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The Farewell: Moral Framing in Title Selection

Many great articles have been written about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell but none have gone deeper than a passing sentence into the translation of the film’s title. A lot of foreign films do not directly translate the title when moving from one market to another, and The Farewell’s is no exception as the direct translation of its Chinese title is “don’t tell her”. The two main reasons this is done is to choose a title that will better attract the new market or to avoid having the same title as a movie already released in that market. Movie titles, and titles in general, are the first thing that draws in an audience so plenty of thought goes towards the decision, which is why calling the movie The Farewell in English and Don’t Tell Her in Chinese is so interesting. It’s a choice that highlights the broad theme that runs through the entire movie: the differing moral systems between the two world worlds Billi’s family inhabits.

Photo by SAM LIM from Pexels

The name The Farewell focuses the movie’s English-speaking audience on the individual, and each individual’s personal farewell to the family’s beloved matriarch; the primary farewell emphasized is Billi’s, though we also get to see how various other family members deal with Nai Nai’s impending death. What gets highlighted then is not Nai Nai herself, but everybody’s personal relationship to her, because Nai Nai is the only one who does not know that she has terminal lung cancer. And what resonates most with Western audiences is Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai. Western viewers understand Billi’s deep desire and need to say goodbye to somebody she loves, and her bewilderment and frustration at not being able to do so. They empathize with Billi’s urge to reveal the truth of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and chafe alongside Billi at the oppressive restrictions of collectivistic Eastern society. All this is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s title.

Now consider the Chinese title, Don’t Tell Her. Here, Nai Nai features prominently, and the focus of the Chinese-speaking audience is drawn towards the collective. Instead of grappling with Billi saying goodbye to Nai Nai, they think about how the entire family is working together to try to conceal Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her. They ponder the burdens that have to be shared in a collectivist society and hope for a resolution that doesn’t tear the family apart. The change in title reflects the change in mindset and evokes a different framing.

Billi’s uncle, Haibin, has a beautiful speech that sums up the broad differences between the moral systems that govern the West and those that govern the East. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in the dialogue of the various characters, but in my mind, it all starts with the film’s title. Which makes me think, what am I missing when I watch other foreign films, and does it all start in the title?

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The Case for Removing Charitable Deductions

Photo by Shiva Smyth from Pexels

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The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths — My Thoughts

This short story is Borges’s shortest and I highly recommend reading it; it’ll only take a minute or two. For those too lazy, the summary is that one king has his people construct a labyrinth, one so sophisticated that not even the smartest person can escape from it. Upon its completion, he traps another king in it. The trapped king eventually escapes after praying to God, gathers his army, and conquers the land of the first king, capturing the king in the process to bring him to said labyrinth. The labyrinth has no walls, no doors, and no stairs. It is simply a vast desert. Though there is nothing impeding him, the first king is unable to escape this “labyrinth” and dies of thirst and hunger.

Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

The deep complexity of something that appears so simple is my ultimate takeaway from the story. Examples related to the theme abound in the world around us. A single rose or a sunset by the water are both so ordinary yet so breathtakingly beautiful. Some of our greatest moments of joy come from the simplest things, such as the small favor a friend did for you when you were going through a difficult period, or that time you and your closest friends got together for a meal and drinks and just talked for hours. And for most people, the most difficult job is managing and influencing other people instead of complex analytical work. Telling people what to do seems simple enough but actually doing so in a way that gets them motivated to do the job and to do it meticulously can be incredibly difficult. It’s why there are so many business books written about how to lead or influence people, and it’s why those who can do so are very well compensated. The story of the two kings itself is yet another example of the theme. It’s so incredibly short and easy to read yet we we can find deeper meaning in it the more we think about it.

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Paley’s Misinformed Watchmaker Analogy

Paley, in his 1802 book Natural Theology, provides his famous, elegant watchmaker analogy that argues for an intelligent designer of living things. The gist of the quote is that if one comes upon a stone, one might assume that it had always been there, formed by pure randomness, but if one stumbles on a watch, one would not make the same assumption. One would instead assume that there was an intelligent designer who purposefully created it. Quote below for those interested:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”¹

Therefore, because a watch, in all its complexity, must have a designer, living creatures must also have one, with God filling the shoes of the watchmaker. Over the years, the analogy has been repeatedly used as an argument against evolution, though whether Paley would have denied evolution himself is up in the air as he died in 1805.

