Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Everything About The Lego Movie Is Awesome


This weekend, I finally had the opportunity to see “The Lego Movie”. After my last, less than pleasant experience seeing a children’s movie, I must admit I was a bit wary. However, my fears were completely unfounded. Once again, I find myself compelled to review a film, but this time for the delightful reason that I want to encourage people to see it.

 The hero of the film, Emmet, is at first a painfully ordinary person. He reads books that teach him how to be well-liked. He likes the most popular television show, drinks overpriced coffee, and cheers for the local sports teams, because that is what people are supposed to do. When they are interviewed about him, Emmet’s coworkers describe him as rather dull, since he simply agrees with everything everyone says. One Lego man states that “We all have something that makes us something and Emmet is… nothing”. Emmet does not have original thoughts; he only knows how to follow the rules. These rules include the instructions “If you see anything weird, report it immediately” and “Destroy everything weird”. Complete conformity is expected, and Emmet is happy to comply.

 From time to time, Emmet notices that there is something wrong with the society in which he lives. While watching TV, he hears a message from the President warning the citizenry to follow the rules or they will be “put to sleep”. For a moment, Emmet worries about the implication of those words. But when an ad for the popular sitcom “Where Are My Pants?” begins to air, Emmet exclaims “Hey, sitcom!” and loses his previous train of thought. While explaining the company Octan to the audience, Emmet eagerly states that this wonderful company produces everything: music, television, surveillance systems, history books, voting machines… He then trails off, noticing that there might be a serious problem in this system. A moment later, he shakes off the feeling and returns to comfortable complacency.

 When the villain was introduced within the first several minutes of the movie, I was deeply concerned that I was in for a very uncomfortable cinematic experience. His name is Lord Business. I was horrified that I might be about to watch a film that centered around the idea of businesspeople as evil. I realized that the movie was taking a very different path, indeed, when “8 Years Later” he was reintroduced as “Lord Business- or as you know him, President Business”. At no point in this film is the idea of legitimate moneymaking endeavours portrayed as mean or bad. What is wrong is the idea of using power to control others. President Business, through his company, Octan, creates and controls everything in the Lego world. He wants to keep everything exactly the same and perfectly within his control. To achieve this, he seals off the different worlds so that people from different Lego sets cannot communicate. In an even more drastic step, he employs Bad Cop to arrest all of the Master Builders. These are the creative minds of Lego World who develop the best new ideas and, in the words of President Business, “they’re always changing everything”. They are imprisoned in a dimly lit, spooky room called the “Think Tank”, where they are forced to divulge their ideas for President Business’s use.

 Even this is not enough control for President Business. He has stolen the Kragle (Krazy Glue) and plans on spraying it on everything, preserving all of Lego World in a state of unchangeable “perfection”. The only thing that can stop this all-powerful weapon is the “piece of resistance”, which is lost and must be found by a Master Builder. A prophecy states that this Master Builder, known as the Special “will be the greatest, most talented, most interesting, most important person of all times. And it’s true.  Because it rhymes.”

 Emmet’s mundane existence is turned upside down the moment he disobeys one of society’s rules: “Don’t touch strange pieces”. Although the strange piece he has discovered below his job site is definitely strange, Emmet feels compelled to touch it anyway. With this single action, he is jerked out of his mindless life and forced to face the reality of President Business’s oppression. His new colleague, Wyldstyle, is horrified that he is the man described in the prophecy. Emmet is boring and mundane, certainly not exciting like the Special is supposed to be. Although Emmet builds thing at his job as a construction worker, he cannot build anything without instructions. Wyldstyle laments that he will never be able to be a Master Builder. Vetruvius, the leader of the resistance movement, calmly remarks, “Of course he won’t. Not if you keep telling him he can’t”.

 Throughout the course of the movie, Emmet learns that he should not worry about what everyone else is doing or try to match his work to theirs. He should embrace what is special about himself and try new things, even if they turn out to be weird. Emmet brings a very different skill set to the group of innovators. He notes that they are often so focused on their own inventions that they overlook the benefits of working as a team in certain situations. Because he had previously been so completely consumed with following the rules, Emmet is very familiar with the system he is now trying to overthrow. He suggests that they work within the system to get close enough to change it, a very useful strategy that many people attempting to effect change can employ.

 After Emmet has gained both self confidence and the trust of his peers, a shocking truth is revealed: Vetruvius made up the prophecy. There is no Special. Rather than allowing this news to shatter his confidence, Emmet makes a powerful realization. The things he has achieved since believing himself to be the Special are very real, even if this title is not. He knows now that “the only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe they are”. President Business is stifling new ideas to retain control. To fight this assault on freedom, the Lego people must all act on the ideas in their heads and build new things. Everyone can be special because everyone has unique ideas.

 Perhaps one of the most impressive features of “The Lego Movie” is the fate of the villain. He is not run out of town or jailed or killed. Emmet simply reasons with him calmly. He explains to President Business that he doesn’t have to be the bad guy. Like everyone else, President Business is special because he has his own ideas. Emmet explains that new ideas do not negate old ones. “People are inspired by each other.” They take what others have made, alter or improve it, and make something new out of it. Finally, Emmet urges President Business to put the cap back on the Kragle and allow everyone the freedom to be creative. Swayed by Emmet’s reasoning and persuasiveness, President Business agrees.

