Change the Election System

The 2016 South Carolina Republican primary highlights two very large issues I have with our election system.

First past the post voting is “just about the worst possible system.”

Take a look at this Stanford News article on ranked choice voting.

“One advantage of the system we use in our national elections, the ‘first past the post’ method, is that it is easy to understand. Everyone votes for one candidate and the one with the most votes wins. But ease of understanding is about the only thing in its favor, and all the experts agree it is just about the worst possible system.” Keith Devlin, Stanford mathematician

Trump won the whole state with less than 1 in 3 people voting for him. It is plausible that, given the choice between Trump (32.5%) and *either* Rubio (22.5%) or Cruz (22.3%), that Trump would not have risen above 40% of the vote, and likely not above 50%. The other three candidates (Bush, Kasich, Carson) collectively had 22.6% of the vote. Overall, Trump was not the first choice of over 2/3 of voters.

Now, some might say that we should assume that votes would be distributed evenly among the remaining candidates, so a first past the post system still reflects the will of the voters. I disagree. Given that there are more similarities between Rubio and Cruz than between Trump and anyone else, it is plausible to assume that many (if not most) supporters of Rubio or Cruz would have shifted their support to Cruz or Rubio (respectively) had their preferred choice been eliminated.

The biggest issue is that we don’t know. We simply don’t know which way the supporters of all of the losing candidates would have gone if they had another option to express their preference. We could very well have a candidate that is the first choice of 33% of voters, but the last choice of over 50% of voters.

With our current system, voters are often faced with the Faustian bargain of abandoning who they truly support in the hopes that their “more electable” second, or even third choice, will garner enough votes to beat their last choice.

An ideal system would elect the person who has the most support from all of the people. This can be achieved through the multiple round voting systems often seen in conventions. However, that system is not practical for broad elections. The closest we come is in a runoff election, which is still costly, time consuming, and not ideal.

Instead, we have a “plurality” or “first past the post” system where the candidate who is (we assume) the first choice of the most people is the one elected, even if that person is the last choice of the majority.

This conundrum could be solved by giving voters more flexibility in elections, such as a preferential, or ranked choice, voting option. There are three primary objections to this type of system. None of them are insurmountable.

Technology Hurdles
Processing ranked choice voting would be time-consuming and tedious if done by hand. Fortunately, we live in the 21st century. Even though we still don’t have flying cars, we do have the technology to process and tabulate a ranked choice voting system quickly and reliably. This problem is a simple one, and the technology already exists to solve it.

Voter Education
“It’s too confusing” is another way of saying that voters are smart enough to pick a good candidate, but too dumb to understand that they can also select a second and/or third choice in case their preferred candidate doesn’t come out on top. Hopefully this argument will die the quick death it deserves.

“One Person, One Vote”
One persistent argument is that preferential voting gives someone “more than one vote.” The logic is that, if a person’s first choice is eliminated, they get to “vote again” for a second choice. Whereas, if a person’s first choice is still in the running, they still only have their first vote for their original candidate.

I suppose you could look at it that way if you compare it directly to a first past the post system. However, we don’t seem to have that complaint in a multiple round voting system. With multiple rounds, everyone votes every round, and someone can keep voting for the same candidate over and over again until that person either wins or is eliminated.

Since a preferential voting system is more akin to multiple round voting than first past the post, if the idea of “one person, one vote” sticks in your craw, think of it as everyone getting to vote in every round. It’s just that, if your first choice is still in the race, your vote goes to that person every round, just like it would in a multiple round voting.

Winner Take All Is For Losers

My second issue is the “winner take all” approach to delegate assignment. Less than 1 in 3 voters chose Donald Trump, but his first past the post victory means that he “gets the support” of the entire state worth of 50 delegates. If he received delegates according to his actual support, as shown by votes, then he should only receive 17 delegates (rounded up).

Look, I understand why states do this. Candidates give them more attention because the stakes are higher. It means more publicity and (theoretically) more revenue to the state, and more clout to its political leaders.

But, really, what are elections for, if not to determine the will of the people?

A winner take all approach does not reflect the will of the people by throwing 100% of the support behind someone who received less than 100% of the vote. It skews the results and messes up the entire system nationwide.

Now, I know that not every state does winner take all. But some do. For a long and convoluted explanation of the whole process, see this Washington Post article: Everything you need to know about delegate math in the presidential primary.

Change the System

So, what would it take to change the system?

Your support.

Understand the pros and cons of the various systems (it’s really not that complicated.) Talk with people about other options. Raise awareness about what we can do, and start conversations about making some changes. Express support for a change to your leaders who write the rules.

The election system really belongs to us as citizens. If enough of us decide it’s time to update our system to a better way, we can make it happen. It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but it needs to happen.

And, who knows? It might even help solve this polarization problem that seems to get worse every election cycle.

