Monday, February 28, 2011

The Roman Legion: Fact, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction in History, The Eagle, Fallout: New Vegas, Long Blog Post Titles

I should probably get to bed but I've wanted to write something about our (very) old friends the Roman Legion. I wasn't a student of classic history and, outside of taking a bit of Latin, I never had a huge amount of direct exposure to the subject.  Most of my knowledge about "the" Roman Empire came through studying their (violent) contact with the rest of the world.  For example, Roman Britain.  The revolt of the Iceni under Boudica, the concurrent attack on Mona, and the (unrelated) disappearance of the 9th Legion from York were my favorite episodes.


When I heard that the new film The Eagle was being made, I was excited.  The disappearance of the 9th Legion aka Legio IX Hispana is a cool subject.  I saw the movie and thought it was... okay.  I think one of the problems is that the Roman Legion isn't portrayed as being particularly great for the Britons and the Britons are portrayed as being ... well, not anything.  They don't seem to have much character outside of really disliking Romans and having some cool Scottish Deerhounds.  Considering the gravitas (yeah I went there) given to retrieving the eagle, the importance of Rome isn't built up that much outside of the main character regularly suggesting, "The eagle... is everything... that is... Rome!" with varying tones of profundity.

When they manage to bring the eagle back, it's a moment of triumph, but who cares?  There's never a time where you can go, "Yeah, I guess this aspect of Roman Britain is really cool and the Britons sure are dumb/bad, so this is a Good Thing(tm)."  Not that I'm advocating such a Braveheart-y portrayal, but if you're going to end on a high note, you have to build to it.

Alternately, Roman Britain could have been portrayed as being a mixed bag of things that were occasionally good for the Britons but almost always oppressively terrible, with the Britons being portrayed as an oppressed people who also regularly did horrible things to each other in spite of having a common enemy.  Because that's pretty much what Roman Britain was: Roman legions stomping on local faces and building some roads while Britons occasionally caused the Romans some grief when they weren't busy killing and/or selling each other out.  The hero could have reached this same conclusion, retrieved the eagle, and decided that the only important thing it symbolized was the character of his father during his final moments.  There would be no triumphant, celebratory return of the eagle to Roman politicians, just a son coming to terms with the legacy of his father and his own place in the world.  That's how I would have ended it, mostly because I think that the world and most of our societies have been differing dark shades of awful, so I find it hard to celebrate any of them.

On a related note, a lot of folks have asked me about the Legion in Fallout: New Vegas and why they aren't more fully fleshed out.  The real answer is "time", and I would have liked to have more locations, characters, and quests for the Legion.  Even so, the Legion was always intended to be a faction that was initially presented as terrible, much like the NCR is initially presented as heroic, with revelations over the course of the story causing you to question that initial impression in a larger context.  Caesar shows a very warped plan for how the Legion can bring order to the Mojave, and there are suggestions that regions under Legion control do enjoy a sort of "Pax Romana", but there isn't enough concrete evidence for the player to directly witness to really sell it.  Even so, under the most ideal of portrayals, it was never my intention for the Legion to become a heroic faction.  Their methods and approach would have always been unflinchingly brutal, with proven results and a clear plan to reproduce that success being the only potentially redeeming qualities of the group.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Complaining About Politically Active, Intellectual Lazy People

I am fed up with the laziness Americans, in general, show toward political awareness and criticism in this information age.  By this, I do not mean that I am fed up with political apathy, nor do I mean that I am fed up with low voter turn-out.  I also don't mean to hold up other republics as shining examples in comparison to us, but we project ourselves as a beacon of what a constitutional republic should be; it would be nice to live up to that standard.  Much of what of what I'm writing is similar in tone to general critiques of political discourse in recent years.  I don't feel like I have a particularly brilliant insight into our political landscape, but I felt the need to write about it because it greatly troubles me.

Specifically, I am filled with intense disappointment for an American voting society that has such incredible and unprecedented access to a wide spectrum of information but chooses to squander it -- a society that dehumanizes and demonizes political opponents that are more visible and exposed than ever, simplifies complex discourse to snide partisan jokes, and overlooks sober political debate in favor of media cheerleading.

Despite all of the incredible communication and education resources available to us, as a society we generally remain politically hostile, obstinately partisan, short-sighted, lazy, bull-headed, and willfully ignorant.

In 1993, I turned eighteen and became eligible to vote.  Since then, in less than twenty years, here are some of the things that I, and many other internet-active Americans, can now do that were not possible (or at least practical for many people) then:

* Look at the full text, often with ongoing edits, of bills submitted to state and federal legislative bodies.
* Read the non-partisan analyses of bills by government officials, such as a legislative analyst.
* Look up how any representative has voted on any given bill ever.
* Look up the historical context of almost anything in our own past or the past of any civilization ever recorded.

In addition to those enormously valuable things, we also have the ability to do things like:

* Stream major legislative sessions from C-SPAN or look them up later on a variety of video sites.
* Read myriad sides and aspects of political debates in literally hundreds of venues that are friendly, hostile, or mixed relative to our own views.
* Watch, read, listen to, and respond to to the broader opinions and concerns of political figures, professional journalists, bloggers, private citizens, and all sorts of people from different backgrounds all over the world.
* Have our internet browsers automatically translate foreign websites into languages we can read, giving us access to primary documents, news articles, conversations, etc. -- basically everything we see above, but for the entire world.

Most people who are politically active on the internet do not do these things.  I feel comfortable writing this because the evidence, though based on casual observation, is impressive in its consistency.  People do not look at, much less read, the full text of bills.  They wouldn't even be able to tell you where to find the text of bills, nor do they seem to care.  The blogs that cover events of political significance rarely even bother to give the names of the very important bills being discussed, and almost never the numbers by which they can be properly identified.  I will stop short of speculating on the reasons for these omissions, but I will say that it is lazy, unhelpful to serious political analysis, and intellectually indefensible.

In general, politically active people do not read non-partisan analyses of a bill; they read partisan analyses of those non-partisan analyses.  They don't look up voting records themselves; they listen to the cherry-picked, context-free slams from polemicists.  Voters don't learn historical facts, absorb different analyses, and formulate their own opinions; they listen to other people spin historical narratives that wrap up selective facts into a story that fits their predispositions.  We don't seriously read the "other side" of a debate to understand perspectives; we skim selective quotations that cast our most disagreeable political opponents in the harshest light.

Despite having enormous resources of information available to us, every day our society largely spurns the opportunity to learn more about how our world has worked, how it has failed, and what people are trying to do about it today.  So much more is immediately available to us, both passively and actively, than ever has been before.  A lot of it is irrelevant, confusing, and infuriating.  Too bad.  It requires our effort to sort through.  Whatever your education, whatever your background, whatever your occupation, the world is constantly changing, and we all must continuously engage the rest of the world to make any serious critical analysis of how we should move forward.  If we float along on a sea of second-hand information and opinions put out by partisans and media outlets, we're politically active while being politically brain dead.

We become politically active to accomplish things.  If a goal is well-reasoned and a course is sound, all the critical analysis, slams, and distractions in the world can't detract from that.  I work with a literacy program that promotes literacy in part because it is believed to be an essential part of participating in a democratic society.  There are millions of people in this country who strive and struggle every day to read, write, listen, and speak with the people around them -- simply to do basic things.  If you're reading this right now, you have the ability to access and analyze -- and contribute to -- a staggering, unprecedented amount of information that can inform your participation in our government and in political culture.  I'm not saying it's easy.  I'm not saying it doesn't take time.  But compared to the entire history of the world, it has never been easier than it is right now.