Politics of the Good Guy

How American Politics is a Saturday Morning Cartoon

a lee
15 min readFeb 5, 2020

One must shed the bad taste of wanting to agree with many. “Good” is no longer good when one’s neighbor mouths it. And how should there be a “common good”! The term contradicts itself: whatever can be common always has little value. In the end it must be as it is and always has been: great things remain for the great, abysses for the profound, nuances and shudders for the refined, and, in brief, all that is rare for the rare. — Fredrick Nietzsche

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching — Nicholas Johnson

“When everything gets answered, it’s fake.”―Sean Penn

Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke collectively calls psychotechnology any method that focuses people’s attention in a way that will foster wisdom and relevancy. (Vervaeke’s lecture series is here). While Vervaeke applies this term to more “serious” subjects, such as philosophy and religion, in this article, I will apply this framework to popular American narratives, of which Saturday morning cartoons is the epitome.

For many of us in the English speaking world, Saturday morning cartoons entertained us as children while presenting us with a landscape of salience that instructs us about our place in the world. While the majority of popular narratives in America are intended for entertainment, I take the position here that the very structure of these narratives focuses our attention in ways that do not promote wisdom or relevancy while giving us a feeling of being right. The structure of our entertainment develops a salience landscape that skews our perception of how we exist in the world.

Popular American culture presents a flattened social hierarchy. Reductively, there are only good guys and bad guys. Morally speaking, the good guys must win. This implies that as a psychotechnology, we are taught to be good so that we win.

As Vervaeke has noted, the same machinery enables us to be wise also enables us to be self-deceptive. Where Vervaeke may disagree with my calling cartoons psychotechnology is that Vervaeke seems to regard psychotechnology as tools that help us avoid self-deception. I will show that American media, due to how the material is structured, can also allow self-deception.

In this short piece, I use Saturday morning cartoons to talk about American politics. From that angle, I draw implications as to what it means to consider politics in terms how popular American media shows us conflict should work.

At a mundane level, cartoons fueled product purchases. But on a deeper level, the sitcom format presents us with a narrative of endless struggle.

From here.

Essentially, Saturday morning cartoons have three overlapping principles. I will be brief, and provide one or two examples which follow the same structure of Saturday morning cartoons, but I hope to state the approach plainly enough so that you can reflect on how Americans characterize political issues.

Principle 1: Recognizing what kind of Guy you are

This first lesson is instrumental because it shows us who to root for.

This isn’t a cartoon, but it has the same narrative of Good and Evil as cartoons. After all, the comics were originally directed at children, despite their initial proliferation around the time of WW2 to sell War Bonds and fight Nazis.

The good guys always recognize each other. Even if the good guys start off fighting, or end up fighting, they always eventually come around, such as in the finale of Avengers: Endgame.

The Ninja Turtles also often had disputes early in episodes, where one Turtle was out of control, either being alienated or alienating the others (here) as part of the plot.

Bad guys are different in that they refuse to recognize each other’s humanity. As I grew older, so the cartoons also seemed to become more sophisticated. One was the obvious villainous cackle. Nowadays, bad guys could appear to be good without actually being good (as in they can adhere to a strict code of justice but do evil things). For example, Thanos, from Avengers, has a goal that appears noble— to end suffering. However, he is a bad guy because he refuses to respect others, deciding who should live and who should die.

Principle 2: Teamwork is Essential

I considered making the second principle as “good guys only win when they work together” or “each good guy has something of value to contribute” but I think the core principle is that the good guys need to work as a team.

Essentially if all the good guys are to win, they must be on the same side.

In the Avengers’ clip above, the good guys are so good that they coordinate effortlessly, keeping the power glove away from Thanos for an endless time, tag-teaming and having perfect awareness of how to wordlessly (and ridiculously) support one another.

Good guy teams are made of individuals. Each good guy has their own unique strength, which for superheroes, is their identity (as with the G.I. Joes or Justice League). In contrast, bad guys are made of hordes. They are not individuals so we don’t need to care about them. Instead, the good guys get to work together beating them up and looking awesome.

This togetherness/teamwork gets at the core of the cartoon’s narrative structure, which is essentially explained in the form of Freytag’s Triangle. After all, good guys have to work towards something!

