Category Archives: Quick Thoughts

Things that pop into my mind, that strike me at the moment. Quality not assured.

On Motivation

Why do we do the things that we do? Because we are motivated to do so. But what motivates us? What makes us move? There are, it seems, two possible alternatives to this question. 1. Reasons 2. Mechanisms. The relationship between the two is confusing, at least to me.

Let us start with an example of an explanational schema. Let us start with Freud, because he is on my mind and people don’t talk about him as much as his legacy deserves. He is not popular, therefore I like him.

Freud was something of a biological determinist. He looked to bodily drives and impulses, to instincts and passions, for his explanations of human action. Hence the universality of his Oedipal complex, of penis envy, and the like. These were not constructs merely; they were concrete phases of human development, differing shapes the mind took in reaction to the near universal stimulants presented to it through its early development.

Where does that leave motivation? Well, if the biological motivations of human action are universal, Freud would have to explain our differing rationales for similar actions. He did so through the method of free association, whereby the analyst prompted a few questions, let the analysand talk and talk, gradually pealing back the layers of rationalization (a term coined by a psychoanalyst), ultimately revealing the true man under the armor of the Super Ego.

Freud’s answer, then, was that our explanations are not accurate in fact, but geared towards the expectations society places upon us, those we think society places upon us, and those we place upon ourselves. Ultimately, however, the reason we give for doing things is a veil, masking raw biological fact.

In his treatise on religion, Freud hits these same marks, postulating that religion, that myth is a comfort against the unexplainable. It makes the mysterious less frightening by imbuing it with human characteristics that we can understand, predict, control, or rebel against. It gives us hope. It gives us community. It keeps the uncontrolled Id at bay.

Is Freud right? What motivates us? As a student of history, I have been asking myself this question without coming to any kind of satisfactory answer.

Why did Herclius sail all the way from Spain, usurp the Byzantine throne, fight his way to the gates of the Persian capital as Constantinople lay besieged, vanquish Byzantium’s foes, and then do almost nothing when, at the end of his reign, the Muslims attacked? Historically, analysis has focused on perhaps his Roman patriotism, his religious fervor, his youthful zest compared to the atrophy of an old age gained in the wake of victory. Couple this with the youthful Islam against the fractured Christianity of the East, and you get your historical narrative.

But what does that really explain? Why did Heraclius do what he did? Because of his religious motivation. What caused that? His upbringing, maybe the Christian creed meshing with his mental constitution. What constitutes a mentality, and how do the words of others interact with that?

It is easy to say that rational causes rest on a foundation of biological processes. I write because I want to. I want to because the act of writing causes chemical X to react with chemical Y and yield outcome Z. But how does one interplay with the other? When I write even when it does not yield a positive chemical response, why do I write? Because of some repressed desire to punish myself? Does that come from a different chemical?

To ask how motivation splits into reason and mechanism and how those parts interact is, I suspect, the same as asking how man splits into mind and body, and then asking how one interacts with the other. Perhaps it is the wrong question to ask. Perhaps it is a false dichotomy.

Humans like to explain things. They do not like to have their explanations questioned or dissected. Or doubted. Freud faced much criticism manfully, honestly even, but psychoanalysis was still his baby, and not infrequently his rebuttals were witty but unable fully to grapple with the issue at hand. He has been criticized much too harshly for this. He was a much more astute methodologist than some give him credit for. Still, he had a worldview and brooking naysayers was not his natural bent.

How do we explain his defensiveness? With an assertion: humans like to explain things. And a corollary: they do not like to have their explanations criticized. What evidence do I have to support this? Experience. Anecdote. The authority of a blog. What caused this facet of human behavior? Evolution. Isn’t evolution just a long term manifestation of genetic change? Then how do genes motivate people? They imbue proclivities. How?

Magic. People do things because Magic.

Happy Easter.

 

Feminism and the Post-Sex World

Feminism has been an issue for some time now. Debates dealing with woman’s political and economic rights and roles have through the course of decades spread from those realms to other spheres of human endeavor, and the social role of women has been quite energetically put under the microscope of discourse. Even in the first decades of the 21st century, the role of women continues to be an issue, and here I am thinking specifically of their representation in entertainment–what roles they get as actors, what characters they are assigned in video games, etc.

