Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Head in the Clouds: The Existential Journey of Final Fantasy VII’s Main Protagonist

Final Fantasy VII is just one of many games in what is considered one of the greatest canons of video games. However, this particular addition has been named one of the best of the Final Fantasy canon if not one of the best games of all time due to the complexity of its characters, the elaborate storyline, the use of cutting edge graphics, and many other qualities. Indeed, the story is rife with issues political and philosophical from which to draw upon: from the dualistic Bourgeois-Proletariat society to radical environmentalism to genetic engineering and scientific dystopia, this game radically changes direction in comparison to the previous games in the anthology which were comparatively shallow and based on the fantasy genre set in medieval times. In this paper I will focus solely on the existential development of the “main” character (the story line is based largely around him, however, there are multiple playable characters), Cloud Strife.

Our heroes exist in a world with two classes: the rich Shinra Corporation and the impoverished people that inhabit the slums. Shinra is an energy company that makes money from drawing power from the planet’s “lifestream,” a stream of pure energy (with some mystical qualities as well) that gives life to all things on the planet. They also control the military (known simply as SOLDIER) and are the de facto government of the world (there is no real political institution). Underneath the giant structures within which Shinra employees live, are the slums: devastated areas in which a small underground economy exists based on whatever meager livings the inhabitants can procure for themselves. Outside of these central cities lay several smaller communities who generally live in peace, although Shinra continues to attack and destroy these sporadically-placed oases. Out of this dystopian nightmare arises a small revolutionary faction named AVALANCHE whose sole mission is to destroy all of the Shinra reactors that suck the lifestream from the planet.

Cloud was born in Nibelheim and lived next door to his friend and future companion in arms, Tifa Lockheart. He was raised by his single mother and lived a largely solitary life due to the harsh treatment he received from the other children in the village. When his only friend Tifa perilously climbed Mt. Nibel after the death of her mother, Cloud ran after to save her, only for Tifa to be injured and to have the townspeople blame it on Cloud. Believing he could make Tifa and the townspeople like him, Cloud expressed his plan to run off to join SOLDIER. If he could be stronger like the famous Sephiroth, he could finally get people to appreciate him. However, Cloud never makes the cut. Instead he spends his days traveling around with friend and First Class SOLDIER Zach, and the hero Sephiroth, as a lowly grunt and assistant. In one mission, he has to return to Nibelheim to investigate a damaged reactor. Ashamed of his failure to achieve SOLDIER status, he hides his face from everyone, especially Tifa. It is here that the real supervillian emerges.

The group discover information about experiments performed using a substance called Mako (from the lifestream), and Sephiroth discovers that he was genetically engineered using DNA collected from Jenova, an ancient alien that preyed on other organisms by taking on their own memories and forms, acting like a two way genetic conduit. This revelation (as well as the massive amounts of Mako and Jenova cells within him) cause Sephiroth to go mad, believing he is the last of the Ancients, with the sole purpose to destroy mankind for what he believes was the annihilation of the Ancients 2,000 years prior. When he subsequently assaults Nibelheim, Cloud and Zach defend it, eventually chasing off Sephiroth. However, as a result both are seriously injured and are captured by Shinra for the purpose of experimentation. When the two escape, Zach is killed, although Cloud is left since he is considered to be too weak. The mixture of anger, despair, and experimentation on Cloud has warped his mind, and he eventually takes on much of the personality and memories of his former companion, Zach. Honestly believing he is an ex-SOLDIER First Class who fought alongside Sephiroth, he joins an anti-Shinra eco-terrorist group known as AVALANCHE as a mercenary. Here he meets up with his old friend Tifa Lockheart—who has also joined the movement—who is somewhat confused as to the behavior and memories of Cloud, but decides not to question him. Instead, she convinces him to stay with AVALANCHE longer, although in reality she wants to keep her eyes on her old friend out of concern.

What neither Cloud nor the group knows is that Sephiroth did not die; he is waiting out his days to summon a large meteor to destroy humanity. Additionally, since the lifestream flows towards all “wounds” in the planet to heal it Sephiroth plans to soak up all of this energy, making himself a god. To make matters worse, he can control any other individual who underwent experiments similar to his, making instant drones willing to do his bidding while he rests safely away. Unfortunately for our heroes Cloud is one of these drones, however he is rarely used by Sephiroth and it seems like he only has a limited power over Cloud. Sephiroth used the bond between them to force cloud to give him the “black material,” which resulted in Sephiroth being able to summon meteor and generally raise havoc.

