Sarah Perry – Every Cradle is a Grave


Two ideas are hard-wired into our minds. We believe life is good and that forcing people into existence is a positive thing not because of rational thinking. Genes make us think this way, because this is how they progress. Without these ideas, an organism kills itself and doesn’t produce offspring. Genes die, and genes’ purpose is to continue.

People always killed themselves. Some cultures even claimed it’s virtuous in certain situations. We’ve made huge ‘progress’ (Or, more correctly, changes) over the years thanks to doubters who kept tearing down ideas and replacing them with new ones. The general ideas about the value of life and birth remained the same, though. One famous philosopher talked about how we shouldn’t have kids, but is there any major literary work that asks this question?

You can’t blame Perry for not digging deep enough. She’s in the toughest stage of philosophy. Ethics and the meaning of life are both hard subjects, and going against your own genes is even harder. Few people made that journey – many who tried just said suicidal people got some chemical imbalance and called it a day. If her exploration is sometimes a little shallow, it’s only because she has few sources to draw from.

Her section about suicide is the most disappointing one. It’s a shame, because it’s also the most important one. Of all the ideas in this book, assisted suicide is the most practical one. The suicide prohibition is harmful and no different than oppression of minorities.

We treat suicidal people like criminals. Voicing misogynistic or racist thoughts is less dangerous than voicing suicidal thoughts. People can be hospitalized against their will for wanting to die. No suicide prevention is willing to actually talk to suicidal people, to deal with the arguments behind why suicide is a valid option. At least when people argue against misogyny, they got science and philosophy behind them. When people talk about suicide, they write people off as ‘irrational’.

There are a lot of ways to look at this tricky subject. Suicide is a private action that causes great distress to the environment. Perry doesn’t delve enough into why suicide should be protected. The main arguments suicide are the value of life and the harm it causes to others. The harm it causes to others is especially important, since ethics often blur when freedom, pleasure and pain mix.

While Perry explains briefly the principle of consent that transform murder into assisted suicide, it’s not enough. Suicide causes extreme pain and we need more allegories, more rephrasing of why it’s okay for a person to kill themselves. There’s a whole chapter about the suicide contagion which feels a little pointless – sure, it’s a thing but not as central to the debate as other things.

The chapter about social pain is fantastic and too short. It’s a new way to approach the problem of suicide and is informative even if you don’t believe in the right to die. The common narrative is that people kill themselves because they’re depressed is common and pretty comfortable. It makes the problem more complex – how do you solve depression? – but it erases responsibility. Perry’s idea that people kill themselves because of failed social belonging demands a revolution in suicide prevention. Suicide prevention should start earlier, and constantly happen. If people kill themselves because they don’t belong, we need to create a more welcoming, a more social society.

This type of idea is easy to explain, since people experience a lot of social pain. Suicide is causing social pain, actually – you reject people, deeming them not worth the time. It’s also the only moral type of suicide – suicide prevention by improving life, rather than stopping the act itself.

Suicide is a difficult subject. There are the practical side of how we make assisted suicide available – who’s fit, who loses the right to die, whether there’s an age of consent. The issue of how people feel after someone dies to suicide cannot be ignored. No matter how integral the right to die is, suicide leaves a huge pain (In fact, it’s considered the worst way to lose someone). Perry doesn’t do enough to explore such an alien idea to many.

Her writings about antinatalism is far better. She does write off the subjective perspective too easily, though. This higlight the core difference between the right to die and antinatalism. Both rely on different versions of morality. The former values freedom and the subjective perception, the other one is about preventing harm.

So even if life is overall bad, the fact people perceive it overall to be worthwhile is important. People who behave in a ‘suicidal’ way, according to her, may just be optismitic enough to believe it’ll be worth it in the end. Maybe they take these huge gambles because they value life so much that even if the gamble fails, life is still worthwhile.