“So voting is not like physics or engineering, where we have to do what the math tells us. Rather, it is one of those cases where we can make the math work for us – to use it to achieve our own ends as a society. The voters will make the selection, but the math we choose can shape the kind of government we get. Do we want politics to be about partisanship and fighting, where half the electorate will always end up as losers and we just keep seesawing between the two, or do we encourage cooperation and compromise, where no one gets everything but everyone gets something?” Devlin asked.

 

Devlin said that ranked choice voting… almost certainly encourages coalition building and reduces negative campaigning. “The question is, do you think that is a good thing? I have my opinion, but there I am being a citizen, not a mathematician.”

Call it a bonus.

On Donald Trump’s Proposal to Ban Muslims from Entering the United States

We don’t need to sacrifice our principles to save them.
We are stronger than that.

I’ve studiously avoided wading into the 2016 Presidential election circus.  I really haven’t had anything to say.

Then Donald Trump proposed a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

Then a sizable number of people supported that idea.

Now I have something to say.

Aside from the fact that “our country’s representatives” have little chance of “figuring out what’s going on” with anything before the next never, I’d like to share my thoughts on what that proposal means.

First and foremost, if you support this proposal, I believe that you do not believe in the founding documents, or the founding principles and ideals, of the United States.  You may think you do, but I believe that you do not.  I’ll explain.

The Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

All men.  In modern parlance: All human beings.

Not just those who happen to live within certain political boundaries.

This is a foundational and fundamental idea.  It seems to me that you either believe in this idea or you do not.  If you do, then nothing trumps it.  If you do not, then there are exceptions.  There are rationalizations of how and when it can be set aside.

I’m not talking about a measured suspension or revocation of rights after due process.  I’m talking about a preemptive infringement of the rights of many because of the actions of a few.  I’m talking about making broad assumptions about an entire group because of an admittedly dangerous subset of that group.

The Constitution and The Bill of Rights

Yes, there were some compromises made in the Constitutional Convention.  The issue of slavery was one that was hotly debated, then festered for a century, and was finally settled with blood.  I believe the document was inspired, but is not perfect.  For example, George Mason wisely had concerns that the Constitution did not adequately limit the reach of the federal government over individual liberty and state sovereignty.

Several of our unalienable rights were outlined and specifically protected in the Bill of Rights.  First among these is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

That is a fundamental principle.  It is a core tenet of what it means to be a “free people.”

We can debate whether the Constitution itself applies just to Americans, or to all people residing within our borders.  What I’m talking about here, though, is the underlying principle of unalienable rights.

Either you believe that the free exercise of religion is an unalienable right, or you do not.

The Founding Fathers believed that it is.

ISIS believes it is not.

Liberty vs. Safety

You may have quoted Benjamin Franklin when he says “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Guess what?  You are now standing on the other side of that quote.  Except, it’s not your liberty you’re willing to sacrifice.  It’s someone else’s.  Someone you are making assumptions about.  You are willing to set aside the fundamental, unalienable right of every human being because of the actions of a few.

You’re frustrated.  You’re angry.  You’re maybe even a little scared.  I understand all of that.

But this is the United States of America.

We are not that fragile.

We can handle it.

Wholly Impractical

As I thought through the implications of Trump’s statement, I also thought about the numbers.  You know, the number of people on Earth, how many of them are Muslim, how many people in the U.S., how many of them are Muslim.  Then I started writing about what a drop in the bucket these, admittedly horrendous, attacks have been, and what percentage of Muslims that really represents.  My hope was to give a sense of scale, and maybe shed some light on flawed surveys with questionable statistical relevance from biased sources.

But then I realized that diving deep into all of that would detract from my core point.

So, I’ll simply jump to the end of where I was going with this.

Think about how ludicrous it would be to try to implement a policy like a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the United States.  How would you do it, other than to simply ask the question: “Are you a Muslim?”

Guess what?  The folks you really want to keep out of the country would have no problem lying in answer to that question.  So, what good would it do?  None.

We want good folks to come to the United States, regardless of their religion.  Why set up a system that intentionally excludes the honest ones, and lets the bad ones in?

The answer, as cooler heads are now saying, is to vet everyone.  That’s what we should be doing anyway.

“But, Lynn,” you say.  “Wouldn’t that make it easier to vet them if we had the ban?  Then we’d have fewer applications to sift through.”

Except, with the ban in place, you still couldn’t let the good ones in because, you know, they’re banned.

So, what is the point, other than making us look wholly impractical?

I support a thorough vetting process of everyone who enters the country.  I can even support different levels of background checks based on a variety of risk factors.  Are you part of a statistically verified segment that displays a higher propensity for risk?  Sure, we’ll look at you a little more closely.  Insurance companies do it all the time.

That is not the same as a blanket ban on all Muslims, which is what Donald Trump proposes.

It’s a Matter of Principle

If you initially thought Donald Trump’s idea was a good one, it’s not too late to change your mind.