As Cloud progresses through the game, his fake persona reaches some critical roadbumps. Between blacking out of consciousness, sporadic regurgitation of both real and fake memories, and mind control by Sephiroth, it becomes clear that no one—not even Cloud—knows who he really is. This internal tension meets a breaking point when Professor Hojo (who did all of the experiments) lies to Cloud, telling him that none of his memories are real, and that he was actually created by Hojo. Cloud and Tifa fall into the lifestream shortly after and emerge in Cloud’s subconscious. Here, Tifa walks through Cloud’s real memories, piece by piece, until Cloud finally realizes his true self. Shortly after, Cloud emerges from the lifestream with Tifa, no longer an incoherent comatose mess. He apologizes to his comrades for the pain brought by his instability, as well as for giving Sephiroth the black material. Cloud vows to fight alongside his friends, not for money this time but for the good of the planet.

Here Cloud embraces the factity of his being: his past, his persona, his failure to be a soldier, and finally his involvement in AVALANCHE. He establishes himself as a being in the world. He used to be “just a mercenary,” with little to no regard for others, not even the world itself. When a comrade is frustrated by Cloud’s indifference, he says, “The planet’s dyin’, Cloud!” Cloud responds: “The only thing I care about is finishing this job before security and the Robogaurds come.” He immerses himself in his role as mercenary, consuming himself in the quest for monetary gain while at the same time using his position to absolve himself of responsibility. Cloud is acting in bad faith; instead of defining himself and his own goals, he allows himself to be defined by his uniform. Even worse, Cloud never was a SOLDIER nor a mercenary! His entire being is a lie, and in living like this, he is denying himself both of the freedom to live as a being in itself as well as the responsibility that such freedom entails.

His denial of authenticity begins in his youth, where he strives to be accepted by the other children. This pattern follows him into adulthood, as he decides to join SOLDIER so that he can be seen as a hero and approved of by his townspeople and Tifa. When this falls through and Cloud endures mental and physical anguish, he does not climb out of the ashes but instead subconsciously creates a new persona—that of his deceased friend Zach. The death of Cloud’s dreams, as well as the malevolence of his hero, Sephiroth, act as the death of his God, and when Cloud awakes from his coma he finally comes to terms that he is condemned to be free and that he is a being in the world. He admits to his friends that he was inauthentic, and he chooses to not only fight for himself and the planet, but accept responsibility for his actions throughout the game:

“I’m…Cloud…the master of my own illusionary world. But I can’t remain trapped in an illusion anymore….I’m going to live my life without pretending…..I’m the reason why Meteor is falling towards us. That’s why I have to do everything in my power to fight this thing….It’s like you always told me, Barret…There ain’t no getting offa this train we on!”

Cloud understands that he alone is responsible for the consequences of his choices, whether or not he knew he was making them. Now, however, he becomes a truly conscious being, aware of the possibilities before him, opening up his freedom to choose and define himself. He also embraces greater virtues than money. He finally learns to not only appreciate himself, but his friends as well as the planet, too. He chooses not only to atone for his poor decisions, he chooses to define himself as a crusader against evil, and although seemingly hopeless, he chooses to save the world—or die trying. He becomes almost like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith: he no longer is worried about his own weakness, nor is he concerned only with money. Cloud finally chooses to be passionate and dedicate himself to the cause of saving the planet and destroying evil. He ultimately has faith not only in himself, but his friends as well; that they will somehow be able to defeat Sephiroth and Meteor. In the end their faith is rewarded, although their victory is less than ideal (some damage is sustained by the planet).

It would seem as if Cloud finally accepted the conditions of his “thrownness:” the world within which he lives is absurd, scary, even evil. At first he was living a lie, deciding to reject value in his own world (all values except money perhaps). He is not alone, as a train man says in the Midgar station:
"When you've been a train man as long as I have, you see a lot of people meeting, parting, joy, sadness... After a while, it doesn't even get to you anymore. I wonder how long it's been... There's an invisible rail between me and the passengers. I could never live their lives. I'm just a train man plain and simple. It's easier that way.”

