David Edelstein, writing for Slate.com, reaped a ton of mail on this issue in the wake of his positive "Incredibles" review. Although some parents said that kids' activities were all too competitive where they lived, other writers expressed frustration over the mush-minded esteem-polishing they'd encountered. A school with a poor performance record had boosted it by giving a party with prizes for the students who made the honor roll. But the idea of an earned treat was lambasted in the local paper, which quoted low-scoring students about how left out this made them feel. The school felt pressured to revise the party, inviting every student and "creating spurious awards for positive attitudes and the like." One of Edelstein's correspondents passed along his kids' term for this: "Good breathing, Billy!"Since our children are going to have to live in a meritocracy, it would seem that exposure to the hard knocks of competition is indispensable. Yet every child--every human--really is of equal worth to every other, and the things that school and sports can evaluate may have little bearing on what we will do well at in grown-up life. Schools are caught in the double-bind of wanting to spur the gifted on, while not crushing the strugglers. There isn't an easy answer to that problem. But in the end, the two propositions don't conflict with each other: Every human being is of inherent equal value, yet the world is going to reward the ones who persevere (perhaps even more than the merely gifted). So why is it supposedly right-wing and elitist to be in favor of competition? Everyone living in our economy, even lefties, operates under competitive business rules every day, and we don't hear them whining that it's unfair. On the other hand, Christians support their faith's principle that all humans are of equal value, even the lowest-achieving group of all, unborn children. So where's the left or right in "The Incredibles"? The somewhat-obscure connection is to a philosophy called Objectivism, espoused by author Ayn Rand. Rand's novels revolve around heroes who are shunned by mediocre people but who triumph because of their natural superiority. Objectivism isn't conventionally right-wing; it's in favor of capitalism, but thoroughly atheist, "right" but not "religious right." A few reviewers, such as John Anderson in Newsday and A. O. Scott in The New York Times, thought they sniffed a Randian skunk in "The Incredibles." And a reviewer on the Objectivist website, David Kelley, backs up their lefty paranoia by praising the film for defending "the value of talent and achievement against the leveling values of egalitarianism." But Kelley is worried that the superheroes aren't pure in their Objectivism; it appears that they want to help those less fortunate than they are. To an Objectivist, altruism is the slippery slope to thinking all people are equal. Kelley concludes that the Incredibles just want to exercise their super powers because it gives them pleasure.

You know, that doesn't sound all that different from Lenny the Shark. He wants to be a vegetarian; Mr. Incredible wants to defeat bad guys; can't we all get along? Children's entertainment has always embraced one consistent theme, and that's "Be yourself." Do what you think is right, even when others tease you (like Lenny), or sue you (like Mr. Incredible). Maybe we could even allow ol' Ed Vitagliano to be himself, and make room for his opinion without calling him a "wacko." Parents have a right to know what messages movies communicate, but there's no need to superimpose meanings that would completely elude a child. When we get too hysterical about the hidden themes of movies, it makes us sound, well, like children.