Nevertheless, her anti-life arguments can’t be written off easily. They demand questioning our genes. Picking apart our daily schedules is important even if you believe life is worthwhile. By showing us how much time we waste on doing nothing, how much of our life is actually unpleasant she motivates change. If you truly think life is worthwhile, then you must act in ways that’ll prove it. If social pain encourages suicide, we must build a more friendly, communal society. Our morality relies more about not doing harm than actually doing good. What kind of society is it where we only avoid harm but don’t do good? A good life isn’t defined by lack – happiness due to absence rarely lasts. We’re happy when we have friends, but we’re not happy because we’re not being bullied.

The chapter about the natural world is also essential reading. It’s a radical and rare view of nature – not as a friendly, optimal place but one whose behavior is actually anti-life. So many animals die so young. Yet we don’t interfere when the female mantis eats the male’s head. How do animal rights work in this context? Why is it wrong to kill animals, or to ignore murder but okay to ignore it when it the organism aren’t human beings?

What makes the book so valueable is that even if you don’t agree with Perry’s thesis – many won’t, since they either love life too much or they can’t resist their genes – the ideas here are still useful and thought-provoking. It’s not just about how bad life is, but what to do with it. The last chapter, “Living in the Epilogue” is both horrifying and comforting. If things are really that bad, we can at least speed up life by enjoying it. Also, who has it worse? The person who’s about to die or the person who has 90 unwanted years ahead of them?

It’s an incomplete book, but antinatalism and suicide are difficult subjects. Perry at least confronts them instead of writing them off. Maybe someday in the future – if we have one – this book will become slightly outdated because of some basic sections. For now, this is a book that stares at difficult subjects in the face, provides tough answers and plenty of room for discussions or to move forward. You don’t have to agree with Perry to enjoy this. Many of her ideas can be used to improve society. As she said in the beginning, and something we often forget – we’re all humans, and what drives ethical philosophy is compassion for others.

4.5 cradles out of 5 graves

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Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

Inside Out (2015)

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Pixar’s films were always deeply psychological. Toy Story wasn’t just a film about funny toys coming to life. It featured a mental breakdown. The main message behind it was that we can’t be anything. We have to understand our limitations and make the best of them.

Inside Out is the most overt psychological film yet. The main setting is, after all, the inside of a girl’s head. It’s also their most metaphorical film to date. Nothing about the film is meant to be taken literally, not even the life of Riley. There is clear meaning behind everything happening outside her head. It’s that meaning that makes this film a success.

I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this film unless they’re past high school age. The fact that Riley is frustrated with the moving isn’t the point. The meaning of moving to a new environment is an extension of the new environments we encounter when we grow up.

Growing up is receiving blows to our core worldview. High school, a new job or a new town makes us question who we are. We’re forced into a new environment and have to make sense of ourselves over again. Riley moving away is paralell to any other radical change in your life.

The same goes for her running away. She’s not running away but she’s running back. She’s trapped in nostalgia. It’s reminiscing over old memories taken to the extreme. Since so far she only knew how to be happy, she thinks that simply going back to the old place means going back to happiness.

Happiness isn’t enough for deep thought, however. It’s often when we’re depressed that we ask questions. It’s when we’re depressed, seeing problems that we actually search for solutions. Sadness also makes us see reality for what it is. When Sadness (the character) colors the core memories with that emotion, it’s the realization that it’s over. You can’t go back.

The original meaning of ‘nostalgia’ is a form of homesickness. The term was coined to describe how Swiss soldiers felt, missing their land. I first felt this fully in the military when I was away from home. Looking back, I noticed how nothing will be the same. I was still with the same people, but how we are now is vastly different from the past. Growing up is having a whole chunk of past to look behind to and feeling sadness over the fact these happy moments ended. That’s why Sadness colors these memories.