He is “just a train man,” much like Cloud is “just a mercenary,” who cares solely about financial gain. At this point we may deny that he actually exists in and for himself. He is en soi, or, just living as himself—no more alive in an existential sense than any other lifeless entity such as a pebble. However, at the revelation of his past, he realizes that he cannot reject value as he was, nor can he get value from others (i.e., when he was seeking appreciation and acceptance from others). He decides to create value in the world and live in it for himself, or pour soi. Our heroes also act outside of any definitive political or religious system. While the lifestream has some mystical properties in it, there does not seem to be any concrete foundation of religion, and most people are concerned with materialistic anxieties. Instead, Cloud and AVALANCHE are radically opposing the system that exists and impose their own sense of justice and value on the world, even if done violently. Cloud becomes the embodiment of justice and value, a veritable Ubermensch.

The entire evolution of Cloud as a character is a story of internal despair, torment, and angst. It is a tumultuous battle against his own nature, which results in a couple different manifestations of his being. The first: a boy who strives to be accepted by others and their value systems, the second: a man who values nothing, perhaps even his own life, and the third: a man who is at peace with himself since he realizes that he is the sole creator of value in his world; he redeems himself as an individual in and for himself. He chooses what his values will be and defends them vigorously, while at the same time rejecting worldly material gains and the approval of others who are slaves to their passions. At the same time, Cloud accepts responsibility for the consequences of his actions, while also embracing the inevitable:

“There ain’t no stoppin’ this train we on!”

He understands his options and not only accepts the impending war for survival, he makes it his own and chooses to be a hero, embodying his own justice and value—not fighting for his own sake but for something greater than himself.

Tifa: “Cloud…do you think the stars can hear us? Do you think they see how hard we’re fighting for them?”
Cloud: “I dunno…but…Whether they are or not, we still have to do what we can. And believe in ourselves.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dems Spin Kennedy's Death, Dissent Grows Anyways

Shortly after the Death of the Lion of the Senate, Democrats were already using him as a reason to back the President's health care reform:

Securing universal healthcare coverage for Americans was a decades-long quest that eluded Sen. Edward Kennedy. In the wake of his death, however, several key Democrats on Wednesday saw a chance to break this year's stalemate by invoking his legacy and last wishes.

``In his honor and as a tribute to his commitment to his ideals, let us stop the shouting and name calling and have a civilized debate on healthcare reform, which I hope, when legislation has been signed into law, will bear his name for his commitment to [ensuring] the health of every American,'' Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said in a statement.


Absolutely shameless.

However, this kind of political pandering over Kennedy's passing still cannot dissuade the growing dissent that seems to be splitting into a choir of specialized interests:

Anti-abortion groups are gearing up for a battle in the fall over health-care legislation, another headache for Democrats who already face concerns about the measure's cost and reach.

Most versions of the Democratic health plan would create subsidies for lower-income people to buy private health insurance. If that insurance includes coverage for abortion, as many existing private plans do, it effectively means federal taxpayers are subsidizing abortion, critics of the legislation argue.


This just goes to show (1) how complicated this issue is; health care is an issue that covers a broad spectrum of philosophies, and some one is bound to be pissed off; and (2) this shows just how poorly the administration, congress, and the media have educated people about the plan. If the administration would have involved the public earlier with an education campaign (not a propaganda one mind you), or had the media been responsible and forthcoming with information about the plan, then there might not be as much vitriol coming from as many diverse groups.

Of course, when you try to slam through 1,100 or more pages (who the hell knows anymore) of legalese as fast as possible, most people in congress or the media are not going to have read the WHOLE bill (of course, that's what their staffers are for, but staffers don't go on CNN nor are they responsible to constituents).

Sorry guys, packaging and selling the death of a legend is not going to save you from amount of rancor coming from Americans. Not to mention that unless his seat is filled precipitously, a filibuster is now in the cards.

Like Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) said recently:

Sen. Russ Feingold has touched off a mini controversy over his comments last week that lawmakers are unlikely to pass a health care bill before the end of the year, if at all.

