Like many children of the 80’s and 90’s most of us here at The NYRD were fortunate enough to be raised by a third parent, television. The moving images on the screen kept us entertained and taught us many lessons in the process. Bugs Bunny expanded our vocabulary -indubitably- and how to avoid hunters by cross-dressing. Reading Rainbow taught us that the USS Enterprise has a really good library, but it was Saturday Morning Cartoons that taught us all about what it meant to be a hero, to be the good guy. So, in this turbulent time of politics, struggle, and uncertainty it might be time we all stepped back to our younger days and revisited those Saturday mornings, when the difference between “good” and” bad” was defined by a character’s actions.
While other boys and girls were modeling their ideals of adulthood on professional sports players, teachers… mailmen? We wouldn’t really know… For many of us our vision of responsibility came came from men and women who fired lasers at each other, while never once killing anyone. It came from mutated ninja creatures who brandished dangerous weapons, while never once killing anyone. It came from talking-car-robots, talking-cat-warriors, and even that one show where spacemen rode dinosaurs. Truly, it was a magical time to be alive. Do you remember when you got up earlier than you ever would again in your life? When you stuffed yourself full of cereal and spent a solid four or five hours ingesting as much animated antics as possible? There was nothing like being hopped up on sugar and watching the forces of good do battle with the minions of evil. The best part was that in shows like, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Jem and the Holograms, Transformers, or Thundercats you always knew who was the good guy and who was the bad, and it wasn’t just because some were dressed like snakes.
There was always one particularly defining moment in every single cartoon that separated the good guy from the bad. It is a TV Trope, called Save the Villain, but around here we simply call it the “Cliff Test.” There always came a time when the hero was fighting the villain high atop a mountain, or suspended walkway, or floating balloon-platform-death-machine. Whether it was Duke duking it out with Cobra Commander, Lion-O battling-O with Mumm-Ra, or He-man He-punching Skelator in the face, it usually ended the same way. Inevitably, the villain would lose his footing and fall, grabbing for the ledge at the last moment. Then the hero would step to the precipice to find their fiendish mortal foe dangling helplessly by a mere few fingers. It would be so easy to finish them off and end the fight, but not for our true blue hero. Instead the good guy would reach down his hand and grab the very same person he or she had spent the last five minutes fighting in a life and death battle.
It was in those moments that heroism became defined for many of us. When a foe was clinging helplessly to life, regardless of how evil or terrible they were, the hero had to save them. It was almost an obligation, an understanding that all life is precious. The real test of valor is passed once the hero makes the decision to assist their nemesis, even in spite of all the bad that person had committed, and the fact that seconds before the hero would have killed that villain in combat given the chance. It is the difference between self-defense and letting a helpless man -even an evil man- suffer needlessly, because that would not be heroism. That would be cowardice, and it serves no one, least of all the hero. Despite how childish that kind of thinking might seem to some people nowadays, it is not an ideal we should be so quick to discard as people or as a nation.
A Mutant Teenager’s Guide to Politics
Nowadays, when we look at the news and read about how some States are trying to deny services and opportunities to the LGBTQ community; or how we -a nation of immigrants- fear those who are fleeing violence and oppression in the Middle East; or that the front-runner for the GOP nomination is… well a literal cartoon super-villain we have to take a step back and wonder. Are we really the heroes we want to be? Did we grow into the men and women that those little sugar-addicted-cartoon-devouring kids would be proud to be? We are not claiming that America is the bad guy in this story, but it is also time to wonder if we are still the good guy, or at least the hero?
Everyday we watch the country and those around us succumb more and more to greed, fear, and mistrust. When we were growing up we would watch TV and find colorful heroes teaching us lessons of selflessness. The children of today now watch TV -but most likely the Internet- and see Presidential candidates openly condoning the bombing and torturing of enemies and innocents. That is not just a failure of the Cliff Test, that is like gleefully throwing a box of small puppies at your helpless enemy, in hopes of knocking him from his perch. If our cartoons gave us hope for a better future and a better us, where will the children of today find hope when they see how we treat our most vulnerable? What will they grow up believing when Tennessee, North Carolina, and a slew of other States use the thin guise of religion to mask their bigotry, like the plot of a Saturday Morning Cartoon that would border on unbelievable even if Shredder himself came up with it. We are not just failing the Cliff Test, but actively plotting to push people off in the first place.