Freytag’s Triangle is centered on conflict resolution through rising action. For character-based conflicts, which are, by far, the most common of conflicts in the American narrative, the protagonist must overcome an antagonist by reaching a climax that re-situates a conclusion. In Freytag’s Triangle, conclusions and pre-conflict situations are symmetrical, with the conflict being but an interruption in what is otherwise normality.

There are other forms of narrative, explained in the video below. These narrative structures, these ways of being, are not as familiar to us. For instance, even Japanese animated cartoons presented to American audiences in the 1980s were heavily edited so as to conform to the salience landscape of American culture, reproducing the tropes and narrative structures that American audiences are trained to orient around (see here).

My point is that, within the framework of conflict, teamwork is how the good guys actively participate as good guys. For example, a bad guy could change sides, to join the good guys against an even worse bad guy, which is one form of the “good nazi” trope. (In Avengers, both of Thanos’ daughters switch sides.)

This need to frame a story in terms of rising action and climax means both that

  • the story’s internal mechanics is dependant on the relationship between the characters,
  • as far as the story is concerned (and by the extension, the audience), the characters primarily are their relationship. The good guys must be unified against the bad guy.

The moral imperative generated by this structure gives us a method of how to understand who people are to us. If people are their relationship to us, and if the relationship we have with at least one other individual is conflict, then morality dictates that we have to win — because if we don’t win then we aren’t the good guys.

The adult cartoon American Dad presents this aspect of the American story in that all the characters understand each other through antagonisms by trying to “win”. Each episode features antagonisms which, through the sitcom form, paradoxically enables them to always conclude on the same side, as a family, even if they humiliate, attack and hurt each other as the source of conflict in the narrative.

Principle 3: Conflict is about Winning

The essential nature of both the relationships of Good vs Evil means that conflict is often over the relationships themselves. Unwary good guys can fall prey to the bad guy splitting them apart.

One such example, from The Smurfs, involves Gargamel introducing a female Smurf, Smurfette. This initially caused conflict, but it was resolved by the end of the episode when the Smurfs and Smurfette recognized each other so that she was allowed to join them against Gargamel.

This begs the question; if Gargamel could make creature so much like a Smurf that the Smurfs accept his creation as one of them, why doesn’t he make Smurfs instead of going to the trouble of catching them?

Now granted, you can see how the second principle follows from the first.

The second principle actually tells us, in light of the first, is that when you aren’t working together (such as when you have ulterior motives) then you aren’t really a good guy.

It’s not hard to imagine any political actor seeing themselves, as the good guy, as they preach teamwork against some enemy.

I don’t know what political party if any, you may be rooting for but once you draw a border around a collection of people who share an identity, it’s not a stretch to see them as recognizing each other as a member and sharing comradery against a common enemy (such as Obama, Trump or Pelosi).

What follows from this, following Freytag’s Triangle, is that each group needs an antagonist if they are to be on the same side.

Not only is this structure what sets the stage over how we understand others but the structure is liberally applied within cartoons, such as when Spongebob and Patrick Star decide they are going to be superheroes. Following the genre, they may identify a character as an evildoer, with or without that character’s knowledge, and then antics ensue.

Apply this to politics, and what you have are political parties telling us a story about who we are by telling us who they are and who the big bad guy is.

American election cycles appear to function in episodic cycles. In fact, one of the telling characteristics of Saturday morning cartoons was that the antagonist always got away to cause new mischief in some future episode.

The nature of a two-party system helps stabilize each party’s identity. Unlike other countries with multiple parties that can come and go, American two-party rule since World War 2 has conveniently split the country in a way that prevents 3rd political parties from forming despite our large population. In fact, membership in Republicans and Democrats have stayed relatively proportional despite changing demographics and changing political messages.

Democracy as Cartoon

Superficially this seems like a perfect arrangement since both parties get a chance at letting their members feel like one of the good guys.

There is a problem. Unlike cartoons, elections cannot reset with the start of a new cycle.

With the fall of the USSR, the United States no longer has a big bad boogeyman who provided an adequate antagonist. (Communist China doesn’t work well, because we need them for cheap goods). As a result? Contemporary politics has seen a continual tightening of changes in policy. Even if we blame recent election results on interference via social media (or whatever reason), the fact is, each election since the early 90s has resulted in tighter partisan boundaries as the two-party system rallies its voters by demonizing the other side.