“Nobody is going to bring a bill before Christmas, and maybe not even then, if this ever happens,” Feingold said during a listening session in Iron County. “The divisions are so deep. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Too Funny Not to Post


Rally Car Collides With Horse - Watch more Funny Videos

Ugh. Times are tough, I'm stressed. But this always makes me laugh.

Please, no comments from the PETA gallery.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Whats Going on in North Korea?

It seems that as of late, barring North Korea's missile launch, the country is making conciliatory efforts towards their southern counterparts and the West:

North Korea announced Thursday it will dispatch a high-level delegation to Seoul for two days to pay respects to the late former President Kim Dae-jung - a rare visit that raised hopes of improved relations between the two Koreas.

[...]

The trip is the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures made by North Korea in the past week, including the government's release of a South Korean detained for four months and the announcement it will allow some stalled cross-border projects to resume. On Thursday, Pyongyang sent a message to the South that it will lift border restrictions imposed in December, beginning Friday, the ministry spokeswoman said.


North Korea is sending some mixed messages as of late, but overall they seem to be making an attempt at reconciliation...little by little. Could this be a sign of detente between the communist nation and the West?

A delegation of North Korean diplomats told New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson that Pyongyang was prepared for expansive disarmament talks with the Obama administration, but wants to talk directly instead of in the multicountry format Washington prefers.

The comments made to Gov. Richardson Wednesday in New Mexico are the clearest signal yet from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that his reclusive state is prepared to resume negotiations over its nuclear program following Pyongyang's May detonation of an atomic device and a string of missile launches that have rattled Northeast Asia. Gov. Richardson met two North Korean diplomats Wednesday at his office in Santa Fe.


One thing we need to remember is that Kim Jung Il has not been well lately. Like Castro, there are rumors and speculation about his health and potential expiration date. While this may seem like an overly intrusive observation, the leader in question IS the country. In a personalist regime, especially one that cannot stand without complete authority and separation from the outside world, the loss of a leader can be the end of a whole society. Of course, there is speculation as to Kim's successor, but it is possible that North Korea is building up diplomatic capital for use in the future.

Critics of the White House have charged Mr. Obama risks rewarding North Korea's provocative actions by allowing such high-profile meetings between Democratic stalwarts and Pyongyang. Mr. Clinton's trip received particular attacks, as Kim Jong Il seemed to use the former U.S. leader's presence to enhance North Korea on the diplomatic stage.

Gov. Richardson Wednesday acknowledged Pyongyang was pursuing this tactic. "The North Koreans obviously used the journalists as a bargaining chip and now they want a gesture in return," the governor told CNN.


The question is, if they're building up capital, what do they plan to use it on?

Is the White House Leaving Congress Behind on Health Care?

While I wrote a bit ago about the "waffling" of the White House on the public option, it seems that it might just be a temporary situation. A mixture of town hall rancor, partisan finger pointing, and Obama's support plummeting at terminal velocity has stopped the Hope-mobile in its tracks. It's only natural that the White House would give a little ground before things get worse for the Democrats. But as Republicans get cocky about their temporary victory, it seems the White House may just go it alone:

President Barack Obama now realizes he probably will have to pass health reform with Democratic votes alone, White House officials say.

The admission is a monumental shift in Washington’s top fight of the year, with the energy now shifting to differences among Democrats, rather than efforts to lure a critical mass of Republicans.


Indeed, splits among Democrats in Congress are also dragging down the chances of successful health care reform, although the administration has held multiple meetings with blue dog democrats, who are concerned about not only the public option but most importantly how to pay for it. With inter- and intraparty conflict weighing down White House hopes of an expeditious bill passage, it the White House has focused on the "moral" side of healthcare:

With his health reform efforts on the ropes, President Barack Obama is courting the religious community with an unabashedly moral message that played little role in the White House’s earlier arguments for changing America’s health care system.

Speaking on a conference call Wednesday evening with what organizers estimated were 140,000 members of churches and religious groups, Obama also suggested that some critics of his health care
proposals were violating the Biblical commandment against lying.

[...]

In an odd bit of messaging, Obama urged the religious communities, many of which offer outreach and even sanctuary to illegal aliens, not to believe reports that health reform would cover foreigners in the U.S. illegally.