Growing up also means seeing the various colors of life. In truth, no moment of our life has a single emotion. Entering a romantic relationship, you’re happy that she said yes and fearful she’ll break it tomorrow. Some people said of their loved ones’ suicide that they’re at least happy their pain has ended.

Inside Out doesn’t recall Toy Story just because of the artificial details (both films feature two characters who are opposites, on a journey of return). The main message behind it is that we should embrace our emotional comlexity. It’s anti-‘Be positive’. It’s amazing how a film with bright colors and cute characters can have such sentiments. It goes to show you that no matter how many gangsters, witty lines and suits you have in your film it doesn’t equal depth.

At this point, talking about the technical details of Pixar’s films is boring. They know their formula. The good old journey of return is back. Since it works, since they have enough visual ideas and depth to make it feel new again it doesn’t matter. After all, it’s the content, rather than the form that’s harder to get right. So if following this pattern means Pixar can focus on the themes and ideas I don’t mind.

There is a small alteration to the formula. Pixar tends to push their journies to the extreme. It’s amazing how always, no matter how hard they push the characters the solutions make sense. This time they’re more restrained. Althugh they had an oppurtunity to roll the snowball more and make it bigger, they didn’t. They stopped it just in time. The grand moment of realization is also more subdued this time. That’s a good thing. Pixar are always one step away from becoming manipulative and after the brilliant behemoth that is Toy Story 3, it’s good to see them more restrained. Success can get you drunk.

Inside Out is as brilliant as people say it is. Of course it’s beautifully animated and cleverly written. What makes it unique and what makes it another classic by Pixar is the deep psychology, the complex emotions and how maturely they treat their material. At this point, it’s ridiculous to call these films for children. Sure, Pixar never has any violent or sexual content but they can say so much without it. They make it seem so simple.

4.5 voices in your head out of 5

Schrodinger’s Rapist or: Stranger Danger 2: Electric Boogalo

There are all kinds of problems with Schrodinger’s Rapist. It’s fairly logical, but it only states obvious things that don’t further our understanding. It’s a nice-sounding buzzword, too. As far as trying to reveal greater truths about the existence of rape culture, it’s a failure. In order to reveal rape culture, you’ll have to reveal something. This is just Stranger Danger with a feminist paintjob.

I’m going to tackle it from various points.

First of all, the language switch. This is the quote from Rebecca Watson with the sexes switched:

When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a woman who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of girl—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.

Dear women, you are Schrodinger’s False Rape Accuser, or Rapist, or Heartbreaker, or Run-Away-With-Child-er, or Mugger. I’m afraid, too.

What if made this a race issue? Schrodinger’s Black Mugger. Assuming black people commit more crimes (for whatever reason – class or genes or rap cred or because of biased reporting), wouldn’t it be reasonable to think a black person is Schrodinger’s Mugger until he proves otherwise?

Schrodinger’s Rapist is true, but its logic also encourages distrust of women. Even if you confine it to rape, males still get raped. Even if it happens less often, it does. Men being in power doesn’t matter. It’s not going to make the experience of a raped male any better.

Schrodinger’s Rapist is also an extension of Stranger Danger. Stranger Danger is an idea that should’ve been discarded long ago. People remember it when they want to ‘keep their children safe’ (=locked in the house with only a math textbook) and forget about it when complaining about how antisocial everyone is.

Stranger Danger is promotion of asocial behavior. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t respond when they talk to you. They’re all out to get you. What people forget is that everyone is a stranger until you get to know them, including the parents. The baby simply didn’t have any control.

Strangers might hurt you. Asocial behavior is certain to hurt you. Isolation is a common factor when it comes to depression and depression is a common factor when it comes to suicide. Stranger Danger didn’t contribute anything.

Stranger Danger (Schrodinger’s Rapist) also fail because it’s not only strangers who hurt us. These strangers have probably been brainwashed with being asocial, too. It’s often people we are close to who hurt us the most. Rape occurs more often by familiar people rather than strangers.