A topic not unrelated to the female half of the species has taken root in recent years, namely the nature of gender itself. It has been proposed, of late, that people born of one gender but wishing later in life to transition to the other, ought have the right to do so without social stigma or condemnation. Others argue that even the binary division of man/woman is antiquated or inadequate or tyrannical. The whole idea not only of gender roles, but of gender itself, has come under increased scrutiny over the last few years.

My own personal reflection on the subject has led me to a simple distinction, which we might precariously call sex/gender. A person’s sex is merely the description of their physical parts, divorced completely from any implication of social function. Thus, we would say that my sex is that of the male, as I am possessed of those organic parts scientists have decided to call “male.” Then there is gender, meaning the social component assigned to, or expected of, a person of a given sex. It seems to me that while it doesn’t make much sense to question or deconstruct someone’s sex, as that is a matter of biology and not really open to interpretation (most of the time), the subject of gender is very much open to interpretation, criticism, and change, as the societal roles of each sex vary with time, environment, and level of civilization.

That being said, I’ve come to wonder of late what role feminism might play in a potentially post-sex world. Feminism concerns itself with the image, role, and function of the female sex. A growing number of people, intellectual or otherwise, seem to be of the opinion that not only is gender something that is fluid (a point many feminists would, I think, agree with), but that the very notion of sex as a biological binary opposition is wrong. For example, if I were to introduce my colleague John as a man I met at a party before coming to work with him, a post-gender advocate might point out my presumption at calling him a man; that perhaps he has not consciously decided upon his sex, be it male, female, or other, and that such presumption is tantamount to a tyranny of the majority.

Feminism, it seems to me, is in something of a bind. If sex is fluid and in constant flux, dictated not by biological fact but by individual opinion, then what purpose does an ideology proposing to advocate for women serve? The underlying assumption of all feminists is that women are, in fact, a thing; and it seems to me that a main purpose of the post-sex worldview is to say, in effect, that manhood and womanhood are not things, but opinions. I am not a man because I have a dick and balls, and because I lack a uterus, et al; I am a man because I am of that opinion about myself. Feminism, in a world of such sexual flux, becomes meaningless, as it seems to be fighting for a group of people it tyrannically assumes have linked interests. By its very nature, so I think the post-sexist would argue, feminism 1. artificially divides people into a binary opposition; and 2. chains one group of people together based on that artificial, and indeed tyrannical, distinction.

Many in my circle scoff at the very notion of this sexual flux. I think that is unfair. I have little issue with a man becoming a woman or a woman a man. I don’t think there should be stigma or chastisement attached to such a choice. The main point should be whether an individual is able to function well in society, that he is able to play well with others. I do think, however, that it makes little sense to assert that biological sex is a meaningless concept. Perhaps the structure of our society, on some primeval level, has artificially implanted the notion of binary sex upon us, making it almost impossible for us not to see it in practically every form of life (and classifying accordingly). That’s a tough proposition to prove, though. Binary might be too strong a word, if we include hermaphroditic species, but so far as humanity is concerned, there are men and there are women, that seems pretty certain. We are divided almost evenly into two groups of people, each with a distinct set of parts to call their own. Yes, a few people have both or perhaps even neither, but that does not negate the two major categories.  As to their social functions, however, that is up for debate. At any rate, I think it’s healthy and encouraging that people are talking about something that, for large stretches of history at least, has not been much of an issue. It’s neat to see one more topic come under the aegis of debate, and I wonder at what conclusions the majority will commit itself to.

Cultural Appropriation Needs to Stop

The other day I was in the car listening to music, as I am wont to do. As fate would have it (thanks Shuffle) this song came up:

I am sure you, dear reader, were as taken aback as me at the flagrant, indeed putrid proliferation, nay appropriation of western culture exemplified in this video.

