Monday, February 08, 2016
Public Shaming and the Disposable Society (子曰、君子不器)
by Leanne Ogasawara
"When I was an undergraduate, on my way to first day of quantum mechanics class, I was riding up in the elevator with the professor and several (male) students. The professor kindly informed us that this would be the class that “separated the men from the boys.”
Astronomy is really making the news these days. Except it's not for the reasons one would hope or expect; for the headlines keep rolling in one after the other about "astronomy's snowballing cases of sexual harassment."
As a woman, obviously, I think matters like this should never be covered up and that process must be put in place in universities to deal with transgressions. In fact, I go a step further and believe that as "exemplars," anyone who is in a teaching profession should be held up to the very highest moral standards.
Like most women, this is also not something that I am unfamiliar with either.
As an undergraduate at Berkeley in philosophy, I was one of the few women in the program, and I think philosophy has similar kinds of issues as we are seeing in astronomy. Even as an undergraduate it often felt like a kind of "boys club." In Japan, too, in my twenties, I worked at Hitachi, ostensibly as a translator and interpreter; but in fact, as the only "girl" in the department, I spent all my time answering the phones and serving tea and stapling papers and tidying up.
I didn't stay long...
In many ways, "not staying long" is what has characterized my life.
A few years ago, a man I respect greatly asked me why I quit things so much. I think he was referring to my giving up dance --something that I loved-- and then grad school, which I also loved but quit in order to get married. His question, asked suddenly, embarrassed me, and I felt he didn't really get it--that it's harder as a woman to stay on track career-wise or even goal-wise. In fact, at my now advanced age of almost 48, I am coming more and more to be convinced that most women get stuck doing the real dirty work in the world and that their engagement with "woman's" work--with children, in schools, as nurses, as wives--is the most unsung, unappreciated work there is. I really did feel that at least in Japan, cooking real meals and tending the home (including taking care of aging parents) was valued and honored. There should be honor in all work. At home or in the office. So, in some way in the US, it is a bitter pill not to have equality in the work place since working at home as a mother and wife is so utterly devalued.
So, yes I do think there are major issues in terms of sexism and racism in academia and that these should be thoroughly addressed and dealt with.
But is public shaming and career-ruining an "effective?" way of handling this problem?
Someone actually used those words, by the way. It was posted on a friend's facebook page about how "effective public shaming is" for cases like this. Well, sure, it does effectively ruin the person's career and maybe life. But even if one thinks that the battle has been won (which I don't), I would suggest the war has been lost in the process. And this is a seriously scary problem we are now seeing in the world.
Indeed, it is depressing that the Internet and modern media seems to be making us uglier and less tolerant as human beings, rather than any better.
Journalist Jon Ronson lays this all out in a video that I highly recommend people take a look at below. The video is really sad--and one has to wonder what happened to us that we have become as a society so incredibly unkind to each other?
People say it all really started with Monica Lewinsky, but this was something I particularly noticed when I returned from Japan almost five years ago. That we are becoming a "blame-gaming" society.... I mean, it's all you hear. Democrats ripping apart Republicans and Republicans ripping apart Democrats (we got it, you think the other side is stupid--now can you talk about the issues?), women doing male bashing, and people really getting nasty about other people. Instead of old fashion gossip, we are talking about whole-sale character assassination. And it is relentless and seemingly without end. After two decades in Japan, this was incredibly shocking --and to be honest, a really unsavory and unpleasant change in our society.
Jon Ronson does such a good job laying out how this kind of public shaming does NOT equal social justice. This is really important, I think. If you would talk to this great lady physicist, I guess she would say that child care and equal career opportunities is what she needed. When you ruin one person's career how does that help the underlying economic issues that really hold people back? And this brings me to my second point, the practice is also effectively blurring any nuanced understanding of what makes a major transgression and what makes for a minor one. This was really disturbing in the case of the astronomers as fairly serious transgressions were being treated in the same broad brushstrokes as people who said silly jokes. The comment at the top of the page is an example I am using of an ill choice of words being blown way out of proportion. I would say the Tim Hunt case was another of this type as well.
We have become a society where people are utterly unable to bracket their personal feelings and preferences in favor of optimizing the needs of all interested parties.
It is the world of feelings run amok.
Everything offends everyone.
And does the policing of language ever really work when it is so heavy handed? I think the Maoists and the McCarthyists really did think they were working for a better society --and significantly, similar to what we see today, minor transgressions (as they defined them) were treated basically the same as major ones so you had a "you are with us or against us" mentality going on and the result was, a lot of talented people felt bullied into silence (or at least being so careful they were utterly humorless). I think the mentor-student relationship has long been wrought with issues of transgression--some serious and some less so but the last time I checked, we were a rule of law society and there is such a thing as process--right?
Charles Taylor suggests in his book A Secular Age that one should at least be suspicious of terms like "zero tolerance" since it hints at a totalitarian approach in which one group actually believes that they can police another group to the level of zero deviation from their intended social reforms. Taylor's book is incredibly stimulating on this topic of totalitarian approaches to "reform." And I do think what we are seeing today is a kind of totalitarian policing and ideological initiation by the elite. Or to put it a different way, the generation that is offended by everything and tries to insist on a certain ideological policing among elites (紅衛兵?), rather than seriously addressing the real (economic) issues that hold people back —we will not be remembered kindly.
I usually only turn to Confucius when I hit rock bottom.
I am now re-reading Hall and Ames fantastic book, Thinking Through Confucius, and remembering a time when my son was younger and we left Japan and spent one six month stint in LA with my mom. He was 3 and he attended a local preschool in the US. During the first parent-teacher meeting, the teacher mentioned that he had a very developed "moral sense." That is, he was always concerned about being good, was generous and considerate. Returning to Japan, however, his father immediately noticed how he kept using the Japanese expression .."fault" (to have responsibility); as in, "that was his fault."
People just don't talk that way in Japan (blame is avoided, I would say). And so his father was very worried that he would never cut it in school if he was always casting blame on people. A bad American habit, he said, "Even adults hesitate to use that expression." Over the years there, I struggled to get him to just indirectly express dislike for the action without casting blame on the person who commits the action, but sure enough this came up again in 1st grade at his first parent-teacher meeting.... his teacher complained that he gets very upset when someone breaks a rule and will blame the person. And in her words, "to blame a person will then cast blame back on your son and ruin the harmony of the group."
She said it was a problematic behavior that we needed to address with him.
When his teacher said that, I stupidly responded, "Well, maybe if you enacted swifter punishments....?" To which she said, "When a child misbehaves, it is just because we have not educated them enough. I promise, give it time and as a group they will all improve together."
"It just may take some of the boys longer," she added giggling.
Do you remember that scene at the end of the Last Emperor when Puyi was made to write unending, hansei-bun 反省文 (essays repenting past misdeeds)... I don't know about in China, but in Japan those essays start the moment the kids learn how to write. And, no self-recriminations are involved. Hansei 反省 is always about the action-- not the person. It is interesting but basically, the children are to write what the misdeed was, and why it was unacceptable. No where is any fault cast on the person, but rather it is always in the hope of improving behavior by talking about the misdeed in terms of the context in which it was performed.
Hansei bun is a practice adults continue on into their careers, too.
Even mothers, by the way, have 反省会 (meetings to discuss our mis-deeds) after each and every event. It is a disaster for me since I never see the tiny mistakes and usually smile, "Didn't we do a great job??" To which no one ever responds and other people step up to point all the mistakes that I never even ever would have noticed.... Everything is mentioned and discussed in the passive tense so there is no actor just action, and then we (as a group) vow to do better next time.
This is something I have always liked about Confucian style education (in Japan)--this idea that everyone is capable of improvement and that education (and correction) should be process oriented. Transgressions should be addressed through process as appropriate. And that said, then, do we really need to rake people over the coals to this level? To believe someone is capable of rehabilitation and improvement is to show respect to their inherent human worth.
Like most people, I was really shocked about the dentist who killed the lion. Who would do that? It is something that is outside my ability to really "get." I guess others felt similarly-- but wow did people get ugly. People calling for his death ("I hope someone kills you and skins you alive" "I hope you die of cancer") and others making a concerted effort to destroy his business. See Ronson's video for many examples of this really ugly behavior. People are not one thing (子曰、君子不器). And we have to all own the fact that we have been complicit in a world that creates people like this. Especially Americans are consumers of a meat industry that utilizes slaughter practices that future generations will be appalled by... I think this actually is one of the biggest ethical issues we face as a people: how the US food industry treats animals. Isn't it better to look at the unethical practices that are embedded in the system in our society rather than turning people into scapegoats over and over and pretending that this somehow changes things?
Concerning the Caltech professor who was involved in the scandal, someone said that the transgressor would now be "a pariah" and "could never show his face on campus again...." It sounded straight out of a movie about the McCarthy era ....
I am not saying people should not be sanctioned and punished if they break rules of conduct-- but what I am saying is that the ugly rhetoric lacking totally in any compassion is not doing anyone any favors (except the person engaging in character assassination since it makes them feel powerful). Witch hunts, public shaming and lynching are really ugly. It seems it has become a kind of pastime in our society. How did we becoming so uncharitable to others? We in the US now have more people in jail than Stalin had in his gulags--and isn't it the same kind of impulse to throw people who "don't work for us" away...just take out the garbage....? Tolerance and social justice must come with respect for the humanity of all people, even those whose behavior is offensive to the elite. I guess I agree with Hillary Clinton that there is just too much meanness and dissent (coming from her, that is REAL CHUTZPAH!); for as Confucius famously said (Fingarette's translation), "A noble man is not a utensil" (子曰、君子不器).
The noble man is the man who most perfectly having given up the self, ego, obstinacy and personal pride (9:4) follows not personal profit but the Way. Such a man has come to fruition as a person; he is a consummate man. He is a Holy Vessel. --Herbert Fingarette (Confucius: The Secular as Sacred)
Paintings by Bui Huu Hung (lacquer on wood)
Looking forward to this: Against Individualism: A Confucian Rethinking of the Foundations of Morality, Politics, Family and Religion, by Henry Rosemont and The Decline of Mercy, by Tuckness and Parrish
Kerry James Marshall. Lost Boys: AKA 8 ball, 1992.
Three Moments in America’s Conversation on Race
In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led “to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence--one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presense was crucial to their sense of Americanness.” That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans.
Let’s consider three imaginative works where race is an issue. First we have Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is not American, of course, but English. The character of Caliban, who may not even be human, marks the imaginative space the English used for understanding Africans. The play was written and performed at about the same time as Jamestown, Virginia, as first settled.
Then we move forward two and a half centuries to late 19th Century. America has established itself as an independent nation and fought its bloodiest war, the Civil War, over the status of the American sons and daughters of Caliban. We find Huck Finn fleeing his abusive father by rafting down the Mississippi with a runaway slave. Jim sure isn’t Shakespeare’s Caliban nor is Huck a Prospero. I conclude with a counter narrative from the early 20th Century, an African-American “toast”, as they’re called, about the sinking of the Titanic. Think of such oral narratives as antecedents of rap and hip-hop.
The symbolic universe of white America originated in Europe. In The White Man's Burden, Winthrop D. Jordan showed that by the Early Modern era Europeans had become disposed to see blacks as strongly emotional and sensual, qualities they were coming to reject in themselves. In the late Renaissance blacks were likened to beasts. In Bacon's New Atlantis (1624) the “Spirit of Fornication” was depicted as “a little foul ugly Æthiop” (p. 19). Jordan notes that Englishmen “were especially inclined to discover attributes in savages which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves”. Thus before the European settlers of North America had any substantial contact with Africans, they had a violent and lascivious place prepared in their symbol system through which to understand and interact with them.
We can see this symbol system in Shakespeare's The Tempest. The central character, Prospero, is a magician who calls storms into being and conjures visions before the eyes of the other characters. In this conjuring he enacts the dramatist's role. Prospero is Shakespeare's symbolic representation of his own role in life and The Tempest is his statement about the nature and purpose of dramatic art. In this play Shakespeare presents his symbolic universe, a symbolic universe which has been central to the imaginative life of European culture. In his plays Shakespeare drew on a wide variety of sources, but The Tempest is his own through and through. In it, he distilled all he had embraced in his career and presented the essence. What role does he assign to Africans?
There is one character in the play, Caliban, who is generally thought to embody European views of Africans. Stephano, one of the strangers shipwrecked on Prospero's island, remarks thus of Caliban on first seeing him:
What's the matter? Have we devils here? Do you put tricks upon 's with savages and men of Inde, ha? I have not scaped drowing to be afeard now of your four legs. . . . This is some monster of the isle, with four legs, who hath got, as I take it, an ague. Where the devil should he learn our langauge? . . . If I can recover him, and keep him tame, and get to Naples with him, he's a present for any emperer that ever trod on neat's leather. (The Tempest, II. ii. 58-72)
Caliban was, in point of mythical fact, the son of Sycorax, a witch who lived on the island when Prospero arrived. Prior to the time of the play, Prospero taught him to speak and made him his slave. Then Caliban fell from Prospero's favor after attempting to rape Miranda. During the play Caliban is part of a ludicrous plot to overthrow Prospero–which will then give him sexual access to Miranda. Thus Caliban is plagued with the sexuality which Europeans have been seeing in non-Europeans, especially Africans, ever since they began to trade with and to conquer them.
However, when the overthrow plot is finally foiled, Prospero asserts of Caliban that “this thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” (5.1.275 - 276). Prospero is now taking responsibility for Caliban's rebellious and sexual ways. That means that, in some sense, Prospero now regards them as his own rebellious and sexual ways. Prospero and Caliban are one being, with Prospero representing the conscious desires and Caliban the unconscious.
We don't have to push this very far to get into waters deep and dark. For, Caliban had originally fallen from favor for attempting to rape Miranda, Prospero's daughter. If Caliban is but an agent for Prospero's own repressed desire, then it was Prospero who had, unconsciously, desired to rape his daughter. With this acknowledgement, we are now in the psychological realm pioneered by Sigmund Freud. The notion of unconscious sexual desire between members of the same family was shocking in Freud's day, as it is in ours. But in our day, incest has become the kind of shock that is discussed on talk shows and in tabloids. We are, at last, trying to deal with such matters.
Modern filmmakers, for example, can be freer and more explicit about the relationship between the conscious and unconscious than Shakespeare could ever have been. For example, Forbidden Planet is a science fiction film from the mid-fifties and was based loosely on The Tempest. Instead of a nobleman/magician marooned on an island in the Mediterranean we have a brilliant scientist, one Dr. Morbius, marooned on a distant planet. Instead of the sprite Ariel to do Prospero's bidding, we have Robbie the Robot. Instead of Caliban the man-monster, we have the Monster from the Id. Recognizing the symbolic connection between Caliban and the id of Freudian psychology, these filmmakers made that connection explicit by naming the monster after that very id. In the movie, the monster arose when Morbius's unconscious somehow linked up with a fantastic power-generating system left behind by an ancient, and now dead, civilization. A connection that Shakespeare had only hinted at was made more explicit by post-Freudian filmmakers of the fifties.
Returning to Shakespeare, the point is that, however great his artistry, he was not exempt from standard European prejudice. He painted Caliban with the same brush Europeans used to paint their pictures of Africa and Africans. However, he did, just barely, manage to indicate that the colors and forms in that picture came, not from Africa, but from himself, from Europe. Whatever Africans were really like, their picture was European, painted to meet European psychological needs. Caliban was Prospero's creature, acting out those desires which Prospero himself could not acknowledge.
