Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tai Lung is the World's Most Tragic Villain

If you're unfamiliar with the 2008 Dreamworks movie Kung Fu Panda, it is basically the world's most conventional believe-in-yourself, defy-convention, pursue-your-dreams movie. Po is a fat panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master, and through a series of unlikely events, gets to do so. The movie beats on you and beats into you that self-confidence and willpower can overcome anything... that is, if you're the hero of the piece. If you're Tai Lung, you get to be utterly betrayed by every principle the movie espouses.

Quick background: Tai Lung is the adopted son of Master Shifu, who took him in and taught him kung fu. Tai Lung was a fantastically talented martial artist, and Shifu raised him and trained him to dream of becoming the Dragon Warrior, which one can only do by reading the Dragon Scroll. But Oogway, Shifu's master, told Tai Lung that he was unfit to read the Dragon Scroll, because there was darkness in his spirit. Enraged, Tai Lung went away and wreaked terror on the surrounding towns, until Oogway defeated and imprisoned him. Tai Lung comes back again in the movie to claim the Dragon Scroll, only to be defeated by Po.

Now (spoiler alert), there's nothing written on the Dragon Scroll. It's a mirror. You look in it and see yourself, that is, a reminder of the limitless potential that only you can achieve. Only one person knows that, however, until the scroll is revealed late in the movie. Even Shifu did not know what was inside the scroll, but it seems fair to assume that Oogway would have--he invented kung fu, after all, and he was the arbiter of whether people were ready to see what was inside. So when Oogway told Tai Lung that he was not worthy to look upon the scroll, he was knowingly saying that he was unworthy of the power of self-belief. He had no right to self-confidence. Oogway was telling Tai Lung, albeit indirectly, that his entire personality was irredeemably awful.

It gets worse. We learn in the movie that Shifu was chiefly responsible for Tai Lung's rampages. He was the one who trained him, after all, and he was the one who raised Shifu to dream of the Dragon Warrior's power. But it was exactly that desire for power that caused Oogway to reject Tai Lung. That was the darkness inside him that Oogway rejected. Between the two of them, these two kung fu masters--the elders he respected, the surrogate father he adored, the holder of all kung fu wisdom that Tai Lung must have idolized--raised Tai Lung to be ambitious and angry, and then cast him out and eventually imprisoned him because he had those emotions.

Now, Po is an entirely different sort of student from Tai Lung. He doesn't want to be the Dragon Warrior, just to be good at kung fu; he has little natural ability unless he's trained in a blazingly unconventional way, and by embracing his slapstick, ass-backwards, weirdo talent for the discipline, he is eventually deemed worthy of the power of self-belief. But before Po vanquishes Tai Lung, a returned Tai Lung beats up Shifu, screaming "All I ever did, I did to make you proud! Tell me how proud you are!". Shifu, who has been unable to achieve inner peace and who has been an emotionally stunted hermit for years because of his lingering guilt over Tai Lung's banishment, apologizes to him for the wrongs he's done, and Tai Lung snarls "I don't want your apology. I want my scroll". (Remember, Tai Lung thinks it's a gateway to limitless power, not a self-help book.) Po shows up, defeats Tai Lung, and the movie ends with Shifu achieving inner peace.

One would think that the only possible moment in the final Tai Lung-Shifu encounter (since most of it is spent beating each other up, or with Tai Lung speaking aloud every single thing Shifu's probably been torturing himself with over the years) from which Shifu could have achieved inner peace, is from Tai Lung rejecting Shifu when he tried to apologize. I think that in the mind of Shifu, this is when he can officially discharge responsibility for Tai Lung's crippled life. That's when he goes from wronged son to murderous tyrant, and when Po dispatches him, Shifu can be free. All that guilt and all that shame is just magically wiped out in one moment of catharsis. And when Tai Lung is defeated and banished, dead for all we know, Shifu can be at peace because that worry is out of his life. He doesn't feel sorry for his dead son, or guilty about the path he made him take, anymore. He's at peace.

Coda: Yes, Tai Lung is not an innocent victim in this story. He chooses to go on a rampage after being denied the scroll. He chooses to turn down the apology and beat up Shifu, and to go after Po even after the secret has been revealed. He is an actor that makes his own choices and decisions, but the entire reason for his villainy is because his teachers and his parent set him on a path towards it. That's the tragedy for me in this story.

Monday, October 14, 2013


I'm really not sure I understand the logic behind passing bills that fund chunks of the government during the shutdown. Oh? You're disturbed that things we consider necessary to the continued, smooth functioning of the country are no longer operational? Perhaps you should've thought of that before you shut down the government. The only good thing about the current lack of funding for things like cancer research and border security (that both sides unequivocally want) is that while they're offline, there's an incentive to negotiate a deal that gets the whole government back online. If I'm one of the farther-right House Republicans and the President magically signs all my piecemeal bills into law and funds the parts of the government that I consider vital, why would I ever vote for the government to reopen as usual ever again? I've got what I want. This is the kind of thing that people who shut down the government to try and force the President to roll back his signature legislative accomplishment might actually think. Therefore, the President is never going to go along with the one-bill-at-a-time thing for anything other than the most immediately necessary, or politically damaging, pieces. Therefore, I (as a far-right House Republican) should spend my time working out a deal for the government to reopen fully, not passing piecemeal funding bills that I know damn well are not becoming law.