Before we get to the outrage, first a little background. This is a Taiwanese metal band. In addition to using instruments traditionally found in metal music (bass, drums, guitar, growling vocalizations), they incorporate into their ensemble such Chinese instruments as the erhu, the koto, and the shamisen. They also seek to bring forth, through this admixture of musical cultures, such myths and historical episodes from Taiwan’s distant past as they think merit the attention of a modern audience.

This, in and of itself, is a grotesque mockery of what we can loosely term cultural identity. Think for a moment: metal is a thoroughly western endeavor, steeped in the suffering of black Americans, the advent of the blues and jazz as an expression of that anguish, and the coupling of that with influences from the first wave of British rockers during the 1960s. The first metal band, Black Sabbath, was a strange and hypnotic amalgamation of this supremely western musical style; they were a historical text in their own right, rich in the nuance and vitality of the age and culture they were a part of. They and their music, like that of all metal, are tied to the cultural currents of the west, and should remain in those vigorous waters.

But this Taiwanese band, sitting comfortably off the coast of China and thus able to play in the flotsam of one of the most ancient and accomplished cultures mankind has yet produced, have taken it upon themselves to bogart a musical style that is in no shape or form their own. Their culture is tied not at all to those electronic notes, each one dripping with the collective heritage of Socrates, of Aquinas, of Frederick Douglas, and of John Wayne, and each one the unique product of western culture.

What could possess these youths to “appropriate” (to use the politically correct term) another culture, rather than turn inwards and realize that they themselves are heirs to a rich culture all their own?This seems an especially egregious failing, as their stated purpose as a band is to bring attention to their own culture! How can they espouse such a passion for their own civilization and yet, at the same time, express that passion in a bastardized form of music that came to be in a context utterly divorced from their own?

This criticism goes both ways. We westerners ought remain proud of all that we have achieved over the centuries, and refrain from taking from others what they can rightfully claim as the fruits of their own labors. To do otherwise would be the rankest hypocrisy; for how can we condemn others for stealing if we ourselves rejoice in the taking of that which does not belong to us?

Can we not, as people and cohumans, admit that cultures are:

1. utterly unique, self-contained entities, the result of tireless effort by collections of artists, craftsmen, statesmen, authors, shamans, and merchants over the course of centuries–if not millenia;

2. the sole heritage of those whose ancestors worked so hard to create it;

3. inalienable in the strictest sense of that word, meaning none alien to a given culture ought have anything to do with a culture not their own;

4. only kept strong and virile by the upkeep of their purity.

The defense of these four propositions should be simple enough.

First, culture can readily and easily be classified based on the geographical group from which it originated. Thus you have Mediterranean culture, Atlantic culture, Mesopotamian culture, Chinese culture…. As time marches on these geographic areas have required amending, and so we can now more accurately speak about a broader Western culture, a more united Indian culture, etc. Surely, however, these tectonic shifts do not invalidate the idea that civilization can with precision and accuracy be delineated into very distinct sections.

Second, those inhabiting these regions, changing though they are, do possess the inherited right to maintain their cultural identity, just as a man’s sons retain the right to maintain their father’s estate after his passing. In this way the work of each generation is cumulative.

Third, because these efforts are the culmination of generations, men ought stick to their own endeavors, lest the chain of civilization weaken and break with undue strain. Furthermore, these chains being of differing color, substance, and size, would fit poorly in the linkages of others, thus annihilating in the rot of decay what took generations to produce.

Fourth, culture, like anything else, only maintains its beauty and health if it is kept pure. Man being a natural animal, and culture being the natural outgrowth of his social proclivities, we need only look to other examples in nature to know this to be true. Metals such as gold, silver, or iron are more valuable, stronger, and more useful in their pure forms. Animals, take dogs for example, are only augmented in the process of pure breeding. The nobles families of Early Modern Europe attest to this same phenomenon in humans, as the illustrious reigns of the various dynasties (Valois, Tudor, Hapsburg to name only a few) evince.

If we can, as a world, for once and for all agree to the above four points and their verisimilitude; then we will have taken the first titanic step towards what I am sure we all desire: the fractured, nationalistic, and stagnant Hapsburg-earth that slices humanity into arbitrary slabs of meat, unable to communicate what is best in any one group to another. This tribal utopia, wherein we specs of darkness grope individually for the light, holds out the promise of continued endarkenment, a pleasant prospect for those patriotic eyes so easily made delirious by the sparks and fireworks that always accompany the forging of something better, the shattering of cultural barriers that might, at long last, allow us to grope together.