The Tempest was written in 1611 and first performed in 1612. The first enslaved Africans, twenty of them, arrived in North America at Jamestown in 1619. While a culture's symbolic universe can change over time, the necessary time span is greater than the seven or eight years between The Tempest and Jamestown. The symbolic universe Shakespeare presented in his play is the same one inhabited by the Jamestown colonists. Their twenty enslaved Africans would represent the same forces to them that Caliban represented to Shakespeare and his audience. African cultural reality would be forced to bow to the intense pressure of European psychological need.
Sam Clemens and Huck Finn
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about a poor white boy who takes off down the Mississippi River on a raft. Why? The immediate problem was the return of his alcoholic and abusive father. Huck feared for his life, and justifiably so. In order to get to the Mississippi he had to escape from his father's cabin after his father had locked him in. But that's not all that drove him. He had been under the care of the Widow Douglas, who set out to “sivilize” him, dressing him in proper clothes, forcing him to eat supper at the right time, with the correct manners, forbidding him to smoke, insisting on reading to him “about Moses and the Bulrushers”, and so forth. Between his father's probable assault on his body and the Widow's constriction of his spirit, Huck had no choice but to escape.
And so he does, and meets up with Jim, who is also escaping. Huck treats Jim as a black mammy who soothes the wounds inflicted by his abusive father and constricting mother-surrogate. In Jim Huck finds the nurturing parent he so desperately needed, prompting Leslie Fiedler to remark (in Love and Death in the American Novel) that Jim gives Huck:
. . . pure affection . . . without the threat of marriage . . . the protection and petting offered by his volunteer foster-mothers without the threat of pious conformity . . . the friendship offered by Tom without the everlasting rhetoric and make-believe. Jim is all things to him: father and mother and playmate and beloved . . . calling Huck by the names appropriate to their multiform relationship: “Huck” or “honey” or “chile” or “boss,” and just once “white genlman.”
That is an absolutely extraordinary statement, but it is true. At the very heart of American literature we have this story of a dispossessed white boy who finds his deepest emotional satisfaction in the bosom a black man. For the first time in his life Huck feels at home, on a raft in the Mississippi with an escaped slave standing in for his parents.
This is a rootless image of home. Which is to say that it is a contradiction, for home is where one's roots are. Home is where the heart is. Huck's heart was threatened by his father and kept at a distance by the good Widow. Where there is no heart, home is just a house. Huck finds fellowship only with a man who is, by virtue of his race and history, an outcast to Huck's society, and that's saying something, for Huck himself is pretty marginal.
Thus the novel collapses at the end, with no real resolution, no home achieved. Jim finally tells Huck that his father is dead. Though now a free man, there is no sense of a viable future for Jim. As for Huck, he's going to “light out for the territory . . . because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it.” Home on the Mississippi has dissipated and our protagonist can only return to rootless wandering.
In the symbolic structures of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, emotional fullness and ease exist only in African America. Jim is an ideal type, an Aunt Jemima in a male body. Yet Mark Twain had no way of reclaiming that emotional richness for European American, not even in the provisional and fictive magic of the novel. He didn't make Jim a white man, say, accused of a crime he didn't commit, because his symbolic universe would not and could not function with a white man in the narrative's central parental role. The only way he had to point up the radical difference between the upbringing Huck had had and the upbringing he needed was to clothe that difference in the most radical symbolic opposition the culture had available, the difference between black and white.
Yet, less than a half-century later—Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884—young white boys like Bix Biederbecke and Benny Goodman, Huck's spiritual descendants, would listen to jazz records and sneak into jazz clubs where they would admire black musicians and aspire to play like them—for a fictional example, see my discussion of Young Man With a Horn. What these boys did was no longer symbolic, it was real¬—a reality shaped by centuries of fiction. Their black role models were hardly ideal; they certainly were not Aunt Jemima types. What jazz musicians, black and white, have in common is that they play jazz. Otherwise they are as diverse as any other occupational group. But the imagined events of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn molded the lives of real people, helping to prepare a place in the white man's soul that would make it easier for him to pattern his music on a black model.
Just as white folks have been using stories as a way of negotiating a place for black folks in their world, so black folks have been reciprocating in various kinds. The toast is one of these kinds, a form of boasting narrative in the African-American oral tradition that is a precursor to rap and hip-hop.
Scholars started collecting toasts in the late 1960s, but they are undoubtedly much older. The Titanic toast is about, well, the sinking of the Titanic. A mythic black boiler man, Shine, escapes from the sinking ship and swims safely ashore. The ship’s captain attempts to keep Shine on board, first offering him money and then offering the sexual favors of white women, including his own daughter. Shine rejects all offers and remains steadfast in his determination to swim ashore. The poem thus rejects white evaluation of black character by depicting a white authority figure as being so depraved as to offer his daughter up to a boiler man for no rational purpose. More obviously, "Titanic" is also about white arrogance, the arrogance that believed the Titanic to be unsinkable, or, more recently, the arrogance that believed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico couldn’t fail. You can multiply examples at will.
Here’s a version by George Clinton to a musical accompaniment:
Here’s another version without music that’s posted to YouTube by Nanna2590:
I'm a weaver of the word, not a maker of rhyme
But I'm going to tell you the story about my man, my main man Shine.
It was a helluva day in the merry month of May,
Shine was the stoker on the Titanic that day
When a big iceberg come a floatin' their way.
Shine said, "Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, there's a big iceberg floatin' our way."
Cap'n said, "Shine, Shine, don't you be no clown,
I got ninety-nine pumps to pump the water down.
I got pumps made of pipes and chumps to pump.
I got a trillion dollar load I ain't going to dump."
Shine said, "Cap'n Charley, Cap'n Charley, if you look now,
There's a whole lot of ice comin' 'cross the bow.
I ain't never read a book, ain't never been to school,
But Louzeeanna Annie ain't never raised a fool."
Shine said that to himself.
Cap'n Charley said, "Shine, Shine don't you know my might?
Anything I say and do is right.
You work for Cap'n Charley when the sun comes up
You brings my favorite slippers and my coffee cup.
You work for Cap'n Charley, stokin' the coal.
You work for Cap'n Charley and I owns your soul.
You might be a Christian and pray to the Lord,
But on the Titanic, I outranks God."
[Pfister makes a sound to indicate that an iceberg hits the ship]
Then there was a loud, crashin,' smashin' sound
God pulled rank.
Shine said, "You might be the Cap'n on the land and the sea,
You might run the engines, you might turn the key.
You might be Cap'n Charley, well all that's hip,
But I'm gettin' off of Cap'n's stinkin,' sinkin' ship."
Jumped his black butt into the sea, he did.
He said, "I'm going to tell you one thing, and I don't mean maybe,
But I was long and grown when Father Time was a baby.
I done kilt a whole lot of men's way better than you.
Done kilt a thousand V.C. in Dien Bien Phu.
You can be Tarzan and Rambo and Jungle Jim,
But that's one iceberg that sure ain't slim.
Forked is your tongue, I done heard all the lies,
I'm going to ride with the water and make my own enterprise."
Just about then a beggar came on board cryin,'
"Save me, save me, Shine, in the name of the Lord.
I gots money and dollars I can't even spend,
I owns a whole lot of people, got stock in the pen,
I give you fine black women and white ones, too,
because I gots more money than the U.S. Mint do.
I give you big pretty houses and Cadillac cars,
Give you fifty hotels and ninety-nine bars.
I runs all the drugs from Harlem to Watts,
I takes food from the mouths of the tiniest tots,
I buys all the missiles and guns for the planes,
I own ninety-nine ships and three hundred trains.
I give you all the money that a black boy needs,
Give you ten tons of coke and twenty tons of weed."
Shine thought for a while. . . .
"I'm the runner of the world,
The master in the Lord,
I'm going to please her with my Visa and my Bank Americard.
I'll give you money and power and fortune and fame,
Every fine black girl in the world going to know your name."
Shine said, "You can giggle from the weed, you can laugh from the coke,
But get your bootie in the water and cut your stroke.
You can have all your money, your friends and your foes,
You can finance your wars and your G.I. Joes.
You gots more money than a human had oughta,
So get your butt out here in this freezin' cold water.
You rich and you greedy, ain't never been broke,
So get your butt in the water and cut your stroke.
You can call on the mounties and the C.I.A.,
But they going to get their dry behinds wet today.
Sorry, Mr. Banker, I don't need your pain,
because I'll be sittin' with my baby just a listenin' to the Train.
I'm going to swim to New Orleans for some panne meat,
Going to do the Mississippi Mambo down on Claiborne Street.
Going to wear orange and gold and purple and green,
Go runnin' with the Injuns, eat all the red beans.
You might like Chaka, you might like Rufus,
Even Leon Spinks know you lying through your toofus."
Just then the banker's daughter floated by Shine.
She said, "Come over here, Shine.
Save some o'little ole mine.
I got a body like a ballard and cheeks like Gladys,
Butt like Bertha and hair like Alice.
I got legs like Tina and a chest like Dolly,
I can almost sing colored and lilac ollie."
He said, "I like my women's lips red and my crawfish burled
I like the mamas with the boom booms and their hair all curled.
I like hot filŒ gumbo and devilish eggs.
I like them Uptown girls with they big fine legs,
I like Downtown womens with they night dark eyes,
I like Backatown womens with they big brown thighs.
I done lived on the land and on ships in the sea,
And the ladies on land is the ladies for me."
And Shine swam on. . . .
Shine swam down past the Florida Keys,
He was trembling in the arms and weak in the knees.
While Shine was a'swimming, the ocean grew dark,
And he bumped right into a great, big shark,
A biiigggg black one.
The shark he was purty, with pearly white teeth,
He said, "Come over here, Shine, I'm a make you my meat.
You sure look good, swimming in my sea,
Gon' make a right mighty fine meal for me.
I ain't got no chilrens and I don't have a wife,
But one thing I got is your no-swimming life.
I'm a take you and eat you and swallow you whole,
Make you cuss the very day your mammy borned your soul.
I'm big and I'm strong, I takes what I like,
I done robbed Robin Givens and beat up Mike.
Yeah, Mr. Shine, Mack the Knife is sweet,
I can outswim a wave, and I like dark meat.
I rules all the waters, I'm King o'the sea,
Ain't ne'er whale or minnow can get past me.
All the fishes in the water gets outta my way,
From the Rock o'Gibraltar to Barataria Bay.
Ran into a whale, he thought he was slick,
Lil' minnow told me his name was Moby-Dick.
When I tore my teeth into that little ole whale,
I had to hang out a sign saying [high-pitched voice], `Blubber for sale.'
I done wrote with Alex Haley and dunked with Kareem,
Hung with I. W. Harper, got drunk with Jim Beam.
I done ate up the bones o'Gunga Din,
Got Cap'n Bligh's blood on my chinnie, chin, chin.
I done ate up some pirate when they walked the plank,
I done lied with Nixon and sang with Frank.
I done ate German subs and planes full o'people,
Ate the rock from the Hudson and the bell from the steeple.
I done ate up the quail that was hiding in the bush,
Took your grandma to the mountain and gave her a push.
I'm a meeaann shark.
I done ate up Sally, I done ate up Sue,
Start choking, quit stroking, I'm a eat up you!"
Shine said, "Mr. Shark, I'm a tell you, and it ain't no lie,
I taught the Signifying Monkey how to signify.
I done taught Hank Aaron how to hit the ball,
I showed Barbie's mammy how to make a doll.
That ain't really nothing, cause I tell you what,
I done showed Big Bertha how to do the butt.
You might rule the water from London to Selma,
But you ain't no badder than J. J. and Thelma.
My daddy's a poet, my mama's a singer,
I got a uncle out West who's a baaadd gunslinger,
Kilt three white men and lived, he did.
If you wants you some bones and some flesh to tear,
There's a cap'n and a banker and his daughter out there.
If you might chance to think you can catch this man,
You might as well be a tuna in a tunafish can.
Who you out here call yo'self trying to warn?
All you sayin' ain't but talk behind the barn.
You mighta ate a lotta pirates when they walked the plank,
But I likes shark meat, don't you see my shank?
I like red, silky shirts, I done paid my dues,
I like black Cadillacs and shark-skin shoes.
You might rule the ocean, reign over the sea,
But you gotta grow new fins to outswim me.
And Shine swam on.
The Titanic sank and a lotta folk died,
Grandmamas was weepin' and little babies cried.
When the news hit shore about the Titanic that night,
Shine was in New Orleans, high as a kite!
He played him some music with Satcha-moe,
Went to a cemetery party with Marie Laveau.
He was the slickest and the quickest,
He was fine like wine.
He was wicked in the picket, my man, Shine.
They thought Shine was dead, somewhere down afar,
But Shine was in New Orleans,
Hankin' and a pankin'
Glidin' and a slidin'
Honkin' and a tonkin'
Dreamin' and a schemin'
Smackin' and a mackin'
Smokin' and a jokin'
Bammin' and a jammin'
Jumpin' and a bumpin'
Winkin' and a blinkin'
Coolin' and a schoolin'
Juicin' and a goosin'
Hangin' and a bangin'
Skinnin' and a grinnin'
Rappin' and a yappin'
Buggin' and a huggin'
Gigglin' and a wigglin'
Hobbin' and a knobbin'
Peepin' and a creepin'
Maxin' and relaxin'
Funkin' and a junkin'
Chillin' and a illin'
In the neighborhood bar.
Yeah, yeah, in the neighborhood bar—Shine.
Leadership lessons from The Walking Dead - (Donald Trump, take note!)
by Sarah Firisen
We've all known great leaders. People that we’d walk through fire for, but what makes them such great leaders? As the Presidential primary season gets under way, perhaps it’s worth considering what leadership really is. Because despite the inevitable primary bickering over whether a businessman, senator or a governor makes a more effective President, what we’re really looking for is leadership.
Are great leaders born or can these traits be developed? Or is it a combination of the two? People are born with certain natural abilities , but per Malcolm Gladwell’s, Outliers hour rule, it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery (this of course probably goes for most things). So does this mean that with enough conscious effort, anyone can be a great leader? I do think that motivation has a part to play. The key word here is “great”. Someone who wants to lead for reasons outside of personal aggrandizement, outside of pure power for power’s sake. Maybe, a person with those core attributes can work towards achieving mastery.
Having worked in the leadership development field for a number of years now, I would say that “leaders” can be divided into various camps. There’s the “people love me and would follow me to the end of the earth” guy; it’s probably not true if you’re that sure it is. There’s the “I’m tough but fair, and people respect that”; yeah, I bet they don’t. There’s the total asshole who really doesn’t care and thinks that as long as he/she is producing results, his leadership won’t care how dissatisfied his people are. Maybe he/she is right, in the short-term. But how can that be anything but a short-term strategy. You need people with expertise for results. People have choices. People with expertise always have choices. You can only get away with being an asshole for so long. Finally, there’s the “leader” who says: “yes, I’m a total asshole to work for. Don’t care. I pay my people so well that they’ll put up with anything”.
Here’s the problem, there’s copious evidence that, if that ever worked, it’s working less and less well with millennials. They’re not motivated by the same things we were. They want work/life balance and work that provides them with a sense of purpose. Their main driver isn’t money or status. So even if this particular asshole dragged his people behind him in the past, odds are that’s an increasingly losing tactic.
So what do we all look for in a leader? And if you aspire to be a great leader, what traits should you be looking to develop in your 10,000 hours?
Two books that have had an impact on my thinking are “Why should anyone be led by you?” and “the Crucibles of Leadership.” The former by Gareth Jones and the latter by Robert J. Thomas. Jones in both his book and the HBR article that preceded it really challenges the notion that leadership is a right rather than a duty. What makes a person worthy of being followed? What are some of the requisite capabilities and how can those be developed? Anyone can be managed by you, but not anyone can be led by you.
