Monday, April 29, 2013

"Infinite" Issues: A Response to a Thematic Analysis

Allow me to first say that this is not a normal occurrence for me: responding to video game reviews is not something that strikes me as normally productive or all that worthwhile, but in this instance I feel that something had to be said.
A little bit of background: yesterday I was browsing Facebook when I came across a friend's message to a mutual friend regarding a review of the recently-released video game Bioshock Infinite. (The analysis can be found here: I found the review oft times fascinating but also aggravating, particularly in regards to the reading into the political themes of the game. Now for the caveats: 1) I have only ever watched the game played-I haven't played it myself but I watched over half the game and have read into the themes of it; 2) THERE ARE SPOILERS here.

My overarching problem with the analysis is that of the straw-man caricatures of "conservative" America as seemingly portrayed by the villain Comstock and the very existence of the city of Columbia (the setting of the game-a flying city created for the Chicago World's Fair to show the might of the new American Empire). The analysis shows that the reviewer, who I do not know personally, is easily misled by the propaganda of the modern media and the Left that caricatures the Right as, in his words, "Their religion is a cult of personality based around worshiping modern political leaders and in deifying the founding fathers as infallible. It borrows aesthetics from Christianity while ignoring the messages of tolerance and kindness found in the New Testament in return for Old Testament morality and the apocalyptic imagery of Revelations. They glorify war, xenophobia, isolationism, and American exceptionalism. They accept economic inequality as just, even explicitly deserved. They've even seceded from the actual political entity of the United States because of their “more American than thou” attitude."

This entire diatribe strikes me as unfair, exceedingly biased, and furthermore completely detached from the lessons of history. My response is that he has the entire thing ass-backwards (or perhaps back-asswards?): the game is not an indictment of conservatism per-se, but rather a poignant and vividly-detailed example of what happens when a civilized society is poisoned by ideology.

Conservatism, as explained by Russell Kirk, is "the negation of ideology." Contrary to what the reviewer would have many believe about us conservatives, we are not, at heart, glorifiers of war, xenophobia, isolationism or American exceptionalism. The only thing of that list that might even have half a grain of truth is the charge of exceptionalist sentiment: but is that not a characteristic of all nations and peoples: the feeling that your nation, your culture, your community is in someway special from all others? After looking at the history of America, it is hard not to think that maybe there is something about America that separates it from all other nations in history. Kirk chronicles the rise of America as the accumulation of human wisdom and experience from Jerusalem and Athens through Rome, the Germanic nations, the British Empire, and the colonial experience leading to what he calls the "Philadelphia experiment." We are the latest inheritors of a long line of wisdom and experience from the very beginning of human history, including all the great achievements and horrific mistakes. Conservatives (or, I should say, true conservatives) look upon these accumulated honors and curses as a benediction, not as a messianic crusade or charge, and far from trying to create a mythic American Utopia, we seek to rehabilitate the older, established, intrinsically-human institutions, traditions, and customs for what we know is a different time. Edmund Burke, that great conservative statesman of England, acknowledged that change is a law of nature and is the "means of our preservation." But he cautioned against radical change, the kind that demolishes all that stands in its way of creating a new world.

It is this that Infinite seeks to show and warn us of: the destruction of the old world that we knew (in a sense the devil we knew) and in its place the creation of a new, unpredictable world (the devil we don't know). It is a direct reflection of the sentiments that captivated the American psyche at the turn of the Twentieth Century, that of Progressive Nationalism. Columbia itself is a wonder of science, industry, and human achievement-ergo, Progress. It also shows the might of the American Empire, young, budding, and backed by industrial might that characterized the Progressive vision of the new America. This is neither restricted to the United States (this is the age of Nationalism and the idolization of Progress) nor is it in any way "conservative." In much the same vein as Rapture, Columbia is a testament to man's folly, the difference being that where Rapture showed the consequences of making man unto a god using "objective" reason and science, Columbia and Infinite show the dark side of the cult of personality, the attachment of utopian ideology with pagan mysticism, as well as, with the Vox Populi, the common threat of ideological populism best exemplified by socialism of the Marxist variety.

Now, people may wonder why conservatism of late has commonly assumed the incarnation of what the author described above. The answer is that they are NOT true conservatives. They are neo-conservatives, who are neither new nor conservative. One conservative thinker labeled neocons as "liberals mugged by reality," and are the modern reincarnation of the progressives of yesteryear, with the false god Progress replaced by the idol-worship of "Freedom." As for the so-called idolatry of political thinkers, let's be honest: we conservatives hold Ronald Reagan in high esteem because he embodied many things that true conservatives support. However, it would be foolish to accuse us of "worship": we recognize that no man is inherently a saint, nor do we think that all men are without blemish, a problem that the Left has that few want or deign to acknowledge. No man, no matter how great he may be, escapes Final Judgment before God. If one desires a true version of cult-worship of personality, one only need to hearken back to 2008 and the Cult of Obama. We do not think that the Founding Fathers were infallible, nor were they gods among men. They were men, imbued with what Kirk calls the "unbought grace of life" and were instructed and kept at heart the wisdom of those who came before, made great by their faith in a higher calling and their adherence to the moral principles and ethical lessons learned long before, with the uniquely American experience adding zest to already noble lives. But even a noble life is often one made so by experience, not all of which is happy and oft times stern. Experience, particularly that which is aided and consoled by example is, as Burke noted, the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.

Apart from the political contentions, I largely agree with the author's notes on the religious themes present, with one major exception. The author likes to stress baptism and the need to acknowledge past sins as part of the process that America needs to go through to cleanse herself of her past. My objection is that of Leopold von Ranke: "History is not a criminal court." What is done is done, and though we deal with the consequences of those that came before, we also have the lessons gleaned from them. It is neither our place nor our duty to castigate our ancestors from over a hundred years ago, only to learn from their accomplishments and mistakes and use them to continue to breathe life into the immortal institutions and traditions, the "permanent things," so that they may be alive for future generations to enjoy. The part of the process that the author forgets is that one is not simply baptized and everything is "fine." The process of redemption is one that takes years, and one must not relapse. The problem with the infinite universes in Infinite is the possibility of relapse lest we forget the lessons of the past. With human nature a constant, it is not unrealistic to think that perhaps a majority of the multiverse planes follow the pattern of human nature: without the guiding light, and the constant attention to the path one treads, even after taking the narrow path at the fork of life, one may fall off into Despond.

In conclusion, I think the lesson of all the Bioshock games is the one that humanity needs to take itself less seriously. God did not create us to be serious and pessimistic: He created us to be happy, and to be joyful stewards of His Creation. As G.K. Chesterton noted, "The angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." And it is with that quote that I lay aside my proverbial pen.

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