Or, at the very least, allows for some pretty interesting music.

A Froissart Sundae, with Atheist Sprinkles!

With less than 100 pages to go, I’ve neared the end of this highly medieval book. Since we last saw him, Froissart has covered peasant rebellions (with some charity but on the whole with scorn resulting from his class, and his purse-strings), wars, marriages, jousts, and travels across western Europe. He has proven a lively, interesting, indeed interested narrator, hardly possessed of the “historian’s objectivity,” although such academic unicorns are hardly worth chasing. Give me a thesis to chew on, grapple with, and grate against! Be fair minded, empathetic, reasonably partial, but add to that the courage of conviction!

I admired Foissart when I first glanced at his chronicle because he at least tried to deal with his knightly adversaries with some fairness. I am happy to say that, within the confines of his class (or perhaps more the class he admired, since he was not himself knighted), he shows every sign of understanding, and at least some degree of fairness. He might show partiality as to the particular winner and loser of a given battle; but he also goes out of his way to mention acts of valor and deeds of daring do regardless of allegiance.

All this I found of interest in book I, and it still holds true several hundred pages later. What struck me when I got to book IV was his narrative of Charles VI of France, specifically his fall into madness.

Picture it: a young king hot on the heels of a recalcitrant noble; he and his men swelter in the August sun, panoplied for war; the king, stricken with a lack of appetite or thirst, falls especial prey to this oppressive heat. He rides ahead of his party so as to keep clear of the dust. From behind, two of his pages begin to horse around. Clank! One claps the other on the helm with the flat of his lance; and of a sudden Charles wheels around,wrenches sword from scabbard, and screams at what he perceives to be traitors. Stricken with some sickness of the mind, the king of France thinks himself in the midst of battle, and acts accordingly. He swings his blade about, in wild defense, and is with difficulty unhorsed and subdued.

What is it that Froissart says the king’s men think is the cause of all this madness? We today might purport some mystical imbalance of chemicals; or perhaps we might blame a symptom of a childhood neurosis,the diagnosis being dependent upon our psychological political party, the site of our psycho-political camp. Our stereotype of medieval man asserts an appeal to divine causes, no less mystical than our own, but coming from a different font of supposed proof. Rather than the genetic, chemical, or prepubescent bibles of post-modernity, so the typical narrative goes, the dour brutes of this darkest age relied upon paper auguries, fantastical hierarchies, and clerical meta-narratives.

You can tell, I suspect, what I think of all this. We post-moderns know far less than we think about the workings of the material world; and Froissart highlights, to my mind, an interesting misconception about medieval diagnosis. Doubtless if I were living in the middle ages, I would be as hard on the episcopal powers that be as I am now regarding the arrogance and domination of modern medicine. As it happens, however, I live in the 21st century, and I wouldn’t be a very good contemporary of my time if I did not rail against the daftest of my particular century, and bequeath to those long dead a degree of empathy and understanding that is difficult to bestow upon those still alive to defend themselves (and prove the strain of my empathy unwarranted with still further action).

To wit: the men of Froissart’s narrative do not immediately jump into the Bible for an explanation. Instead, they note that Charles had been afflicted with melancholy and loss of appetite for some time, remaining aloof and unenergetic for a while before the incident. They also noted the extreme heat that environed Charles in his fit of rage. Finally, they conversed about various political rivals in and out of the king’s court who may have had reason to poison the sovereign of France. Their immediate explanations centered around the material, and were devoid of greater spiritual significance.

When the two popes heard of Charles’ madness they each got a word in spiritual-wise, giving different explanations as to why God would want to afflict Charles with such a mental malady. But even so, his advisers brought in a physician, the man treated Charles with food, rest, and a return to the invigoration of the hunt, and apparently brought the king back into some semblance of coherence.