Hopefully you don’t feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner and can’t change course without losing face.

It’s okay to say “on further reflection, I’ve decided I don’t like that idea as much as I thought I did.”

I’d go so far as to say that you don’t have to totally abandon Donald Trump if you still have your flag firmly planted in his camp.  (I don’t, but then I’ve been staying out of the fray as much as possible.)

But, hopefully, you’re starting to see how his proposal for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” runs counter to one of the fundamental founding principles that makes this nation a beacon to the world.

We do need to make sure that we vet people who enter the country.  We also need to sort out the best way to deal with this latest brand of people who want to impose their beliefs by force.  But Donald Trump’s idea is not the way.

We don’t need to sacrifice our principles to save them.

We are stronger than that.

Rejoicing in Our Gifts

The following is the talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting on Sunday, 19 July 2015.


I am Lynn Taylor. There have been a lot of new families that have moved in after Donna and I arrived, so I’ll give a little introduction. We have four boys. Devon finishes his mission in Japan this November. Joshua leaves for his mission to Little Rock, Arkansas in September. Kai is starting 10th grade, and Ari is starting 6th grade. Ari is very excited to have Sister Tonioli as his teacher this year.

Donna grew up in North Carolina. I was born in the Mormon Colonies in Mexico, but grew up in Arizona, where I graduated from high school, then went to college at a small engineering school that you have never heard of in Prescott, AZ. That is where I met Donna, who was my calculus tutor. She got me through calculus, so I figured I’d better hang on to her. That was a good idea on my part because she has gotten me through a lot of other things since then.

After college, I went into the Air Force as a pilot, flying the A-10 Warthog. I also spent time as a classroom instructor, teaching the Army and the Air Force how to play nice together, which was both challenging and rewarding. I have always loved teaching, and that assignment has always held a special place in my heart.

We got out of the Air Force about 10 years ago and moved to Hooper about five years ago, where I now work as the chief deputy for the County Clerk/Auditor. I have seen a few of you when you come in to get a passport or a marriage license. Donna starts grad school in physics at the U this fall.

We have been a lot of places, and seen and done a lot of things. I was not good at math, but I was a really good pilot, and a great teacher. What I am most proud of, though, is that I am a great husband and a great father. I know that I am because I try really hard, and my family tells me a do I great job. What’s more… and this is what you really need to pay attention to… I know that I am a great husband and a great father, and I have permission to enjoy that fact.

I became keenly aware of this when I heard someone speak at an event early last year. This gentleman introduced himself, and included the statement that he was a great husband and a great father. While he had a lot of wonderful things to say, what struck me most was right there in his introduction. I realized that, not only was he a great husband and a great father, he knew it. He owned it. And he enjoyed it. He had given himself permission to have joy in those talents of being a great husband and father.

And in doing so, he also gave everyone else in the room permission to do the same thing. I took that message to heart, and ever since then have had joy in knowing and accepting that I, too, am a great husband and a great father.

Now, if you’re applying these words to your own life, and the words “but not perfect” flitted through your mind, you just fell into the trap. Kick those words right out of your mind. We are not talking about being perfect. That is a talk for the next life. We’re talking about the here and now, and yes, we all know, none of us are perfect. Why do we always feel the need to bring that up? So forget it. We’re talking about being great, not perfect.

You have gifts and talents from your Heavenly Father, yes? We know from the scriptures that everyone has gifts.

From D&C Section 46

8 …seek ye earnestly the best gifts…

 

9 For verily I say unto you, they are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments,…

 

11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.

 

12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.

In Primary last week we talked about all of the different gifts there are. Many gifts are listed in D&C 46. Of course, that is not an exhaustive list. There are so many wonderful gifts out there. Everyone has been given gifts, and you can ask for and develop other gifts and talents that you desire. There is the gift to be a good listener. The gift to play the piano. The gift to be a good friend. The gift to be a great husband, a great father, a great wife, a great mother, a great son, or a great daughter.

How many times do we deny ourselves the joy from these gifts that can be ours because we don’t want to be too proud? At least, that is what we tell ourselves it is. We tell ourselves that to be too happy about our talents would be prideful. So we temper that joy, we focus on the ways that we aren’t “perfect.” We receive a compliment and think to ourselves “yeah, but…” then follow with an internal dialogue of our failings. Or worse, we tell the person who just gave us the compliment.

We often become so obsessed with humility that it becomes its own kind of fault. But is it possible to have both? Can we both rejoice in the gifts that we have been given, and at the same time not be overcome with pride? Once we receive these gifts, what spirit or attitude should we have towards them?

From D&C 88:33

33 For what doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold, he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift.

To truly receive a gift, then, we should rejoice in the gift that is given to us, and rejoice in the giver as well. Note that it is possible to do both: rejoice in the giver, and rejoice in the gift.

