Friday, February 28, 2014

Hamlet, Skull in Hand






I’m not entirely sure why this occupied my mind this morning, but it did, so I thought I’d type it up.

My dad’s favorite episode ever of Star Trek: the Next Generation was one in which Picard findshimself stranded on a planet with an alien he can’t communicate.  It’s not that they don’t share a common language; as is the case in most episodes of Star Trek, everyone and everything speaks the Queen’s English (or Starfleet’s English).  

No, the problem is that while the alien’s individual words might be decipherable, the underlying meaning of them is not.  The reason is that the alien speaks in nothing but literary analogies alluding to myths from his own culture.  Without having a grounding in the culture of the alien, Picard can make no sense of koan-like sayings, such as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.”

Eventually, Data and the trusty Enterprise computer figure out where this alien comes from and provide Picard with a Wikipedia-esque understanding of the characters and situations the alien makes reference to, and this allows communication to take place.  Picard even creates his own version of this language, using phrases from his own culture's repository of literary allusions, such as “Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.”  Not only does this newfound common language of analogy allow Picard and his companion to defeat a monstrous beast that attacks them, but to forge a bond between themselves and their cultures. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK and the Stories We Tell






Every week or so, I have a dream involving the JFK assassination.  It’s never realistic.  I’m not in Dealey Plaza as it actually looks.  I often don’t even see Kennedy.  It’s much more abstract.  I’m running through some generic city streets that are sort of stand ins for Dallas (I guess), and I’m aware that the shots are about to be fired, but I don’t know where.  Or I’m watching something on television about the assassination, and suddenly I’m sucked through the screen and I’m somewhere unfamiliar and unrecognizable, and I’m scared I’m about to see something horrific, and then I hear the rifle shots.

I don’t know why this has become a recurring motif of my dreams.  I wasn’t alive when it happened, so it’s something more indirect than reliving a traumatic experience—something metaphorical.  If forced to guess, I suppose it has probably has something to do with fear of my own death, the threat of violence, dealing with loss, or just the fragility of life in general.

In the early 1990s, around the time of the 30th anniversary of the assassination, I became interested in exploring the assassination and read a few books.  Stone’s JFK had just come out, so that was probably the catalyst for my interest.  What became more fascinating to me than issues of bullet trajectories or missing autopsy reports or the time Oswald spent in the Soviet Union was the passion with which people held their opinions on the event.  Single bullet or magic bullet.  CIA or the Cubans. Grassy knoll or sixth floor.  Whatever people thought about the assassination, they seemed to hold like a religious belief.  I became aware that whatever the actual facts were didn’t matter.  Any fact could be molded to fit a preconceived narrative.  The question was then why did people choose certain narratives over others?  What was at stake for them?  Clearly, it had to be something, given my increasing conviction that rational argumentation had little to do with people’s thoughts.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Macrologician Strikes Back!


 

Thanks to those who passed along kind words about the whole "Golden Pen" thing.  Below, is the "director's cut" of the letter, restored from the violence done to it by those enemies of macrologia over at the Journal Gazette! :-)



In the recent congressional debate about the farm bill, Republicans proposed slashing $20 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over ten years. Some holier-than-thou advocates for children call this “cruel.”  Luckily, Indiana’s own Representative Marlin Stutzman sees that the only problem with these cuts is that they don’t go far enough. He suggested upping the amount to $30 billion.

You can guess what the “reality-based” crowd will say to this.  They’ll point out Marlin has taken over $200,000 from the government for his own farming operations over the last 15 years.  They’ll remind us Marlin has claimed he was “forced” to take these government handouts when, in fact, he wasn’t.  They might even use the word “hypocrite” to describe Marlin.

But Marlin understands that huge operations like Stutzman Farms need such handouts (more kindly called “crop insurance”) as protection from the consequences of economic forces beyond their control.  To those who claim the kids of the working poor don’t deserve to suffer because of the disastrous fiscal policies of Wall Street either, folks like Marlin have a ready answer: how do you know those little blighters didn’t cause the subprime mortgage crisis in the first place?

All of us in Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District should be thankful that when not being frog-marched to the bank by government thugs and forced to cash those five-digit checks he didn’t even ask for, Marlin has devoted time to sorting out the real culprits behind our economic woes: hungry kids.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Gayest Games Ever!





















Like a lot of folks, I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the human-rights-defying anti-gay laws passed in Russia, particularly in the context of the upcoming Winter Olympics.  British comedian Stephen Fry just wrote an open letter to Prime MinisterDavid Cameron suggesting a boycott or relocation of the games from Russia.  On the other side of the issue, Johnny Weir (American figure skater, openly gay man, and sequin aficionado) has spoken out against an Olympic boycott, saying it would just hurt people who had nothing to do with the laws.


What are civilized people supposed to do?  On one hand, going ahead with the games and hiding behind the shibboleth that “the majesty of sport transcends political issues” isn’t an option.  It amounts to tacit approval of gross immorality.  But would a boycott really do anything constructive? Is it even possible to change the location of the games at this late date? Is punishing the athletes (the folks the games are ultimately about) to “send a message” a just thing to do?

I’ve been trying to think of what an approach of creative, constructive nonviolence might look like as a solution to this issue, based on the reading and coursework I’ve done in this area.  And I might just have come up with a solution.