The analogy fails as an argument for an intelligent designer because though that specific watch may have been designed and created by one man, the watch as a concept was created by countless humans over many centuries. In fact, thinking about the watch from that perspective, the watchmaker analogy is actually a great analogy for evolution. In the same way that living creatures today originated from prokaryotes that became eukaryotes, mechanical watches originated from sundials and water clocks. There was not one top-down designer of the watch because the watch was invented by humanity as a whole. The same applies to the various components that make up the watch or the economy that provides the supply chain for the creation of watches. Nobody set out to design those systems; they naturally arose from the bottom up.

Watches are also just as prone to the forces of natural selection as living organisms. Water clocks and sundials were inferior to the mechanical watch as a method of telling time and became obsolete in the same way that a creature that cannot adapt to a changing environment will become extinct. Funny enough, in our time, even the mechanical watch is obsolete as a time-keeping device and is instead used much more often as a fashion statement or status symbol. Paley assumed that the purpose of the watch was to tell time but it is clear that watches, for the most part, do not serve such a purpose anymore. Did anybody design that change in the watch’s purpose? No, it was just an evolution in culture.

Of course, understanding Paley’s analogy as one in favor of evolution does not solve the most interesting question: the ultimate origin of life. If living creatures came from prokaryotes and prokaryotes came from a confluence of events after the Big Bang, then where did the Big Bang come from? If all of that was created by an intelligent designer, then who designed the designer?We’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the watch did not come from one watchmaker.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy

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The Culture of Narcissism – My Thoughts on the Book

Despite being written in 1979, parts of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism read as if they were written today and remain more relevant than ever. Let’s first define what Lasch meant by narcissism, or at least my understanding of it. Narcissists are not those who are supremely or excessively confident in their own abilities. Just the opposite. They are plagued with feelings of inauthenticity, insecurity, and inner emptiness, and need to be validated by the approval of those around them. It’s clear that with the rise of social media and the desire for likes, retweets, and more followers, we have become even more narcissistic now than in 1979. Back in Lasch’s time, he attributed the increase in narcissism to television and the effects of being recorded:

“Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time. ‘Smile, you’re on candid camera!’ The intrusion into everyday life of this all-seeing eye no longer takes us by surprise or catches us with our defenses down. We need no reminder to smile. A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.”

It’s easy to see the parallels to social media and its influence on our society. That permanent smile is now etched on our faces on Instagram. We project our best selves to evoke envy, seek fame, or for the rush of endorphins we feel as the likes accumulate. And our behavior isn’t the only thing that has changed; even our environment is being altered by social media. Instagram-worthy destinations are being flooded with tourists seeking to capture that perfect image to post. Restaurants have dishes that are designed for sharing via social media, not for consumption. Ephemeral events are booming because of their exclusivity, again for later display on social media as symbols of one’s status. Anybody can listen to Beyonce’s album on Spotify, but only a select fee can watch her perform live at Coachella on this specific year. We crave recognition more and more whether it be from our friends, from our local community or from the mass of fans around the country.

This quote from Lasch about the distinction between fame and celebrity perfectly encapsulates the present:

“Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity – the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves – is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to ‘personalities.’”

More and more people have embarked on the quest for celebrity as social media has disintermediated the role of previous gatekeepers such as the magazines or talk shows that Lasch mentioned. Those seeking celebrity no longer need magazines to anoint them. They can now appeal directly to their audience through social media. The ostensible ease with which this celebrity is now obtained leads to everybody trying to become one. After all, all “X” needed to become a celebrity was a nice ass or nice abs or to make interesting small talk. And my ass/abs/small talk is so much better than his/hers. And so the desire for external approval continues to grow.