Perhaps the ability to balance those two is, in itself a gift. If it is, it is definitely one to seek after.
I am reminded of a discussion between Ammon and his brother Aaron. Ammon was reflecting on the miraculous success they had among the Lamanites. The next time you read through Alma 26, notice how many times Ammon uses the words “us” and “we,” when talking about everything they accomplished. He does give credit and glory to God, but he also acknowledges their own efforts in the process. I’ll start in verse 9, and point out just a couple of words he uses that made Aaron think that Ammon was “carried away unto boasting.”

In Alma 26, starting in verse 9, Ammon says:

9 For if we had not come up out of the land of Zarahemla, these our dearly beloved brethren…, would still have been racked with hatred against us, yea, and they would also have been strangers to God.

 

10 And it came to pass that when Ammon had said these words, his brother Aaron rebuked him, saying: Ammon, I fear that thy joy doth carry thee away unto boasting.

 

11 But Ammon said unto him: I do not boast in my own strength, nor in my own wisdom; but behold, my joy is full, yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.

 

12 Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.

 

36 Now if this is boasting, even so will I boast; for this is my life and my light, my joy and my salvation, and my redemption from everlasting wo.

So how do we strike that balance? How can we be like Ammon, who had the clarity to rejoice in the talents that he and his brothers received to bring about miracles? I testify that this clarity is a gift that can be obtained by seeking after it.

If you do not experience a full measure of joy in your gifts, then you are stuck in counterfeit humility that robs you of the joy and rejoicing that comes from using those gifts. If that describes you, then I encourage you to seek the gift of understanding so that you can rejoice in the talents you have been blessed with and have worked to develop.

Asking for such a gift is both our right and our responsibility. President George Q. Cannon said:

“How many of you … are seeking for these gifts that God has promised to bestow? … If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. Have I imperfections? I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections.”

If you’re still stuck with Aaron, and are terrified that you will be overcome with pride, then I ask you to go read two General Conference talks. The first is President Benson’s April 1989 General Conference talk on pride. If you read it carefully, you will see that he does use the word “pride” to describe what he is warning about, but the word he used to define his core message was “enmity,” which is a very specific definition of pride. He says that:

The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition…

 

The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects…, works…, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”

So, pride, in the way President Benson talked about it, comes from self-elevation. It comes from viewing our gifts as a competition. However, this is not the only way to view our gifts. It is possible to put aside the culture of comparison and rejoice in each gift for its own sake.

President Uchtdorf referenced President Benson’s talk in one of his messages from the October 2010 conference. He says:

“I also remember one interesting side effect of President Benson’s influential talk. For a while it almost became taboo among Church members to say that they were “proud” of their children or their country or that they took “pride” in their work. The very word pride seemed to become an outcast in our vocabulary.”

 

In the scriptures we find plenty of examples of good and righteous people who rejoice in righteousness and at the same time glory in the goodness of God. Our Heavenly Father Himself introduced His Beloved Son with the words “in whom I am well pleased.”

 

Alma gloried in the thought that he might “be an instrument in the hands of God.” The Apostle Paul gloried in the faithfulness of members of the Church. The great missionary Ammon gloried in the success he and his brothers had experienced as missionaries.

 

I believe there is a difference between being proud of certain things and being prideful. I am proud of many things. I am proud of my wife. I am proud of our children and grandchildren.”

So, if you are worried that you cannot take pride in your gifts, or your talents, or a job well done, I will borrow from another brilliant talk by President Uchtdorf: “Stop It!”

If you need practice rejoicing in your own gifts, I recommend two things, and I’ll close with these. First, rejoice in the gifts of other people, and do so without comparison or envy. I rejoice in Brother Tonioli’s and Sister Cullison’s gifts for playing the piano that I get to enjoy every week, but I don’t envy them their gifts. I know that, if I really wanted that gift, I could seek after it. I may not develop it to their level, but I could still rejoice in whatever level I achieved. That isn’t a gift I seek after, though. I also rejoice in Brother Boyson’s gift for grilling the most delicious burgers on the planet. I am able to enjoy that gift without thinking myself any less because my talents are different.

So, as you practice rejoicing in the gifts of others, the second thing I recommend is to practice rejoicing in your own gifts. If you need to do that in a nonthreatening environment, please feel free to practice on Donna and me. We love to hear people rejoicing in their gifts. I know it might feel weird the first few times, but please don’t hesitate to practice on us. Come and tell us what you’re good at, what you love doing, and what gifts you have been given. As you do that, not only will you be able to experience more joy in your own gifts, you will be giving others permission to have joy in their gifts as well.

As we are reminded in 2 Nephi 2:25, “men are that they might have joy.” I know that our Father in Heaven showers gifts on us, and wants us to have joy in them as we use them to bless lives. That we may learn to more perfectly live in that joy is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Another Angle on “Age of Ultron”: A Response to Sady Doyle

This is a response to Sady Doyle’s well-written article titled Age of Robots: How Marvel Is Killing the Popcorn Movie. As much as I’d love to have this conversation over shawarma, with all of the back-and-forth “getting to know and understand each other better” that an actual discussion allows, I’ll have to settle for a solitary rumination in front of a computer screen.