 Since the release of “The Lego Movie” in February, the main song from the soundtrack, “Everything is Awesome” has received great acclaim. The tune is catchy, something that would fit in at a dance club. Many people think that the song’s real appeal is its lyrics. It is a song about teamwork, and having fun in life by working hand-in-hand with each other. Unfortunately, those who have not seen the movie are missing a very important piece of information about the song. It is satire. The song is the anthem of the society built by President Business, designed to energize people to do their work while encouraging complacency. Wyldstyle is appalled when Emmet tells her it is his favourite song, even though she finds the rhythm catchy. It is the theme song of all she despises, of complacency and obliviousness. And it is playing on our radios. Ladies and gentlemen- irony.

 This film is exactly the sort of inspirational entertainment that I would love to one day show my children. It encourages creativity and individualism within society, not conformity. Growth of a civilization can only occur if people have the opportunity to try new ideas. True, some of them will fail, but it is a risk that the creators of these new ideas are willing to take. A parallel storyline with a parallel plot runs alongside the societal lesson. This story is of a parent stifling the creativity of a child to keep things neat and orderly. Parents are reminded to give their children the opportunity to get messy, to change things up, to make something new, and to explore their minds fully. This important lesson is often lost amongst standardized testing and structured after school activities. It gives me hope when stories such as “The Lego Movie” and Harry Chapin’s song “Flowers Are Red” address this very real concern.

 In addition to the important lessons contained in the movie, it was an exciting adventure story with clever and amusing dialogue. On all levels, this move was a home run, and definitely worth seeing. (Even if you don’t have children to take!)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Religious Intolerance- A Dividing Force Within the Conservative Movement

Next weekend, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)  will be held just outside of Washington, DC. I had the great opportunity to attend this event last year, and it was truly a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, this year, I will not be able to attend, but I won’t be the only one. A group called the American Atheists had their invitation rescinded.

In the past, my favourite part of the event has been the auditorium where different organizations have representatives standing at tables. Conference attendees can walk around, gain helpful information on hot topics and activism strategies, receive lots of free stuff (I love my Tea Party lapel pin!), and network with people. Last year, simply by taking the time to explore the tables, I was talked into applying for the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer internship program. Later, I was accepted, and had an amazing experience in Irvine, California this summer. I also made lasting friendships and valuable business connections.

Since I had such a positive experience with CPAC I was very excited to see an article posted on Politico on Tuesday that announced that the group American Atheists would have a table at CPAC 2014. I, myself, am not an atheist, but my religious beliefs have no bearing on my political views. Conservatives are often labeled as fiercely Christian. While this is true for many, it does not represent the entire conservative demographic. I had hoped that the attendance of American Atheists would be a positive step in showing the rest of America that we are a diverse group.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Within 24 hours of the original article, Politico revised their post. CPAC had uninvited American Atheists.
At first, I was angry at CPAC. By turning away people of other faiths, Conservatives are doing themselves a great disservice. I then heard the reasoning behind the decision. After receiving the invitation, David Silverman, the president of American Atheists gave the following statement to CNN:

“I am not worried about making the Christian right angry. The Christian right should be angry that we are going in to enlighten conservatives. The Christian right should be threatened by us.”
Ladies and gentlemen, here is a perfect example of what not to do when working with people who hold opinions that differ from your own. This was a great opportunity to bridge the unnecessary and harmful gap between atheists and Christians who are working toward the same end goal of restoring Liberty in America. Threatening to try to convert your new allies is an incredibly bad move.

Although disappointed, I understand why CPAC uninvited American Atheists. Some people believe that even this action wasn’t enough. The president of Media Research Center, Brent Bozell, made the following statement:

“American Atheists is an organization devoted to the hatred of God. How on earth could CPAC, or the ACU and its board of directors, and Al Cardenas condone such an atrocity? ... No conservative should have anything to do with this conference. If you do, you are giving oxygen to an organization destroying the conservative movement.”

Yes folks, we have reached the two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right portion of the discussion. Not believing in a higher power does not mean hating God. Working with people who hold beliefs different from your own is not a betrayal of your beliefs.

CPAC is organized by the American Conservative Union. On their website, they have a page entitled “What We Believe”. It gives a great explanation of the beliefs of the conservative movement, closing with the following reassuring statement:

“The American Conservative Union will welcome all Americans who are prepared to fight for the realization and preservation of these principles through political action at the local, state and national level.”

The last time I checked, atheists were included in “all Americans”. I am therefore unsure why making an attempt to have an atheist group is “destroying the conservative movement”. It is also important to note that a lot of atheists already come to CPAC. Previously, I mentioned the wonderful conversation I had last year with a representative from the Ayn Rand Institute. CPAC is happy to have Rand’s philosophy represented at their event. Yet Rand is the poster-child for atheism. The Ayn Rand Lexicon lists several of her most powerful statements on religion.

This specific opportunity for cooperation between Christians and atheists did not work out. We must, however, continue these efforts. Divisions amongst ourselves will cause us to lose sight of our main focus- the fight for Liberty. For those of you who are attending CPAC, I encourage you to bridge these gaps on your own. Christians- go talk to the Ayn Rand Institute. They’re some of the best people I’ve ever met. Atheists- go talk to some of the more religious groups. Find common ground and think of ways you can use your differences to reach a wider audience.

And have a great time! Hope to see you all at CPAC 2015!