In “The Crucibles of Leadership”, and it’s related HBR article Robert J. Thomas works from the thesis that most great leaders, maybe all great leaders, have gone through a major crucible experience that has changed them, "one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances". This experience helped mold them into their best leadership self, “the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” We all experience major and often traumatic life experiences, what is different about some people is how they navigate their way through the crisis, then learn and grow from the experience. According to Thomas, ”Great leaders don’t see themselves as the victims of their circumstances, but instead accept their reality. Their crucible experience forges them into extraordinary leaders.”
So that’s some of the literature. But now let’s look at an application of some of these theories. One of my favorite TV shows these days is The Walking Dead. Every time I try to get my boyfriend to watch it he gives me this look and says rather dismissively, “I don’t watch shows about zombies”. What I can’t get him to see is that it’s not a show about zombies. I mean, on one level it clearly is; the premise of the show is that a virus has afflicted humanity, turning the dead into zombies. A zombie bite will turn a living person into a zombies, or walkers. There are zombies everywhere. But on another level, it’s not really a show about zombies, it’s a show about people. About how people cope when their lives are turned upside down. When civilization as they’ve known it is in ruins. When lawlessness reigns and survival at all costs is a valid life choice.
Rick Grimes, our hero, was just a small town sheriff's deputy in rural Georgia with a wife and son, an everyman. A couple of episodes in, Rick is already emerging as a natural leader. By season 6, he’s developed into a great leader who people will follow into hell. Why? In all likelihood, if the virus hadn’t broken out, Rick would never have grown into the leader that he is by the current point in the series. He would have just been that guy. That good guy who went to work every day, went to his son’s football practice and tried to live the best life he could.
Rick has various crucible moments, in fact, a case could be made that every episode piles on a new one. But two of his early major ones are when he has to kill his best friend Shane for the good of the group of survivors and when his wife Lori dies. But everyone in The Walking Dead has lost people. Usually many people. Everyone has faced death and committed terrible acts they never would have thought themselves capable of. These experiences harden some, drive others mad. What’s different about Rick?
Well to go back to “Why should anyone be led by you”, Rick exhibits authentic whole leadership. He has great self-awareness, his values are clear to himself and to the people around him. He knows his blind spots, his strengths and weaknesses and he builds a team of people around him to compensate for his weaknesses rather than denying them. Which means he knows and acknowledges the strengths of his people.
Rick has a clarity of vision for himself and for his group. That vision is clearly and firmly articulated: his group knows, he ALWAYS has their back and will never leave anyone behind. In this brutal, lawless, world, that clarity of purpose binds his group together and to him.
Rick’s not the “best man” in the group, that honor has been shared by Glenn and Hershel.
Glenn has never killed a living person. Hershel was until his death the moral compass of the group. But Rick, while he has killed, has a very strict and clear moral code. This is encapsulated in the three questions he asks new potential group members: how many walkers have you killed? How many people have you killed? Why? The question isn’t have you killed, but why have you killed. Asking these questions quickly gives Rick a sense of the choices the person has made and insight into their beliefs and morality
Rick’s not the smartest person in the group and he’s definitely not the best survivor, that’s Darryl. There are people better, tougher people. But there’s never been any real challenge to Rick’s leadership, because there’s more to true leadership than being the best at everything (Trump might reflect on this fact).
It’s often, maybe usually, the case that the most fearsome encounters the group has had have been with other groups of survivors. And these groups always have a leader, because most people need to follow someone. And in all cases, the seeds of the group’s destruction can be found in the flaws of the leader.
The charismatic leader of Woodbury, Georgia, The Governor is a man who, like Rick Grimes led a wholly unremarkable life before the outbreak. He has had his own potential crucibles, his daughter was bitten and became a walker. Losing his daughter made him cold, severe and paranoid. The Governor reveals himself to be a brutal, irrational leader.
While initially, Woodbury seems to be a sanctuary, it quickly becomes clear that The Governor deals with potential threats to his community by executing most newcomers. Finally, after leading his group into a totally unnecessary and unsuccessful ambush, the Governor turns on his own people, slaughtering some, abandoning the rest.
Gareth, is the leader of Terminus, seemingly the ultimate sanctuary, luring people in with the posted signs for miles around, "Sanctuary for all. Community for all. Those who arrive survive.” But actually, it’s a community of cannibals but whose actual motto is "You're the butcher or you're the cattle.“
Gareth claims that there was a time when Terminus was a real sanctuary and he was a good, generous man who was willing to help others to survive. However, after a brutal attack on the community, his crucible, he became a cunning, brutal, cold blooded mass murderer.
Again, he’s another charismatic, intelligent man, who claims to be just taking extreme measures to stay alive and to keep his group alive. But in doing so, he’s lose his humanity, any capacity for empathy he ever had.
Dawn Learner, the leader of a group of police officers residing at Grady Memorial Hospital.
She at least initially seems to have good intentions as she attempts to maintain peace in the brutalized and corrupt system she runs.
She’s strong, pragmatic, focused but stern. But she’s revealed to be the essence of corrupt authority. Whatever safety she offers always comes with a price and she believes that the means always justify the ends, if they’re her ends. Any goodness is a façade masking an obsessive and violent need for control
Deanna, a congresswoman before the outbreak, is the leader of Alexandria, a walled-off community that has been spared much engagement with walkers, for reasons that later become horrifyingly clear. Deanna is a caring, compassionate, insightful woman who is committed to her community.
She shares many of Rick’s best traits and they share an understanding and mutual respect from the beginning. But she encourages her community in the fantasy that they’re safe and resents any attempts by Rick to make them face reality. In the end, this is her community’s downfall when they’re utterly unprepared to face the horrors that inevitably finally catch up with them.
All these “leaders” had some of the necessary traits for great leadership:
They engage others in a shared meaning, even it is a deeply morally flawed shared meaning.
They all have distinctive and compelling voices. None of them are lacking in charisma. Deanna has a very strong sense of integrity and values and Dawn could be said to have adaptive capacity.
But none of them have all of the traits of great leadership. Only Rick does. For him, it’s not survival at all costs, it’s also about helping his people keep their humanity intact. Every other “leader” in this brutal world chooses one or the other, only Rick works to keep them in balance, however challenging that is.
But every leader should strive for continuous improvement. Rick’s default mode up to this point has been reactive to the constant dangers around him. And this makes a lot of sense; there have been a lot of dangers and he’s scared to let his guard down, both personally and for his people,. But at some point, he has to start being more forward looking and strategic.
What does life look like if and when the danger lessens? Life in Alexandria showed that Rick isn’t comfortable standing down. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the legend of Robin Hood. But I was also intrigued by the notion of what happens to Robin Hood and his Merry Men once good King Richard is back on the throne. Once you’ve spent too much time in reactive, hero mode, it’s often hard to adjust to peace and security.
Perhaps the answer is that Rick’s not the leaders for a future state of the group. Being the leader in crisis is not the same as being the leader for a stable growth. And that’s often recognized by the leader and the group around them. I once worked for the greatest guy in the world who acknowledged that he was great at starting companies, not so great at leading them once they grew to a certain size and stability. And it could be seen as the ultimate sign of great leadership to have that level of self-awareness and knowledge.
But if Rick is to be that future leader, he has to develop into someone who doesn’t just react to the disruption around him, but can lead his group through disruption to a more sustainable future.
Monday, February 01, 2016
Stephen Gill. Outside In Explosion.
Criticism and Debate
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
When it comes to political questions, reasonable people disagree. Reasonable disagreement persists also in philosophy, religion, and a broad array of interpersonal matters. That's life. And, indeed, we must live; we must make decisions, set plans, and adopt policies that affect, interest, and impact others. Our decisions have drawbacks, actions have consequences, and plans impose costs on others. We cannot always just go our own way; we have to consult others in trying to figure out how to go on. Hence disagreements arise.
Any view important enough to stimulate disagreement is a view that will look to some reasonable others as prohibitively costly, suboptimal, incorrect, or foolhardy. Thus assessing the drawbacks of one's view is where the argument concerning its overall merit begins, not where it ends. Thoughtful people are aware that their views will strike some reasonable others as manifestly rejectable, and consequently, thoughtful people take reasonable criticism not always as an attack on their proposals, but rather as an occasion for thinking and saying more about them. In some instances, the case can be made that the drawbacks of one's view must be borne (because, perhaps, the viable alternatives are yet even worse); in other cases, it might be arguable that the costs of adopting one's view are merely apparent or on the whole insignificant. The point is that it's plainly insipid to proceed as if the fact that an opponent's view is imperfect were a decisive reason to reject it. Showing that an interlocutor's proposal is thoroughly criticizable is never the end of the matter. What must also be shown is that the interlocutor's criticizable proposal is inferior to the other (criticizable) proposals worth considering. And that comparative task requires us to allow our interlocutors to respond to our criticisms.
The trouble is that so much popular political debate seems to presuppose that the only political view worth accepting would be one that could not be reasonably criticized.
Accordingly, in popular political argument, a view is proposed, an objection is lodged, and then that's it – everyone moves on. Sure, the initial proponent may try salvage his view in response to the criticism, but the more serious the criticism looks at first glance, the less likely it is that the rebuttal will be heard. Political arguers – including especially political candidates – are thus driven to a kind of public dogmatism. They are incentivized to act as though their views are immune to criticism, and that any apparent objection is a diversion motivated by an opposing and unthinking political agenda.
A great irony arises. These insipid public exchanges of political pronouncements are billed as debates. But they are nothing of the kind. Debate is the appropriate format for political thinking; when we are collectively deciding as a political body, our views should be informed by the give and take of ideas and the exchange of reasons and criticisms. What are presented to the citizenry as political debates are in fact spectacular and galling failures. Consider the current contest for the Republican Presidential nomination; there, it is regarded as an absolutely devastating objection to a proposal for immigration reform that it involves anything that can be labeled "amnesty." No contrast of the costs and benefits of such a view with those of any viable alternative policy is ever considered. In philosophy, the fact that relativism seems on its face self-refuting, is all too regularly used as a closing argument against the view. Or, in religion, the atheist's question "who made God?" is given way too much credit for being a final refutation of theism.
Perhaps, in the end, these objections really are decisive refutations of the views against which they are raised. We are not denying that; in fact, we hold that self-refutation does undermine relativism, and the atheist's question does defeat many of the thesis's claims. But the force of these critical maneuvers can be revealed only in the course of further discussion among disputants. No doubt, thoughtful Republicans who favor amnesty have a defense of their proposals. And no sophisticated relativist or self-reflective theologian would lack replies to the self-refutation and explanatory regress problems, either. Every view brings with it philosophical problems all its own – with some views, the problems are unbearable, with others, they are manageable. What it is to be a mature proponent of a view is to be able to recognize this fact and have intelligent things to say when others raise their criticisms. And maturity also demands that one be willing to hear the longer story from those one has criticized.
Our suspicion is that, especially with regard to televised political debates, there are structural reasons why things do not proceed in the way they should. Perhaps it's true that nuanced argument makes for awful television. But, further, it's also likely to be true that nuanced argument makes for insufficiently compelling national politics – in what is billed as political debate, the candidates' objective isn't finding the defensible version of an opponent's view, but of winning, scoring points, and making the other person look bad. Responding properly to objections is simply a failing strategy. And perhaps the same goes for the more academic discussions, too. We all have our favorite guilty-pleasure writers who defend an idea with flair and defeat their opponents with overwhelming, thunderous criticism. Opponents are presented as being left speechless, reduced to silence. In fact, this image of the silenced interlocutor is presented in an exaggerated and comedic form in Robert Nozick's famous aspiration to formulate a philosophical argument so compelling that, upon hearing it, were one to oppose the conclusion, one's head would explode.
Nozick's image of the philosophical aspiration is admittedly attractive. But this aspiration is only that. Nobody has ever formulated an argument that would kill those who deny its conclusion. And nobody has ever formulated an objection that does the same. Such are the immature, though perhaps understandable, conceptions of what good argument should be. Maturity means realizing that, when arguing about important matters seriously, your opponents probably have heard your objections before, and they have plenty to say back. When it comes to important matters worth disagreeing over, there are no winning one-liners. A longer conversation, with some distinctions and perhaps some concessions, will have to take place. And in the end, everything will turn on the messy and imprecise processes by which evidence, reasons, arguments, and considerations of disparate kinds and categories are weighed against each other to produce a conclusion that will inevitably be one among many plausible options. If only it made better television.
Philosophical Views on the Refugee Crisis
by Jalees Rehman
Nearly half a million applications for asylum submitted by refugees were processed by German authorities in 2015, according to the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration. The number of people who were officially registered in Germany as potential asylum seekers was even far higher-roughly one million in 2015 – which suggests that Germany anticipates an even higher number of official asylum applications for 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defied many critics even in her own party and cabinet by emphasizing that Germany can and will take on more refugees, most of whom are coming from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. "We can do it!" ("Wir schaffen das!") was the phrase she used in September of 2015 to convey her optimism and determination in the face of ever-growing numbers of refugees and the gradual rise of support for far right extremist demonstrations and violent attacks by far right extremists on refugees centers in Germany.
The German media and right wing populists are currently obsessing about statistics such as the fact that the far right and libertarian party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland - Alternative for Germany) will garner 10% of the popular vote or that the vast majority of the refugees are male and could lead to a demographic gender shift if they remain in Germany. While such statistics serve as an important barometer of the political climate in the German electorate or to prepare for the challenges faced by the refugees and German society in the next years, they do not address the fundamental philosophical questions raised by this refugee crisis. In the latest issue of the popular German philosophy periodical "Philosophie Magazin", the editors asked philosophers and other academic scholars to weigh in on some of the key issues and challenges in the face of this crisis.
Should we be motivated by a sense of global responsibility when we are confronted with the terrible suffering experienced by refugees whose homes have been destroyed? The sociologist Hartmut Rosa at the University of Jena responds to this question by suggesting that we should focus on Verbundenheit ("connectedness") instead of Verantwortung ("responsibility"). Demanding that those of us who lead privileged lives of safety and reasonable material comfort should feel individually responsible for the suffering of others can lead to a sense of moral exhaustion. Are we responsible for the suffering of millions of people in Syria and East Africa? Are we responsible for the extinction of species as a consequence of climate change? Instead of atomizing – and thus perhaps even rendering irrelevant – the abstract concept of individual responsibility, we should become aware of how we are all connected.
We are connected with the children of Syria and Somalia by virtue of the fact that they are fellow humans who deserve to live, learn and love. We are connected to the species facing extinction by climate change because we share the ecosystems of this planet and our species may also face extinction. For Rosa, the sense of connectedness is what motivates us to help the refugees without trying to precisely determine our relative global responsibility.
Are rational thoughts or emotions a better guide for how to respond to the refugee crisis? The philosopher Volker Gerhardt from the Humboldt University of Berlin emphasizes the importance of balancing rational and emotional responses. Rationally calculating the economic cost of taking on refugees and the benefit of increasing the younger workforce once the refugees are granted permission to settle and work in Germany does not do justice to the issues. Gerhardt is aware of his own background as the child of a refugee mother after World War II who were both cared for by their relatives. Every time he sees a photo of a refugee child, it evokes memories of his own past and serves as a motivation to help. But he is also aware of the limits of such emotional and rational willingness to help. Currently, hundreds of thousands of German citizens are volunteering to help and welcome the refugees by donating their time, money and other essentials but the German government needs to realize that this spirit of charity may become exhausted if the influx of refugees is not restricted. Hilde Landweer is a philosopher at the Free University of Berlin who studies the philosophy of emotions. She explains the underlying mechanisms which allow us to feel empathy for refugees. According to Landweer, there are three components which allow to feel empathy: 1) we have to feel a sense of similarity towards the other person, 2) we have to be able "experience" their situation and 3) we have to realize that one day, we might be able to also find ourselves in such a situation. Germany's leadership role in its willingness to help the refugees when compared to other developed countries – Britain is planning on taking in 5,000 Syrian refugees per year, the USA only 1,000 to 1,500 – may be rooted in the fact that Germans can identify with the plight of the Syrian refugees. Millions of Germans experienced expulsion and forced resettlement from their homelands after World War II when post-war Germany was carved up. Landweer believes that empathy can be nurtured by meeting refugees and hearing about their personal narratives. But empathy needs to be more than shared pain, it needs to also include looking forward to how one can restore security and joy. This positive vision is what ultimately motivates us to help.