“That’s not true. It does not provide health insurance for those individuals,” Obama said.

Obama also insisted the plan would not provide government funding for abortion.


A couple interesting things to note: Obama, like most figures in American politics, is using a normative approach to his campaign when justification on empirical grounds has failed. Additionally, instead of making his moral approach universal, he's turning to religion. Like Bush, Obama is trying to whip up religious fervor in what he hopes will become another American moral crusade.

Secondly, Obama here is not trying to appeal to progressives. He is trying to focus on an interest group that contains a good deal of both conservatives and liberals, but tend to lean more towards the middle or right.

Lastly, what of the public option?

During the afternoon call, Obama did not address the hottest issues in the health reform debate at the moment: whether the White House-backed plan will include a government-run health plan open to all Americans, known as the “public option.”

Before Obama spoke, his domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, did get a question about the president’s stance. She did not answer it immediately, but later returned to the subject. She assured participants that Obama still supports a public option, though she said there might also be other ways to reduce costs and give Americans more choices.


Like I said, his backpedaling is only temporary. Could he be leaving Congress behind? It wouldn't surprise me if the White House distances itself from the finger-pointing and shouting in Congress while formulating a strategy to regroup successfully. But is this what he means by post-partisan or non-partisan politics? Clearly not. This is more indicative of what has been for at least 70 years an imperial presidency.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Marshall Plan for Africa?

Glenn Hubbard at Foreign Policy Magazine has an interesting solution for Africa:

The Marshall Plan made loans to European businesses, which repaid them to their local governments, which in turn used that revenue for commercial infrastructure -- ports, roads, railways -- to serve those same businesses. Aid to Africa has instead funded government and NGO development projects, without any involvement of the local business sector. The Marshall Plan worked. Aid to Africa has not. An African Marshall Plan is long, long overdue


Quite true. Foreign aid and development loans have possibly made Africa even poorer, since most of that money is skimmed off the top at every level of corrupt bureaucracy, leaving projects empty handed and Africans struggling to repay the debt. There are many objections and challenges to such a pro-business plan, but Mr. Hubbard has it all covered:

"The Market Failed in Africa."

But take a look at the World Bank's annual report, "Doing Business," and you'll realize that many African economies have never had a business market to fail -- thanks to their governments' dense, unnavigable regulations.

[...]

The Marshall Plan in Europe came with conditions: Each country had to adopt policies that allowed its businesses to operate normally. It made the same offer to all of them, and those that refused got no aid. The offer went out to all Europe, but the Eastern bloc, under Soviet threat, declined. Some African countries will also decline. That means they don't get the aid.

"Strong Businesses in Africa Will Be the New Colonialists."

This argument flies in the race of reality. First, Africa was poor before colonialism, and for many countries, colonialism may well have made Africa richer. There were some exceptions, such as the Belgian Congo in the early 20th century, where forced labor for rubber extraction made the people poorer. But overall, Africans in 1960 were healthier, lived longer, and had higher incomes than Africans in 1900.

[...]

What has not made Africans richer, however, are their countries' own governments, which have cut off that prosperity in favor of government and NGO assistance and foreign investment that benefits only the elite.

"Infrastructure Must Come Before Business."

In all rich countries, the development of a thriving business sector came before physical and social infrastructure. In fact, the Marshall Plan worked because it made loans to European businesses first, which then paid money back into a national pot to fund commercial infrastructure.

[...]

Besides, businesses that have a stake in the maintenance and viability of a given project are bound to be far more apt at building and maintaining infrastructure than aid agencies, which have been trying to do it and failing for the past 40 years.

"Democracy Must Come First."

The real question is not how to promote free elections -- which are certainly a good thing -- but how to promote lasting democracy. For that, the answer is very old and common across the globe: a middle class, created by local business. That's how it worked in Europe, the United States, and in every other enduring democracy on Earth.

"Microfinance Is Enough."

The "Doing Business" rankings show that most poor countries put up huge barriers of red tape that prevent citizens from starting small businesses and getting credit for them. Microfinance goes to unregistered businesses, so it stays under the radar. Yet small and medium businesses are the long-term answer to poverty -- as they have been in developed countries -- and microfinance cannot help them.

