit-or-miss. Early reviews for the film were favorable, but even so my expectations were guarded. I was pleasantly surprised. The film was quite good, with some unexpected and original takes on the iconic character, her origins, and the world she entered.
Before I continue, this article is filled with spoilers. I can’t say what I want to say without giving away key points of the film. So if you plan to see the film and hate spoilers, then stop here.
You have been warned.
I would say that this film was a morality tale, or at least a fairy tale with very strong moral messages, masquerading as a superhero story.
This film took the well known character of Wonder Woman and re-imagined her in a very different way. For starters, the time frame of her base story was pushed back almost 25 years. In this interpretation of the character, it is World War I that provides the backdrop, as opposed to World War II. The world of 1918 was far removed from the world of 1941.
The original comic book character of Wonder Woman was created during World War II, and that conflict was an integral part of her stories. Diana’s primary adversaries were Nazi sympathizers, Japanese spies, saboteurs, corrupt war profiteers, and meta-humans created by the Axis to counter the likes of Batman, Superman, and herself. It was pretty standard comic book fare, and there was little or no ambiguity between who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.
But that formula wouldn’t have worked as well with World War I. World War II was the worst kind of war: it had to be fought. Civilization itself was being threatened by a very frightening social belief system that was being encouraged and fueled by the ravings of a madman. The line between good and evil was very clear, and just about everyone knew what was at stake.
World War I was a different story from a different time. World War I, or the “Great War,” was largely driven by a sociopolitical cycle that had dominated world politics since the end of the Roman Empire. Specifically, the “Balance of Power.” It was believed that every one or two generations, a major war was necessary for maintaining world order. If any one country or coalition of countries became too powerful, the long term results for civilization as a whole could be disastrous. As a matter of due course, every twenty to thirty years the nations of the world (especially in Europe) would squabble among themselves. When things died down, the various military arsenals of the world would be greatly depleted, political alliances would be re-drawn, maps would change, regimes would rise and fall, then everything would continue as usual. And here’s the funny part: throughout history no one seriously expected these periodic wars to solve anything long term. It was always assumed that after a country gets punched in the nose, over the next three decades it would rebuild it’s arsenal, then come back for a rematch. And sometimes that nation would win the rematch. That was part of the whole point. Wars made sure that no one nation became too powerful, or remained at the top for too long, or that the ambitions of one nation began to dominate the fate of many others.
War was analogous to periodically releasing steam from a pressure engine. If it wasn’t done, then eventually the pressure would cause the engine to explode, and civilization as a whole would suffer. Up until the early twentieth century, some historians cited the catastrophic collapse of the Western Roman Empire as an example of what can happen when the “Balance of Power” is not effectively maintained.
By the time of the Napoleonic Wars this belief was being called into question. Or, at the very least, the belief that war as a means of maintaining the Balance of Power was being questioned. During the Napoleonic Wars, people were looking at the devastation of war and started to wonder if there was another way to handle the Balance of Power equation, because periodic wars were proving to be just as destructive as the cataclysmic fall of civilization that they were supposed to prevent.
After Napoleon finally went into exile, the major nations of Europe concluded that in the future, political problems should be solved by dialogue. There was no formal committee for this, only a general consensus that diplomacy should be used instead of force. Sadly, it didn’t take hold. And some of the diplomats of the era proved to be just as dangerous as any warlord. It has been argued that many of the nineteenth century “diplomats,” Klemens Von Metternich in particular, were far worse than any warlord.
The issue was visited again after the Franco-Prussian War, but again, little changed. The Boer Wars and the Spanish-American War demonstrated, decisively, that military technology had moved beyond most military thinking.
By 1910, enough people had picked up the growing pattern and were determined to put a stop to it, and wanted to settle the Balance of Power equation differently. However, diplomacy had proven to be a partial success at best. The general belief was that another major war was inevitable, and that ultimately nothing could prevent it. Political and social tensions were simply too high, and more importantly, too many people were itching for a fight.