What I found fascinating about all this was not that ermagerd, medievals could find solutions not based around some flying spaghetti monster; rather, it was the simple fact that our post-modern expectation of what their knee-jerk reaction ought to have been was at the very least a gross oversimplification of the whole thing.

Froissart, too, could have oversimplified, over and above the need to simplify for the sake of his narrative. Instead, he chronicled the differing reactions of different men, in various positions of power, authority, and proclivity. He took perspective into account, and I appreciate that in…basically anyone, especially in authors I take the time to sit down and read.

This, by the by, is what irks me so much about what I gather are called the New Atheists. Richard Dawkins is a prime example, if only because of his notoriety. Their defining feature, so far as I can see, is that they hide behind rationality, the use of reason governed by empirically gathered, scientifically analyzed data. That’s all well and good, but it does not give you an excuse to 1. be judgmental assholes who scoff at any notion not blatantly scientific, which in this context means only that which you happen to agree with; 2. think that your perspective is definitionally better, more progressed, and all around enlightened in comparison to basically everyone else who ever lived; and 3. to usurp historical figures for the sole purpose of proving your a priori belief in scientific progress. Coming as they do from a belief in the divinity of a posteriori arguments, such historical shoehorning is most unscientific indeed!

I don’t hate such atheists, and I can certainly empathize, or try to when I am not reading their contributions to various internet shouting matches, with their position. Still, such arrogance and ignorance, especially from those who have so much faith in objectivity and the scientific method, is especially egregious. It makes me understand all the better the kinds of criticisms leveled against the Catholic church prior to the Reformation, and how frustrating such blatant, unreasonable hypocrisy is.

Let’s be clear here: hypocrisy is not a mortal sin, not by any means. Man is fickle and contextual, driven, indeed tyrannized by the Moment. We cannot justly blame someone for not practicing what they preach from time to time. When actions consistently violate said creed, however, then we might have some cause for criticism. This seems very much the case with these New Atheists. The scientific method does not imbue an opinion with certainty. Scientists, like everyone else, must bend the light they see through the prism of experience, and view the world through the lens of prejudice.

To bring this back to Froissart…He made some attempt at fairness. He highlights some interesting oversimplifications and misconceptions about the Middle Ages (some of the worst holdovers of the Renaissance). At the same time, he had the courage to stand by his convictions, avoiding a stale (and ultimately false) objectivity. That is what I find so sickening about the New Atheists; they lay claim to the scientific method, couch their prejudices and judgmentalisms in objective terms, and in so doing conceal the subjectivity of their claims. Taken a step further, they almost lose their humanity, for in denying the subjectivity of their opinions, reasonable as some of those individual views might very well be, they purport an almost divine knowledge of the wold around them. This view from nowhere, so to speak, leads such men away from humanity, up their own asses, and into a realm of false godhood from which there is no escape.

Froissart, they might say,  worshiped a flying spaghetti monster in the sky. What? That is just as likely as some heavenly All Father, right? Throw your hands into the sky and pray to his noodley appendages, ye brute of an endarkened age! Alright, that’s not the most outlandish criticism ever, as things go. But then, mayhaps they ought refrain from bending over and worshiping themselves. Is raising your hands to a sky god really any worse than burrowing your nose into your asshole and worshiping your own farts? I hardly think so.

Ew.

-odds

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the Psychology of Kirk

“You haven’t experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”–Chancellor Gorkon

Um, what did I just hear?

Are we to believe that the Klingons actually wrote Hamlet? Or was the line spoken in jest? Or did the Klingons appropriate Shakespeare as the Nazis tried to do during their flare of power?

So many questions, all flowing from that one line of dialogue! That is the main strength of this movie, the last Star Trek film to see the entire original cast together–one last adventure into the stellar unknown.

The basic plot can be summed up as “the wall came down in space.” It starts with the Klingon moon Praxis exploding (a sci fi Chernobyl), moves on to a diplomatic effort by Kirk, Spock, et al, ending in the Klingon chancellor’s assassination, turns into a bit of a detective story as the Enterprise endeavors to exonerate Kirk and McCoy (who are framed for the murder), and ends with the Federation and Klingon Empire taking the first real steps towards some kind of understanding.