Starting with common ground: Yes, there were a lot of characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron (A:AoU). Yes, that hampered the opportunity for deep character development across the board. Yes, there were tropes. Yes, the “Marvel plot template” is starting to look a bit predictable, and worn. Yes, this wasn’t a stand-alone movie with fully self-contained story arcs that showcased the majesty of character development that resonates with each of us on a visceral level.

But, really… is that what you were looking for?

A Nexus Film
Sure, it may have been nice for A:AoU to be a self-contained stand-alone film. Or maybe not. With the multitude of franchise threads floating around out there, it makes sense to me that something had to serve as the nexus for them all. Much like a switching station for freight trains, or a central hub for major airlines, from A:AoU, you can get to just about anywhere else. It’s a connector, not a final destination.

A:AoU is only one piece of a larger tapestry that relies on all of the other pieces to make it meaningful, relevant, and to give it greater depth. In that respect, it it a fairly daring piece that is part of an effort to draw a truly epic tableau laid out more like a spiderweb than a single thread.

Still, I found a fair amount of character development and depth in the film (relatively speaking, of course). But that may just be because I’ve had a different life experience.

Time = Character Development?
More of a side note here. While your point is well made that, given the large cast, there isn’t a lot of time for deep character development, I want to point out that a lot of depth can be created in a very short span. You’ve likely seen the meme labeled “Pixar created a better love story in eight minutes than Twilight did in four books.”

That’s all I have to say about that.
At least until we get down to Hawkeye and Black Widow towards the end.

Tony Stark: Narcissism & Karma
From the article:

One arc that’s pitched, and then never executed, is that Tony Stark is coming face to face with his own narcissism. Ultron is his karma, his shadow self, his punishment for believing he’s smart enough to save the world single-handedly. That’s interesting. That’s a solid character-based story. It does what good stories do: Zones in on a character’s biggest flaw, and dramatizes it, so that he can come to a profound realization about himself and his place in the world, and triumph by using what he’s learned.

True. If you want yet another predictable “this is the way story always goes” sort of story arc. You do realize that’s what you’re asking for here, right? Tony gets caught up in his own superiority, it bites him, he learns from it, and becomes a changed man. That’s what we expect would happen. Which means that would be predictable. It would fit our own personal narrative of how the world should be.

But that isn’t what happens. No, there is an entirely different narrative here, and since it isn’t the way we think it should be, it’s wrong. But I believe there is another powerful lesson that can be applied on a personal level just as much as the whole Hulk/Loki scene you brilliantly interpreted.

In this case, Tony thinks he has a solution, but most of the rest of the team won’t understand, so he talks Bruce Banner into helping him, but they both keep it a secret. Note that Tony wasn’t working alone on this. He needed Bruce to help.

Yes, it all goes horribly wrong. Guess what… sometimes we try something and it doesn’t work. Does that mean the whole idea was wrong and we should just give up? Or do we learn from the mistake, make some changes, and try again? Here’s the kicker: Tony was right. Yes, his first attempt was a disastrous failure. Sure, if he had never even tried, the whole premise of the movie would never have happened, saving all kinds of trouble. But what if he had quit after Ultron? What if Vision had never come about? Could they have defeated Ultron without Vision? Doubtful. (Of course, if the script writer says so, then it is so, but let’s not go there.)

Just about everyone on the team doubted Tony Stark. They didn’t trust him, but he pressed on because he was convinced he was right. He also wasn’t alone. He talked another brilliant mind into helping him. (A mind Tony recognizes as superior to his own in many respects.) So, Tony had some small validation for his idea. It was a team effort.

No, Tony Stark’s story arc is not stereotypical. It’s not an “I screwed up, learned from it, and won’t try that crazy idea again.” It’s quite different, yet still relevant. It’s more of an “I screwed up, learned from it, and will do it right next time.” Even though most of the people closest to him still didn’t believe in him. Even though he needed help from an unexpected source to make it work. (Thank you, Thor.)

Bruce Banner: Self-loathing into Embracing who you are
From the article:

There is a release that goes beyond the rational or the personal, here: The noise of hundreds of strangers united for just one second in the realization that deep down, despite all the pain, despite all the shit they put themselves through, despite the endless cruelty that inner critical voice subjects them to, they don’t have to let it keep talking. Deep down, they are not ugly or stupid or unlovable or bad or worthless. Deep down, they are strong. They are heroes.

I would love to quote the whole section, because it is a brilliant insight, and exceptionally well written. This excerpt is just to point out the thread I’m talking about here, though. This is partly to recognize your powerful interpretation of the scene, and also to strike a contrast in understanding when we get to the “sexism and Natasha” part farther down.