Some suggested that it would be better to have this major war sooner than later, given that military technology kept getting deadlier and deadlier. Furthermore, perhaps we (humanity) should take this “opportunity” to settle some old issues that have been festering for decades or centuries. As a species, we needed to have one final, massive, spectacular slam bang of a war that will settle the world’s problems once and for all: a war to end all wars.
I just grossly over-simplified things, but stay with me.
It was into this prevailing global mindset, the belief that war was an effective way to maintain world order, that Diana was thrust.
Again I must say that if you haven’t seen the movie and want to avoid spoilers, then for the love of Zeus, stop reading now!
Diana’s home, Paradise Island, was hidden from the rest of the world by what can only by called a strange weather pattern. This small, lush island was the last stronghold of the Amazon warriors of the ancient world. Diana grew up believing that Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had crafted her from clay, and that she was intended for some great purpose, but that purpose had not yet revealed itself.
Diana’s world was upset when a German airplane stumbled into the strange weather pattern, and crash landed off the shore of Paradise Island. Inside the plane was Steven Trevor, an American spy. He was carrying vital information about German chemical weapons, and was en route to British intelligence in London when the Germans shot him down. Diana found Steve to be fascinating. One, because he was a man, and those are scarce in Amazon country. And two, because he came from the world outside. Everything he said about the world outside ran against what she thought she knew to be the truth.
The Amazons had set up shop on this remote island, where they would wait until Ares, the ancient Greek god of war, re-appeared. For almost 2000 years these women were waiting for a sign that Ares was out and about, but they never heard a thing. So, the Amazons assumed humanity was totally at peace.
But along comes Captain Trevor and his stories about the “war to end all wars,” and some of his stories were horrible. Several of the Amazons were confused. There have been several wars? How long has Ares been running amok? And why didn’t anyone inform us? Trevor explained that higher powers, like Ares, had nothing to do with it, because humanity was perfectly capable of committing evil without such help. The Amazons could not wrap their heads around this (well, most of them couldn’t). Diana, like most of her comrades, remained convinced that Ares was involved, and that Steve Trevor’s perception was being clouded somehow. Things went back and forth for a while, but ultimately Diana leaves with Steve Trevor for the world outside, determined to find out just what was going on. And if possible, destroy Ares.
She experienced a serious case of culture shock when confronted by the world of 1918. Political manipulation, economic inequality, deceit, and a whole lot of sexism left her flabbergasted. But she handled it surprisingly well, and remained determined to find Ares, take him out, and put everything right. Along the way she did some serious ass kicking.
Diana was portrayed as a very effective warrior, especially in hand to hand combat. But at the same time, she was unbelievably naive. She had spent her life living in a utopia, cut off from the rest of the world in just about every way. She had grown up believing that humanity had been created by Zeus and the other ancient gods in their image, and that they were put on earth to live prosperous lives and do great things. She saw humanity as a perfect creation. In her mind, the only way humanity could be behaving imperfectly was if another god, such as Ares, was exercising some unnatural influence over them. Steve, and some of his comrades, tried to explain to her that other possibilities existed, and that things were not as simple as she assumed. But she steadfastly paid no attention to that.
For most of the film she was driven by a determination to find and kill Ares, confident in her belief that doing so would solve all problems. Eventually she finds the man she believes to be Ares in a German chemical weapons depot, and after a brief but intense fight, executes him. Believing that she had completed her mission, she went to the top of a signal tower to greet the sun in triumph. She is horrified to see the troops of the German army continue to carry out their duties, and hear the rumble of artillery in the distance. She couldn’t understand why humans were still waging war!
Shortly after this, Steve finally gets her to except the notion that humanity is not, and never was a perfect creation. She is still struggling with this realization when she finally meets the man who actually is Ares. Ares calmly explains to her that indeed, Zeus and the other gods created humanity in their image, with the aim of doing great things. But in order to create creatures capable of great things, they had to be given free will. That in turn gave them the ability to make “evil” decisions. Many humans have done exactly that, throughout history, and Ares had very little to do with it.