In some sense, political parties are still serving the population, as a majority of people still identify as one or the other party. Yet as bi-partisanship becomes rarer, so conflict over minor issues becomes further excuses to intensify conflict.

This intensification can keep people nominally identifying as one party over another since “the other party is so bad”. This identification also distorts how people might otherwise understand events if they weren’t so inclined to default to an agreement with “their side”.

Once we buy into this narrative structure of conflict, where the bad guys are so bad, leaving the side of “the good” can feel like a betrayal, although people leaving their party may prefer to see the betrayal as occurring from the party rather than from them as this article on Justin Amash leaving the GOP explores.

Amash hits the nail on the head. He writes that contemporary politics is “trapped in a partisan death spiral” as there is no point by which either side can overcome the other. With each election cycle, partisanship only intensifies as politicians must find more radical ways to rally voters. Unlike cartoons or movies, there will never be a narrative arc to reset us back to the normality of bi-partisanship.

As a result, political parties constantly double-down on self-created righteousness. The 24-hour social-media augmented news cycle has become a virtue-signaling contest. The pressure to stay relevant has led political actors to turn to social media into an outlet for defining sides. That same pressure, to stay relevant, leads news outlets to become curators of tweets as the analysis of the news becomes a matter of reporting who sides with whom, as if taking sides is all the meaning there is. For example, it was mainstream news when Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard refused to take a side on the Impeachment vote.

The result of all this side taking: news outlets explore events less as event meaning from political pundits and actors get a larger share of airtime.

Another result? Taking sides flattens our understanding of what is right and wrong. For example, Trump justifies the airstrike on Soleimani by stating that Soleimani is evil because he is against America. This doesn’t change the fact that there there are many other foreign leaders who are not for America (they would be for their own country). The world is not so simple that all those against us are bad guys.

By relying on any ideology to filter meaning into ready-made good/bad we fall prey to that ideology’s salience landscape.

Once someone has such a salience landscape, that person cares less about what really happens than what things mean according to that landscape. Often having an ideology reduces complex concepts into opinions about key people (like Trump, Obama, Sanders or Warren). Feelings towards key individuals, especially regarding the enemy, becomes an emotional shorthand for rallying with others who also feel the same way regardless of why someone may feel that way.

Isn’t X just so bad? Don’t you just hate that guy?

Feelings aren’t sufficient to make decisions with, especially with something as complex as politics or business. If feelings were sufficient then no business would need a report, and all romantic relationships would succeed because it felt good. Yet, like in a movie, we treat politics as a matter of how we feel as if a feeling is a sufficient reason to vote one way or another way.

Now granted, ideology is necessary so that we don’t have to rethink our positions every time we encounter a new event. However, blindly relying on ideology for sensemaking can lead us to strange territory such as this encounter:

From here.

Blindly following an ideology for pre-given meaning only makes sense if all new events are reduceable to re-runs of old events.

But given how new situations are often entirely novel, relying on ideology for meaning will create blind spots, where we misjudge a new event as if it had already happened.

In other words, if you think you know what “those people” think, then most likely you are relying on some short-hand association, one that creates a blindspot for you.

Take a look at the Reddit page the image above is from. Despite the wide range of attitudes commenters have about this image, the majority of comments seem to center on preserving key associations about the people in the photo.

The majority of commenters seek to preserve their salient landscape — what they already believe they understand to be meaningful based on the conclusions they acquired from the past. Flying the Confederate flag today doesn’t necessarily mean the same as showing it off on the top of the Duke’s of Hazzard car, nor does that mean the same thing as seeing it at the First Battle of Bull Run. I guarantee it doesn’t mean the same thing as seeing it fly tomorrow.

This need to pigeonhole people supports the conjecture that today, politics is primarily about categorizing other people as allies or threats, as though they are familiar characters from a past episode.

This preservation of antagonism is why hyperpartisanship has become an inescapable trap.

The way both parties (along with pundits, actors, and commentators) approach political dialogue is meant primarily to preserve each side’s salience landscape long enough for people to vote. With the Freytag Triangle, conflict can only be resolved by overcoming, not cooperation/bipartisanship.

The problem is, politics in a democracy isn’t endless conflict. Successful democracies preserve their citizens, not split them apart by polarizing them.