Still, they are right in the sense that becoming a celebrity is much easier now than before. Somebody can quickly go viral on social media, rising meteorically to celebrity status. Yet such an instantaneous rise can be accompanied by an equally instantaneous fall. Celebrities, more than anybody else, recognize just how fleeting it can all be, causing them to incessantly worry about losing their newfound status. We become more narcissistic in our quest for celebrity but celebrities are the most narcissistic of us all. They not only need constant approval from their current adoring fans but also seek to gain more fans so that they can reach the next tier of stardom. As a result, they’re in a constant state of anxiety, forced to incessantly post on social media to stay relevant and obtain new fans, yet plagued with fear that they will make a mistake and become the latest target of Cancel Culture (the latest trend in social media where everyone is collectively outraged (no moral judgements here) for a few hours and tries to tank their target’s follower count or better yet, to deplatform them).

There are other parts of Lasch’s book that are less strong. For example, he also attributes the rise in narcissism to the rise in bureaucracy and “experts” in all aspects of our life. The bureaucracy and the “experts” restrict what we can do and tell us what we ought to do, resulting in a loss of agency and a corresponding rise in narcissism as we become less and less self-confident about our own actions. He spends way too long describing the rise of bureaucracy and its pernicious effects. To me, nothing is more bureaucratic and monolithic than religion. After all, how much agency did worshippers of Christianity really have centuries ago? The people of Lasch’s time had more agency than their ancestors, and the people in our time have even more agency still, but the affliction of narcissism is only getting worse. What seems to be the issue is not one overriding bureaucracy that tells us how to behave, but many bureaucracies and experts that provide conflicting advice. We have the agency to decide which bureaucracy or expert to listen to, and it is that very agency that causes our loss of self-confidence because as we compare ourselves to those around us, it seems as if the path that we choose never seems to be the right choice.

Though I don’t agree with Lasch attributing the problems of today to a rise in bureaucracy, I do think his diagnosis of the symptoms plaguing society is spot on. Here’s another great quote from the book:

“Our standards of ‘creative, meaningful work’ are too exalted to survive disappointment. Our ideal of ‘true romance’ puts an impossible burden on personal relationships. We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves.”

So what do I think are the causes of narcissism? I think it ultimately boils down to the things Lasch mentioned earlier and the human desire to constantly compare ourselves with the people around us. In Lasch’s time, it was television that changed our perception of the world around us. Television and advertisements shaped our views on how we ought to live our life. And they not only provided a template of how we ought to live our life but also a frame of reference to compare our own to. Suddenly, we were no longer comparing ourselves with just the people around us but also the people on our screens. Maybe before, we were content with our imperfect but solid marriage, job, possessions, or lifestyle, but now, they seem much more imperfect than before. Our expectations slowly rise and when reality doesn’t rise to match our expectations, we become more and more disillusioned. And in Lasch’s time, mass media wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today, nor did they have to deal with social media.

Nowadays, we are bombarded with many more screens and the depictions on those screens are ratcheted up to 11, afflicting not only “lowbrow” shows such as reality TV but also prestige dramas. Consider the voyeurism of Billions, a show about the hedge fund industry. In every episode, we see Axe in his opulent penthouse, throwing money around as if he had a limitless supply (which he basically does), and dining in the hottest restaurants. Netflix’s hit show Chef’s Table is basically food porn. We love these shows and clamor for more, and slowly our expectations continue to rise.

But, the biggest culprit of our exceedingly unrealistic expectations is social media. Now, we are not only deluged with the lives of the rich and famous, but also the carefully crafted images of our friends and acquaintances. Nobody ever puts their doubts or how much their life sucks on social media unless it is cited as an obstacle in their wider narrative of triumph. We’re inundated with highlight after highlight, and as we compare the whole of our life to the highlights of someone else’s, our life starts to seem mundane and pathetic in comparison.

So, what should we do about this? I guess we can watch less TV and not go on social media, but still, our society more than ever worships the rich and glamorous. It’s so pervasive that there’s not much any one person can do. Recognizing the growing narcissism and rising expectations around us might allow us to temper our expectations, to seek to live a life that is not so consumed by the desire for glitz and glamour. We can make changes around the margins, and though that might not allow us to escape the afflictions of modern society, it might help us to become more content with our lot in life. I don’t think this is all doom and gloom. There are many benefits provided to us by the advent of social media. I also believe that the younger generations will be better adapted and better equipped to deal with the deleterious effects of social media, that they’ll place boundaries so that their lives aren’t consumed by it. Either that or the stuff of science fiction happens and the world goes to shit. Who knows.