Ares goes on to state that it was actually humanity’s abandonment of their higher purpose that compelled him to start interfering in the first place. He was very disappointed, even distraught, at how humanity had fallen so far astray, and ultimately concluded that the only rational choice left was to destroy them all and start anew! Ares viewed wiping out the human race as something akin to a mercy killing! In horror, Diana realizes that Steve was right: humanity is flawed, and does not need the influence of a higher power to perform acts of evil.
But at the same time, Diana was also at least partially right: Ares had been influencing humanity. Ares himself said that throughout history he would periodically give certain individuals a nudge in a certain directions, usually to start or prolong wars. This was all done with the aim of ultimately destroying humanity. Even so, Ares was quick to say that he never explicitly told or compelled any humans to carry out evil acts. He simply told them that they had the option. The fact that humans went through with the actions was their decision, and theirs alone. Ares considered himself blameless.
Diana didn’t agree, and chose to have nothing to do with his sick plan, despite the tempting offer Ares gave her. As expected, they started to fight. But for a brief moment she looked ready to fold up and sulk her way home to Paradise Island. Both Ares and Hippolyta had told Diana that “humanity doesn’t deserve you,” and now that she could see just how imperfect humans could be, she understood what they meant.
But there was another card in play, and his name was Steve Trevor.
The finale of the film takes place on a German military base, in occupied Belgium. From this base a bomber, laden with an exceptionally messy chemical weapon, was going to launch an attack on London. Such an act would have derailed any peace talks (this was October of 1918, when things were winding down), and Great Britain would have plunged into chaos. A continuation of the war was exactly what Ares wanted, so he made sure the bomber took off as planned, despite what was going on around him. But in the confusion, Steve Trevor had boarded the plane during take off. Shortly before boarding the plane, during a lull in her fight with Ares, Steve told Diana that he was going to destroy that plane no matter what, even though it would almost certainly result in his death. His parting words to her were a confession of love:
“I can save today, but you can save tomorrow. Diana, I love you.”
I got the impression that Diana had never experienced love in the way Steve was referring to it. That is to say, the wonderful combination of philia, storge, agape, and eros that exist between two people who are in love. It is understandable that Diana would be new to this, since such relationships generally aren’t part of Amazon society. Also, at an earlier point in the film, there is a strong implication that Diana and Steve became physically intimate. We don’t actually see this, but the film uses some long established tropes to suggest events that what would otherwise get a love scene. It isn’t definite that they made love, but I think it’s safe to assume that they did or at least came close. Unlike most theatrical sequences of this type, it isn’t gratuitous. It is actually rather important to the story!
Diana is lamenting the wretched state of humanity, when she sees the bomber explode in the distance. She knows that Steve has sacrificed his life, but by preventing the chemical weapon from being dropped on London, countless lives were saved. Steve’s act of self-sacrifice showed Diana that sometimes humans do live up to the ideal that the gods originally intended, and that while they are capable of great evil, they are also capable of great good. Fueled by this knowledge, she charges at Ares for another round.
The resulting final battle between Wonder Woman and Ares was everything that movie audiences expect: a huge slam bang that created millions of dollars of adjusted property damage, spectacular visual effects that made everyone in the theater jump, and a dramatic musical score that would give Richard Wagner performance anxiety.
I found myself cheering Diana on when she went after Ares in a burst of righteous anger. You go, girl! But as thrilling as that fight was, for me, it was the dialogue that led up to it that made this film so good, and why I believe it to be a morality play.
In the denouement scene, we see that Diana has been living among humans since 1918, presumably under various secret identities. Today she lives in Paris, working as a historian at the Louvre. In her closing soliloquy, she admits her knowledge of humanity’s flaws, and that evil is, and always has been, part of the human condition. People like Ares will always work to exploit that. But she also knows that humanity can do great things, and it’s up to people like herself to make sure that good people prevail. Her final words sum things up pretty well:
“I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. And now I know… that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, and I fight. I fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. And I give, for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now and forever.”
