Thursday, November 02, 2006

"The Matrix" As Political Allegory

The Matrix Trilogy

Often, you'll see The Matrix compared to Judaic history, or technocrats-v-Luddites.

I have a more down-to-earth comparison: conservatives versus liberals.

I came across this stunning insight after reading the book featured as this month's Recommended Reading in the sidebar,

Talking Right
Talking Right

Geoffrey Nunberg raises a point that George Lakoff presented in his book, Don't Think Of An Elephant: the deep psychology that separates liberals and conservatives. Quoting Lakoff:

In 1994, I dutifully read the "Contract With America" and found myself unable to comprehend how conservative views formed a coherent set of political positions. What, I asked myself, did opposition to abortion have to do with the flat tax? What did the flat tax have to do with opposition to environmental regulations? What did the defense of gun ownership have to do with tort reform? What did tort reform have to do with opposition to affirmative action?...The answer is that there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways[...]

I worked backwards. I took the various positions on the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, "Let's put them thru the [family] metaphor from the opposite direction and see what comes out." I put in the two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.
Nunberg goes on to extrapolate Lakoff's work to suggest that the "strict father model" infers that children are inherently bad and must be molded into good citizens, where the nurturant model implicity stresses empathy and responsibility.

Politically this plays out as "you must comply with paternal authority and the rules, or there will be painful consequences" (a patriarchy, as it were), as opposed to "government should protect people by providing safety nets, regulations, education, equal treatment under the law, and economic policies that benefit all people" (a level playing field, if you will).

You may remember this bit from the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded:
Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix. You are the eventuality of an anomaly, which despite my sincerest efforts I have been unable to eliminate from what is otherwise a harmony of mathematical precision. While it remains a burden assiduously avoided, it is not unexpected, and thus not beyond a measure of control. Which has led you, inexorably, here. [...]

The function of the One is now to return to the source, allowing a temporary dissemination of the code you carry, reinserting the prime program. After which you will be required to select from the matrix 23 individuals, 16 female, 7 male, to rebuild Zion. Failure to comply with this process will result in a cataclysmic system crash killing everyone connected to the matrix, which coupled with the extermination of Zion will ultimately result in the extinction of the entire human race.
And indeed, the Architect goes on to identify himself as the father of the Matrix.

And the Oracle as the mother:
Neo: I suppose the most obvious question is, how can I trust you?

The Oracle: Bingo. It is a pickle. No doubt about it. The bad news is there's no way if you can really know whether I'm here to help you or not, so it's really up to you. You just have to make up you on damned mind to either accept what I'm going to tell you, or reject it.
Interesting, isn't it, how free will is the dominant theme of both of those interactions. And look at how the characters present it: one, authoritarianly tries to frighten Neo into doing as he is told, for the good of all mankind, trust him, he knows best. The other, asks Neo not to trust her, but to trust himself.

Which brings us to the ultimate discussion of human existence on the planet: the balance between individual will and the collective good, most brilliantly illustrated in The Tragedy Of The Commons. Imagine, for a moment, you live in an agrarian society that relies on cattle (Listening, Dubya?) for its livelihood. The only grazing land is public, communal, land (think of the parks in the West in America). Each rancher will want his herd to thrive, but will want the communal resource to continue. In other words....
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Regulation, of course, is the key that stops this: saying that each rancher should only have so many cattle is one alternative. Another is to tax each rancher so that as their herd increases, they are forced to pay more in order to ensure the survival of the commons.

Sound familiar? The illusion of responsibility is placed on limiting the cattle and imposing strict penalties for breaking that limit, but in truth, unless it's enforced, there will always be cheating. One could, for example, claim that you are rotating the heads that graze so that you're at the limit at any one time. But in truth, the responsibilty inherent in the funded mandate scenario is clearly designed to impose responsibility on the individual rancher.

We see this in real-life in sports now: baseball, for example, imposes a luxury tax on teams whose payroll exceeds a certain ceiling (currently, only the New York Yankees pay this tax), thus ensuring that owners in weaker markets don't lose money.

In hockey, however, we see the opposite approach: a salary cap. Teams can only spend X dollars on salaries, and must operate beneath that cap in order to make player decisions: sign this free agent and lose two other good players, that sort of thing.

On the face of it, these are not wholly distinguishable from one another: both have the effect of limiting salaries paid to those whose performance generates the revenue in the first place, and to be honest, I'd rather see the money go into A-Rod's pocket than into George Steinbrenner's.

And who's to say which is more successful? I point them out only to indicate that there are two approaches to society: outside imposition of strict paternal discipline, or allowing responsibility to take root with the incentive of a "bonus" (so to speak) if you don't exceed your grasp.

So what to make of this insight? I'm not sure, and I need to think hard on this, but my suspicion is there's an answer in there as to how we can wrest the progressive agenda back on track, which ultimately we know must occur. The only question is, how much blood will be shed?

I think Lakoff's distillation might be a bit simplistic, but there's an awful lot of energy there. For example, I've seen where liberals suddenly turn to "daddies" (I've even been on the receiving end of this judgemental crap), and I know conservatives who can be as nurturing and empathetic as any bleeding-heart I know. And yet, everywhere you look, when a conservative spouts an argument, it's always full of "let's teach him a lesson he'll never forget," and you see liberals argue for a thoughtful deconstruction of the causes of...well, whatever...followed by a sympathetic discipline designed to re-incorporate the offender into the flock.

But The Matrix has a final lesson up its sleeve: it's neither the authoritarian demands, nor the nurturing coaxing that ultimately saves Neo from his choice. In fact, his choice leads to his self-destruction for the greater good of all concerned.

An individual decision to give up his ability to choose, thus freeing him at the same time.