Does Germany have a unique historic responsibility when responding to the refugee crisis? Aleida Assmann is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Konstanz who studies collective memory and its impact on German culture. Assmann refers to the Erinnerungskultur – the culture of remembrance – in Germany. Contemporary Germans are aware of the fact that their ancestors either actively participated or passively ignored the mass murder of millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies and other ethnicities. According to Assmann, this historic responsibility is sometime summarized as "Auschwitz should never occur again!" but she takes a broader view of this responsibility. The root of Auschwitz was the labeling of fellow humans as fremd – foreign, alien or "other" – which did not deserve respect, empathy and help. Our historic responsibility requires that we avoid the trap of viewing refugees as fremd and instead encounter them with a sense of fellowship. The inherited burden of the Nazi past becomes an opportunity for Germany to define its future: Do we want to become a society that closes its doors to fellow humans in despair or do we want to welcome them in order to build a future society characterized by caring and sharing.
These are just some of the responses given by the philosophers in the Philosophie Magazin issue but they filled me with hope. As a German living in the USA, I often fall into the trap of reading clickbait and sensationalist news articles about the refugee crisis such as the rise of crimes committed by both right wing extremists and refugees in Germany, the imagery of refugees "flooding" German cities and the political gossip about Merkel's future. But thinking more deeply about the core issues reminds us that what is at stake in Germany is our humanity. Yes, it will be challenging to integrate millions of refugees and provide them with a new Heimat – homeland – but our history and culture compels us to act in a humane fashion and not ignore the plight of fellow human beings.
"No sooner does man discover intelligence
than he tries to involve it in his own stupidity."
~ Jacques Yves Cousteau
Over the course of my last few posts I have been groping towards some kind of meeting point between, on the one hand, the current wave of information technologies, as represented by artificial intelligence (AI), social media and robotics; and on the other, what might be termed, for the sake of brevity, the social condition. The thought experiment is hardly virtual, and is in fact unfolding before us in real time, but as I have been considering the issues at stake, there are significant blind spots that will demand elaboration by many commentators in the years and decades to come. Assuming that, as Marc Andreessen put it, software (and the physical objects in which it is increasingly becoming embodied) will continue to "eat the world", how can we expect these technological goods to be distributed across society?
It's actually kind of difficult to envision this as even being a problem in the first place. It's true that, up until in the first years of this century, there was some discussion of the so-called ‘digital divide', where certain segments of the population would not be able to get onto the ‘Internet superhighway' (another term that has fallen into disuse, perhaps because it feels like we never get out of our cars anymore). These were the segments of society that were already disadvantaged in some respect, where circumstances of poverty and/or geography prevented the delivery of physical and therefore digital services. Less so, those on the wrong side of the divide may have also landed there because of language proficiency or age.
The digital divide hasn't really gone away, it's just been smoothed over by the fact that access has increased dramatically over the last 15 years. But according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey, the disparities still exist, and in exactly the places in which you would expect it: only 30% of Americans 65 or older have a smartphone; 58.2% of Native American households use the Internet; 68% of those who didn't graduate from high school are online; and less than half of households making less than $25,000/year are accessing the Internet. In contrast, the top two or three segments in each of these metrics has adoption rates somewhere in the mid- to upper-90th percentile.
Still, it's worth noting that in recent years, the main battle around Internet access have not been fought around primary access, but rather the notion of ‘network neutrality', or the idea that the delivery of any one type of content should be privileged over that of any other. Regardless of who is on what side, it's clear that the people with skin in this game are already wired up. Even more interestingly, following the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, the other main battle has been around the curtailing of government-sanctioned surveillance, which implies the idea that there is perhaps just a little too much connection going on. (It's true that the digital divide conversation is still quite vibrant in the developing world, but even as Internet and mobile penetration increase everywhere, I'll venture that the same sort of lumpiness will abide.)
Consider for a moment the population characteristics used by the Pew survey: education, income, age, ethnicity, geography. (Curiously, gender is not discussed.) These are time-honored sociological categories that have been used by policy-makers and scholars to come to a more finely grained understanding of what our society looks like. The whole point of the US Census asking these sorts of questions is to help the government figure out how to spread around hundreds of billions of dollars of development money. But something interesting has happened as the years have advanced and ‘digital divide' has fallen out of usage: the categories themselves are disappearing from the discourse.
Instead, what is being talked about is ‘users'. There is no one other than the user: anyone who secures access to the Internet is reincarnated into one monolithic and anodyne group. And if there is only one group, there are in fact no groups at all. We are all fish in the same water. To be fair, this usage was always hard-wired into software development, it's just that software development has had the misfortune to find itself with such enormous purchase on our lives. But as a professor of mine was fond of remarking in graduate school, there are only two professions that call their clients ‘users': drug dealers and software engineers. I mean, even madams refer to their interested parties as ‘clients'.
This gap only becomes more apparent when you start paying attention to how we are talked to about technology. The basic Silicon Valley line is something like this: Each user (or group of users) has a problem, usually with an old industry that's in need of disruption. As a result, said user is just primed for some service or product, usually in the form of an app, that will unlock the value of a currently moribund market, or establish an entirely new one. If I were genuinely careful, I would corral every noun in the preceding sentence with quotation marks, since there are enough assumptions keeping this sentence duct-taped together that I almost want to stop writing and go take a shower. But what is relevant to our current discussion is that the ‘user' is what makes Silicon Valley pay attention, whether these are people who pay in hard currency, or in the currency of their own information. On the Internet, no one cares if you're a dog, as long as you're a dog with a profile that could be of use to some marketer. And if you're a rural Native American over the age of 65 with less than a high school education, then you're not on anyone's radar to begin with.
In a sense, we shouldn't be at all surprised that this has taken place. It's merely the latest extension of our post-Enlightenment condition. Whereas the categories I mention above take it as a given that we are dealing with aspects of the social, the Enlightenment, or at least as it has been handed down to us, is about the individual. The user is merely the next logical manifestation of this, the individual. Furthermore, the ersatz grouping of users into markets accomplishes nothing whatsoever in helping us understand the social, since markets are fickle, transaction-bounded entities, which individuals enter and exit with few obligations, let alone knowledge of one another.
This suits the creators of technology just fine. I don't mean this in a malicious sense. This isn't about persuading a group of voters that they have no common cause, or breaking the institutions that were responsible for collective bargaining for much of the last century. It's a much subtler set-up. Once the discourse is revised downwards to only accommodate descriptions of individuals and markets, the conversations that describe the social conditions upon which technology comes to rest also become scarce. Soon enough, our very capacity to discuss these phenomena is diminished, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
Actually, those categories are still with us in two senses, but in both cases they are submerged. The first is on the side of the technologies themselves: thanks to massive databases of user information and the algorithmic tools that parse them, they can slice and dice users of their services and products into ever finer and more accurate groups. In this unregulated twilight zone there is an entire industry dedicated to be always right in these matters. Thus the aspects of the social take on the narrowed importance of a means to an end. Of course, the other aspect in which these categories still abide is reality itself. As much as it compliments itself on being the great leveler, technology is just as adept in accentuating and exacerbating difference.
Let's take one of the more obvious differentiators: wealth. The wealthy are the early adopters – they are the ones who can afford the technologies as they first ascend into prominence, whether we are talking about iPhones or bicycles. There is a period of ascendancy, as the use of a technology seeps into an already extant network, and the further network effects allow that social group to internally reinforce its bonds or perhaps further enrich itself. The technology becomes vital for the overt use of a group's members, as well as a sign by which the group differentiates itself from those outside it – that is, those people who lack such access, for whatever reason.
Facebook went from an exclusive social network to something as general and inclusive as a telephone. This of course does not mean that everyone has access to Facebook, just as not everyone has access to a telephone. For its part, Facebook has had to contend with the consequences of its ubiquity, as teens and young adults flock to other platforms, such as Instagram and SnapChat, where they feel like they can preserve some of the integrity of their groups. For their part, the rich have been setting up their own social networks since at least 2007. Of course, this being Silicon Valley, even the wealthy are constantly at risk of getting disrupted. Relationship Science has built its business model on facilitating connections to the wealthy, celebrities and various and sundry movers and shakers, assuming you can fork over the $3,000 annual fee. As journalist Greg Lindsay dubs it, Rel-Sci is a LinkedIn for the 1%.
However, there is a tipping point at which a technology ceases to provide a sizable return on investment, or exclusivity. Consider what wealthy people seek out when it comes to services; that would be other people. A very specific sort of other people, who are well-trained and discreet. The doorman of a Park Avenue co-op, the hotel concierge or the maître d' of a favorite restaurant are just as capable of receiving packages and making recommendations as they are turning a blind eye when it's so desired. Drivers, cooks, au pairs – you could populate a Richard Scarry children's book with all the people who help the wealthy live their lives as frictionlessly as possible.
I think that this tendency points out one of the great misconceptions concerning the progression of software and robotics. As the cost of these innovations declines and their presence spreads, we are better off asking, who is the most likely to be enwoven into these technologies? And by ‘who' I mean ‘what groups'?
Much attention has been paid to the effects of automation on employment, and rightly so. Partly because this is something tangible – we can measure jobs lost – and partly because it speaks to our grandiose fears of apocalypse-by-automation (the current specter is the loss of 3.5 million trucking jobs to driverless cars). But there is also a flip-side. Once innovative products and services are adopted by and assimilated into the lifestyles of the wealthy, or educated, or urban, those technologies will continue to spread. After all, capitalism dictates that a firm must continue growing and capturing market share.
It's not like privileged groups have grown out of using phones. But as an example, consider what we expect when we use our phones. Voice recognition technology has progressed to the point where it's not unusual to conduct entire transactions with a software system. This is especially conducive to instances where outcomes and exceptions are rigorously definable, such as banking and airline reservations. Sometimes it is the only choice, as call center staff have been cut in favor of these automated systems. On the other hand, those in a position of privilege have this privilege reified by the fact that they can speak to a personal banker or airline agent – similar to the above examples of concierge and doorman, a well-trained human that is discreet and effective. This is what I mean by the future already seeping its way throughout our present.
So a good way to start thinking about this is to embrace those categories of the social that we already have. Which groups are the most likely to become the subjects of a particular technology, and why? This is not to say that they will simply be ignored. Rather, we should instead think about the ways in which these groups will eventually be served by technology that may keep things running smoothly, but is ultimately dehumanizing and fragmenting, à la Neil Blomkamp's 2013 dystopia Elysium. Obviously, there is a long leap between an automated phone system and the hellish endgame described in Elysium but it's a much straighter line if everyone is treated only as an individual – or a user – while actually being targeted as a member of a social group.
So who are the vulnerable? A few groups come to mind. The elderly, who are already being assigned robot nurses, because who has time or money to care for the elderly. Children, who are expensive to educate and a pain in the ass to constantly watch over, are already being stimulated (I simply cannot bring myself to write ‘educated') via toys that have a direct line to IBM's Watson AI. The mentally ill, who need to be sequestered, drugged and monitored. Other institutionalized populations, such as convicts – how great would a fully automated prison be? That way any blame could be laid at the feet of the inmates. And finally, the poor, with whom no one wants to interact anyway. These groups will be the greatest ‘beneficiaries' of technology that is only just beginning to manifest itself. You get the idea of who is left – and what a perfect reproduction of privilege it will be.
As a final thought, consider what is lost as we move deeper into a future in which we are ever more deeply entangled with technology: our collective cultural memory. As William Gibson noted in a 2011 interview in the Paris Review,
It's harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we've already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.
In a very real sense, we are co-creating our own ongoing forgetting. I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a pre-Internet era. And anyone who has witnessed a child attempt to swipe or pinch a magazine page, in the mistaken belief that it is as interactive as an iPad screen, cannot but help feel discomfort at the way in which new generations expect reality to behave around them. Or perhaps they see it as a business opportunity. Difference cannot but persist. What is really at stake is what we choose to do about it.
Monday, January 25, 2016
Agnes Denes. Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan. 1982
"Two acres of wheat planted and harvested by the artist on the Battery Park landfill, Manhattan, Summer 1982. After months of preparations, in May 1982, a 2-acre wheat field was planted on a landfill in lower Manhattan, two blocks from Wall Street and the World Trade Center, facing the Statue of Liberty. Two hundred truckload of dirt were brought in and 285 furrows were dug by hand and cleared of rocks and garbage. The seeds were sown by hand adn the furrows covered with soil. the field was maintained for four months, cleared of wheat smut, weeded, fertilized and sprayed against mildew fungus, and an irrigation system set up. the crop was harvested on August 16 and yielded over 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat"
Monday, January 18, 2016
GMB Akash. Passengers Without Ticket.
From the series "Nothing To Hold On To".
Monday, January 11, 2016
No Solace For Children
by Akim Reinhardt
I sat on a friend's living room couch, waiting for her to emerge from her bedroom contraptions.
I had arrived at the time and date requested. However, my initial visit to her room had been cut short amid the beeps and whirring of machinery. After some brief exchanges, she began to raise herself and then asked me to summon her aide.
"Please get Dr. Reinhardt some tea while he waits for me."
During the whole of the visit, that was the one time her eyes sparkled and she was fierce and energetic, full of bearing and dignity. That she was truly herself.
I went to the kitchen with the aide. She had already poured me some iced tea when I'd first arrived. I retrieved the glass and said, "I think she wants you to go back in and help her come out." The aide smiled and returned to the bedroom laboratory. I found a seat on the living room couch and took small sips while she helped my friend get herself together.
It took a few minutes. Terminal lung cancer patients move slowly. When she finally came out, it was with the help of the aide and a multi-pronged cane. Trailing behind her was a machine that facilitated breathing; she was tethered to it by a clear plastic tube attached to her nose with fasteners looped around her ears. She sat down gingerly and was engulfed by a wing back chair.
As we talked, we knew it would be the last time. Adults don't have to explain these things to each other. She gave me a colorful pouch with a drawstring. It contained a small gift of remembrance for a mutual friend who was out of town: polished stone jewelry from Afghanistan. The pouch itself, made in Oman, was for me. I asked if there was anything I could do for her.
"Take me to Oregon," she responded.
I was puzzled. So far as I knew, she didn't have any family or friends in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, I doubted that she'd ever even been there. She was originally from Ohio, started her family and got her doctorate there. She had lived in Maryland for decades, and had conducted her research in sub-Saharan Africa. I looked at her quizzically. "Oregon?"
"They have that law there."
It took a moment, then I understood. Physician assisted suicide. She nodded, wheezing and in pain.
After about ten minutes, she dozed off in her chair. I didn't wake her for some time. Instead I sat there, choking down frogs in my throat, contemplating her life, her words, and our friendship. She had authored or edited about a dozen books, her most recent effort being published just this past August, when she was already sick but still misdiagnosed. When the correct diagnosis arrived it was already Stage 4. She declined treatment. With time running out, a colleague had helped her find someone to help organize her vast research materials so they could be donated to an archive.