Four words: The Gayest Games Ever!


Thursday, February 21, 2013

On Online Comment Cruelty


 Was reading an article about the recent suicide of a celebrity, and the article was followed by many comments from readers, some of which were thoughtful, many of which were not.  A few of us shared some ideas on why some people seem drawn to make grotesque, hurtful, and cruel comments in an online environment.  Below was my contribution to the discussion, which I realized would probably be appropriate for this blog.  I'm still thinking through this phenomenon of online cruelty for no apparent purpose and how to respond to it.  Mostly, I just try to avoid reading comments sections in general.  When I do read comments, I try to keep the following ideas in mind (emphasis on *try*; I often fail).  If any of you have thoughts about the best way to engage/think about such things, I'd love to hear what you have to say as well.

Anyway, FWIW, here it is:

On the issue of the tone of many of the comments, it's true we don't put a collective value on empathy, intelligence, and just basic politeness (e.g., we downgrade politeness as a virtue these days because it is somehow antithetical to being "real").

That said, when I encounter these sorts of comments, I try to remind myself of a few things. One, people make these comments for reasons that are all about them, not about anyone or anything else. It's a chance to offload anxieties, frustrations, pain, etc. A second, related, point is that age-old observation that people treat others the way they treat themselves. No matter how smug and self-satisfied they might try to come across, people who are cruel and insensitive are people who treat themselves that way as well (often unconsciously).

None of this excuses the behavior, but it might explain what is otherwise utterly insipid, idiotic behavior. It speaks to an underlying degree of pain in a society in which we feel disconnected. And it also helps me move from a place where I feel a need to skewer these people or explain to them exactly how stupid they are being to simply acknowledging that these people have been damaged and hurt on a profound level themselves, and even more tragically, they don't know how to heal. Instead, they just try to offload the pain and frustration in an attempt to purge it from themselves. It never works. Let's hope they can learn that.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Anger and Newtown


I don’t know what to say about the Newtown shooting.  As someone interested in peace, nonviolence, language, and their interconnectedness, I think there’s a lot to be said. But coming up with what that might be is another thing altogether.

Most viscerally, I just find myself angry. Not so much at the predictable parade of conmen, Pharisees, and paranoids who tell us that we need more guns or God or (preferably) both in schools to make things right. They’re just wind-up toys doing what they do.  (I will say, in passing, that I think Sacha Baron Cohen has topped himself with his latest character “Representative Louie Gomert, Republican of Texas,” a masterstroke of satirical social commentary.)

Evolution of a satirist?

I’m not even mad at the shooter. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.  He’s beyond anger at this point, and clearly was disturbed to a degree we cannot fathom.

I do get frustrated with those who I think should know better.  The mom with whom I am (or was) “friends” on Facebook who approvingly reposts a screed about how none of this would happen if parents would just “beat the s*** out of weird withdrawn ungrateful f**ks” like they did back in the good ol’ days.  The parents who think they are protecting their family by bringing guns into their house when statistics show that, regardless of type of gun or storage, a gun is 43 times more likely to kill someone in the house than any intruder.  Those who in arguing for this or that approach to understanding what happened insist on using sloppy thinking, relying on false dilemmas and strawmen.  

But most of all, I get angry at myself.  Angry for being angry.  Angry for gleefully unfriending authors of idiotic posts on Facebook.  Angry at the satisfaction I get in giving the rhetorical back of my hand to nincompoops online with their half-baked theology or social policy.  Angry for allowing myself to become misanthropic.  Angry for allowing myself the grim pleasure of seeing my misanthropy confirmed by the unending parade of ignorance and hate available to us 24/7 through the magic of cable news, talk radio, and the interwebs.  Angry for not fully putting to use the skills I’ve learned from reading folks like Thich Nhat Hanh, Johan Galtung, Marshall Rosenberg, and many others who have helped me begin cobbling together way of thinking about what truly peaceful/nonviolent thinking and communication might look like and be practiced.


Monday, December 10, 2012

MA'AM Up!

 [The following is a piece I wrote for comedian Jen Kirkman's project, "MA'AM" (Men Against Assholes and Misogyny).  Check it out here.

A student at the school I teach at once said of a colleague of mine, “Everyone says Ms. Smith is a feminist, but I think she’s actually really nice.”

Fortunately, I grew up in an atmosphere where feminism wasn’t a dirty word, synonymous with “raging bitch on wheels.”  However, in college, I do remember feeling a bit intimidated by feminism.  I mistakenly thought that feminist thinking said that as a male, I was a bad person.  I thought it meant that my feelings were not important because I was male.  I thought it meant that if I thought of a woman as sexy or desirable, I was doing something wrong.  I thought it meant that it was perfectly fine for me to be seen as an act of misogynistic violence waiting to happen—to be presumed guilty or at least under suspicion.

Obviously, for someone who just wanted to be liked, these feelings hurt me and made me wary of identifying as a feminist.  But as I got older, I recognized that my feelings were based on misperceptions.  The sort of cartoonish, man-hating feminism was a vulgar distortion of what feminism was actually about.  

In the spirit of sharing what I’ve gleaned, here are a few common misconceptions about feminism, and the actual reality, as I now understand it.