Imagine a better world

This is ultimately going to be a reflection on money. But to get there, we’re going to look at Propaganda’s Terraform, particularly the difference between empire and community, by way of Middle-earth. Trust me. It’s all going to fit together.

If you’ve read any of my entries up ‘til now, you probably know that I’m rarely reading one thing at a time. And I’m often reading a variety things that make me think new thoughts and engage with the world in different ways. And I almost always see connections between them.

So, in Terraform, Propaganda got me thinking about empire vs. community. One is the way this world typically works and the other is based on ideas of “institutional neighborliness.” No surprise here; they’re radically different.

Empire sees the world with eyes of personal gain. Instead of seeing diversity, it sees otherness and wants to squash it. Instead of seeing the land as sacred, it sees it as a resource to be bought, sold, and exploited. It doesn’t see people as sacred, it sees them as pieces that can either be used or that need to be removed.

Community has a totally different set of lenses.

It’s kind of like the difference between Saruman and Gandalf.

Saruman has, in Treebeard’s famous words, “A mind of metal and wheels.” He doesn’t care for growing things beyond how they can serve his purposes. He plunders the land to feed the fires of his industry and turns this good, good earth to his advantage. He hasn’t yet reached Morgoth or Sauron’s nihilistic desire to destroy simply for destruction’s sake, but he’s well on his way. He functions with the mentality of scarcity. The resources are limited so I better get mine. If I don’t, they’ll get it instead and that means less for me.

Gandalf, on the other hand, is so willing to see the beauty in the mundane that he spends the bulk of his time with hobbits! Not the elves of Rivendell or Lothlorien (though he’s not unheard of in those parts) or with the mighty in Rohan or Gondor. No. He frequents the Shire – a place many in Middle-earth had probably never heard of before Bilbo’s famous exploits. Even hobbits, the smallest and least of those born of the earth, are not beneath his notice because they are not without their own inherent dignity that demands respect. They are not pieces to be sacrificed in anyone’s chess game. Just as the trees of Fangorn are more than just potential fuel.

Gandalf sees this because he sees with the eyes of community. He sees that no one truly thrives and flourishes unless we all do. He sees that unless everyone works against Sauron, all will be lost. He sees that if Sauron regained the Ring, even Tom Bombadil (upon whom the Ring has no power) would fall. And rather than seeking his own safety or to enhance his own reputation and standing among the great and powerful in the world, he seeks the joys and pleasures of true friendship among the least and lowest. He doesn’t make value judgments about who is more or less worthy because he sees and knows that all are worthy.

And we all know how things work out for Saruman and Sauron, don’t we.

You see, money as we know it was birthed out of empire. I mean, whose face is on the cash? Whether Ceasar or Washington or Queen Elizabeth, the money bears the stamp of empire. That’s why, rather than creating common good and benefitting the many, it accumulates in the hands of the few. That’s why the ground that none of us made and none of us can live without is bought and sold and exploited. And that’s why people who are sacred, each and every one of us, are bought and sold and exploited. Because money was born of empire. It was birthed from a colonialist mindset of scarcity that cannot recognize the good in difference, only the opportunity to exploit that difference.

But let’s follow Prop’s example and imagine a better world. Let’s imagine the now that could have been and the tomorrow that still might be. Let’s tell a better story than the one we’ve been saddled with.

What if money was born of community instead of empire?

What if money, by its very nature, lifted people out of extreme poverty and worked for equity rather than exclusion? What if money couldn’t help but contribute to the flourishing of the neglected and marginalized? And what if money didn’t function from zero sum economics (i.e. what if the poorest of the poor got paid while the balance in my account stayed the same)?

Whose image would this money bear? Would we choose to use it, or would we opt for empire’s status quo instead?

If it’s in my power, I’ll choose community over empire every time. I’ll choose to flourish with you, rather than at your expense.

And you want to know something? Some folks are building this dream, this better tomorrow, as we speak. A small team of people is working to create something radical, something they’re calling Glo. It’s the “anti-poverty dollar” and it looks an awful lot like money born of community rather than empire. Check it out for yourself.

Stranger Things, Season 1

When a friend asked me to pitch Stranger Things a couple days ago, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “It’s awesome,” but since I hadn’t sat down to think about the why behind that sentiment beforehand, I couldn’t offer anything more compelling. I will try to be a little more articulate now…

So, Stranger Things season 1 is awesome (and the first episode and a half of season two have basically followed suit). It reminds me of several very different pieces of entertainment/art without being exactly like anything else I’ve ever seen.

First, it reminds me of Community at its best. My favorite Community episodes are heavy on the sci-fi and fantasy allusions (or are explicitly riffing off stories and movies I love). It also works at a metafictional level that ST pulls off to wonderful effect. For example, there’s a moment when Will’s mom (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) suggests they go see a scary movie together, so long as it won’t give him nightmares. He says he doesn’t get scared like that anymore, and she asks him, “Not even of clowns?” Now, this seems like an explicit reference to Stephen King’s It, which only makes sense at a metafictional level because the first season of ST is set in 1983-4 and It wasn’t published until 1986. To take it a step further, ST’s Mike Wheeler is played by Finn Wolfhard who also plays a starring role in . . . you guessed it, the 2017 remake of It.

Speaking of It, one of the things the 2017 movie did exceptionally well was reinterpret King’s classic and transpose the kids’ scenes from the late 50’s to the late 80’s. The portrait of the 80’s offered in the film reminds me of ST’s delightful and nostalgic setting. The film’s focus on a group of outcast kids who love, support, encourage, fight with, and are willing to sacrifice for each other also hearkens back to King’s narrative, emphasizing the hardships of growing up and its simple pleasures.

This same focus on outcast kids who have taken on a dangerous task to save what they love also points back to the 1985 classic, The Goonies. The echoes seem to be intentional, with ST’s Barb bearing a more than passing resemblance to Stef and Sean Astin (who played Mikey) entering the ST cast for season 2.

The final film ST reminds me of is a little indie-film from 2009 called Ink. It’s not the plot or the setting that is reminiscent, it’s the upside-down. The visuals and cinematography in the upside-down, with their bluish tint, heavy darkness, and eerie contrasts are familiar and more than a little disturbing.

If all that wasn’t enough to make me love this show, this next point does the trick all on its own.

One of the unifying plot elements throughout season one (and it doesn’t let up in season 2) is the frame of Dungeons and Dragons that helps the kids make sense of what is going on around them. The first episode begins with their D&D game, the last episode ends with one – heck, one of the episode titles from season 2 references the Mind Flayer of AD&D fame! All this takes me back to the early 90’s when I encountered D&D and the related novels (without which I certainly would not have done a PhD!), which included the Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 and 85 (I might just do a little happy dance if season 2 refers to the first in this series). Had these kids been around at my schools growing up, there’s a good chance we would have hung out.

I could go on, but I won’t. If any of these film references grab your interest or if you remember D&D with fondness, then I wager you’ll love this show – in much the same way that those who grew up playing arcade games are likely to love Wreck-It Ralph. It is nostalgic, intriguing, and full of sci-fi goodness apart from the features I mentioned above, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.