She loved her work. She loved her sons. She loved her dogs. She loved her friends. She was fiercely loyal and expected the same loyalty in return. She could be brutal. She could be the most gracious host you ever met. She was unimaginably spry for a late septuagenarian. She smiled like a kitten and roared like a lioness, her crystal blue eyes sparkling all the while.
And now she simply wanted to die.
After twenty or thirty minutes, I gently touched her arm to rouse her. She lifted her head and, ever the gracious host, apologized for having slept. I told her she had absolutely nothing to apologize for.
We all have things to apologize for. But deathbeds are for warmth and celebration; any apologies should be merely implied.
She was only half-awake. It was hard for her to keep her head up. I told her I loved her, gave her a hug. I thanked the aide and I left. Before going home, I sat in my car and cried.
American culture can be exceptionally childish in a number of ways. Probably the clearest expression is its notorious fetishization of youth. And it is not youth-on-the-trajectory of growth, absorbing lessons in wisdom and maturation, that is relentlessly celebrated. It is the dumb, drunken frat boy; the vapid sex pot; the tantrum-throwing man child; the walking soap opera itching for a cat fight; the 45 year old who behaves like a stunted version of a 22 year old.
American popular culture is a wasteland of prolonged adolescence.
There are other, more disturbing displays of immaturity as well. We can see them in a variety of social policies.
I want to play with my guns and you can't stop me!
Poor people are lazy and don't deserve our help!
Poor people are culturally compromised and need to become like us!
People who use drugs should be put in cages!
Every sperm is sacred!
However, as I sat there, quietly watching the warbles of my friend's morphine haze, and having listened to her say she was more than ready to die after some eight decades on this planet, in that moment, the most childish thing of all seemed to be the prohibition on assisted suicide.
I realize that suicide is a very difficult and painful issue for many people, and that its impact can be profound and far reaching. I understand that some people see suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice and selfishness. And I have no interest in actually promoting suicide, or extending it as some kind of "right" to teenagers, the mentally incapacitated, or prisoners, ie., people who society reasons should be denied the full rights and privileges of citizenship.
But to say that someone who is in full control of their mental faculties cannot end his or her own life?
By what right do you lay claim over someone else's body? Some stranger's body. This is the mentality of the murderer, the rapist, the slave owner.
And to tell someone in the final stages of terminal illness and suffering mightily that they are not allowed to leave us? This is the mentality of a true believer who wreaks savagery upon the world, a Hilter or a bin-Laden, a coward hiding behind dogma, a bully who talks to God.
This is a brand of childishness that I will no longer abide. You may be a good person otherwise, but you are doing an unfathomably horrible thing. And you deserve to suffer as much as the terminally ill person whose suffering you prolong.
Torture is an unreliable form of extracting information because the torture victim is suffering so much that they will often say anything to end the misery. They will gladly tell you what you want to hear if you just make it stop.
They would rather die than endure this any longer.
And so I say, the person who wants to deny the right of assisted suicide to people in full control of their mental faculties and suffering terminal illness and/or chronic pain, those people should be tortured until they relent. They should have slivers put up their nails, have their genitalia mutilated, and be repeatedly shocked, water boarded, and burned until they see the light.
Until they grow up.
No, I do not believe opponents of assisted suicide should literally be tortured. I was speaking metaphorically. It's something adults do from time to time. For while grown ups accept that this world will never, ever be "fair," they do occasionally find temporary solace in dreams of poetic justice.
And when we awake, we wipe the sand from our eyes, we go to work, and we do what we can to make it better, knowing that perfection is the stuff of childish dreams.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Sughra Raza. Reed Reflections. March, 2015.
Eyes Swimming in Tears (Stendhal Syndrome)
Have you ever been moved to tears by a painting?
There is a wonderful letter, in James Elkins' Pictures and Tears, about museum goers looking at a landscape painting in Japan. The lady who wrote the letter to Elkins was in Tokyo as part of an Andy Warhol exhibition. Unable to speak the language and perhaps not all that knowledgeable about the culture, it had to be based on some kind of misunderstanding that she came to believe that the painting of a waterfall on rare display at the Nezu Museum, called Nachi Waterfall, was "a picture of God."
This painting is a National Treasure of Japan and is not displayed so often (I never managed to see it in 22 years there). So, not surprisingly, the exhibition was jam-packed full of people there to see it.
In the letter, she described how beautifully dressed the people were, many in formal kimono and some looked to be college professors. She said it was like going to the Met, except that when she finally got near the picture, she found the people around her to all be silently standing there crying.
It is an extraordinary story in an extraordinary book.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been overcome to tears by a painting? (It has to be a painting and it has to be tears).
James Elkin (my new favorite writer) is obsessed by Stendhal Syndrome--and since I am obsessed by Jerusalem Syndrome, I couldn't help but find myself increasingly intrigued. I never knew that-- unlike Mark Twain (who has a malaise named after himself too)-- that Stendhal, like so many others at that time period, had become so utterly enraptured by the art he saw in Florence that he became dizzy and had heart palpitations. In fact, apparently, he had to seek medical help. Elkins says that in the old days, it was much more common to be moved to tears by art.
In fact, as far as emotional response to paintings, we are living in a bit of a dry age, he insists.
I doubt this will surprise many people, but Elkin says that Rothko is the modern painter most famous for causing viewers to cry. Exploring Art's connection to time and to God, Elkins goes through quite a lot of effort to try and figure out why exactly Rothko makes people cry (even reading over all the entries in the guestbook at the Houston Chapel), but in the end, he doesn't ever nail the reason.
The artist himself explained it simply thus:
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions. (Mark Rothko)
Interestingly, Elkin himself has never broken down in front of a painting--nor has the great Gombrich.
I think he is right, that crying in front of pictures is simply a rarity in today's world of disenchantment and the commodification of all our experiences. Speaking for myself, I have been deeply touched and experienced a tremendous emotional response from the art I saw as part of my Piero Pilgrimage, as well as when I finally made it to Belgium to see van Eyck's Mystic Lamb in Ghent. Piero's frescoes in Arezzo in particular were reminiscent of emotional reactions I have had to Buddhist statues (butsuzo) in Japan--which is that of feeling drawn in and immediately calmed.
In 2007 (or 2008?), NHK Broadcasting in Japan aired an amazing documentary on their Highvision channel, called the "Best Loved Buddhist Sculpture in Japan"（book version: にっぽん 心の仏像100選). To prepare for the show viewers were invited to write the station to tell stories of their most beloved Buddhist statue. NHK received 1400 letters and from those letters, they compiled a top 100 list. In a country full of tremendous sculpture, I wasn't surprised how moving the letters were. But, as they went through the list , working their way up to the #1 most popular, I was struck by the way these statues were embedded into the lives of the people who loved them. Especially elderly people interviewed, said something along these lines:
"The statue has just always been there. When I was a girl, I would come and help polish the temple floors or come here with my mom and aunties to pray. Of course my beloved mother and my beloved aunties are now long gone, but the statue remains, and nowadays when I come here, it's like I am back here again with my loved ones."
Something real-- something eternal, the butsuzo for the people interviewed seemed to be an interwoven part of their lives. Rather than works of art or treasures of the nation, the statues were viewed as being members of the community. The program showed one butsuzo that needed repair and filmed as one of the village men wrapped it up in a huge long piece of cloth and strapping it on his back carried it down the mountain like he was hauling a bale of hay (or in Asia, the way women carry babies and small children). The scholars and guests were stunned. One sputtered, "Why, I have never seen anything like that."
In another scene, a group of parishioners gathered around their village butsuzo and took a group picture. The Butsuzo was in the middle, like one of the gang.
In yet another scene, a very elderly woman had gone to Osaka to live with her son's family. She had wanted desperately to come and visit the Butsuzo of the village; for it was always there in her heart. Finally, her son agreed to make the long trip back to the village and drove her up the mountain and helped her into the temple, where she sat on the tatami matted floor in front of the statue of Kannon-sama. Putting her hands together in prayer, she smiled as if she was in the company of a long-lost friend.
Toward the end of the program a scholar in religious studies, came on and commented how in the same way that infants respond seamlessly to the expression on their mother's faces, so too are we effected by what we see. He said, psychology and science can prove that looking at something that calms us is by definition good for us. It's true on two accounts, I think. One, that these butsuzo have a tremendous power to calm us or effect certain positive emotions. Even on the TV screen, to be honest I found myself feeling increasingly calm-- and yes, happy.
That one of the ladies, with crippling arthritis, chose to gather flowers from her garden and hike up a mountain road to the top where the temple was located at first seemed overkill. But, actually, I imagine her slow methodical pace up the hill got her blood really moving, and then at the top-- the reward. Sitting on the sweet-smelling tatami mats, she put her hands to pray and a look of great peace swept over her face. I imagine, if she is like me, that moment of calm-- spreading out from her belly up toward her face, pupils dilating, she gently closes her eyes and lets a feeling close to bliss-- but quieter-- sweep over her.
Truly, I just stood there sighing.
Still, that feeling of being utterly drawn in and held in awe is quite different from being floored, or as Elkins calls, it punched in the stomach.
This is something that has only happened to me once and it was so totally unexpected that I simply feel embarrassed by it. First of all, it happened in front of a picture that is so over-reproduced that it is a wonder that anyone can feel anything about it. Like the Mona Lisa, Leonardo's Last Supper is perhaps one of the most over-copied works of art in the world. Umberto Eco, for example, found something like seven wax copies just on a trip from LA to San Francisco. I had absolutely no expectation of feeling anything. In fact, were it not for my astronomer and his devotion to Leonardo, I would have just as soon skipped it. I also am not a fan of Last Supper iconography--and of the three possible Last Supper subjects, my least favorite is the one Leonardo chose: that of the betrayal.
So, I just could not believe it when I cried!
Elkin captured what happened to me as I stood there in that room looking at the Last Supper as my eyes were swimming with very hot tears:
"Pow! They are responses to the painting's sheer unexpected overwhelming presence. In each case the painting is suddenly there, exerting a real force on the viewer, knocking the wind out of him or shoving him down."
That was indeed, exactly how it felt, as a very very sudden and unexpected density and presence. And I was almost overcome by love. Elkin likens this to a religious experience ("Crying at God") and says,
If you love a painting, and are overwhelmed by it--perhaps even to tears-- then you may be aware of a certain presence, an immediacy or even a nameless pushing. Those words, like the word "God," some from a place that cannot be reached by language. Most of the time they can be called by any number of names, but there are also occasions when they need to be named directly.
The painting of the waterfall I mentioned at the top, by the way, perhaps moved the people at the exhibition in the same way. This same work also greatly intrigued Andre Malroux. Actually to say "intrigued" is to put it mildly; for it was standing in front of the painting that Malroux experienced a spiritual epiphany-- what he called the "transmission of the sacred." Malroux considered all works of art to be "signs" that illuminate the questions of our inner reality--not the answers, but the questions. And it was standing in front of this picture in which he discovered what he called "primordial forms." Whoever painted the picture would have liked that interpretation since the painting has not traditionally been considered to be a mere landscape. It is rather viewed as an example of religious art, or suijaku-ga (paintings based on Shinto-Buddhist unity). Suijaku are "traces" of Buddhist nature as pictured in the guise of a Shinto deity (ie, in the case, the waterfall). So, in a sense, the picture is of "God;" though maybe better is to say it serves to capture our attention as a mandala does, embodying Buddhist cosmology or truth.
I've written here about the plague of our disposable society (also definitely see Jalees Rehman's piece here), and wondered if then, there is really no escape from "man the eternal consumer?" Not only are the neo-liberal practices of production and consumption ruining the planet, but they are ruining our lives. I really believe that. As I wrote last June, my astronomer is more optimistic. He thinks that erotic love is the last frontier by which a person can access the numinous. Beyond pure efficient instrumentalism, love is--as Badiou and Zizek write--all about madness and yes even violence. My beloved believes that purely practical people can still fall madly in love and that this experience is something --in today's world more than ever-- that is deeply hungered after. As always, I guess I am more pessimistic and agree with Zizek that it is gradually disappearing as well (as Badiou says, "Love is not a contract between two narcissists"). For in a truly disposable culture what things or experiences will have the power to move us beyond what Carl Sagan called the prison of the self? It's no surprise, I guess, that this dead-end in the search for meaning is where all roads end in ruins in Continental philosophy today....
Highly recommend: -THE THING ITSELF, On The Search For Authenticity By Richard Todd (see this great excerpt on a more enlightened materialism here)
Nachi Waterfall and Suijaku-ga (top picture)
Koryuji's Miroku Bosatsu Statue (above)
Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed
These days the circus is, for better or worse, an exotic and marginal form of entertainment. By contrast, it was a major form of popular entertainment in the United States and Europe in the 19th Century and well into the 20th. Elephants were central to the entertainment. As Janet Davis noted in an article about Ringling Brothers’s decision to retire their elephant acts:
Audiences spoke solemnly of “seeing the elephant” as an awe-inspiring encounter with a wondrous being. Others, who missed her appearances, pined for an opportunity to “see the elephant.” Soldiers during the Mexican-American War and Civil War even spoke of “seeing the elephant” as a metaphor for the incomprehensible experience of battle.
The sensational popularity of the Crowninshield Elephant led the way for others. The first elephant appeared in an American circus at the turn of the 19th century, and by the 1870s, impresarios defined their shows’ worth by the number of elephants they had. In response to decades of evangelical censure for displaying scantily clad human performers, circus owners pointed to their popular elephants as proof of their broader mission to educate and entertain.
With the advent of moving picture in the 20th Century the circus film became a minor genre. Charlie Chaplin made one, the Marx Brothers made two, Charlie Chan did a circus film, and Tod Browning’s Freaks is one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Disney too made a circus film, Dumbo, released in 1941, and it centers on a baby elephant whose extraordinarily large ears made him, and his mother, pariahs in the closed community of the circus’s animal menagerie. The circus’s association with small-town America played to Uncle Walt’s nostalgic streak. And the comfortable exoticism of the elephants is dead center in the weakest aspect of the Disney sensibility.
Yet in some ways Disney chose to play against his carefully cultivated small-town sensibility. Dumbo exploits the circus setting in ironic ways that are not characteristic of other Disney films, before or since. In the first place, this circus is not depicted as a source of wondrous entertainment. It is depicted as a place of hard work done by bored and cynical animals, avaricious and cruel clowns, and a megalomaniacal ringmaster. Dumbo himself is treated rather cruelly by vicious and snobbish matrons. This circus is not at all the Magic Kingdom of Disney’s TV series and theme parks. Rather, it is a biting depiction of mid-century America.
First we get a flood of elephants:
It seems to me that that would entail real problems. It is one thing to show this cute big-eared baby elephant getting tipsy and blowing funny bubbles and seeing things, but do you really want to depict him bumbling around and somehow managing to fly without really knowing what he was doing? While there’s no technical difficulty in doing that, it does seem to me that keeping it realistic, even within the terms of the cartoon, would require that you besmirch Dumbo’s cuteness, or come dangerously close to doing so. Further, it would rob the “learning to fly” sequence of its interest. There wouldn’t be any dramatic point to it. Finally, it would reduce the difference between Dumbo’s circus world and the crow’s world to one of mere geography. We see Dumbo stumble around in the circus, he somehow begins flapping his ears, takes to the sky, and ends up in a tall tree – all before our watchful gaze. How dull, but disillusioning.
