I will argue: I) There is a moral argument embedded in the movie Armageddon; II) This argument is also in Kanye West’s music; III) This morality is present throughout America; IV) This is new; V) The Mainstream Morality is pretty f****** weird.
I. Armageddon is an Important Movie
Armageddon is commonly criticized. People say its story, about blue-collar oil drillers nuking an asteroid to save the world, is simple commercialized jingoism, littered with scientific inaccuracy, according to Roger Ebert, “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, [and] common sense.1”
And yet, Armageddon was the most popular film in 1998.2 Director Michael Bay’s loud flashbang style of filmmaking has become the Hollywood norm. Writer JJ Abrahms went on to do LOST and remake Star Trek and Star Wars. Writer Tony Gilroy took up the Bourne Identity series. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer continued his blockbuster success in Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure, on TV with CSI and the Amazing Race. Armageddon is a prototype of what Hollywood has become — export driven3 and market tested.
But moreover, Armageddon is important because it near perfectly reflects today’s popular values. In its marketing through to the last frame, Armageddon explicitly and consistently sells a moral message built around personal love, individual honor and universalism.
For Love. In Armageddon, love is the most important.
- Although they’re comically unprepared, NASA lets our heroes go home instead of training more. Why? Because love is the most important, even more important than living itself.
- Liv Tyler disobeys her father and instead virtuously honors love.
- In that very special scene with the animal crackers, Liv Tyler says to her true love Ben Affleck, “Baby, do you think it’s possible that anyone else in the world is doing this very same thing at this very same moment?” He replies, “I hope so. Otherwise what the hell are we trying to save?”
- At the movie’s climax, Bruce Willis sacrifices himself for his daughter. As he dies, we see a flashback & flashfoward of his daughter’s life. His life’s success is his personal love for his daughter.
- The film ends on Liv Tyler and Ben Affeck kissing. The credit sequence is their wedding.
Indeed, for Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Will Paton and William Fichtner their primary and arguably only motivation is romantic and paternal love. That is extraordinary. The world is about to be destroyed, they can save it, but what matters singularly is love.
Note too, its definition of family is expansive: Liv Tyler is motherless and Will Patton is separated from his wife and son. Family is how you define it.
For Honor. In Armageddon, everything is personal. Personal choices outweigh fate, and goodness is weighed in honoring personal relationships.
Some stories are tragedies, where the hero will try and try but because of fate or God or fundamental forces the hero will fail. In contrast, our heroes in Armageddon have tremendous agency. Incredibly, they openly discuss not saving the world — TWICE. In this universe, an individual’s freedom is absolute. The question is whether you choose to honor those you truly love.
For example, when the government tries to remote detonate the nuke, Billy Bob Thorton says, “This is one order you shouldn’t follow and you fu*king know it!” 4 Bruce Willis agrees saying, “Why are you listening to someone a hundred thousand miles away? We’re here!” (incipient localism!!) William Fichtner replies, “You swear on you daughter’s life and my family’s that you can make that depth?”5 Bruce Willis then promises, and they save the world.
Also, note how wrong the government was. In every conflict between an individual and an institution/society, the individual is always right.
Let’s watch the ending. Look for the American flag. Listen for honor.
- The American flag literally wraps Will Patton’s kid. The flag — nation — exists to protect family.
- To Liv Tyler, Will Fincher says, “Miss Stamper, Colonel Willy Sharp United States Air Force Ma’am, requesting permission to shake the hand of the daughter of the bravest man I’ve ever met (music swells)”
- Earlier, Billy Bob Thorton told Willis he had always wanted to be an astronaut. Ben Affleck hands Thorton Willis’ mission patch, thus honoring both men — i.e. it’s all personal honor!
For all Mankind. The individual is sovereign and supreme, and yet it’s clear that truth is certain and morality is universal. It’s a paradox. Individualist universalism.
The movie montages across humanity, magical realist Americana to the Taj Mahal and folks praying. It invokes God AND technology. But crucially it’s religion without doctrine and science without uncertainty. The experts and elites, the priests and scientists: they don’t matter. Universally, YOU choosing virtue — Jesus / Islam / whatever / #onelove — is what matters.
The scene with POTUS is probably my favorite:
In the 124 seconds, you hear of science and God, progress and the arrow of history:
- “A species has the technology”
- “the Bible calls this day Armageddon”
- “every step up the ladder of science”
- “brave souls traveling into the heaven.”
Equality is emphasized, “I address you tonight not as the President of the United States, not as the leader of a country, but as a citizen of humanity.” (Though in a FOX News era no actual POTUS could say that…)
And yet, individual choice is supreme, “Through all of our times, there is one thing that has nourished our souls, and elevated our species above its origins, and that is our courage.”
Lastly, there’s salvation (love) with that zero-corn line, “That man is not a salesman. That’s your daddy.” Will Paton choose love, and he is born again, from nobody to hero.