That makes perfect sense. If you want to rape, it’s easier and safer to do it with someone you know, who trusts you. They will be less resistant at first. You already know how to interact with them and how to coerce them to having sex. You can guilt trip them later. If you’re the dominating person in a social group, they will less likely to accuse you.

The idea can cause more harm than good. It will make women fearful of strangers, but it can make them more lax with familiar people who are most likely to rape them. Where does the circle end though?

It also misses the point. By telling people not to act like rapists, you’re actually telling rapists how better to conceal themselves. A person with little regard to consent doesn’t need to be told how ‘not to act like a rapist’ but why rape is so wrong.

Acting like a rapist and raping are two different things. A person can have an aggressive, loud behavior. He can even care little for personal space and accidentally touch you, but it doesn’t mean he’s a rapist. It means he’s loud, obnoxious and doesn’t care much for personal space. It doesn’t mean he’s inconsiderate (or sadistic) enough so he will harass you.

The only surefire way to tell if someone is a rapist or a sexual harasser is when they actually do it. We should not teach people how not to act like a rapist. We don’t people not-acting like rapists, but we want them to not rape at all.

I also saw a claim that talking to people who are currently in the middle of something – reading a book, on the laptop, browsing Facebook on their phone is rude. I fail to see rudeness in initiating social interaction. It’s rude to keep pushing if a person tells you s/he’s busy, but it’s possible that this person is browsing Facebook because there’s nothing to do on the train.

You will get hurt less by telling a person who approached you to leave you alone then by not being approached to at all. Loneliness is more damaging than we think. The fact some people won’t leave you alone is rude, but is a different story.

(Here’s some Hypocrisy With Natalists moment: You think it’s rude when guys approach you while you’re reading a book, but think it’s fine to force people into existence? That kid you just forced into existence and wants to die suffers way, way more than you.)

If Schrodinger’s Rapist is supposed to make us understand better the fear women have of rape, it fails. It’s Stranger Danger in disguise. It’s actually worse than Stranger Danger. Its main message is that you can’t trust anyone. In some ways it’s true. Anyone can hurt you. The key word is ‘can’. It’s possible they will and it’s possible it won’t. There is one thing that’s guaranteed – loneliness, isolation and fear of communication will hurt you no matter what.

Dennou Coil

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You can’t talk about Dennou Coil without talking about Digimon Tamers. They don’t just use a similar technique to tell their stories. Their stories revolve around the same theme. The ending also includes a girl trapped in a visualization of grief. It never feels like a rip off. Both shows wanted to explore a subject that needs exploration, and found different inspirations.

The core difference between the two is the mode of storytelling. Tamers was a heroic journey, but Coil is closer to something like Mushishi. It’s more concerned with the world it created and what it means.

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Nature is odd, but so is technology. At some point, inventions become so advanced we can’t predict their behavior. Even the most simple ones contain surprises. They often spin out of control, and the internet is the perfect example of this.

Do the people who invented the internet thought it would be used to exchange Japanese cartoons, cat photos and have people’s suicide notes on them? The internet is now out of our control. It’s a constantly-changing frontier, with pages being born and dying. It’s a way to connect to others, where bullshit rumours spread and where you can escape your reality.

The technology in this show is just a visualization of this idea. It juxtaposes the exploration of the virtual frontier and the physical one. You might think kids today are all just stuck on their computers, but weren’t the astronauts stuck on exploring the moon, rather than the Earth?

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Space is not the final frontier. The internet is another one, but it’s one that we create. The spaces weren’t here before. Every piece of data was created by someone else, a product of their thoughts. Exploring the internet is exploring what others think, whether you’re looking for funny pictures someone uploaded, their writings or stuff they thought was cool and reblogged. I think once someone said we are the final frontier. If this is true, then the internet is how we explore it.

The kids in this show may seem too independent,but this isn’t a plot device. Kids on the internet are often more independent and loose than outside of it. If you play outside, your mom can still look out the window and see what you’re doing. If you go somewhere, she’ll want to know where.

