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.