Instead, Disney takes us into this marvelous surrealistic sequence of transmogrifying pink elephants. What that does is eradicate the circus world from out minds. And that circus world was a pretty cynical one. It’s not simply that Dumbo and his mother were ostracized, but that the circus itself was not a place of fun and fantasy, but just a gig. Whatever it is that children have in mind when daydreaming about running off to join the circus, this is not the circus they dream about. The cynicism displayed by the animals in the opening day parade, for example, was marvelous, as was the nastiness of the clowns.
* * * * *
Note: I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about Dumbo and have posted a rather long working paper on my Academia.edu page: Walt Disney’s Dumbo: A Myth of Modernity. Here's the abstract:
Dumbo is Walt Disney's myth of modernity, a film in which he uses a story about infant-mother separation as a vehicle for assimilating modern technology and management structure to the evolved mechanisms of the human mind. This paper considers psychoanalytic and evolutionary psychology, examines the structure of scapegoating as a means of social contral, considers parallels with the story of Genesis, the role of machines and animals in the modern world, the interplay of nature and culture, the distinction between animals that talk and those that don't, and features extensive descriptive an analytic work on the film, with many frame grabs.
Monday, January 04, 2016
Waseem Ahmed. In the Name of Faith. 2015.
Pigment colors on archival wasli paper.
We Have Become Exhausted Slaves in a Culture of Positivity
by Jalees Rehman
We live in an era of exhaustion and fatigue, caused by an incessant compulsion to perform. This is one of the central tenets of the book "Müdigkeitsgesellschaft" (translatable as "The Fatigue Society" or "The Tiredness Society") by the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Han is a professor at the Berlin Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) and one of the most widely read contemporary philosophers in Germany. He was born in Seoul where he studied metallurgy before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to pursue a career in philosophy. His doctoral thesis and some of his initial work in the 1990s focused on Heidegger but during the past decade, Han has written about broad range of topics regarding contemporary culture and society. "Müdigkeitsgesellschaft" was first published in 2010 and helped him attain a bit of a rock-star status in Germany despite his desire to avoid too much public attention – unlike some of his celebrity philosopher colleagues.
The book starts out with two biomedical metaphors to describe the 20th century and the emerging 21st century. For Han, the 20th century was an "immunological" era. He uses this expression because infections with viruses and bacteria which provoked immune responses were among the leading causes of disease and death and because the emergence of vaccinations and antibiotics helped conquer these threats. He then extends the "immunological" metaphor to political and societal events. Just like the immune system recognizes bacteria and viruses as "foreign" that needs to be eliminated to protect the "self", the World Wars and the Cold War were also characterized by a clear delineation of "Us" versus "Them". The 21stcentury, on the other hand, is a "neuronal" era characterized by neuropsychiatric diseases such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), burnout syndrome and borderline personality disorder. Unlike the diseases in the immunological era, where there was a clear distinction between the foreign enemy microbes that needed to be eliminated and the self, these "neuronal" diseases make it difficult to assign an enemy status. Who are the "enemies" in burnout syndrome or depression? Our environment? Our employers? Our own life decisions and choices? Are we at war with ourselves in these "neuronal" conditions? According to Han, this biomedical shift in diseases is mirrored by a political shift in a globalized world where it becomes increasingly difficult to define the "self" and the "foreign". We may try to assign a "good guy" and "bad guy" status to navigate our 21st century but we also realize that we are so interconnected that these 20th century approaches are no longer applicable.
The cell biologist in me cringed when I read Han's immunologic and neuronal metaphors. Yes, it is true that successfully combatting infectious diseases constituted major biomedical victories in the 20th century but these battles are far from over. The recent Ebola virus scare, the persistence of malaria resistance, the under-treatment of HIV and the emergence of multi-drug resistant bacteria all indicate that immunology and infectious disease will play central roles in the biomedical enterprise of the 21st century. The view that the immune system clearly distinguishes between "self" and "foreign" is also overly simplistic because it ignores that autoimmune diseases, many of which are on the rise and for which we still have very limited treatment options, are immunological examples of where the "self" destroys itself. Even though I agree that neuroscience will likely be the focus of biomedical research, it seems like an odd choice to select a handful of psychiatric illnesses as representing the 21st century while ignoring major neuronal disorders such as Alzheimer's dementia, stroke or Parkinson's disease. He also conflates specific psychiatric illnesses with the generalized increase in perceived fatigue and exhaustion.
Once we move past these ill- chosen biomedical examples, Han's ideas become quite fascinating. He suggests that the reason why we so often feel exhausted and fatigued is because we are surrounded by a culture of positivity. At work, watching TV at home or surfing the web, we are inundated by not-so-subtle messages of what we can do. Han quotes the example of the "Yes We Can" slogan from the Obama campaign. "Yes We Can" exudes positivity by suggesting that all we need to do is try harder and that there may be no limits to what we could achieve. The same applies to the Nike "Just Do It" slogan and the thousands of self-help books published each year which reinforce the imperative of positive thinking and positive actions.
Here is the crux of Han's thesis. "Yes We Can" sounds like an empowering slogan, indicating our freedom and limitless potential. But according to Han, this is an illusory freedom because the message enclosed within "Yes We Can" is "Yes We Should". Instead of living in a Disziplinargesellschaft(disciplinary society) of the past where our behavior was clearly regulated by societal prohibitions and commandments, we now live in a Leistungsgesellschaft (achievement society) in which we voluntarily succumb to the pressure of achieving. The Leistungsgesellschaft is no less restrictive than the Disziplinargesellschaft. We are no longer subject to exogenous prohibitions but we have internalized the mandates of achievement, always striving to do more. We have become slaves to the culture of positivity, subjugated by the imperative "Yes, We Should". Instead of carefully contemplating whether or not to pursue a goal, the mere knowledge that we could achieve it forces us to strive towards that goal. Buying into the "Yes We Can" culture chains us to a life of self-exploitation and we are blinded by passion and determination until we collapse. Han uses the sad German alliteration "Erschöpfung, Ermüdung und Erstickung" ("exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation") to describe the impact that an excess of positivity has once we forgo our ability to say "No!" to the demands of the achievement society. We keep on going until our minds and bodies shut down and this is why we live in a continuous state of exhaustion and fatigue. Han does not view multitasking as a sign of civilizational progress. Multitasking is an indicator of regression because it results in a broad but rather superficial state of attention and thus prevents true contemplation
It is quite easy for us to relate to Han's ideas at our workplace. Employees with a "can-do" attitude are praised but you will rarely see a plaque awarded to commemorate an employee's "can-contemplate" attitude. In an achievement society, employers no longer have to exploit us because we willingly take on more and more tasks to prove our own self-worth.
While reading Han's book, I was reminded of a passage in Bertrand Russell's essay "In Praise of Idleness" in which he extols the virtues of reducing our workload to just four hours a day:
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.
Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion.
While Russell's essay proposes reduction of work hours as a solution, Han's critique of the achievement society and its impact on generalized fatigue and malaise is not limited to our workplace. By accepting the mandate of continuous achievement and hyperactivity, we apply this approach even to our leisure time. Whether it is counting the steps we walk with our fitness activity trackers or competitively racking up museum visits as a tourist, our obsession with achievement permeates all aspects of our lives. Is there a way out of this vicious cycle of excess positivity and persistent exhaustion? We need to be mindful of our right to refuse. Instead of piling on tasks for ourselves during work and leisure we need to recognize the value and strength of saying "No". Han introduces the concept of "heilende Müdigkeit" (healing tiredness), suggesting that there is a form of tiredness that we should welcome because it is an opportunity for rest and regeneration. Weekend days are often viewed as days reserved for chores and leisure tasks that we are unable to pursue during regular workdays. By resurrecting the weekend as the time for actual rest, idleness and contemplation we can escape from the cycle of exhaustion. We have to learn not-doing in a world obsessed with doing.
Note: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft was translated into English in 2015 and is available as "The Burnout Society" by Stanford University Press.
Monday, December 28, 2015
My Life in Books
by Carol A. Westbrook
If you are an avid reader like I am, then you may be a book addict. You have a huge collection of books, which you have been accumulating since high school. As the collection grows, you require more bookshelf space. Each move means a bigger apartment, one with more wall space for books. You are considering moving again to accommodate even more bookshelves. And so it continues. Am I right?
Your books are now stacked two and three deep, and there is no more room for new books. You give a few books away, or try unsuccessfully to limit yourself to eBooks. But you can't stop yourself; you need the feel of the new book in your hand. Gridlock. Something's gotta give.
I was at that point. It was time to get rid of some of these books. But I couldn't just throw them into the trash or donate anonymously to Goodwill. I had to make sure these old friends--who followed me faithfully for decades--would go to a good home.
I've got it! I'll invite my friends to a holiday open house and a "Big Book Giveaway."
My plan was simple. First, sort through my books and determine which ones I could part with, and then start a database that would help me remember those that are gone, good companions all. This Excel spreadsheet would help me recollect title and authors that I really enjoyed, so I could recommend them to friends or gift them. The science fiction collection would be spared--it has a place of its own. Not so for the other fiction that I enjoyed but won't read again. Then tackle the non-fiction, saving those that I use for reference or were important to my education, or shaped my worldview. These are the books that defined me, as it were.
I made the mistake of starting with poetry, since I only had a handful of these books, most of which were forgettable. But two were inscribed, so I saved them. One was a book of love poems, a wedding gift. The other was a collection by Scottish poets, all of whom wrote in the Scottish vernacular. A card fell out, marking a special poem, and it brought back a flood of memories of a brief but passionate affair with a tall, ginger-haired Scotsman whom I met at a conference almost three decades ago, when I was newly divorced.
The poem, incidentally, is by William Soutar, and is called "The Tryst." It begins:
O luely, luely cam' she in
And luely she lay doun
(Oh lovely, lovely came she in, and lovely she lay down.)
It is one of the most romantic poems I ever read. Look it up if you have a chance.
Oh my, at this rate I'll never finish! It's memories like this which make it hard to get rid of any books, because each book that you embrace fits into a specific time in your life, doesn't it? I believe that for every book there is a season, a time when it makes sense and becomes part of your memory of that time. And of course, that is why we save the books we love, because it is another way to bring back a brief moment of our past.
There were old favorites from my teenage years which I still read, including Rudyard Kipling's Kim, my first and favorite "road" novel. I see it in a different light every time I read it. It still enlightens me in a way that Jack Kerouc's On the Road, never did. The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck, read in high school and read again this year; interesting to compare the China of today to China as it was portrayed in the 1940s. There were a few childhood classics too, all in hardcover. Saved.
The other novels I had were mostly acquired since 1985, when I finished medical training and had a bit more time (and money) to enjoy books.
There was a time when I read South American authors--Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and of course my beloved Elizabeth Allende. During my divorce I read a lot of Fay Weldon novels, most of which have to do with women finding their own voice, which seem a bit trite when I read them now. Then there was my Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoc period, and Robertson Davies, which was about the time I travelled to London frequently, even spent my sabbatical there. I enjoyed the London bookstores and heavily intellectual novels and large epic works such as Pillars of the Earth. That was when I started getting interested in those English novels that we all had to read in high school and I had completely ignored -- Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte and Somerset Maugham. My English period has since continued, moving on to Downton Abbey and Doc Martin on BBC television, and current British novels about life among the upper crust, such as those by Julian Fellowes. Later I started enjoying fiction based loosely on an author's family history, about life in China, Japan or India, especially their migration to the US. These include the novels of Lisa See--which prompted another reading of The Good Earth-- and The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, about an Indian family moving to the US.
After I left university life and went into clinical practice I had little time to read, and that was when I learned to enjoy paperback novels of crime, mystery, and science fiction. Pure escapism, among them John Grisham and Jo Nesbo's novels. These are relatively short and easy to read. I'm not sure what my next phase will be, now that my clinical practice is slowing down and I have more time to read books that are heavier both in weight and in concept.
Finished fiction! One week, 12 cartons of books, and one database later. Non-fiction turned out to be much easier. Save the Western Civ and sociology books from my undergrad days at the University of Chicago; the same for my (only) art history class. Physics texts? Calculus books? No need. Biochemistry and Organic Chem? Yes, I'm still in medicine, after all and I use them. And speaking of Medicine, get rid of these old, outdated texts from 1972-78, as well as newer tomes like "Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine" 3rd, 4th and 5th editions, and "Cancer Chemotherapy Handbook 2012, 2013, 2014..." These medical books cost a fortune and weigh so much, but go out of date so fast. It's all on the internet, after all.
I have a precious collection Dad's old books--he was a WWII vet. His books were mostly history or biography, many related to The War. For example, Patton's War as I Knew It.
By way of history, I have only a small collection. My topics are Chicago history that relates to me: Hyde Park houses (as a reference to my first house); the Second City Comedy Club; the ethnic groups of Chicago and their churches; local television programming in the early 1950's; and of course, several books about that quintessential Chicago food, the hot dog.
My cookbooks? They occupy a full three feet of shelf space, but I'm keeping every last one of them, including the Betty Crocker cookbook from my mother and an early paperback edition of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I use them all, even Betty Crocker.
Then there is a large collection of books on women's issues. These books helped me to understand how I was shaped by my origins, as a daughter of a "Rosie the Riveter," and a child of immigrants. They are still topical.
A few philosophy books made the grade, acquired during high school and then again after the divorce. Philosophy books seemed to show up during the introspective times of my life, when I was looking for answers, which, of course, I never found.
Travel books. Most are woefully out of date, or better guides are available online. No use keeping these. Sigh. Memories of great adventures traveling, as well as dreams of trips that are yet to occur. Hmm, time to start a second database on travel.
The rest of the newer non-fiction fell into what I call "NPR non-fiction," primarily those reviewed on All Things Considered or the New York Times Book Review. One could clearly see the pattern of my non-fiction picks, which includes books about the natural world, science, medicine and food science, and which studiously avoided history, politics, or technology. Some favorites on this shelf include Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Atul Gawundi's On Being Mortal, and of course The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science, by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.
And that is the story of my life in books.
I succeeded in emptying about ninety-percent of my bookshelves, which are now available for the next round of book acquisitions. And The Big Book Giveaway was a great success, with most of the old books gone to new homes. However, I'm afraid I left many of my friends with the problem that I had just solved --too many books and too little shelf space. They will have to begin sorting, too. Perhaps I'll pick up some new volumes at their book giveaway socials, too.
Monday, December 21, 2015
Phoebe Boswell. Marama, The Maulidi Series, 2014.
Monday, December 14, 2015
Is Donald Trump a Fascist? Will He Be the Next President? No, and Fuck No
by Akim Reinhardt
Back in August, here at this very site, I published a piece dismissive of Donald Trump's chances of gaining the White House. I called those who feared he would become our next president "worry warts."
My basic contention was that Trump is involved in a quadrennial rite: announcing his presidential candidacy as a way of garnering free publicity. Furthermore, pursuing attention isn't just a way to soothe his massive ego. Publicity is very important to him because at this point he's a commercial pitchman much more than he is a real estate developer, and the brand he mostly sells is himself. In this way, he's fundamentally no different than Michael Jordan or Kim Kardashian. It also helps explain why he has previously "run" for president in 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2012, along with short-lived efforts to run for New York state governor in and 2006 and 2014. Free publicity.
In that August essay, I also asserted that most of his supporters, which really aren't that many when you crunch the numbers, don't actually agree with his vague platform. They're just buying his brash brand. He'll start to fade by the end of the year, I said. He'll be done for good in February or March of 2016, I said.
Well, it's mid-December, ie. the end of the year, and Trump's shadowy specter has not faded from our watery eyes. Indeed, his numbers are up. Furthermore, as he remains on the political scene, his political statements get more and more outlandish, leading many to brand him a fascist.