II. Kanye West is 100% Vanilla
Kanye believes in true love. “I was in love with her before I even got to talk to her,” he says. “I finally was … the man I always knew you could be. I became like a protector, a dad, a husband, I finally could stand up for something.”6 For him too, love is the most important. “Love. Well, if someone has got all the money in the world, they’d still want love.”7
Ye frames himself as a fearless Artist fighting an evil system of endemic corruption. Explicitly, Kanye honors his mother, his wife, and his man Jay Z (and Jay Z’s wife ☺). He lionizes not movements nor history but Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. As in Armageddon, for Kanye personal courage overcomes. To quote, “Too many people are scared. But it is my job to go up every night and talk about this kind of shit. It is actually my job. I’m like a broadcaster for futurism, for dreamers, for people who believe in themselves. We’ve been taught since day one to stop believing in our own dreams. We’ve had the confidence beaten out of us since day one.”
And yet, according to Kanye, everyone is equal. “This idea of being better than the next man, it’s the wrong mentality in the first place.”
“But you confuse me when you say stuff like that. You do act like you’re better than people!” says Charlamagne Tha God in the interview.
“I was completely hypocritical,” Kanye replies. Then a minute later, about the Grammies, he says, “I think I deserve more!”
So. To rephrase, “Trying to be better than anyone is wrong, and I am the best.” !!!!
In Power, Ye raps “The system broken, the school’s closed, the prison’s open.” And, he has a solution. In that interview he says, “I believe that I’ma be the head of the first trillion dollar company. And 100% when I get to that point… My plan is to be coming one by one, Big Daddy Kane, here come his crib, everybody’s crib.”8 For Kanye, society’s #1 solution is Kanye. In Hip-Hop Reparations, politics are personal.
“I’m a married Christian man with a family,” he says. “We formed a new religion / No sins as long as there’s permission,” he raps. Embrace ideology and ignore its doctrines. Progress universally is YOU (everyone) choosing YOUR love.
In this same interview, Kanye is asked about Eric Garner. He dodges the question and then personally live-on-the-air begs Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, for a job. It’s not surprising, because Kanye West and Disney are absolutely alike. Kanye even says, “Frozen. That’s like a second nanny.” Frozen, 2013’s #1 movie with $1,300,000,000 in theatrical receipts, where the kingdom is saved by — guess what — courageously loving your sister. Put plainly, Kanye is just like a Disney Princess. Believe in yourself, believe in love, dress up in pretty clothes.
III. The Mainstream Morality
This ethic is in our politics, in our stories, our music, in how we perceive truth.
“No right, no wrong, no rules for me I’m free!”
Let It Go
Turn on On TED Talks. The epiphany of a genius saves. At TED 2006, in a video now watched more than 23 million times,9 Tony Robins argued in all seriousness that Al Gore woulda won if only he had believed more in himself. Because yes, the problem in American politics is that politicians just don’t think enough about themselves.
Watch the State of the Union. We hail John Everyman of Anywhere USA, who was saved/ruined by the XYZ Act. Our politics are personal, instead of policy or party platform we titter on politicians’ personal narratives, their triumphs and gaffes. Bill Clinton’s personal failure to love true was more important than policies that affect hundreds of millions.
Religion has moved from denominations to Billy Graham and the spiritual/non-religious individual. As just written in Vox, New York Magazine, and shared widely through Facebook, universities placate personal sensitives by censoring speech. From the rise of Pentecostalism through to identity politics the common thread is to declare organized society bankrupt.
Just look at Jerry Bruckheimer’s filmmography:
Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy, a cop, must break the law to do what is right.
Gone in 60 Seconds: For his brother’s life, Nick Cage becomes a thief and steals cars quickly.
Pirates of the Caribbean: For love, Orlando Bloom forgoes his life and becomes a pirate.
Crimson Tide: For daughter + wife, Denzel Washington starts a mutiny aboard a US Navy nuclear submarine.
National Treasure: Nick Cage goes on the lam, steals the Declaration of Independence, finds love, and honors his family history.
Enemy of the State: To save himself and his family, Will Smith stands against … the state.
Alone, the individual is hero, bravely fighting for (and saved by) love.
IV. However! The Narrative Norm has Shifted
Below are the 15 most popular films ever, by American box office, adjusted for inflation. Crucially, 1950s films played to an America with half the population. In other words, everyone saw the Ten Commandments.
|1||Gone with the Wind||$1,676,970,400||1939|
|3||The Sound of Music||$1,182,047,600||1965|
|4||E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial||$1,177,391,000||1982|
|6||The Ten Commandments||$1,087,300,000||1956|
|10||Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs||$904,700,000||1937|
|12||The Empire Strikes Back||$814,899,300||1980|
|15||Return of the Jedi||$780,693,100||1983|
I’ve arbitrarily divided the films in half, using 1975 as the dividing line. Two films recent films, ET and Avatar, are of the Mainstream Morality. In ET, our hero uses love and family to overcome the evil government. In Avatar, love inspires moral courage in two individuals to overcome an evil corporation. Titanic almost fits — romantic love breaks through societal norms (but fails to save Leo).
