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Origin Stories

July 20, 2021
We do not need to question where we have come from, and if we have doubts or ignorance about our present condition then we should look deeper, inward, and farther, to rediscover what we have misjudged or ignored until now.

Lately, it seems, about 30% of the ads and promotional messages populating my screens concern a film released recently that purports to reveal the backstory of a certain cartoon villain, about whom it had never occurred to me to enquire. And this is only the most recent example of characters being recast and recharacterized in order change or expand the audience. Everything has a marketing angle, of course. Although the growing universe of myths and legends that comprise entertainment now is wholly uninteresting to me, I can recognize that rebranding and repackaging is a safe business model.

Unbeknown to the algorithms, were it not for the aggressive effort to notify me of this blockbuster non-event I would not care to notice it -- which is not the same thing as concluding that it does not matter. It matters because some of the most influential and creative minds at work today have determined that I/we need to know the true origins of this presumably fascinating character.

The whole concept of “origin stories” has migrated from critical-theory essays and lecture halls into the conversations of normal people – movie-goers. But it’s not the case that people are discussing and sharing with each other the bits of cultural arcana that form the basis of our collective intelligence. Rather, these origin stories are being proposed by the writers and directors as alternative views to what they assume we heretofore believed. They’re purporting to tell some truth previously unrevealed.

There is surely some effort to refute and revise many of the things we believe or have believed to be true, the realization of which has raised a lot of dissent. But those disagreements are just the surface level of this cultural commotion. It would not comprise so much of our entertainment if there were not even stronger forces at work in the minds and subconsciouses of billions of people.

The first of those forces, of course, is widespread distrust of established institutions. With the constant revelations of hypocrisy and deception, as well as self-service, distrust of authority figures and institutions (government, business, academia, pro and collegiate sports) is perfectly understandable. Humans are flawed. It does not mean that authorities and institutions have no role to play in our lives – after all, very few people really want social collapse and anarchy – so discontent and resentment are the compromise position.

A related force guiding audiences toward new origin stories is the absence of such reference points among the average consumers. Being of a certain age, my memory allows me to fill in many details and anecdotal information that is missing from so much news and entertainment that is now standard (possibly this explains my indifference to so much of pop culture), but to those minds hungry for explanations origin stories are enlightening. They are encouraged to feel like they’ve experienced a revelation.

And this is why the third force at work is probably the most salient: consumers feel disconnected from and ignored by the authorities that shape their lives … government, law enforcement, employers, businesses, schools, and more. They are anxious to feel that the lack of coherence in the world we inhabit has a reason, and they feel enlightened by hitherto hidden explanations of things. The reason origin stories succeed is the same reason that conspiracy theories take hold.

The truth too rarely repeated and too much reviled is that we have a very good origin story. As a nation, we are the inheritors of Constitutional principles derived from honorable traditions and brilliant reasoning, validated by heroic efforts and countless individual sacrifices. As individuals, we are each formed in the image of a Creator, whose love waits only for our recognition, as proven by His patience with our failings. We do not need to question where we have come from, and if we have doubts or ignorance about our present condition then we should look deeper, inward, and farther, to rediscover what we have misjudged or ignored until now.