I should mention that I didn’t really distill all of that meaning out of the scene when I saw it, and I want to thank you for helping me see it. Maybe it just wasn’t something I personally identified with on that level. Not that I’ve never faced that issue in my life, but rather that it’s not something I personally deal with in such a way that the scene sang to me in the same way.

There were several elements of A:AoU that did, though.

Clint Barton: The man with the ultimate choice
From the article:

The extent to which a movie invests in character-based, character-driven storytelling is the extent to which it recognizes, appreciates, and honors the humanity of its audience.

I was never really much of a Captain America fan growing up, and had scarcely heard of Hawkeye. I was more of an X-Men guy, and Wolverine was my favorite. However, I find myself strongly identifying with Steve Rogers as portrayed in the movies. I won’t bore you with all of the psychoanalysis of that here. Hawkeye was “just another guy on the team” to me until A:AoU. In this latest installment, I felt a connection. I don’t expect everyone to get it, but since the segment of the population that it will resonate with is often misunderstood anyway, I will try to explain.

Clint is the quintessential military person (rather than “man,” as this is a situation that does not discriminate these days). He has a loving, supportive family that is the most important thing in the world to him. His home life is wonderful. But he has special skills and training that allow him to make a real difference in the world. Those skills, coupled with a sense of responsibility to use them, means that he has to make a choice. And, he has to make that choice over and over again. Every time he answers the call, he knows he might not come home.

He is not the only person who has to make that choice, either. His wife, his full and equal partner in their relationship, also has a choice to either support him or to tell him that he’s done enough. That she no longer wants them to share the burden that she might suddenly be left alone to raise their children. That she might lose her best friend and be left to pick up the pieces. It is a very real possibility that her whole world could fall apart in an instant because of some bad situation that happens when her husband is out saving the world.

But they are united in their understanding, their shared responsibility, and their willingness to sacrifice in service to others. In that respect, the Bartons are the quintessential military family.

It all comes to a head when Clint loads what should be the last of the civilians onto the barge. He turns and scans the city wreckage, looking for any lost souls, searching for anyone who still needs him, even if it is only one person among so many already saved. And there… yes… there is one. A child. The child of the woman he just rescued. He can’t leave the one. It really doesn’t matter who it is, Clint couldn’t leave them to die. He has to try.

So he runs out into the open in a desperate attempt to save that child. Not his child, but he knows the worth of that one soul. More than anyone else on the team, he understands. He has to be the one to do this for it to have any meaning. If it had been anyone else on the team, it would have been cute. With Clint, it’s visceral.

He reaches the child, wraps him in his arms, turns to take him to safety, and realizes that, this time, he won’t make it. He has said goodbye to his family for the last time. The best he can hope for is to shelter this child in his arms, hugging his family goodbye by proxy, and hope that this child, and his own family, survives his own death. He closes his eyes and waits for the end.

That is the reality of every single member of the military, law enforcement, fire department, and countless other public servants who kiss their loved ones goodbye every morning, knowing that it could be for the last time. It is a reality that thousands willingly take on so that millions will not have to. It is a commitment shared by the whole family, over and over again. For many years, I was Clint Barton. That was my life.

Of course, he doesn’t actually make the ultimate sacrifice this time. Someone else steps in and does it for him. Someone else, who Clint barely knows, but who finally realizes that they both do, in fact, share the same values of service and self-sacrifice. He gives his own life so that Clint can live. Clint, his wife Laura, and their kids avoid having their semi-idyllic world destroyed due to the selfless sacrifice of someone who is barely more than a stranger. Someone who has no one but his sister to carry on his own memory.

So, when Clint and Laura honor that sacrifice by naming their own son after this man, and then I read:

This… is especially egregious because the baby’s mother never met the dead guy — and, if she ever knew that the dead guy existed, which is highly debatable, she knew him as “that guy who’s trying to murder my husband.” She names her baby after someone she never met, on the premise that her husband once slightly got along with him for about two hours. Stirring!

I figure that our different life experiences have given us a different perspective on the matter. What, to you, is sarcastically “Stirring!” is, to me, deeply moving and profoundly personal. I get it. I can easily believe that Laura Barton would feel the same way.

As a side note, it seems highly likely to me that Laura heard the whole story on Pietro Maximoff. It was clearly established that she knew all about the whole Avengers team before they showed up on her doorstep. I suspect that Clint doesn’t keep many, if any, secrets from Laura.

To me, Clint Barton’s whole story arc was one of the largest and most profound in the movie. It almost made up for the fact that an arc for him was practically nonexistent in the first Avengers movie, where he spent most of his screen time as a mindless automaton of Loki.

Anyway… on to Natasha.

Natasha Romanoff: More depth than you think, but not the kind you want
From the article:

If you want to deepen your female character past being a sexual object, in a movie that has no time or patience for anything resembling “depth,” what conflicts do you give her? Well, women have babies, right? Women want babies. Okay. She can’t have babies. She’s sad because she can’t have babies. There you go! Depth established!