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Thoughts on The Third Man

I watched The Third Man for the first time recently and thought it was good but nothing to write home about. Spoilers ahead.

The thing about the movie that bothered me the most was the moral question posed in the movie: whether to turn Harry over to the policemen for selling diluted penicillin in the black market. To me, it was entirely obvious that what Harry was doing was beyond reprehensible. He stole penicillin from hospitals that desperately needed it and diluted it to sell on the black market, knowing the diluted version would be harmful to and could kill people who used it. To me, the question of whether Holly Martins and Anna should turn over their friend to the police was self-evident. And yet, Holly at first refused to help Major Calloway and it wasn’t until Calloway took Holly to see the children who became brain-damaged from the diluted penicillin that Holly changed his mind. Anna refused to cooperate in any way and hated Holly for helping the police. Their sense of loyalty in spite of Harry’s horrific actions was so appalling, maybe even immoral, to me. But after reading other people’s opinions online, I changed my mind.

The movie was released right after WWII and the people living in that time had a completely different life experience and outlook. It was heavily implied in the movie that Anna had to do some unspeakable things to survive the war. To survive, they all had to do morally questionable things whether it be dealing in the black market or other some other illegal activity. Group loyalty was a prerequisite for survival. Cynicism and distrust of authority were rampant. And in this environment, Harry was Anna’s savior, the person who helped her obtain a forged passport so that she wouldn’t have to go back to the Soviet Union. All of a sudden, the morality is no longer as clear. A millennial like me will never fully understand what it was like to live during that time, especially in war-torn Vienna. I can read the history and understand the facts, but at a deeper emotional level, it might be impossible for me to fully grasp it, and maybe that’s why The Third Man didn’t resonate as much with me. I had the same experience watching Apocalypse Now a few weeks ago. After all, what movies do better than any other medium is to reach us at an emotional level. Certain movies, like Casablanca, are timeless because the emotions evoked come from experiences everyone has had. Other movies, especially those from different time periods, might no longer be as affecting because the experiences of the modern audience is fundamentally different. Still, I loved the sewer scene when Holly shoots Harry. I interpreted Harry’s look at Holly as imploring Holly to shoot him so that he wouldn’t have to go to jail and face the police. Even at the end, after Holly helped the police chase Harry down, he still couldn’t help but oblige Harry’s request. And so, he shoots Harry. One last bit of loyalty.

There were many things I did really like about The Third Man, and they tend to be the things other people like, starting with Harry’s famous speech. “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” That’s one hell of a speech. Holly’s character as a representation of American naivety was also great. He was innocent and had such a desire to help, but he clearly didn’t understand the local language and culture. He made things worse for a lot of people such as the porter who was murdered after Holly kept pushing him for more information. This is a lesson that America is still learning to this day. Then there was the ending. It’s the same shot as the beginning. Holly and Calloway drive past Anna, but this time Holly gets off the car and waits for Anna. We expect our protagonist to get the girl, that Holly and Anna will reconcile their difference of opinion and live happily ever after. Anna walks closer and closer and then right past him without a glance. Holly lights a cigarette, resigned to the fact that she’ll never forgive him. What an ending. Harry’s reveal was also pretty good. Maybe it’s because I saw it coming, or because I’ve seen so many plot twists, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

All in all, it was a good movie, but to me, not a great one. Movies ultimately speak to our life experiences and my life has been so different from the people at that time that The Third Man didn’t resonate with me on the visceral emotional level that other movies have. Still, I’d recommend watching and forming your own opinions.

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Letters from Nazi Germany? A Counterfactual

I recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima and was blown away by the movie. I’m glad we have enough perspective that a movie humanizing our (the U.S.) enemies in WWII can be met with widespread critical acclaim and without cries of public outrage. Yet, throughout the movie I kept thinking of a counterfactual: the same exact movie but instead of depicting WWII Japan, it instead depicted WWII Germany. 