In many ways, I found the story to be a parallel telling of the Judaeo-Christian parable about free will. Throughout the ages, philosophers and theologians have asked why God permits evil in the world, why He permits humans to do evil things, or why He allows bad things to happen to good people (poor Job). Augustine’s answer is that evil was created by humanity, not God. The thing is, in order for God to “create man is his own image,” it was necessary for Him to give humans free will. But with free will comes the ability to choose evil. It was an inherent risk that God took, and He hoped that his creation would choose not to pursue it. But as we know from the creation myth, a few nudges from the Devil at a few key moments gave humanity the urge to explore what should be left alone, and things went downhill pretty quickly. But, the Devil, just like Ares, had an out:
“I didn’t tell Adam and Eve to eat those apples, I only pointed out that they could, and what the possible benefits were. The decision to actually take a bite was theirs, and theirs alone.”
In the New Testament we get the famous counter-example. During the trials in the desert, the Devil tries to tempt Christ with worldly delights. By pointing out that someone with his natural charisma and influence could effect and control millions of people, Christ could quickly rise up in the world and rule over it. But Christ wanted humanity to retain it’s free will and ability to choose, and he wasn’t interested in political power. So, He respectfully declined.
Diana did the same with Ares, and for much the same reason. Granted, the Devil’s disappointment was surprisingly muted when compared to that of Ares. But the Greek gods tended to be a hot-tempered lot, so Ares’ tantrum was a bit of a given.
I greatly enjoyed the film. I enjoyed it far more than I expected to, and I would be more than willing to see it again. But, there are two things I really would have liked to have seen. My tongue is now firmly in my cheek, by the way.
- First, a cameo by Lynda Carter. She was the definitive Wonder Woman for a generation, and could have easily been included in one of the crowd scenes. I suspect she either wasn’t available, or wasn’t interested. It could be that she didn’t want to upstage Gal Gadot with a bit of stunt casting.
- Second, the pirouette-explosion costume change. The television show turned that into a running routine, and as a kid I loved watching it. It has also been featured in the printed comic books, and I understand that some animated portrayals of Wonder Woman have used it. I think it would have looked great on a big screen. But seriously, I’m not sure where it could have been included. Perhaps the sequence when Diana changes out of the party gown while riding through the forest could have accommodated the iconic spin. However, the spin-boom-transform sequence is inherently campy, and might have distracted from the otherwise muted presentation of events at that point in the film.
Since both of those things fall into the “fan service” category, they would have been fun to see, but hardly necessary. It’s also possible that they could happen in a future film, such as Justice League. However, this film didn’t have much “fan service” at all. It didn’t need it. And that made it that much better.
- This is actually rather funny, because constant warfare was one of the key causes for the Roman Empire’s collapse. It had become too week and too strapped for resources to maintain itself. I don’t know why historians of the early twentieth century often leave that out.
- I am compelled to point out that many Americans don’t really appreciate the impact of World War I; even fewer can understand the motivations behind it. Personally, I think World War I was one of the most foolish things humanity has ever done. One would think that after the various wars of the 1800’s, the major nations of the world (particularly in Europe) would have learned that the Balance of Power concept wasn’t just about military might. It also included economic and social aspects, and that war was no longer an effective short term solution. Some historians have suggested that between the American Civil War and the Spanish-American War, the United States had already learned that particular lesson. That could be why so many Americans “don’t get” World War I. It may also be one of the reasons why we acquired such a bad reputation while “over there.”
- During the course of the film she learns how to use a rifle, and does pretty well with it. But she doesn’t consider it honorable to fight from such a long distance, and prefers to use a sword and shield.
- I lifted this text from IMDB. I don’t think the transcription is 100% accurate, but I do remember that these words, and certainly these sentiments, were relayed in dialogue.
Operation Caracal, Part 7
Day 13, January 2, 2017
For the return trip we tried to schedule things better, and not try to go quite so far in one day. Our target for the day was at the theoretical half-way point. The last time we drove this route the weather was ugly. Sadly, that was the case again this time. There was heavy rain, high wind, and overcast skies almost the entire way. There was one stretch, from upper Alabama to roughly the Tennessee state line, where the sun was able to make a very welcome appearance. As before, the stretch through Mississippi and Alabama was mind numbing.