The story itself is decent enough as allegory , although it isn’t anything inspired. But that’s just fine with me. I prefer stories that focus on character. This movie, particularly through dialogue, excels at characterization. This is partly because the movie cheats. Every third line is a quote from Shakespeare, starting with the title–a pull from Hamlet. But that’s ok with me. Shakespeare is worth quoting, and it was really fun to have the Klingon villain quoting Richard II and Julius Caesar while shooting photon torpedoes through the vastness of space.

The movie also benefits from the long history between the individual cast members. They know their characters, and they know the relationships their characters have with each other. So the good dialogue is augmented by the very strong chemistry shared between actors that wear their parts like second skins.

I’ve heard it said of certain Trek films, Insurrection comes to mind, that they’re little more than longer episodes. I’ve always had a hard time figuring out what that meant; but after reflecting on it as I type this, perhaps it has something to do with the status quo. The difficultly with episodic television is that things have to stay more or less the same, so that viewers can jump into a show kinda whenever they want. This is usually achieved through a lack of character development, a lack of long story arcs, and a shallow pool of environments from which stories can be drawn.

Indeed, the strength of the original Star Trek series was not its characters, but its stories. It was very much a Medieval kind of affair, in that sense, for its most memorable episodes were allegories (like, um, basically every Arthurian romance). The episode where they meet aliens that are half black, half white jumps immediately to mind, as does the one where the Enterprise discovers that the Federation’s hated foe the Romulans actually look a lot like their allies, the Vulcans (are they really so different from us, etc?). My understanding is that Gene Roddenberry specifically wrote the show as a way to comment on current social issues. That’s great, but that has the necessary result of having Star Trek resemble the morality plays of the Middle Ages more than the psychological character studies found in Shakespeare, Cervantes, and the writers they inspired.

Isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition? The rigid morality play structure of the Original Series is suddenly brought face to face with the psychological tradition of Shakespeare.

What, then, is the difference between this movie and something like Star Trek Insurrection? How is one somehow a legitimate movie in its own right while the other is somehow more episodic?

To answer that, we must go back to the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan. The directer of that movie, Nicholas Meyer, also directed The Undiscovered Country. Not coincidentally, the themes are very much connected.

The Wrath of Khan deals predominantly with the mid-life crisis of Kirk, and by extension his crew. This is an underlying theme of many of the original six films, but it shows up most strongly in this one and The Undiscovered Country.

Wrath begins with Kirk’s birthday. He is no longer in command of the Enterprise. He feels listless, purposeless, and old. The movie then delves into a life or death struggle between him and Khan, an old enemy, over the Genesis Device, something that can make dead planets live. Subtle, huh? In the end, Kirk discovers his own Genesis Device: the USS Enterprise. He retakes command in a time of crisis, defeats Khan, and even manages to reunite with his estranged ex-wife and son for good measure.

Enter the sixth film. Kirk is set to retire, as are the rest of his crew. This last mission, to facilitate the diplomatic mission that might save the Klingon Empire after the explosion of Praxis, is one he engages in utterly against his will. It goes against the prejudices he has built up against the Klingons over the course of an entire career, culminating in the death of his son at the hands of a Klingon in the third movie.

He spends the film getting over this fear of  change, admitting at the end of the film that he’s going to have to get over his old hatreds. They are obsolete. This acts as both allegory for the end of the Cold War, and as a kind of climax for Kirk’s giant midlife crisis begun during the Wrath of Khan.

In setting down his phaser, so to speak, he is essentially saying, “My term of service has ended. I have done my duty. The old war has ended. I can step down and let the next generation take its place on center stage. Let them face their own challenges.”

Kirk let go of his demons, and in so doing achieved a kind of catharsis. He had one last romp, saved the day one last time, and can now end his career with honor. This goes off the rails a bit later on, when he saves the Enterprise-B from an energy ribbon in the next film, Star Trek: Generations. In so doing, he gets trapped in basically Paradise, gets rescued by his successor Captain Picard (time travel and such), and dies saving his progeny.