The counterargument is that House Reps should spend their time passing things that will make the President look awful for vetoing, or the Senate look awful for blocking, and thereby gain some credibility and/or political capital. This is a stupid counterargument because 1) they shut down the damn government, an act which at least two-thirds of the country blames them for, and 2) because that's exactly the kind of unforgivably shortsighted, stupid politics that gets us into this mess. It's not about winning. It's not about making the other guy look awful so the voters choose you because you haven't screwed them over in the past week or so. It's about GOOD GOVERNANCE. You win by governing the country more efficiently and cheaply and providing a better product then the other guys. That is how you win, in which case, the country wins. Try to make the other side look awful with every. single. little. thing. you. do. and where are we? Two political parties that hate each others' holy guts and won't voluntarily work together on the basic business of the country. Is there anything more fundamentally necessary to the basic functioning of the United States then the assurance that it will not default on its debts? Could there possibly be anything, other than protecting us all from military defeat, that you would think would warrant more automatic cooperation for the greater benefit of the country? I can't think of any. It's absurd to me that this is even in question. Yes, okay, I get that we're spending far too much money on entitlements and that the defense budget has been too high for a decade, but these are debts that we have already incurred. They are coming due on Thursday. Can you think of anything more economically damaging, besides the shutdown itself or some kind of complete embargo against us, then telling every creditor the US has and every country that might lend us money in the future that we're not good for it? And to do that when we don't have to, at the behest of one half of one branch of government, is like committing seppuku for no damn reason.

I read articles all the time that go into excruciating detail about the problems that this country is facing, and it's not all just doomsaying jeremiads. Much of our infrastructure was built fifty years ago and we've done little at the federal level to overhaul it. Our health care system charges outrageous prices for basic supplies; care is amazingly expensive because nobody's told the hospitals they can't mark up supplies by hundreds of percentage points over the Medicaid price, and people who need medical care RIGHT NOW are in no position to complain about it or to demand a lower price. Our education system is awful and standardized tests might be making it worse. The national security apparatus that we funded and built is harassing American citizens at the borders, has killed Americans without trial abroad, and pushes the limits of its authority to spy on us every way they legally can. We somewhere along the line decided that money was equivalent to speech, which allows the very rich to have way, way too much influence on our elections (It also turns out that the much-ballyhooed 1% do actually have most of of American wealth). Our political campaigns take way too long and are unfathomably expensive, our districts are gerrymandered, and we're racking up hideous amounts of debt thanks to our entitlement programs and war spending. And let's not even talk about climate change. We have all these big, systemic problems that no single entity except the federal government really has the power to fix...

And what is our government doing?

Making problems for itself, trying and failing to fix the problems that it created, and then subsequently making things worse.

We spend all our time fighting each other on the debt limit, on the budget, on all things related to money. When we look away for a moment and stop gnawing each other raw, it's because some other huge issue--Sandy Hook, Syria--came up that captured our attention and couldn't be ignored. I ask you, regardless of politics: if a madman shoots up a school and kills twenty children and their teachers, and we can't even agree afterwards that we need to be better at making sure that mentally ill people don't get firearms, what can we agree on? We fight and we claw and we beat each other bloody and nothing gets done in the end, and when we're done doing nothing on that issue, we get back to doing nothing on the debt.

There was a Boston Globe story a few months ago that summed up, to me, everything that is wrong with our political system. When freshman Democratic House members arrived at their orientation for the 113th Congress, the DCCC told them they were expected to spend four hours a day calling their constituents and asking for money.

Four hours!

Four hours spent in a cramped little cubicle in their party's headquarters, across the street from the Capitol, calling voters and wheedling for dollars. Four hours of fluorescent lights and five-minute breaks and dialing name after name after name after name after name. Four hours of being constantly reminded, with every little thing you do, that you have to raise this money or go home in two years. Every day. At mealtimes, you eat with potential donors. On the weekends, you fly back to your district and beg for money at fundraisers. The Globe interviewed one Republican Congressman who hasn't even rented an apartment in D.C. because he's begging in his district so often. He sleeps on the couch in his office, every night.

Is it any wonder that we're so partisan? Is it any wonder that, with precious few exceptions, everyone in Congress is making every decision with an eye to their next election?

Why wouldn't they?

How could we reasonably expect even the best of them to look beyond it? How could we expect any of these men and women to make decisions that aren't in their own best interest, but might be in the country's? They either raise the money and follow their party or they're done. There's no room anymore for mavericks.

Every young, idealistic freshman Representative or newly minted Senator goes to Washington thinking they can change everything. Those four hours a day are why they cannot.