I mean, it’s disgusting. Defining your female character’s motivation solely around the Betty Crocker axis of “wants boyfriend” and “wants babies” is 100% disgusting.

Okay, this bit right here is really the reason I felt compelled to write anything at all. I was tempted to reply with something like “the presumption that a desire to have a loving relationship and be a mother is worthy of scorn is 100% disgusting.” Except, I don’t really find it disgusting. Frustrating, yes. Exasperating, yes. Sad, even.

Let’s get this out in the open. I have some biases. Who doesn’t? I mean, really. I like to think that I’m in favor of equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, gender, and the list goes on. Most of the time, I think I do pretty well. I’m sure I have some blind spots. However, one of the big gripes I have about “mainstream feminism” is that it really isn’t all about liberating women to be who they want to be. It’s about portraying women who live in a homogenous world where career is the highest achievement.

If a woman says she would rather eschew a career, and wants to be a “Betty Crocker” wife and mom, well, that’s bad. That’s disgusting. No, to be a heroine, she can’t want that. Loving someone, and having that person love you back in a committed relationship? That’s so 1950s. That’s so oppressive to women. No, a woman can’t want that. That’s so sexist.

Well, guess what… if that’s the narrative, then feminism is just as oppressive as what it rails against. If it really is about choices, options, and freedom to pursue what the heart really desires, then having a lasting relationship and being a mother should be just as valid as any of the rest of the options. It should not be disgusting. Ever.

There are two really big elements here that I want to touch on. One of them, I think, supports a core argument of feminism, which I agree with. The second one addresses the assertion that the portrayal of Bruce and, especially, Natasha lacked depth and ended up being vapid.

Feminism, Sexism, and Careers
I believe there is a sincere and profound feminist-friendly message in A:AoU, but it apparently wasn’t obvious enough.

Natasha is a “career woman.” She was brought up by her society, ever since she was a child, with the expectation that she would have a job, and that would pretty much be her whole life. Society said “this is our expectation for you. This is what you will be.” She was never given the choice to have a family. In fact, that choice was quite literally taken from her. Because of her career, she will never have a family. At least, not the way that her best friend Clint Barton does.

Clint, on the other hand, gets to have it all. He gets the cool job, and he gets the fulfilling family life. He is in a loving relationship with a supportive spouse and wonderful kids who are happy when he comes home. And, get this: his boss totally supports it. Nick Fury gave the okay for Clint to live a double life. No one else on the team knew about this arrangement. No one except “Aunt Natasha.”

Natasha is part of Clint’s life, and has been for a long time. They’re best friends from way back. She gets to “kind of” share in the family environment. She sees Clint’s joy in his family. She sees the love that Clint and Laura share.

Why can’t she have it all, too? Why can’t she have both a career and a family?

Well, she had to sacrifice it all for her career. Because by sacrificing it all, she’s “committed.” It makes things “easier.”

But we barely bat an eye when we find out about the “safe house.” It registers as little more than a “huh” by almost every other member of the team (and audience) who don’t really want that sort of thing, anyway. Except, of course, Steve Rogers. He would have liked to have that for himself, but he has to face the fact that that train probably left the station a long time ago, and there might not be another train coming. So, there was that sidebar, but let’s get back to Natasha and how it matters to us.

Why can’t Natasha have everything that Clint does?

This unanswered question, I believe, is what lies at the heart of feminism in its purest form. I think it’s both very deep and very relevant.

Natasha & Bruce: Still a better love story than Twilight
So, we’ve discussed the fact that Clint has it all, and Natasha doesn’t. But she recognizes that she wants what Clint has, and she tries to figure out a way to get it. Or, at least, as close as she can come to it this late in life, where she has already sacrificed so much, and some dreams will never be.

So, she looks around to see what her options are. You can run through that list of options on your own as a fun little exercise. In her world, the pickings are pretty slim. She decides that she likes Bruce. She understands Bruce. He has his demons, his parts of himself he is ashamed and afraid of. (Despite the time when he embraced who he is in the first Avengers. But then, that’s never a “one and done” event with any of us, is it?)

What’s more, Natasha can help Bruce. She has a way with him that helps to calm his rage. She brings out the best in him. Bruce needs her. We all need to feel needed. Bruce, without even realizing it, fulfills Natasha’s deep need to be useful in a way that doesn’t involve killing. He provides an opportunity for her to feel like more than a monster that uses sex as a tool and solves problems by killing them.

With Bruce, Natasha’s caring and nurturing side is what solves the problem and makes things better. With Bruce, she gets to be human. She likes that side of herself, and wants a reason to use it more. You can see in her face how much she loves to be around Clint’s family, especially his children. When she’s at the “safe house,” she doesn’t have to wear masks. She doesn’t have to pretend. With Bruce, she sees a chance to develop a part of life that has always been closed to her, but that she has had a taste of, and that she deeply, desperately wants. She wants it so bad that she opens herself up to Bruce, exposing her vulnerability.