Kirk manages to die in the arena, which suits his character much more thoroughly than an uneventful retirement. That’s more McCoy’s bag.

(Aside: The Wrath of Khan provides an interesting foil to Kirk in the form of Khan. The film makes several references to Moby Dick. This is no accident, for Kirk is basically Khan’s white whale. He chases his prey so feverishly that it eventually ends in his death. He could not let go of the past, and thus had no future. His undiscovered country was, like Hamlet’s, death.

Kirk, on the other hand, copes with the past. He grapples with it, wrestles with it, and finally comes to terms with it. Yes, the Klingons killed his son. Yes they’ve been at Cold War for 70 odd years. All that he recognized, and fully, but somehow, unlike Khan, he was able to progress from his hatred into a kind of understanding, that the Klingons weren’t all evil, that the wold was moving on, that all he could do was try and age gracefully, moving out of the way to let the next batch take over. Indeed, he died so that his successor could go on.)

Things do not return to the status quo ante. That is the difference between the Meyer films and, say, Star Trek: Insurrection. Now, I happen to like Insurrection, and in the very best Star Trek tradition, it is an allegory, this time for something like the forced migration in the name of “progress” of the Trail of Tears (or whatever modern equivalent was topical in the late 1990s). That’s great. But that means that the vigor of the thought was put into the structuring of the allegory, not so much on the nuances of character.

Heinlein novels are very much like this. They’re wonderfully well thought out socio-political thought experiments, rivaling Rousseau in their scope and vision. But, barring a few exceptions, they are not great novels, or even exceptionally good ones. Most do the job, from a psychological perspective. Allegorically, they hit the mark again and again, hammering home a consistent vision of how things are and ought to be; very much like the very best Star Trek episodes–but not, oddly enough, like the very best of those movies: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. Allegory plays a part, at least in the latter film, but their strength and charm lies in their focus on character, on psychological nuance, on exploring the motivations that drive men…

Allegory is harder to maintain; the momentum dies more quickly. I think that is why the episodes of Star Trek tend to hold up better than their movie counterparts (and why the better satires are usually shorter). I also think that’s why the best of those films happen to be the most psychological of the bunch (Star Trek: First Contact ditto, ie Picard’s “white whale” obsession with fighting the Borg).

5/5 stars.

odds

Why I like Froissart

Jean Froissart wrote a chronicle of the happenings of his day and age, covering events in and around 1320-1400 AD.

(Aside: Is anyone else perturbed by postmodern scholars using CE instead of AD? You know what gets me about the whole thing? What the heck does Common Era even mean? Common to whom, stuffy academicians? Islamic states don’t share this dating system in common with us: they date their events from the Hijra of Muhammad. If we want to grant that enough of the (West) world is no longer Christian, or realistically that enough of the (West) world is only nominally Christian, that’s all fine and good. How’s about we do the valiant thing and start fresh. If we want to use something as nauseating as Common Era, then I guess that’s ok too, albeit a begrudging ok from me, as this commonality is an elusive, mushy thing; but let’s start the CE at a proper date and time, whenever that might be. Oh, but that would be inconvenient, and when would we start it anyhow, oh and wouldn’t that upset a lot of people? Yeah, change is kinda like that. I don’t think the Pagan remnants of the later Roman Empire were very pleased when the Christians popularized their own dating system. Not everyone appreciates Progress.

But let’s be clear here: this Common Era, so called, starts when Christ entered the scene. Doesn’t that sit oddly with anyone else? Yeah, he’s just another man among many great men, but because it is convenient, we’re going to keep the whole count down and aftermath of his coming and going, which kinda makes it seem like he’s a little more important than, say, Muhammad, just to pick a name randomly. If Jesus was not the son of God, or if that is the consensus now, then maybe we should devise a dating system that doesn’t put the special pants on him, huh?)

Valiance: that is why I like Froissart and his Chronicle. It is chock full of men doing deeds brave and valorous. More importantly from my perspective: I am only 100 pages into it, an abridged version at that!, and I am vaguely aware that further along in the thing he puts more emphasis on his patrons than on *the other guy*, but thus far he has done admirably what too few historians and too few people have done: given the opponent a fair shake.