So now Donald Trump's a fascist, and he's going to be our next president.
Golly gee willikers, Batman! That sounds dastardly. I sure hope he doesn't pick The Joker as his V.P.!
But hold on a second. Before we shoot that Bat Signal floodlight into the nighttime sky, as if we're engulfed in some comic book version of the burning of the Reichstag, let's think about it rationally.
Is Donald Trump actually a fascist? No. And anyone who says Yes doesn't know what fascism is.
Can Donald Trump be the next president? Wait, let me stop chuckling. Okay . . . No.
To understand why not, and what's going on, let's break it down. First, I'll address why The Donald isn't the second coming of Il Duce, and then I'll expand on earlier points about why he won't be the next president.
In fact, fascism is largely defunct in modern politics, Greece's Golden Dawn movement providing a notable exception, and the United Kingdom's Independence Party offering a less notable example. But the word "fascist" probably won't go away anytime soon because it's one of the most misused words in politics, serving as a kind of a catchall insult for politicians and political movements. And so when people mislabel Trump as a fascist, they're just continuing the long tradition of misusing the word to smear someone they don't like, particularly if they're on the right.
So what is Donald Trump? I mean, aside from a colossal narcissist and relentless self-promoter? He is, at the moment, a right wing populist.
Trump is giving voice to some of the anger, fears, and frustrations that can be found in much of the United States, and which resonate most loudly on the right. And the voice he gives to them is largely unique, as other Republican presidential would-be's stick much more closely to the established party line. And thus Trump finds his eager audiences, people on the right who are happy to hear someone acknowledge, validate, and champion their anger, fears, an frustrations in a way that no other big name American politician is.
In particular, Trump has struck a chord on the issues of immigration and terrorism. He began by insulting Mexicans, insisting we immediately ship 11,000,000 of them back to Mexico, and that we build a wall to keep anymore from entering the United States. More recently, he's gained traction by insulting Muslims and demanding that we not let any of them enter the United States.
Let's start with immigration, since he did.
During the last quarter century, the United States as witnessed an unprecedented wave of immigration. Anyone who made it through basic U.S. history knows about the first big wave of the 1840s and 1850s that resulted from the Irish famine and the European revolutions, as well as the really massive wave of 1880-1920, when some 23,000,000 immigrants arrived on America's shores.
What most Americans don't realize is that the 1880-1920 wave, which was until recently the largest migration in human history, has been easily eclipsed in more recent times. In the thirty years since major immigration reform in 1965, 18,000,000 immigrants came to the United States. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, millions more arrived. By 2010, nearly 13% of Americans were foreign born, the highest percentage of the national population since 1920.
In short, the United States has been profoundly reshaped by immigration during the past half-century, with a surge having taken place during the past two decades. And while a lot of wonderful things have come about as a result, it also creates tension. To deny this or to attribute it merely to racism and xenophobia is intellectually shoddy.
The simple fact is, large swaths of the United States, most notably the Southwest stretching from southern California to Texas, have been deeply affected by immigration. This in turn creates many complications as people watch their neighborhoods change, their economies and labor markets transform, their local cultures morph, and their social norms are challenged.
Of course, for better and for worse, it's all very complicated. But if you have seen certain aspects of your life deteriorate, or simply fear the prospect of that happening, and you want simple answers to these complex issues, then the easy (and ignorant) answer is: Those goddamn immigrants are fucking up the country.
And here's Donald Trump to give a national voice to your anger, fears and frustrations.
Then there's Islamic terrorism.
Of course the word "terrorism" is fraught with complications and simplifications, and is as much a red herring as it is an accurate term to describe the violence being waged by Islamic fundamentalist organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Nonetheless, one of the major goals of such violence is to inflict fear in civilian populations. That's why, for example, you shoot up an administrative center instead of a military or police installation.
So no wonder that people are scared by such acts of horrid violence. That's kind of the point. And yes, it's a very complex issue. But once again, if you want a simple answer, people like Donald Trump scream "Muslims!" I mean, people who are supposedly much smarter than Trump, like celebrity atheist Sam Harris, do much the same thing. But they're not running for president.
Both issues, immigration and terrorism, have destabilizing effects on society. Sometimes when people endure social, economic, and cultural destabilization, they seek comfort in the simplistic viewpoints that reinforce their fears instead of challenging them. In short, a terrorized population is susceptible to populist appeals.
Build a wall. Don't let in any Mexicans or Muslims. Vote for Trump.
But will people actually vote for Trump? Some. But not nearly enough. I promise. And here are the reasons why.
• Opposition from his own party
• America's political Duopoly makes it difficult for extremists to succeed
• Becoming president's not actually his goal (publicity)
• He's a fucking clown
Republican Party leaders realize Donald Trump has almost no chance of winning a general election. That is one of several reasons why they will do whatever they can to prevent him from winning the GOP nomination. We're still well over a month away from the first primaries and there's already rumors of party big wigs brokering the Republican convention next summer to keep him from gaining enough delegates to win.
I don't think it will come to that. But the mere rumor-mongering is important because it's an example of serious party forces aligning against him. And that is very, very difficult to overcome.
The Democrats and Republicans have had a monopoly (or rather, a duopoly) on every facet of U.S. politics for over 150 years. Thus, the way those two parties function is very important. And if the party you're aligned with is functioning to keep you down, you're probably not going anywhere. Which brings us to the second point.
The duopoly works hard to prevent smaller parties like the Socialist, People's, and Progressive parties from the turn of the 20th century, or more recently the Green and Libertarian parties, from emerging as serious contenders. They have many tricks they use to accomplish this neutering of smaller parties. One tried and true tactic is to co-opt their issues.
That, for example, is how the Democrats, instead of the Socialists, became the party of labor.
This dynamic then leads the major parties to pander to their various base constituencies during primaries, and then run back to the center during general elections. The usual result is that those constituencies are gravely disappointed by the people they voted for. Witness in recent times Liberals complaining about Obama and Conservatives complaining about George W. Bush.
Thus, Republicans are more apt to co-opt right wing populist politicians than turn the party over to them. It can happen, to be sure. But if that's going to happen to the Grand Old Party any time soon, it will be through the Tea Party movement, not through Donny Hairpie.
But even if by some miracle Trump gets the GOP nomination next summer, he'd be savaged in the general election. As of right now, almost two-thirds of American voters are concerned about or actually scared by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Meanwhile, barely a third of Americans approve of his keep-the-Muslims out populism, while a clear majority of Americans oppose it. Do the math. This won't work.
Anyway, Trump isn't doing all this to be president. Oh, sure, his Macy's Thanksgiving Parade balloon of an ego relishes it. He probably fantasizes about it quite a bit. But this whole campaign is really little more than a promotional blitz for his day job: blowhard-shitbag-pitchman who makes a ton of cash whoring himself out.
We've seen it all before in the prior "campaigns" he ran for president and governor. This time, for reasons noted above, he's caught a little lightening in a bottle. But that won't last. Why? Because of the last factor.
Donald Trump is a fucking clown.
Add it all up, and he'll be done by the Ides of March. Here's how I think it plays out.
Trump loses the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa caucuses on the Republican side are a haven for fringe Christian fundamentalists. The last two winners are Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. 2016's poster child for the religious right, Ted Cruz, already has a 10 point lead there. Donald Trump, who kinda believes in abortion or whatever, is not winning Iowa.
New Hampshire? Maybe. Their Republicans tend to like outsider candidates too, but of the Libertarian stripe more than the religious. It could happen. Right now he's the clear favorite.
After that, the GOP field will be significantly thinned. Instead of a dozen or so candidates, it'll probably be down to half that. Things will start to firm up, and this is where it will get very tough for someone like him without much political organization or fund raising mechanisms. You know. All that hard work people put in to win an election that he hasn't bothered with.
After New Hampshire it's on to South Carolina, where Trump currently has a surprising lead. However, I'm confident that will change. Again, religious issues like abortion, not to mention his history of supporting gun control, will come back to haunt him.
Nevada? Yeah, Trump might win that, if his losses in Iowa and South Carolina haven't wobbled him too much, which they might. But on March 1st it's Super Tuesday: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia.
Seven of those twelve states are Southern. Big hit. Four days later, it's Kansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana. More conservative homelands that care about abortions and guns. He's done. If he's made it this far. Which I don't think he will.
Since this is a big self-promotion scheme, the one thing Donald Trump doesn't want to do is end up looking like a loser. It's all about being a winner.
So how do you paint yourself as a winner if you're not going to ultimately win? You walk away on your own terms, something he does consistently.
Before it gets too nasty, too dirty, too hardball, before he is subjected to wave after wave after wave of negative ads funded by both candidates and outsider groups with deep pockets, before he watches his reputation get shit on as countless hundreds of millions of dollars flow into television and radio stations and funnel back out as vicious attack ads, Donald Trump will step down from the race, while he can still sing his own praises and use this entire fiasco to burnish his image.
That's how it ends. Mark my words.
Then a year or two from now he'll be spouting crap like: "I could have been president. The people wanted me to be president. But I decided not to do it because there are other things I want to focus on. Like selling you this!"
And if I'm wrong? If Donald Trump really does become the 45th president of the United States? Then I'll let all the 3QD readers tie me up and place me on the altar as the sacrificial offering needed to satiate their tyrannical new overlord who, technically, is not a fascist.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com
Fighting in the Shade of 10,000 Arrows (Or, Is Donald Trump an ISIS mole?)
by Leanne Ogasawara
Once upon a time, asymmetrical warfare was viewed as a last resort. Only when every other means possible had been exploited and defeat seemed inevitable, only then would people make a stand against an obviously far stronger enemy.
Thermopylae comes to mind.
Between cliffs and the sea, it was here that Leonidas made his legendary last stand.
It is so famous, I hesitate to bother describing the armies they faced-- the myriad of tribes and peoples comprising the Persian army went on for pages and pages in Herodotus. Here is William Golding's depiction:
The numbers alone are exhilarating-- the Persian army being said to have been comprised of a million men! Impossible, of course, but Herodotus' famous anecdote about the great Spartan warrior Dienekes is unforgettable when told that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun for undaunted by this prospect, he remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade.'
Every time I read it, it makes me breathless.
It leaves me breathless because they knew they would lose--but in knowing that, they acknowledged that there are some things worth dying for.
Fast forward to today, where asymetrical warfare seems increasingly to be a tactic of choice.
It is important to consider the differences between asymmetrical tactics and terrorism. Is terrorism a tactic of asymetrical warfare where just war rules are thrown out? Or are both just characteristic of fourth generation warfare, which probably had its real start with the rise of aerial bombing and the blurring of the line between civilians and combatants. For, in my opinion, it was at this point in history where we de-evolved forever after becoming less and less civilized.
(I saw an incredibly disturbing comment this morning in an article about the San Bernardino shootings that said something like, "Nuke ISIS and work things out with the next generation. We know it works.")
Just only remember Picasso and Malroux's horror at aerial bombings and the wholesale killing of civilians. It truly took us back to a more brutal time when there was no such thing as non-combatant enemies and conflict occurred not necessarily between two nation states. In such a new world, terrorist tactics have become more and more common (with non-combatants becoming--at best-- tactical dilemmas).
Asymmetry, once considered as a last stand, has proven itself to be surprisingly resilient and powerful in today's style of war. Since this new age of war, in fact, the US has lost nearly all of its engagements, despite going up against vastly militarily weaker opponents. This is because, in today's style of war, it is not a matter of might makes right. When will our leaders update their game book?
The other day on Facebook, Nassim Nicholar Taleb (I remain one of his biggest fans), posted a short piece on asymmetry introducing the paper with these words:
The latest version of the dominance of the stubborn minority. It shows how Europe will be Halal, how GMOs and peanuts will vanish, and how Christianity came and will go.
Let us examine the implications. The unpopular one is that 1) integration of heterogeneous populations is never a good idea (unless neither majority nor minority are not of the stubborn kind); 2) If you are going to start a movement, make it intolerant of nonsense, etc.
His piece is short and is well worth reading. Having just finished Michel Houellebecq's really thought-provoking novel Submission, Taleb's thoughts were especially stimulating; for in the novel, it is not at all that the political takeover of France by the Muslim Brotherhood is done by a particular menacing "enemy at the gate;" but rather it is the complacency of the native population that is their eventual undoing. In the novel, so dismal and empty are the characters that one simply can't help but agree with the Muslim Brotherhood that anything is better than the France that Houellebecq describes; one in which the bonds that hold people together have become totally undone in the face of what is basically a very crude form of liberal, consumerist American values. Remember, the novel takes place in the future-- but so empty of any traditional values has French life become that the Muslim Brotherhood waltzes in and does indeed improve things. Crime and unemployment go down significantly for example. And in the end, as the protagonist decides to convert to Islam and join the movement, he says,
"I'd been given another chance; and it would be a chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one. I would have nothing to mourn."
The book is utterly depressing. But it illuminates Taleb's point brilliantly. A strong and committed minority can make great inroads against a less-stubborn (much less a totally complacent) majority. In the case of the US against ISIS, for example, this would be to suggest that if the majority is so busily engaged in their own petty partisan blame-gaming so that they are unable to stand together, then ISIS will have it easier than if they were facing a more stubborn resistance. And indeed as Harvard political scientist Stephen M. Walt says in this really thought-provoking piece in Foreign Policy, the fight we face involves more than merely throwing money at it. It is time to update the game book. And, how can we do this if we unable to look two moves ahead? (Much less that while we think we are controlling the pieces, we are in effect, just pawns in the game). While the average American during the Vietnam engagement probably had a halfway decent idea of what Ho Chi Minh wanted, how many American have a real grasp of anything in the Middle East?
For me, the typical example was a friend's post on facebook, decrying, "ISIS is committing atrocities like the Nazi's and all our President can do is talk.."
Well, there you have it. How can you win in an asymmetrical battle when 1) You confuse terrorists attacks with the systematic genocide which happened under Hitler's Germany? And worse, 2) How can you fight anything at all, if you are more interested in scoring a point for your side then in standing together as a nation? Sound a bit like Rome before the Fall or what? (see Juan Cole's piece, which I have renamed: Ten Reasons Why we are officially now a Banana Republic).
Along these lines, I had at first believed that Donald Trump was a Democratic mole. In retrospect, that was way too naive. I now consider him to be a highly effective weapon being trotted out beneath our very noses by ISIS.
If we were fighting an offensive "war," I would say, we need a Trump of our own in their camp. An ugly demagogue who could work to undermine their ideology by distracting people by petty hate and thereby create a population too stupid and mean (or simply too depressed) to do anything but scapegoat and fight among themselves. But we are not fighting on the offensive. This is also not an old school style war between basically evenly-matched nation-states, right?
Asymmetrical warfare is as old as time. So, what have we learned about it?
One thing that seems absolutely unanimous in everything I have read on the subject (and frankly there is not a lot out there), is that asymmetrical warfare always has a strong ideological component. It seems that most strategists agree with Taleb, that a stubborn minority requires one to utilize ideology. One must provide a counter-narrative that can persuade the communities that host the terrorists. The counter-narrative probably won't effect much in the stubborn minority (whose beliefs are strong and inflexible) but it can have an effect on the host communities. Groups require protection and support from host communities and psychological tactics aimed at the old fashioned "winning hearts and minds," are probably one of the hugely missing pieces in today's strategies; for indeed, f you simply bomb the host communities of the terrorists, you will be providing further grievances, and in a war of attrition, chances are you might very well lose.
French journalist Nicolas Henin, who was a captive of ISIS for ten months, has written a really powerful piece for the Guardian, in which he says,
These people are out of their minds. But why do we continue to fuel our enemies and fueling the the misery and disaster of the people. “The winner of this war will not be the party that has the newest, the most expensive or the most sophisticated weaponry, but the party that manages to win over the people on its side.”
