Kung Fu Panda and Meritocracy

The journalist David Roman, on his blog, presents two contrasting views of the Dreamworks cartoon Kung Fu Panda. Slavoj Zizek, the roving cultural critic, thinks that the film is everything that’s wrong with modernity, fooling its audience into thinking that if you try hard and believe in yourself, you can be anything you want to be, even as it dresses its conventional ideology in faux cynicism. Eric Weinstein, the managing director of Thiel Capital, thinks that Po, the Kung Fu Panda, succeeds through a rejection of hard work and conventional preparation- his success is due to sui generis factors unique to him (how fat and bouncy he is, mostly) that happen to work perfectly in defeating the snow leopard villain, along with the all-important ability to improvise. Weinstein states:

Thus Oogway [the turtle Kung Fu master who dies early in the film] is a self-teacher trying to pass the secret of self-teaching. But how can he do this as to train a student risks crowding out the self-teaching modality? So he decides to pick a self-teacher by choosing the panda whose only achievement is to break into a Kung Fu competition by turning a fireworks cart into a makeshift rocket to hop a wall. Yet this act of improvisation tells the great turtle that he is better off working with this humble unconventional maverick than with the overtrained tigress or other conventionally trained high achievers. Po then realizes that he can create without waiting to receive wisdom down the chain of masters. Po uses Tai Lung’s own power and vulnerabilities against the snow leopard and finishes him off with a trick that he realizes he can reverse engineer without needing to wait for a knowledge transfer from Shifu that will likely never come. This is a highly subversive, deep, and subtle film. Pretending it is a comedic children’s cartoon with a simple ‘be yourself’ message is perhaps the ultimate Kung Fu move. You are so busy being distracted, you never really see it coming.

Weinstein’s remarks hint at an idea that might be particularly appealing to a venture capitalist; which is that the economy is developing into  one in which the marginal value of individual contribution is highly unpredictable, more and more detached from individual effort and even individual talent in a conventional sense. The meritocratic/credential-based structure that we’ve placed onto our society (which Weinstein’s colleague Peter Thiel has often criticized) is an attempt to rationalize and justify what is ultimately unfair and arbitrary, unfair and arbitrary not only because the world is corrupt or nepotistic but because the actual cultural and economic production function that most of us encounter is one that is unpredictable and hard to gauge, the marginal product of further effort negative or positive seemingly at random, revealed through results rather than through an a priori examination of inputs.

The irony perhaps, given the movie’s setting in a mythic China of the past, is that, while corruption and nepotism are no doubt rampant in contemporary China, a slightly larger percentage of Chinese than Americans believe that personal efforts and personal talent are now important to achieving their dreams:



The temptation I’ll fall victim to is to connect everything to this past year’s election, but I think it applies here: Trump (along with the reality TV culture he reemerged from) was a rejection of conventional credentials and even conventional talents for a politician (he had no grasp of policy details and was not remotely articulate by conventional standards) while Hillary had a superfluity of conventional credentials. Thiel’s support for Trump is therefore in line with his general disdain for conventional credentials. My strong sense has been that the depths of anger and betrayal a number of my friends feel at Trump’s election comes not just from an antipathy to the perceived racism and sexism of his campaign but to a sense that his election was a repudiation of the ideas of meritocratic effort and success that we’ve collectively based our lives around. This is pretty much what Chris Arnade continues to argue about the election.

In any case, that must be how Tigress felt when Po was elected the Dragon Warrior.


5 thoughts on “Kung Fu Panda and Meritocracy

  1. I was with you up until the third to last line. Keeping in mind that I’ve never met your friends, I would describe their “sense” as a repudiation of their credentials and relative stature, and not “collective[]” meritocracy. Trump is threatening because he demonstrated that “establishment” credentials (and well-credentialed gatekeepers) are not actually prerequisites to political ascendancy–the obvious effect is to diminish their relative value. If you can be a lawyer without a law degree, then a law degree becomes considerably less valuable (which explains the persistence of occupational licensing).

    Trump is “disruptive” (as he’s frequently been described). He has challenged the notion that the most influential people at the most influential “public” institutions from media, academia, civil service, intelligence and policy are in fact the best people at media, academics, civil service, intelligence and policy. Because we are a broadly meritocratic society, by challenging the weight of their credentials, Trump is really challenging their authority (ala Martin Gurri), i.e. if they’re not the best, then why should we care what they think?

    It’s perhaps more accurate to say that your friends perceive Trump’s election as a repudiation of THEIR ideas of meritocratic effort. In some ways that’s the whole point: Trump claimed (with broad support) that rising through the ranks of the establishment (the “Swamp”) does not actually qualify one to dictate the lives of others. The swamp is not meritocratic, or rather it rewards something other than competency. It’s analogous to the way that your friends may question the hierarchy of private enterprise, i.e. that the richest are lucky/corrupt, and not good/courageous. The difference is that Trump has turned the doctors into patients and that reversal of stature is deeply discomfiting.

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  2. Why are some people early adopters of new tools? Each tool renders its user slightly less capable while raising the capacities of the group. Our current order/system is a social toolkit, and many of its tools are failing. Training and education are “good” and getting more of them leads to other “good” things. Laws, philosophies, and religions try to codify the behavior of the successful so that those not inclined towards that behavior naturally might benefit artificially. The limits of this are obvious over the last century. People suited to a dead lifestyle are told to seek education, where they are taught to “think independently,” leading to levels of ever ratcheting conformity. This system is failing, less than two generations after it began, and *everyone* is Tigress now. Blue collar folks were told to work factory jobs, which are gone, their kids were told to go get educated for an office job, which are going or gone (and which most humans are not suited for anyway).

    Why is Kung Fu Panda the best movie to come out in my lifetime? The Dragon Warrior could be anyone, but not everyone can become the Dragon Warrior. If humans are going to solve the dire problem, they need to understand that the only thing that is “good” is understanding themselves, and accepting who they are.

    P.S. Our economy is going to look very feudal soon; maybe farm work will come back into vogue. We sure have enough land in this country, if we’d spread out a bit.


  3. It not that Trump’s cabinet appointments have not demonstrated success. they are in fact highly skilled and successful people, just not through the usual ruling class credentialing process; they didn’t go to the ivy league, etc. I think that’s what you’re getting at here.

    Liked by 2 people

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