Our target was Athens, Tennessee. That town is, almost to the mile, half-way between Hammond and our home. If time permitted, this would have been a nice town to explore. It has some nice historical sites, and good examples of Americana architecture. We filed these as possible ideas for a future trip, because we are likely to travel this route again.
It took over nine hours to get from Hammond to Athens, which wasn’t bad, but still longer than we had hoped. I suspect the weather, heavy traffic around Birmingham, and a lot of construction near Chattanooga contributed to the delay.
We also discovered that when you rent a hotel room, you get what you pay for. We saved a little money and went with a less-expensive hotel chain. Our room was acceptable, with firm beds and a bath that did what they were supposed to do. But, the building wasn’t in the best of shape, and there were signs of water damage. Even so, after the long drive, we were too tired to care.
Well, most of us were. Michael refused to settle down to sleep, and kept turning on the lights. He also tried turning on the television and clock radio. Needless to say, this was not appreciated by the rest of us. But even after being scolded multiple times, Michael would not stop.
However, I had what might be called a revelation. After turning off the lights for the umpteenth time, I soon saw Michael’s silhouette rise from his bed and make a bee-line for the light switch. I watched in the dark, ready to scold him the instant he turned on the light. But I didn’t, and here’s why. For a split-second after hitting the switch, I caught a glimpse of his face. He looked upset, stressed and afraid. When the light came on, his face quickly returned to normal.
At this point I need to include some exposition. Michael has agenesis of the corpus callosum. This could explain his difficulty with language, and hyper-sensitivity to touch. We still aren’t sure of the severity of his case, but regardless, his mind doesn’t work exactly the same as ours.
Michael has never been a good hotel guest. Whenever we travel, and we know we’ll be staying at a hotel, we expect Michael to be difficult. People with ACC often have difficulty in strange places, some more so than others. Michael generally isn’t afraid of the dark, at least not at home. But we weren’t at home.
Consider that Michael was in a strange, new place that he had never seen before, with few or no familiar points of reference. He hadn’t had enough time to catalog his surroundings, which from his perspective, was unrecognizable. When the lights went out, those few things he had been able to process were no longer visible. I think that’s when his imagination starts running, and fills the dark space with all matter of new and confusing stuff. I later did some reading on this, and my guess has support. There have been cases of ACC patients needing constant audio, visual, and sometimes olfactory input. If their input streams are not being filled by external stimuli, their brain starts to create artificial input.
Anyway, back at the hotel, I explained my theory to Lisa and Caitlin. To restore order to his sensory input streams, Michael needs the lights on. And when I say that, I don’t mean he prefers the lights on, he needs the lights on.
We left one of the small lights running as a night light. Michael still kept turning on the other lights, after which one of us would turn them off. This game continued for a while until eventually, in the dim light, Michael succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep. We don’t know if the night light helped or not.
Day 14, January 3, 2017
We had hoped that the second half of the trip would be easier, given that it is collectively downhill. Actually it did go easier in most ways. Traffic was bad in certain areas, but that was the worst of it.
The real problem this day was, apparently, me. Lisa said that for the entire day I had a rather scary glaze over my face, and just didn’t look right. I also had to make several very sudden and urgent bathroom stops over the course of the day. We got home around 6:30pm.
I turns out that my blood sugar had been dangerously high that day, with numbers that are usually used to describe car payments. Stress from the driving could account for some of it, as could the starch-heavy food that travelers are often forced to live on. It’s even possible that my slow metabolism was still processing the red beans and rice from two days earlier. Whatever the case, those blood tests were shocking, and these are things that a type-2 diabetic can not ignore. I started planning some diet changes that very night.
This brought home the fact that 2017, and the drastic life changes it was going to bring, had begun.
The caracal had gone to sleep. We were home.