Disclosure: I was born in China, moved to Canada at 6, and then to the U.S. at 11, where I have been ever since. I disclose this because I believe it makes me more objective than most. I’m Chinese-American but have been indoctrinated by the West so my beliefs are probably partial to both as opposed to only one. 

So, now let’s consider the counterfactual (spoilers I guess for those who haven’t seen Letters from Iwo Jima). The Allies have been making progress beating back the Germans and are approaching a city, let’s call it Iwotown, that lies on the path to Berlin. The main character is an unpatriotic, philosophical Nazi foot-soldier, resigned to the fact that he will probably die in Iwotown, yet determined to do whatever it takes to survive. Most of his friends are similarly disillusioned and not much more patriotic. An ultra-patriot shortly joins their squad and everyone thinks he was sent by the SS to spy on them. We later discover that he was indeed a member of the SS but was kicked out for not blindly following orders. He runs away from Iwotown and surrenders to the Americans but is executed when none of the Americans want to stay and watch him. Then there is Iwotown’s commanding Nazi general, an intelligent, thoughtful commander who, before war broke out, befriended military leaders in America and was even given a beautiful pistol as a token of their friendship. He is a deeply admirable character and in flashbacks we see that he would hate for war to break out between the two countries but if it were to happen, he would dutifully and honorably serve his country (which he does). Lastly there is his charismatic officer who won Gold in the 1932 Olympics for horse jumping. He orders his soldiers to save an American marine who distrusts the Nazis at first but bonds with the officer over American culture (the German officer had befriended some famous actors and actresses when he was in L.A. for the 1932 Olympics). The next morning, the American marine is found dead from his wounds and the German officer reads a letter found in the marine’s pocket out loud to his soldiers. It’s a mundane letter from mother to son, but that’s what makes it so emotional. The Nazi foot-soldiers who had wanted to kill him or torture him for information now break down crying as they realize just how much they had in common with the man they demonized. Sure, many officers and soldiers in the movie conform to our expectations of how Nazis behave, but the main cast of characters, all very different from each other, are humanized in their own way. 

Now, does that sound like an award-winning movie, one that is almost universally praised as one of the best movies of 2018? Could such a movie even get made, and how much public outcry would there be in America if such a movie ever was? I certainly don’t think such a movie is even within the realm of possibility, especially given our current political climate. I’m not saying that a movie like Letters from Iwo Jima shouldn’t have been created; I’m so glad that such a movie exists, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. What I want to figure out is why the same movie couldn’t be made about Nazi Germany. 

Now, some of you might be thinking that I’m making an unfair comparison and that the Holocaust is objectively the most horrific event in history, one that has no parallels. Objectively, that may be true, but I’d argue that almost nobody did the math on the worst atrocities in human history, and only afterwards decided that the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy, one that must be emphasized to a much greater extent than any other. That belief is a product of repeated exposure in Western education and culture. Not convinced? Consider the American Revolution vs. the French Revolution. Objectively, the French Revolution’s impact and significance on history is much greater than that of the American Revolution. Yet, in American classrooms, lessons on the French Revolution are a blip on the radar in comparison. I’m sure you can think of many other examples; every country has its own narratives. All Western countries (I think) teach their citizens about the heinous crimes Nazi Germany committed, but almost none teach their citizens about the similarly heinous crimes of the Japanese in WWII. That is certainly not the case in China and Korea. The Holocaust is to the West what the Japanese atrocities are to China and Korea. The events of the 20th century still hold significant sway in Chinese and Korean perceptions of Japan and impact relations to this day. Even if the Holocaust is objectively the greatest historical tragedy, Japan’s actions in WWII is undoubtedly in the same league. So, consider how you feel about the Nazi Germany equivalent of Letters from Iwo Jima, and recognize that there are probably more than a billion people who feel that way about Letters. 

