Rebirth of Reason


The Incredible Mystics Amongst Us
by Marcus Bachler

Ayn Rand described in her book For The New Intellectual two types of mysticism that were enemies of the Renaissance men of reason. They are the “mysticism of spirit” and the “mysticism of muscle”.  While these two forms of mysticism are mutually beneficial to one another “the mysticism of muscle” as practiced by the Medieval men of force is the more physically obvious of the two. However, time and again the mysticism of spirit present in popular culture has been endorsed and praised by Objectivists as being consistent with Objectivism.

This becomes especially obvious in the realm of movies. Movies, like people, always have an underlying philosophy. Lord Of The Rings, a movie in the recent past that celebrated the primacy of the “mysticism of the spirit” over that of reason, was heavily praised by both Libertarians and Objectivists alike. I wrote an article describing how SOLOists had confused the mystical conservative Christian values of this film with Objectivism (Free Rad, issue no. 60).

Now there has been another film released called “the Incredibles” that clearly favours “mysticism of the spirit” over reason and yet has been touted by SOLOists as celebrating “Objectivist morality”.

The film follows the story of Mr. Incredible, a superhero with “innate” superpowers, married to another superhero, with two gifted children. Their third child is only a baby in the film, but is revealed to have inherited its parents' powers by the end of the movie.

In the beginning, Mr. Incredible and his wife work on behalf of the Government against crime. However, there is a spate of lawsuits against superheroes for negligence.  And following a public outcry, the Government decides to prohibit the use of their superpowers in public.

Mr. Incredible becomes a “normal” person. But in his case without his “inherent” powers he becomes completely impotent. He works at a job for an insurance company he hates which is run by greedy “capitalists” who want only to exploit their own customers. He is sickened by the lack of selfless altruism he sees around him. He is constantly belittled by his wife and the rest of his family for being clumsy and unreliable.

When he is offered the chance to do some “unofficial” work as a superhero he jumps at the chance without even properly knowing what it is about. However, this is just a devious ploy to trap him by the evil genius “Syndrome”. Needless to say, Mr. Incredible together with his reunited family manages to thwart the villain’s plans and save the day.

“Incredibly” this film has been touted in a SOLOhq article by Adam Reed as being an “Objectivist morality tale”. Everyone that discussed the film afterwards seemed to agree and MH referred to it as being “Objectivist friendly”. Even David Kelley has written an article singing its praises.

This film illustrates the victory of the “mysticism of spirit” as embodied in the family of the “incredibles” over the use of man’s capacity to reason in character of “Syndrome”.

The super-heroes themselves have no special talents or abilities apart from those that they are born with. In line with this, the “incredibles” baby can master his powers in order to elude villains, even though he is not even old enough to talk. Near the end of the film Mr. Incredible tells his teenage daughter that her success is guaranteed because “it’s in [her] blood”.  He does not praise her at all for using her reason as a creative or innovative tool. The implication is that the talents of the “incredibles” are entirely “innate” and that there is no requirement for reason.

Contrast this with the “villain”. The villain of the piece “Syndrome” is initially a young boy that worships super-heroes abilities, but is not born with any “innate” powers himself. Syndrome therefore relies on his own mind through the facts of reality and reason to invent advanced technology that enables him to become like a super-hero. As Syndrome grows into a man he becomes an “incredibly” wealthy entrepreneur through his inventions, unlike Mr. Incredible who has become “spiritually” impotent without the use of his “inherent” powers. Syndrome’s so-called “evil” plan is to make every “normal” person into a super-hero through his technology, so that super-heroes with their “innate” powers will no longer be special. The implication of the film is that this is an “evil” idea. Syndrome’s use of force against Mr. Incredible is evil, however his goal of elevating mankind to the level of super-hero through technology is indeed rational. If this rationality is evil, then any creation by an inventor must be considered evil that enhances the abilities of “normal” human beings. To my mind this makes the film far from being an “Objectivist morality tale”, but in fact an inversion of “Objectivist morality”, a bowing down to the “mysticism of spirit” of innate “super-powers”.

To his credit, David Kelley recognises this huge flaw in the film too.

Syndrome says his goal in inventing the technology was to destroy the superheroes by enabling everyone to do what they do. "Everybody will be super, which means no one will be." In that one line, writer Brad Bird managed to equate murder and invention as acts of envy-driven hatred, and to elevate native physical abilities over the exercise of man's distinctive ability to think, create, and magnify his powers through technology. The latter is an especially bizarre statement for the wizards at Pixar to make. But it's only one line. Write it off as temporary insanity and enjoy the rest of the film.
However it is hard it might be for him to fathom why such an abhorrent message is in the film, why would David Kelley choose to simply “write this point off” as if it didn’t exist?

Adam Reed also indulges in several rationalizations in order to bolster his argument for the film being an “Objectivist morality tale”.

First, he has to pretend that “Objectivist morality” makes no distinction between concept of inherent mystical powers and the faculty of reason. He does this by redefining what inherent super-powers are.

These physical powers are a symbol of the extraordinary abilities that some people are born with - and that the rest of us can either benefit from, or envy and prohibit and waste.

His has quite elegantly substituted the idea of being born with inherent “power” with the idea of acquiring“ability”. However, the two concepts are not the same thing. Abilities cannot be acquired innately but are acquired through learning or training that relies upon man’s capacity to reason as its driving force.

Second, both David Kelley and Adam rationalize the value of this movie by the character of Edna Mode. David Kelley suggests that the character is “possibly” inspired by Ayn Rand.  Adam even goes as far as to assert that,

Fittingly, it is Ayn Rand, in the guise of Edna Mode, who teaches primacy of reality… Edna Mode's opposite, Syndrome, is, as befits the embodiment of evil, a total second-hander… Had he chosen the primacy of reality, he could have been the superheroes' armourer and, like Edna, one of their company in reality and in their esteem.

Edna is indeed a selfish and ambitious character, but she does not make any moral judgement on the plight of Mr. Incredible vs. Syndrome. It is true that she is also a creator like Syndrome, but we are never privy to what her moral standpoint is. Adam tells us that she is not a “second-hander” like Syndrome because she chooses to make the armour of superheroes. However, not only is there no evidence in the film that Edna chooses superheroes over villains, but we also have no clue as to her motivation for doing so.

Adam also claims that this children’s film is something “that Ayn Rand would have been proud of.”

I think Ayn Rand would have loathed the distortion of her own character and the perversion of the concept of reason in the face of “spiritual mysticism”. The sort of “spiritual mysticism” that believes that innate powers are inherited through “blood” shares a common ideological theme with racism, nationalism and fascism. This mysticism being contrasted only by the irrational use of force by the rational inventor Syndrome and the moral ambivalence of the designer Edna Mole.

Would Ayn Rand have been proud of this depiction of the victory of “spiritual mysticism” over man’s capacity for reason? I think not.
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