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State of the Union: Pokémon Black and White: Metaphor for the American Civil War
by Greg Mengel

"If Michael Vick was sent to prison, Ash Ketchum should be in fucking jail."

These words, slurred in my direction by an inebriated forty year-old Asian woman at a suburbanised, Mexican-themed bar in Denver, Colorado[1] last autumn have echoed in the hollow halls of my consciousness like a never-ending game of morality pong. After hours of sleepless nights, they brought me to one conclusion.

Ash Ketchum isn't just a dog-fighter... he's a slave owner.

For those of you not living in America, Michael Vick is an American Football player, who was sentenced to hard time for running an advanced dog-fighting ring. He bought man's best friend, trained and bred him, and charged him into a pit containing a similarly historied canine to do battle. For forging a pack of cuddly, fun-loving Growlithes into a bloodthirsty, dangerous Arcanine death-legion, he was rebuked with hard time in jail by a system of law that deemed such actions immoral.

Image source. Thanks again, YTMND.

Cut to the society Ash Ketchum lives in. Not only does it tolerate animal fighting rings, but it encourages them! Upon turning eleven, alpha children are given their very first Pokémon, the largest building and cultural center of every town and city is its gym, and Pokémon Balls are handed out by the state alongside propaganda pamphlets encouraging impressionable younglings to "Catch 'em all". On resorts and beach cabanas, lei'd Pokémon clean up party vomit and serve fruity beverages. The cultural foundation that Ash runs excitedly from gym to gym on, is composed of forced Pokémon labour.

So when Ash orders his electric rat to give a trembling Geodude its fifth concussion in a week, he isn't cuffed and taken down to the station; instead, he's congratulated and given a merit badge. For doing what Michael Vick was sent to prison for - training beasts to savage each other in a ring - Ash is celebrated.

...but are Pokémon really just beasts?

On the left, Chess Grand Master Bobby Fischer. On the right, fiercely fu-manchu'd Alakazam. To match Alakazam's IQ, Bobby Fischer's must be multiplied twenty-nine times.

According to Bulbapedia, the mysterious psychic Pokémon Alakazam boasts " IQ (Intelligence Quotient) that exceeds 5,000, making it the most intelligent non-legendary Pokémon."

Five. Thousand. Know what the average human IQ is? Between 70 and 130. Alakazam is a god.

Middle-class Pokémon also impress. Chansey works as a Registered Nurse in just about every Pokemon Center, a task that takes two to four years of academic study for humans and requires an advanced understanding of over six-hundred and forty-nine unique Pokémon anatomies.

Squirtle and Pikachu show impressive social and cognitive thinking skills. Despite the fact that they have evolved without advanced vocal chords, both Pokémon can convey their thoughts and desires in conversation by expertly inflecting their voices while repeating their own names, like so:

Trainer: "Are you feeling okay, Squirtle?"

Squirtle: "...squirtle."

Trainer: "Would a caramel apple make you feel better?"

Squirtle: "sQUIRTLE sQUIRT!!"

Trainer: "I knew it would. Hey, Squirtle, how do you feel about Muammar Gaddafi's supposed 'reign of terror' in Libya? Should Obama be supporting his European allies on what many have called yet another act of imperialist aggression towards the Muslim world, while he still has troops stationed in Afghanistan?"

Pikachu: "PikAAAAAAA, pi! PI!"

Trainer: "That's why I didn't ask you, Pikachu! Because you're a racist! A dirty, Canadian racist! Go on, Squirtle."

Squirtle: "Squirtle squirtle sQUIR, squir Squirtle squirtle squirtle, squir Squirtle squir. Squirtle-squir squirtle, squir squirtle sQUIRtle squirtle Squir, squir sQUIRTLE... SQUIRTLE-SQUIRT!!"

Trainer: "Squirtle, that was completely unrelated, and you know it. Muammar Gaddafi's reign of terror has nothing to do with the growing GDPs of many South American countries."

Squirtle: "Squirtle SQUIR SQUIR Squirtle-Squirt."

Trainer: "I disagree with what you have to say, Squirtle, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it."

Squirtle: "Squirtle squirtle squirtle......."

Trainer: "What about my mother?!"


Trainer: "Wow, somebody wants their Pokéball extra cold and scary tonight."

Squirtle: "Squirtle squir."

Trainer: "Agreed. Let's end this conversation so Greg can continue his article."

Pikachu: "Pikaa-"

Trainer: "Pikachu, I swear to God, I will feed you to Charizard if you don't shut up. Let's go."



Oh, Ash! What a great day! I just love it when I don't have to beat Staryu with the Obedience Hose!

Pokemon are many, many times more intelligent than Michael Vick's dogs. If you judge the worth of a species by its intelligence, then many Pokémon are just as worthy as humans (if not more so).

...and yet, Ash and thousands of other trainers enslave, train, and fight them.

...and yet, they enjoy no basic rights.

...and yet, they can't vote to abolish their suffering.

If it walks like a Psyduck, and talks like a Psyduck, then it's a Psyduck. Pokémon training is slavery.