Conclusion: Don’t be a Bad Guy

Saturday morning cartoons only have lessons if we believe that the real world operates the same way as cartoons.

Real-life doesn’t have any given structure like Freytag’s Triangle, nor does it cohere to a timeslot or weekly episode. Instead, meaning arises from novel interactions independent of what we may expect to be salient, operant or significant.

Within media, story arcs are one way to convey a tight package, giving us the illusion of completeness. At the end of each episode, some normalcy returns, and the good guys win.

In real life, normal shifts as our lives change. Normal is an illusion because normalcy is a set of expectations. Normal during one period may not be normal for another.

Likewise, political parties and their messaging have changed, even if they continue to antagonize each other.

Like the fantasy of Saturday morning cartoons, political parties only have moral lessons if we believe that the world operates only on the same terms that a political party operates.

A good clue that you have encountered a blindspot is if you don’t understand how the bad guys could see themselves as good guys — if you don’t understand the terms by which the other side sees the world.

This doesn’t mean compromising your own position. A good guy will seek to recognize others, meaning that they will always try to find an equitable solution for both sides. In recognition of how good a good guy is, modern cinema has found a way to eat their cake and have it too. We want the good guys to be morally pure, but we also want heart-stopping violence. Thus, bad guys become obstinate (in their evil, or their misguided cause) so the good guy is forced to fight.

Some easy examples include Karate Kid, or the Liam Neeson movie Taken, where the situation is so dire, negotiation and reasonableness are not possible. In movies this direness is taken to an extreme. For example, in John Wick, people die because they steal his car and kill his dog.

In politics, the analogy would be the claim that America or the world will end, if an issue isn’t resolved the way one party likes it. The message is that the normal we hope will return would be lost forever if the other side wins. Nevermind that normal always changes and the past is never coming back.

Despite such warnings, the American system is still in full swing. People still work, get paid, enjoy municipal services like water and electricity, and take selfies while on vacation. The Golden Globes are still awarded, the Olympics playout every four years, and the Superbowl had a playoff this year. All of these are hardly a reasonable response to the apocalypse.

It may be arguable that none of us knows how to recognize the nature of the coming apocalypse, so we do not know how to respond. If that is true, however, that suggests that despite professions of a coming apocalypse, no one really sees it coming, begging the question if it is in fact coming.

The clip below is from the ending of Hunter Killer (2018), a submarine action movie in which American and Russian forces must, on the spot, spontaneously cooperate to stop a rogue Russian Minister from starting World War 3. This ending is significant because all the good guys come to recognize each other across national identity (because, coincidentally, the interests of both nations are to be good).

The first scene shows the recognition of superior to subordinate within the American politico-military hierarchy. The second scene shows the Russian and American submarine Captains recognizing one another’s value. The last scene shows that American submarine Captain recognizing his Marine comrade, which is less a conflict and more of reiteration of American unity.

After all, even if the good guys start off fighting each other, if they are truly good guys, they will come to recognize the inherent dignity of one other and end up on the same side regardless of what side they are on when the conflict starts.

That, my friends, is the ideology of the good guys, that what is good, will automatically align with what is good. And once all the good guys are on board, then they can win.

These assumptions eschew thinking. These assumptions say that being good will always lead to good things. These assumptions do not invite us to think, only to do. These assumptions also signify that if we do not get what we want, we will only need to intensify our behavior until good eventually triumphs and the movie ends.

In real life, the movie doesn’t end. Everyone is born in the middle and we die in the middle.

I started this article with the idea that cartoons (and American media) were a form of psychotechnology. As aforementioned, the teachings of religion and philosophy are considered psychotechnology because psychotechnology can help us avoid self-deception. Psychotechnology should provide us a plethora of methods to continually re-focus our attention so that we can spot where we are bullshitting ourselves.

The very structure of cartoons and mainstream American media does focus our attention. It can provide us clues to alert us to who is good and who is bad. Where mainstream America media fails as psychotechnology is that it does not provide us much in the way of helping us quit self-deception.

In stories, often if the good guys are deceived, it is because the bad guys are there to trick us. More often than not though, in real life, we are tricking ourselves, because we want something to be so much, that we are willing to ignore signs that things do not mean what we assume they mean.

In that sense, political ideology works only if we care more about our ideas / what we want than about what is actually going on.

From here by Jeff Koterba

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