Nazism was confined to a certain time in German history, one that was without redeeming qualities, making it easy for the West, and probably the world, to view it as the symbol for pure evil (rightly, I might add). Japan in WWII doesn’t have the same ring to it and there’s no one word catch-all for Japan at that time. It’s easy to denounce Nazis as the symbol of evil as that word almost separates them from the rest of German history; it’s much harder to denounce the Japanese in WWII since the phrase remains tied to Japan. Yet having that catch-all word can obfuscate the truth. Nazism equating to evil, at least until recently, was one of the few things that had almost universal consensus in the U.S. Nobody in their right mind would defend Nazis, thus the PR disasters of Zuckerberg and Trump. So, our view of Nazism as the symbol of evil prevents us from separating the German citizens under the Nazi government and Nazism as ideology; it blinds us from reality. I’m definitely unqualified to speak about this so I’ll let Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl do the talking. From Man’s Search for Meaning: 

“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards.”

“In reality there are only two races, namely the ‘race’ of decent people and the ‘race’ of people who are not decent. And ‘segregation’ runs straight through all nations and within every single nation straight through all parties. Even in the concentration camps one came across halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men – just as one came across the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners. Not to mention the Capos. That decent people are in the minority, that they have always been a minority and are likely to remain so is something we must come to terms with. Danger only threatens when a political system sends those not-decent people, i.e., the negative element of a nation, to the top. And no nation is immune from doing this, and in this respect every nation is in principle capable of a Holocaust!”

“Resistance presupposes heroism, and in my opinion one may demand heroism only of a single person and that is … oneself! And whoever then says that someone should have preferred to be locked up rather than get on with the Nazis, then that person can only actually say this if they themselves have proved that they preferred to let themselves be put in a concentration camp, and consider this: those who were in concentration camps do in general judge the opportunists far more lightly – more lightly than those who stayed abroad for the duration. Not to mention the younger generation – how can they imagine how afraid people were and how they trembled for their freedom, for their very lives and for the fate of their families, for whom they were always responsible? We can only admire all the more those who dared to join the resistance movement.”

Frankl isn’t engaging in false equivalency. Throughout the book, he makes it very clear that Nazism is to be condemned, that Nazism will attract a disproportionate amount of deplorable people, and that most Nazis were not good people. However, he also notes that there were even “halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men” and that there was “the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners”. Frankl reminds us that even within a system as evil as Nazism, there can still be decent people and urges us, especially the ones who haven’t lived through the experience, to withhold judgment. His eloquent words force us to separate the ideology from the people, to recognize that just because a government is evil doesn’t mean that everyone under the government is. To forget that Nazis are human too is to forget a crucial lesson from one of history’s greatest tragedies; condemning them as pure evil distances us from their actions. It presupposes that we all would’ve acted differently under the same conditions they faced. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. 

So, now that I’ve alienated everyone reading this, let me bring this back to my original counterfactual. Personally I think there are only two positions one could take, given Japan’s WWII atrocities are at least close to being on the same level as Germany’s (though if someone has a very convincing argument, I’m not opposed to changing my mind): one either supports the creation of both Letters from Iwo Jima and its Nazi Germany equivalent, or one supports neither. Based on what I quoted from Frankl and my earlier praise of Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s not hard to figure out which position I support.

On purely epistemological grounds, if only one of the two movies could be made in the West, I’d rather the Nazi Germany equivalent be made (in China or Korea, the opposite would be true). The reason again comes back to how we’re educated and how we view events; it is because we know all the terrible things the Nazis did and view Nazism as the symbol of evil that we should be reminded of their humanity. Most people in the West don’t have a good understanding of Japan’s WWII war crimes, so a movie that humanizes the Japanese army makes their actions seem ordinary and not that bad. The Nazi Germany version however, because of the ubiquitous knowledge in the West of Nazi atrocities, would steer beliefs more towards the truth: that even though what the Nazis did was horrific and inhumane, they were still human like the rest of us. To deny Nazis their humanity is to say that such actions are only possible for beings less than human and to assume that such a tragedy could never happen again. I realize that the very reason such a movie should be allowed to be made is the very reason it won’t be. There are many more points to be earned signalling your outrage than maintaining a compassionate, nuanced perspective. And sometimes, it’s simply more convenient to deny the humanity of those who commit such unthinkable crimes. I won’t impute ignorance to you for doing so; I only ask you to not impute bad intentions to me for disagreeing.