It’s easier to build an independent culture when you’re on the internet. Close the door or minimize the window when mom comes in. If she doesn’t know the address, she’ll never know what’s going on. Even if she does, you’re creating a new identity she might not recognize.

The new culture the kids have built in Dennou Coil isn’t alien. I’ve seen it happen myself. I remember those message boards that were the beginning of Nerdom in my country. I still see communities with a distinct identity in message boards or video games.

Here, we got a physical reality along it. So the rivalries aren’t just name-dropping in forum posts but the old fun of shooting each other. That’s something people do online all the time. They shoot cyber-avatars of other humans.

These avatars can be convincingly real, even when they were just pixels. That’s the problem with the internet. A lot of it appears real, and the line between reality and the virtual blurs. Maybe it doesn’t exist at all. Densuke only appears when you put your cyber-glasses, but you can only see Jupiter with a telescope. Densuke is not a real, biological dog. A real dog is also not a virtual one. What makes one dog better than the other?

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Both dogs actually exist. Both respond to us. Even a virtual pet in an RPG game responds to your actions. The fact one is manmade isn’t much of a difference. Dog breeds are an invention of men. The difference is that the virtual world is full of data and information, but nothing sensory.

Stuff on the internet is not something you can feel. That’s why some people can be social on message boards but socially neurotic in real life. Densuke is a virtual dog and will never be a real one. If we try to program humans, they will just be virtual versions. They will never be a real human.

Grief does its thing, though. It messes with our minds, and we want more to find a new reality where the event didn’t happen than find good in our reality. A character gains the option of creating her own reality without the death of a close person.

A purely man-made reality is nothing, though. Nothing is purely man-made or exists on its own. A reality where nothing is connected is barren and dry. This is the same world of the D-Reaper. A grieving person can’t escape into his world. He’ll just dive deeper into his own sadness.

All we create is just a reflection of us. Isako couldn’t re-create with her brother. She could enjoy a projection of him, something similar. It’s not the real thing, and in the end it’s not a proper replacement. Things can’t be replaced with second hand versions.

If this sounds like it’s too heavy for children, then you’re not paying attention to the best of children’s fiction out there. Children deal with loss. Their stories need to address it.

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While Dennou Coil treats it with maturity and empathy, it falls short of Tamers. Its technology is more imaginative and conceptually deep. The Digimon are a plot device, but the idea of a ‘virtual reality’ isn’t explored. Tamers kept the technical stuff at bay. At too many instances the mechanics of the virtual reality will be explored. None of it is ever coherent. It’s just a physical manifestation of the internet and that’s it.

Dennou Coil also sports a problematic art style. There is a great difference of creativity in the character design and the virtual reality design. The designs of anything virtual are beautiful. They’re simple, but the little details are excellent. The Illegals’ black, blurry body, Densuke’s round shape, Oyaji’s lack of mouth and small eyes are all details that stick out.

The character design does the minimalist-realist Mushishi did. It’s not as bad as that one. They find subtle details to give them personality, but too often they feel dry. Auntie is supposed to be the beautiful character, yet nothing about her looks significantly different than the others.

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Two episodes are noteworthy. One is the comic apex of the series. It’s a brief history of humanity as if they were the hairs that compose a beard. The episode is complete with a bearded old lady. The other episode comes right after it, and is actually the most psychologically deep one of the series. The climax isn’t as powerful as Tamers’ D-Reaper. In that episode, it is. If only they could use the ideas there, reshuffle them and make a different climax.

Even if it doesn’t manage to reach the heights of Digimon Tamers, it comes close. It’s not treading the same grounds. It uses the same tools to tell an equally deep story with its own take on things. In some places, it’s weirder and bolder. Anyone who wants to see how good children’s fiction can be should watch this.

4 illegals out of 5