Star Wars is close, a bridge maybe. Ultimately Princess Lea and Yoda’s want to re-establish the institutions of the Republic. Han Solo eventually realizes the Rebellion’s cause is great. Love cannot quite save Darth Vader.
The pre-1975 films, except the Sound of Music, are of a different moral paradigm. In Gone with the Wind, the top film ever, the protagonist chooses love and it ruins her. Three films, The Ten Commandments, The Exorcist and Ben-Hur, are stories of submission to God’s awesome and absolute power. Doctor Zhivago is an epic romance where the arrow of history overpowers the individual and obliterates love.
You also the moral shift in how Peter Jackson updated the Lord of the Rings. In Tolkein, the Fellowship fails to save the Shire. Although the One Ring is destroyed, victory is not absolute, for creation is intrinsically fallen. Despite this, in Tolkein the characters are dutiful throughout, steered by a greater destiny. In Jackson, the Elf-lords, especially Aragon, and even Gandolf have doubts — the dramatic question is whether they will have the moral courage to choose right. In Tolkein, the One Ring is destroyed accidentally when Gollum slips; in Jackson Frodo chooses to fight Gollum and they fall together.
It’s difficult to objectively measure moral values. There are counter examples. For example Mad Men puts a harsh lens to self-actualization and true love as life’s purpose. But Mad Men is an exception watched by a small elite. The Sound of Music and Disney were harbingers of what was to come, and in stories of epochs past are yet more dramatically different.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the most popular 19th century American novel, tells foremost the evils of slavery. In Shakespeare and Tolstoy, tragedy was common, fate powerful, and romance directly led to tragedy (Romeo and Juliet). Our folk tales are famously divorced from their predecessors. Sleeping Beauty was based on Sun, Moon, and Talia which had the explicit moral, “Lucky people, so ’tis said, Are blessed by Fortune whilst in bed.” Our oldest stories, from Genesis to the Odyssey speak clearly to the dangers of love, seduction and personal aggrandizement.
Our moral paradigm has shifted. Here’s another anecdote:
V. Thomas Jefferson Loved Slavery More Than Love
That statement is designed to provoke. But it’s true. Thomas Jefferson had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. She died as a slave, in legal bondage. Jefferson had the power to free her, but he didn’t because he thought his lover’s freedom was less important than the dignity of the Presidency. Maybe if Jefferson could defend himself, he’d say something like, “Baby / Nation, that didn’t mean nothing. It was just sex.” But, it was a relationship that spanned decades to which Jefferson fathered four children,10 children who Jefferson largely ignored, because he thought nation was more important than romantic or paternal love.
George Washington also put nation above love. There’s historical consensus Washington’s marriage was more friendly alliance than passionate romance. Washington had women he was romantically interested in, but probably he never acted on his desires.11 Why? Nation above passion. Likewise, his wife Martha was at best ambivalent about George Washington’s Presidency, but George went anyways. Duty called and duty was more important.12
Can you name a contemporary character whose mission is to establish a central government? Plus, where the character is without children and without romance? I can but they’re always the villain. George Washington actively ignored his heart, he was without children, and his life’s work was building a central government and extending its power.
In the past, Americans ignored the most basic personal rights (see Jefferson & slavery) and to correct that wrong we choose to idealize and elevate the person. But in doing so, we forgot that people are strongest when they work together.
The Founding Fathers believed in duty & society, they built up law and institutions like the University of Virginia and the United States of America. George Washington was great not because he led but because after eight years he stepped aside and willingly followed.
VI. Stories are Important
Humans use stories to explain. When we moralize mavericks as exemplary and institutions as bankrupt bureaucracies, we construct a paradigm where Congress will be dysfunctional and real change impossible. In 1970 we faced a century of increasing pollution and therefore . cancer, and human suffering created the Environmental Protection Agency and changed a to now after four decades have a 72% air pollutant reduction.
At the climax of LEGO: The Movie, a story for children, our protagonist is beyond hope, but then he is saved: He is told to believe. He isn’t told to believe in community or science or nation. Nor is he told to believe in hard work or education. No. He is told simply to believe in himself.
“You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe. And YOU are capable of amazing things because YOU are the special. And so am I. And so is everyone.”
Everyone is equally, impossibly, absurdly the most special. Just believe!
“Right now it’s about you. And you [pause] Still [pause] Can change everything.”
The happy ending — it’s coming! Doesn’t matter if you’re from East Harlem where the average resident got 2.9 police summonses annually.14 Or if you’re a professional, legally certified to make bank. Just [pause] believe [pause] in YOU. And you WILL save the world.
You don’t have to vote. Don’t have uncomfortable conversations. Don’t compromise or organize, join a political party or be party to anything, be an environmentalist, a privacy activist, education advocate or anything. Fall in love always, with yourself and whatever feels right to YOU. You’re an innocent lover in virginal white, merely a stormtropper to a suicidal ethic that threatens to flood our cities and destroy half of all species by the end of the 21st century.
(According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and as written in Nature)