He calls for a no-fly zone and for counter-narratives that seek to undermine support for the crazies in the local communities. This psychological strategy would have to include credible (to the population) diplomacy and intelligence. There are so few journalists and so few experts who really understand Syria and the growth of ISIS... in many ways it is a no man's land. We have to listen more to experts --whether military experts of asymmetrical warfare, or journalists like Henin who are after all "experts" having lived among the crazies for extended periods. To ignore experts is to lose.
In the end, Canada has put the rest of the world to shame this week. Refugees were welcomed by Canadian children singing songs of welcome in Arabic and the PM himself greeted them in what was an incredibly moving show of compassion and wisdom. It is an incredibly encouraging thing to watch from here--we were are seemingly incapable of anything but low-level partisan name calling. Terrorism, after all, works when we start to think with our national amygdala. What we need to do instead is to control the narrative, and not play the stooge in theirs! Reason (intelligence in the fullest sense of the word) and courage are the stubborn enemies of the asymmetrical enemy. Reason makes us smarter than them, and the courage (and stubbornness) to hold onto our core values in spite of the risk makes us braver. We do stand for something, but liberty, equality, and fraternity can't be dropped on a bomb. Thus it is crucial, in my opinion, that we must not close our borders, our minds, or our hearts.
The United States Needs a Department of Peace
The idea has been around since 1793 when Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote an essay “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States.” Rush was a Philadelphia physician, the founder of Dickinson College, the father of American psychiatry, an abolitionist, he served in the Continental Congress, and he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Banneker published the essay in the 1793 edition of his well-known almanac and then later in a collection of Rush’s essays. It is an interesting and curious document, which I reproduce in full below.
Rush imagines that the department would be able to transact its business in a single large room “adjoining the federal hall”. The world was much smaller then than it is now and so a larger portion of that world’s business could be encompassed within a single room. Rush is quite particular about the appointments of this room, suggesting that it house “a collection of ploughshares and pruning-hooks made out of swords and spears”.
The allusion is Biblical of course (Isaiah 2:3-4). Rush also directed that each family in the country be provided with a Bible at government expense. We are still in dire need of moral guidance, though it is by no means obvious that the Bible is the best source of it. What would Rush think of the Dalai Lama or of Pope Francis?
Rush also specifies that the walls of this office have large allegorical paintings on them. Thus the room itself is designed to inspire its inhabitants in their work. One of these paintings is to depict “an Indian boiling his venison in the same pot with a citizen of Kentucky”. I wonder if Rush had any sense that war with the Indians would continue for a century – the Wounded Knee Massacre was in 1890 – and that relations between them and their conquerors would remain fraught to this day?
Another painting was to depict “Lord Cornwallis and Tippoo Saib, under the shade of a sycamore-tree in the East Indies, drinking Madeira wine together out of the same decanter.” That of course depicts the British in India, who ruled there until 1947, when India became independent and partitioned into two states, India and Pakistan. The Tipu Sultan ruled the Kingdom of Mysore in southern India and was a Muslim ruler in a Hindu land. If Cornwallis and the Sultan had been able to make peace, well, what then? It was only a painting – and not even one that had been executed – but the allegorical extension of its subject identifies what remains a vexatious knot of conflicts. If India can make its democracy work, that will be glorious. But what of the spiraling toxicity of the dance between death drones from the skies and Islamic extremism?
And then there’s the painting depicting “a group of French and Austrian soldiers dancing arm and arm, under a bower erected in the neighborhood of Mons.” The Wikipedia informs us “the Battle of Mons was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War.” And that particular conflict, the French, the Germans, and the British, just got worse in the middle of the century, where it sucked half the world into a maelstrom of violence.
Which is to say that in the subjects he chose for these three paintings Rush identified knots socio-cultural violence that remain with us to this day. We’re not talking about violence in the abstract, but violence in specific historical situations that have not damped out but have simply changed shape and form. A fourth painting was to depict “a St. Domingo planter, a man of color, and a native of Africa, legislating together in the same colonial assembly.” Santo Domingo is still in trouble, trouble rooted in its colonial past.
Rush would no doubt have been pleased that men and women “of color” eventually came to legislative power in America and that a black man has become President. The situation of Africa, however, is a mess, some of it a legacy of colonialism, some the result of current exploitation by powerful interests both East and West, and most of resting squarely in the laps of who have to figure out how to survive and thrive in the world they’ve got.
As, indeed, must all of us.
But there was more to Rush’s vision for the office. He also wanted the workers to be inspired by music sung by “young ladies, clad in white robes” who would “sing odes, and hymns, and anthems in praise of the blessings of peace.” This was to be daily.
I have two reactions to this. On the one hand I think of videos I’ve seen of Japanese workers doing calisthenics on the job; it’s healthy and builds team spirit. I also think of 1985’s We Are the World:
It’s anyone’s guess what Rush would think of that music, but I can’t help but thinking that a dialectical synthesis of that with daily calisthenics would be good for anyone’s soul.
There’s more to Rush’s proposal than these “symbolic” gestures. But the symbolism is important, even central. For in this way Rush recognizes that the job of a Department of Peace is to change peoples’ hearts and minds and, as such, the job must start with the hearts and minds of the people who undertake the job. And it is something that cannot be done once an for all. On the contrary, it must be done day by day, one day at a time, unremittingly.
We must change the culture in which we live. That, as the cliché has it, is easier said than done. With climate change upon us, can we afford to waste so many resources and capacities on war? Dr. Benjamin Rush was not facing environmental catastrophe, and he had no knowledge of weapons with the power to devastate the earth’s surface. But he saw the wisdom of peace.
Do we? Can we? Will We?
* * * * *
Here is the full text of Rush’s essay, as published in his collection, Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd Edition. Thomas and William Bradford, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: 1806. pp. 183-188.
* * *
A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States
Among the defects which have been pointed out in the federal constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.
It is to be hoped that no objection will be made in the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War-Office of the United States was established in the time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace Office should be established in the time of war.
The plan of this office is as follows:
I. Let a Secretary of the Peace be appointed to preside in this office, who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government; let him be a genuine republican and sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty.
II. Let a power be given to this Secretary to establish and maintain free-schools in every city, village, and township of the United States; and let him be made responsible for the talents, principles, and morals of all his schoolmasters. Let the youth of our country be carefully instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, and in the doctrines of a religion of some kind: the Christian religion should be preferred to all others; for it belongs to this religion exclusively to teach us not only to cultivate peace with men, but to forgive, nay ore–to love our very enemies. It belongs to it further to teach us that the Supreme Being alone possesses a power to take away human life, and that we rebel against his laws, whenever we undertake to execute death in any way whatever upon any of his creatures.
III. Let every family in the United States be furnished at the public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with a copy of an American edition of the BIBLE. This measure has become the more necessary in our country, since the banishment of the bible, as a school-book, from most of the schools in the United States. Unless the price of this book be paid for by the public, there is reason to fear that in a few years it will be met with only in courts of justice or in magistrates’ offices; and should the absurd mode of establishing truth by kissing this sacred book fall into disuse, it may probably, in the course of the next generation, be seen only as a curiosity on a shelf in a public museum.
IV. Let the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the doors of every State and Court house in the United States.
THE SON OF MAN CAME INTO THE WORLD, NOT TO DESTROY MEN’S LIVES, BUT TO SAVE THEM.
V. To inspire a veneration for human life, and an horror at the shedding of human blood, let all those laws be repealed which authorize juries, judges, sheriffs, or hangmen to assume the resentments of individuals and to commit murder in cold blood in any case whatever. Until this reformation in our code of penal jurisprudence takes place, it will be in vain to attempt to introduce universal and perpetual peace in our country.
VI. To subdue the passion for war, which education, added to human depravity, have made universal, a familiarity with the instruments of death, as well as all military shows, should be carefully avoided. For which reason, militia laws should every where be repealed, and military dresses and military titles should be laid aside: reviews tend to lessen the horrors of a battle by connecting them with the charms of order; militia laws generate idleness and vice, and thereby produce the wars they are said to prevent; military dresses fascinate the minds of young men, and lead them from serious and useful professions; were there no uniforms, there would probably be no armies; lastly, military titles feed vanity, and keep up ideas in the mind which lessen a sense of the folly and miseries of war.
VII. In the last place, let a large room, adjoining the federal hall, be appropriated for transacting the business and preserving all the records of this office. Over the door of this room let there be a sign, on which the figures of a LAMB, a DOVE, and an OLIVE BRANCH should be painted, together with the following inscriptions in letters of gold:
PEACE ON EARTH–GOOD-WILL TO MAN.
AH! WHY WILL MEN FORGET THAT THEY ARE BRETHREN?
Within this apartment let there be a collection of ploughshares and pruning-hooks made out of swords and spears; and on each of the walls of the apartment, the following pictures as large as the life:
1. A lion eating straw with an ox, and an adder playing upon the lips of a child.
2. An Indian boiling his venison in the same pot with a citizen of Kentucky.
3. Lord Cornwallis and Tippoo Saib, under the shade of a sycamore-tree in the East Indies, drinking Madeira wine together out of the same decanter.
4. A group of French and Austrian soldiers dancing arm and arm, under a bower erected in the neighborhood of Mons.
5. A St. Domingo planter, a man of color, and a native of Africa, legislating together in the same colonial assembly.
[At the time of writing this, there existed wars between the United States and the American Indians, between the British nation and Tippo Saib, between the planters of St. Domingo and their African slaves, and between the French nation and the emperor of Germany.]
To complete the entertainment of this delightful apartment, let a group of young ladies, clad in white robes, assemble everyday at a certain hour, in a gallery to be erected for the purpose, and sing odes, and hymns, and anthems in praise of the blessings of peace.
One of the these songs should consist of the following lines:
Peace o’re the world her olive wand extends, And white-rob’d innocence from heaven descends; All crimes shall cease, and ancient frauds shall sail, Returning justice lifts aloft her scale.
In order more deeply to affect the minds of the citizens of the United States with the blessings of peace, by contrasting them with the evils of war, let the following inscriptions be painted upon the sign, which is placed over the door of the War Office.
1. An office for butchering the human species. 2. A Widow and Orphan making office. 3. A broken bone making office. 4. A Wooden leg making office. 5. An office for creating public and private vices. 6. An office for creating public debt. 7. An office for creating speculators, stock Jobbers, and Bankrupts. 8. An office for creating famine. 9. An office for creating pestilential diseases. 10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.
In the lobby of this office let there be painted representations of all the common military instruments of death, also human skulls, broken bones, unburied and putrifying dead bodies, hospitals crowded with sick and wounded Soldiers, villages on fire, others in besieged towns eating the flesh of their children, ships sinking in the oceans, rivers dyed in blood, and extensive plains without a tree or fence, or any other object, but the ruins of deserted farm houses.
Above this group of woeful figures,–let the following words be inserted, in red characters to represent human blood,
Amanda Schachter & Alexander Levi. Harvest Dome 2.0, 2013.
Made of 450 broken umbrellas and 128 bottles.
The ugly truth about your Facebook friends
by Sarah Firisen
The world seems a very depressing, scary place these days. Maybe it always was. I remember being 12 years old and driving with my father and expressing to him how terrified I was by the possibility of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He talked to me about mutual assured destruction and the deterrent this was going to provide. Those fears seem almost quaint now; our current enemies don’t seem to play by the same rational rules of self-interest. Another thing that has changed is our exposure to just how much other people in our lives don’t share our values and opinions on these, and other issues. I always knew that I was somewhat at odds with elements of my family about Judaism and Israel’s relationship the Palestinian people. But for the most part, as we probably all do, I lived in a bubble where most of the people around me pretty much shared my political and social views. I’ve always had friends who vote Republican, but they’re all on the fiscal rather than social conservative spectrum; lower taxes but prochoice. I have no problem with people whose views differ from mine in these ways. Yes, we can debate the merits of trickledown economics, but as long as we all are in favor of gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, and the normal laundry list of social items that US liberals care about, the friendship won’t be tarnished by the things we don’t agree on.
But social media has changed all this. The views that our acquaintances hold are often now fully in our faces, good, bad and sometimes very ugly. Reconnecting with your best friend from kindergarten now often brings with it the horrible realization that she’s grown into a narrow minded bigot. Yes, you can unfriend and unfollow, and we often do or have it done to us. But what about when that’s not viable option? And should it be our first reaction?
Someone whose views are aligned with my own recently posted on Facebook that we should stop Facebook debating about Syrian refugees, whether or not black lives matter or if Obama is the worst president ever and is the one most responsible for the rise of ISIS. Instead, we should just unfriend the people posting what we view as racists, bigoted, ignorant comments on our threads and jingoistic captions on theirs.
I countered this idea on two fronts: firstly, I really do think there is real value in exposing myself to views that are very divergent from my own. While I don’t believe that I’m going to be convinced to change my core beliefs and values, there’s always room around the edges to gain a fresh perspective. It’s because of this that I religiously read the New York Times conservative columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat, writers like Andrew Sullivan and beyond. Insulating myself in an echo chamber of liberal thought is to make myself part of the problem; an increasingly polarized population of people who only consume media that reinforces and amplifies their world view.
My biggest Facebook challenge these days is the superintendent of my apartment building, S. He’s is a great super, attentive, hardworking, friendly, kind, responsive. And I do truly believe that he’s a good person with a huge heart who would do anything for anyone. He’s a devoted father and husband. But he’s a self-proclaimed southern redneck, from North Carolina; a white 51 year old, uneducated, gun owning, evangelical Christian. Basically, Donald Trump’s base. Over the two years I’ve lived in the building, we’ve socialized casually on occasion and so I did have an inkling about the way his beliefs likely tended before he friended me on Facebook. But his, by my standards, extreme positions never fully surfaced when we were sharing a glass of wine at one of the apartment building’s periodical social soirees. The Facebook friend request did give me pause, I suspected this wasn’t going to be a great thing for our relationship, but I truly had no idea how bad it would be. And he’s not someone I can unfriend so easily, I see him every day and don’t want to ruin our professional relationship. I have stopped following most of his postings and when I remember, I exclude him from my political postings, but some slip through the cracks.
Initially, I just argued with him. That didn’t work out so well, his world view is pretty baked in. And of course, so is mine. Recently, I’ve tried another tactic: when the things he’s posting are just clearly inaccurate, not just unpleasant, but provably false, I try to find a source that I think he won’t just dismiss as holding liberal bias and I post my rebuttal and the source. This occasionally provokes something like a retraction, sometimes, something like one. In fact, Facebook is trying to help me with this by attempting to stop some of the fake stories that virally spread like wildfire through social media. One of the ways they’re increasingly trying to do this better is by tracking stories that are reported as spam or hoaxes. So even if I’m not changing S’s mind, I may be contributing to Facebook’s efforts and, at the very least, perhaps reducing the number of his like minded friends who repost.
And this was my second counter argument to the notion of just unfriending people whose views we don’t like; is there some room for education around these issues? This is probably hugely naïve on my part, I don’t believe I’m going to turn S into a Democrat, or even moderate his views on Islam or gun control. But at least I’m making sure he’s not living in a total echo chamber. And even if he is beyond my influence, perhaps he has Facebook friends who see our debates and rethink some of their positions, or at least maybe research further. I think we all have wiggle room around the edge of even our mostly dearly held views and beliefs, so perhaps continuing to engage with each other on social media, even when it makes us very uncomfortable is a worthwhile contribution to the public discourse.
Monday, December 07, 2015
with mylar, PVC, and carpet.
Currently at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.