Enter Pokemon Black & White's newest antagonists: Team Plasma, led by their infamous terrorist-king, N. As a child, N was forced by his father to live in a habitat of abused Pokémon, where he learned to despise humans. As he grew up, N felt that it was his moral obligation to liberate all Pokémon from the shackles placed on them by a society of trainers, vowing to fulfill the Unova legend of a human who fought side-by-side with legendary Pokémon to end... this.

Once N reached adulthood, a mysterious man named Ghetsis sought him out and, struck by his strength and determination, crowned him king of his terrorist Pokémon-liberation front, Team Plasma. With a veritable army of liberators under his command, N began a series of swift and effective attacks against the Pokémon training society, stealing trainers' Pokémon and using them to set hordes and hordes of other Pokémon free. It's during this campaign of Pokémon-pilfering that N meets your character.

As a strong-willed Pokémon abolitionist willing to do whatever it takes to end Pokemon enslavement, N is an incarnation of John Brown, the 19th century revolutionary abolitionist who answered the question of American slavery, with a response he knew would attract the long gaze of the public eye: violence.

John Brown, circa 1856. Unanimously voted South Carolina's "person we'd most like to get a flat tyre" in 1859.

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.
- John Brown, written on the day of his death

John Brown's raids into pro-slavery lands sent the South into a panic. When the soon-to-be-made-a-state territory of Kansas was overrun by an armed Southern militia, John Brown led his own band of fanatical ideologists into the region, cornered the leaders of the opposing group, and hacked several of them to death at swordpoint. But that wasn't enough for Mr. Brown. In 1859, he led yet another raid into Southern territory, this time assaulting the nation's federal arsenal in hopes that he could lead a slave revolt, divvy out the weapons he found, and cut through the South with an army of freed slaves. His plan failed, and he was executed, but it became a crying call of the imminent American Civil War.

In Black & White, your character represents the South during the Bleeding of Kansas. Apparently[2], he runs into both Team Plasma and N every time you turn a street corner to buy a corn dog[3]. Each time you face N, he unleashes a different set of Pokémon to take on your group. We can assume that this is because

a) he's setting his old sets free after every battle out of guilt for using them to fight in the first place, or...

b) he's somehow convinced the Pokemon he frees to join his fight. After all, he's fighting for their freedom.

Unfortunately for N, your pro-slavery dream team of minions stomp his Pokémon to the curb time and again, just as the South did against John Brown.

Though he won a few minor skirmishes, John Brown's armed abolitionist revolution was largely symbolic; concretely, it changed nothing. Slaves continued slaving. Slave owners continued owning. But it did plant yet another seed of doubt in the mind of the American nation... was it possible for two sides to stay united when they routinely shot each other over a single issue? Was owning and controlling human beings a cause worth fighting - even dying - for? Was the participation of their ancestors in the trans-Atlantic triangular slave trade immoral, as it gave European slavers a reason to forcefully enter West African villages and "Catch 'em all?"

"Four-score and seven years ago, our forefathers used black magic to encapsulate a fire-breathing dinosaur pup in a metallic spheroid..."

The Pokémon series, like the American Civil War, is a play on human morality. What was fun when I was twelve - catching, parenting, and having adventures with all the pets I could dream of - suddenly seems wrong. Pre-bellum Southerners who cared and provided for their slaves often felt as though they were giving their "property" a better life than was offered by a harsh, free world, just as I felt that the training and care I offered my Pokémon was a better fate than they would meet fending for themselves in the wild. If I had come into contact with Team Plasma during those days, it might have inspired me to think on the deeper questions of ownership, morality, and human rights. I sincerely hope that kids playing Black & White find themselves contemplating those subjects after their umpteenth run-in with Team Plasma and N.

Many playing Black & White have stated that they feel as if their character is the antagonist. That's understandable, but I don't believe it's the point of Team Plasma's inclusion. As I stated in an earlier footnote, I haven't played Pokemon White, nor Black. My history with the series ends with the now-long-forgotten Pokémon: Yellow. That said, I find the existence of Team Plasma, who may be considered terrorists by some Pokémon fans and crusaders by others, to be utterly praiseworthy. At its core, Pokémon is a light, fun stage for human morality. By adding N and bringing his philosophy of Pokémon liberation into the forefront of Pokémania, Nintendo has added another foot or two of depth to what is otherwise a shallow philosophical pool.

I'll say this now so as not to feed the trolls: people playing Pokémon are not subconsciously hoping that the South will rise again. They are not harbouring secret wishes to become slave-owners. They have never conspired to kill Abraham Lincoln. They are simply enjoying the innocent setting and engaging gameplay of a charming, lighthearted series that has captured the hearts of millions since its inception over a decade ago.

Gotta love Team Plasma. Gotta love Pokemon. Gotta catch 'em all.


[1] No, it was not Casa Bonita. Yes, Casa Bonita really exists. To sum it up: bad food and chiseled cliff divers.^
[2] Rather than spending hard earned money to stimulate our economy, I'm watching a friend play the game over his proverbial shoulder. Many thanks, Joseph Josephiah Jehosephat Gunselman III.^
[3] Not a real expression.^

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- Greg Mengel

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