We are not saying that we should all hope for peace and love, because those cartoons were also about fighting for what was right -and selling toys. We are not naive enough to believe that the world is black and white, filled with Autobots and Decepticons -a thought that was more appealing pre-Michael Bay- but it is worth measuring our actions today against the expectations of our childhood selves. After all, when refugees from war torn countries, who are begging for our help and fleeing the very enemies we claim to oppose, don’t we have an obligation to do so? Isn’t that what Master Splinter would tell us to do? If we are the heroes than we have a sacred duty to pull them to safety, and yet even in this we often fail to live up to our potential. Maybe you cannot apply technicolor 2D morality to our 3D world, but does that mean we should stop trying? Maybe it is easier to close our borders, “bomb the sh*t” out of everyone else, and deny rights to anyone who is different from us, but is that what Optimus Prime would do? Is that what Lion-O would do? Is that what the eight year old you would do?
‘Curse Your Sudden but Inevitable Betrayal‘
In those old cartoons -undoubtedly- the villain would use the moment he is being saved to revel a weapon or try to do something to knock the hero from the ledge, just as he or she reached down to grab them. There may be some who will point to that as a worthwhile and cautionary metaphor. A bad guy will always try to use our heroism against us. They will inevitably take advantage of our good graces and our compassion, but that does not mean we should stop having compassion. In the Cliff Test, when the villain lashes out it often forces the hero to jump back resulting in Cobra Commander or Skeletor or whoever falling to their doom -at least until the next episode- but that betrayal is not the point of this test. The test is not about what a villain can do, only about what a hero should do. You show compassion not because of the person you are saving but because it is the right thing to do… roll credits. The betrayal will come or it won’t, but it cannot affect how we conduct ourselves.
Being a hero means choosing hope for us and those around us. If we allow ourselves to live in fear of the infinitesimal percentage of refugees who are actually criminals -let alone terrorists- or if we find it easier to hide behind “Religious Freedom” rather than face those who are different, than we had better be ready to stop claiming any moral high ground. No, if we as a nation want to be the “good guys” that we have always told ourselves that we are, we have to be prepared to climb to that precarious ledge, and fight and help anyone who is vulnerable or downtrodden, whether they be Muslim, LGBTQ, or even a Trump supporter. They all deserve to be rescued from whatever ledge they are grasping desperately onto, because if we refuse than what will today’s cereal-eating eight year olds come to believe about heroism? If we disenfranchise the next generation during their formative years than one day we may find that we are the ones dangling from that cliff, without anyone willing to help us.
Ultimately, the Cliff Test is not about the villain at all, but about the hero. By helping the bad guy, the good guy is helping himself. It is a way to reaffirm his or her actions and reinforce the kind of world we are all fighting for; a fair one, a just one, and a merciful one. So in fact, the hero is not only reaching down to save the villain, but they are reaching down to save themselves. Right now we all stand upon a similar cliff, over a a possibly hot and menacing volcano. Everyday we are faced with others in need who are dangling by mere fingers, ready to fall. This is true for us as a nation and for us as individuals in our day-to-day lives. We may not agree with them, we may even hate them, but we can never turn our backs on them or forget that they are human beings who deserve a chance at hope.
There are issues facing our country and our world that just seem so big, too heavy to lift, and it would be simple to let them fall away. It would be easy to stop fighting and stop caring. It literally requires that we do nothing, but is that what He-Man would do? Is that the principals that GI Joe, the Ninja Turtles, and all the rest of those colorful childhood heroes fought for? We can choose to do nothing or we can reach down and help, and not because that person may be someone we see as an enemy, but because they are a person. It is not about agreeing with them, but it is about choosing to believe we can all be better. We need to do the right thing for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. We all stand on a cliff, everyday, in big and small ways. So what will you do?