"Anti-Corruption Measures Will Make Aid Programs Work Better."

In Africa today, anti-corruption programs are doomed to failure because they leave the anti-business economic system intact. That economic system is based on aid, where the basic unit is government or NGO projects, rather than local businesses, as it is in prosperous countries. Anti-corruption measures do nothing to correct this flawed equation; in fact, they reinforce it. And no amount of transparency will yield economic growth until the structure of the African economy changes.


I don't have much to say about this article except that I absolutely love it. I've felt for a long time that aid to Africa has been deleterious to prosperity and democracy and Glenn has it absolutely correct. I don't care what the socialist and liberal sympathizers say, the reality is unavoidable. I believe such a plan could work, but only under certain conditions, as the original author stated above. I'm almost certain that the plan would fail in some countries, but I really think it could work more often and more powerfully than not.

And if we can help a handful of countries in Africa, the spillover effects could completely transform the entire region.

The Word of the Day is Waffle

Much like his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, it looks like Obama's public option has hit the proverbial fan. A President of big aspirations and a big mouth has finally succumbed to political reality:

Bowing to Republican pressure and offering political cover to fiscally conservative Democrats, Obama's administration signaled on Sunday that it is ready to abandon the idea of giving Americans the option of government-run insurance.


While H.R. 3200 is still on the table, and while much of the talk on Sunday was rather vague, the political realities are striking. Obama's support for health care reform has plummeted, and without some kind of compromise on what is the most complicated and emotional issues in American politics, Obama could see his "mandate" turn into irrelevance (much like when Bush tried his hand at Social Security reform).

The potential alternative? Well, it looks like there is much talk about "co-ops" at the moment:

Under a proposal by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., consumer-owned nonprofit cooperatives would sell insurance in competition with private industry, not unlike the way electric and agriculture co-ops operate, especially in rural states such as his own.

With $3 billion to $4 billion in initial support from the government, the co-ops would operate under a national structure with state affiliates, but independent of the government. They would be required to maintain the type of financial reserves that private companies are required to keep in case of unexpectedly high claims.


Not quite sure what this is supposed to mean yet, or how such a "co-op" is to be organized:

The government would offer start-up money -- Conrad said $6 billion would be needed -- in loans and grants to help doctors, hospitals, businesses and other groups form nonprofit cooperative networks to obtain and provide healthcare.

The cooperatives could be formed at the national, state and local levels. A temporary government board would help get things started. Conrad said only about 25,000 members would be needed to make a cooperative financially viable. But in order to negotiate competitive rates with health providers, a cooperative would need at least 500,000 members, he said.

Co-op membership would be offered through state insurance exchanges where small businesses and individuals without employer-sponsored plans would shop for health coverage.

The co-ops would function as a mutual insurance company where policyholders would have some ownership rights. Conrad said co-ops could quickly bring health insurance to some 12 million people, which would make this the third-largest insurer in the country.


Co-ops are less likely to bring down health care prices as much as a public option (though we will be paying the difference in taxes), but I'm all for competition. However, there still remain huge obstacles to the price problem which are not addressed as of yet in H.R. 3200. Some possible issues with co-ops?

Many Democrats worry that co-ops would be too weak to provide any real competition to the private insurance industry. Public plan advocate Senator John Rockefeller points out that healthcare cooperatives have been tried in the past to provide medical care to rural areas. Thousands were formed and almost all of them failed.

Conservative critics argue that the co-operatives would just be another form of government-run insurance because of the role the government would play in setting them up and overseeing their operations.


I agree with both. Like I said before, there is much more to be done about lowering the price of health care. Hopefully, with the public option out of the arena, more attention will be paid to cost reduction, competition, and consumer choice.

Health care needs to be private, individual (not tied to employment), portable, and deregulated. There is also an inherent problem with the insurance system in the first place which has driven up prices as demand for gratuitous services has spiked.

One thing is for certain: I'm glad that Obama has been stopped in his tracks for now, so we can have more time to research our options and discuss alternatives, instead of steam-rolling "reform" over a confused and unwilling American populace. However, with Obama and the Democrats waffling, and the balance of power leaving credence in the hands of Republicans, it is unclear where the debate will go from here and how far back the administration is willing to backpedal.