It isn’t about “having a boyfriend.” It isn’t about “having babies.” It’s about finding someone that shares your deepest, darkest secrets, and loves you anyway. It’s about being appreciated and needed by another human being who you appreciate and need in return. It’s about taking that chance in the beginning, hoping that it will turn into something wonderful.

And what does Bruce do? He runs away.

Despite having come to terms with being the Hulk. Despite his moment of grandeur that cut short Loki’s attempt at a monologue, Bruce still has deep insecurities. He has some expectations about what it means to be a family, and he insists that he can’t give that to Natasha. She counters that she can’t have any of that anyway. She’s not looking for that. She just wants someone to love, and someone who will love her in return. Why not give it a try?

Because Bruce is unlovable. He’s so caught up in his own insecurities and his own self-doubts that he’s convinced that he can’t be loved, and so cannot love. He thinks he’s doing her a favor by running away, but that ends up hurting her more than anything else he could have done.

Why?

Because, to her, that means that she is unlovable, too.

This is real life. I have seen this same scenario play out over and over again with people I know. For some of my friends, this is a very real and relatable situation where they are Natasha. They want what she wants. They offer their heart to Bruce, and Bruce runs away, leaving them hurt and alone.

Depth? Yeah, there’s some of that there.

We’ll have to see how that arc develops. I hope it works out for the best, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings. Sometimes we don’t get our heart’s desire.

Punching is better than talking?
Okay, last item. From the article:

There’s an alternate interpretation for that Hulk-slams-Loki scene in the first Avengers. I try, very hard, to believe it’s not the correct one. Because it’s an evil message, which cynics will tell you is at the heart of every comic book movie. It is: Punching is better than talking.

It happens in a lot of big, commercial movies, right? There’s a guy who talks a lot, thinks, plans, tries to get somewhere by thinking. In the end, that guy is evil, because thinking is bad. He has to be subdued by the heroic brute: The guy who’s just “normal,” who’s more like you, more pure, because instead of thinking and analyzing, he just feels and does. Loki thinks he can get somewhere with a monologue, but surprise! Giant biceps trump clever monologue, every time.

This is worth a quick discussion, but I don’t think it’s worth obsessing over. I’ll touch on a few of the highlights that come to mind.

First, I think that this jumps to a broad, unfounded conclusion that ignores several key elements. I’ll use a couple of examples.

In the first Avengers, Loki (the poster child for talking) makes his presence known to the world with a huge display of force, then demands that everyone kneel before him, which they do out of fear. Except for one guy. All that one guy can do is refuse to kneel… and talk about why. At that point, Loki doesn’t try to persuade with more words. He goes directly to the use of force, and Captain America intervenes just in time. And then? A little more talking, then Loki resorts to force again. Then Iron Man shows up and, well, uses force because there isn’t much else to say at that point. But, that’s really more his style, anyway.

In A:AoU, Tony Stark does quite a bit of thinking. Sure, the result of that thinking causes some pretty serious problems, but the solution comes about by learning from the errors in that thinking and trying it again. The second time, it works so well that the result can wield Thor’s hammer, and plays a critical role in saving the day. (Not to mention that the solution to the projectile city problem required a bit of thinking and technical know-how… punctuated with some cool special effects and a bit of force in the physics sense of the word.)

I could go on about how there was quite a bit of thinking throughout the various comic book movies. Sure, there may be some exceptions, but there are plenty of examples where the hero doesn’t simply go straight to punching to solve problems. They had to piece things together, then craft a solution. (I can think of several examples in Winter Soldier.)

Really, though, I think the bigger message that such an accusation ignores is that all of these stories are a metaphor for life. Evil is the obstacle we face, whether it be internal or external. We are each the hero, and must overcome that obstacle. To overcome involves struggle. The greater the obstacle, the greater the struggle. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the victory.

Sure, we could have a superhero movie where the entire struggle is a war of words and ideas. But then that wouldn’t really be a superhero movie. It would be more like a political drama. With the Hulk/Loki encounter, you gave a great illustration of how a superhero metaphor can inspire greatness in each of us. The big screen provided a visual illustration of an emotional and intellectual struggle. Imagine trying to get the same message across using only words. Yeah, it could probably be done, but it just wouldn’t be the same, and there are some folks it definitely wouldn’t reach the same way.

Superhero movies, like the comics that inspired them, are meant to be larger-than-life metaphors for the struggles we each face. Even when those struggles are completely internal, the effort is very real. Sometimes it can feel like the opposition is overwhelming, and that the struggle will never end. Some days it can feel like we’ve fought off hordes of nameless, faceless opponents to win that personal victory. After all, not all of our demons have names.