That requires valor to accomplish.

What makes treating your opponent like a fucking human being courageous? It certainly does not benefit those on the battlefield. I suspect the Russian soldier at Kursk, amidst the clamor and roar of thousand upon thousands of German planes and tanks and artillery pieces, amidst the howl of millions of Teutonic soldiers pouring out across the scarred and battle-worn landscape, would not have taken a moment to remind himself that, hey, most of them Germans probably didn’t want to be here in the first place. I bet a lot of them were conscripted, and could care less about Hitler’s increasingly deranged ideas about the Destiny of the Fatherland. Even the officers, many of whom were only in the army because it was the thing to do in Germany, not particularly because they were ardent Nazis, even they were not horrible guys. Wow, even the diehard Nazis themselves, well, I guess a lot of them have families, children, Christmas morning–or whatever those weird Germans do over there–heck, I probably don’t disagree with everything they have to say. It’s just that part about needing all us Slavs dead to make room for their Reich…that doesn’t fit too well with me wanting to live and all that. Guess that means I’ll have to fight it out with them. That’s pretty logical of me.

No, this Russian conscript no doubt considered the Germans bloodthirsty rapists who ought every one of them to be thrown back into the decadent West, and killed if possible. Because it’s that kind of dehumanization that makes conflict winnable. When a politician wants to be “tough on crime,” he doesn’t mention any of the terrifyingly understandable reasons one might break the law; he doesn’t look at the possibility that, maybe, the punishment ought fit the crime, and that the code of Hammurabi might not be the best place to draw inspiration from; and he doesn’t mention to his voters how ineffective and often cruel the crime fighting methods at his disposal are; he simply labels all humans breaking the law (and getting caught, that’s an important distinction) as “criminals.” That makes it easier to stomach the notion that he might be allowing the lifetime confinement of another human being, because he’s not imprisoning a man, he’s imprisoning a criminal.

That Russian isn’t about the get his bayonet stuck in the ribs of a man who will never see his family again; he’s gutting a capitalist swine.

I’m not strapping another human being into a restraint bed and holding him still while a nurse injects chemicals into his body; I’m restraining one of the crazies.

Froissart is no saint when it comes to stuff like this. I am given to understand he is the opposite of understanding when it comes to men not of the knightly class. Still, I think it admirable of him to write a history so that, as he puts it, “…the honorable enterprises, noble adventures, and deeds of arms which took place during the wars waged by France and England should be fittingly related and preserved for posterity, so that brave men should be inspired thereby to follow such examples.”

And so far, at his account of the Battle of Crecy for example, he gives fair play to both sides, recounting the valor of individual knights regardless of the banner under which he does battle.

I think it healthy to remind ourselves, through flawed writers like Froissart, that what we deal with in our lives are other people. Labels are necessary as organizational tools and concise descriptors; they ought not replace a man’s heart with a foreign piece of clockwork.

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The Supreme Court Does Things

The Supreme Court did a few things in the past, oh I don’t even know, that have people all in a huff. Somehow, I really don’t care very much; why might that be?

Having attended one of the most agonizingly, nauseatingly politically active schools ever ever; and having received from said school a thorough and, I would like to think, robust education; and further having had a history of interest in political problems, quandaries, and endeavors, one would think that, now that I am out of school and basically a real human being, I’d be all into politics.

Well I’m not.

This is because I have read too much history. Thanks Thucydides, Polybius, Eusebius; thanks Bede, Michael Psellos, Anna Comnena; great job Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Gibbon, Carlyle; way to go Durant, Foucault, Churchill, Max Hastings. You guys have ruined politics for me, at least for now.

How?

Because through reading all these myriad chronicles of human debauchery, triumph, decline, warfare, foible, wickedness, ingenuity, nefariousness, cowardice, strength, idiocy, and thoughtfulness, I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how great things get, and no matter how dire things seem, they are, as General Slim said, better than you think, worse than you want.

My problem with politics is that it is, almost by definition, hyperbolic. Every issue, talking point, or scandal is the worst thing ever, the greatest threat to mankind or freedom or what, kittens? that the world has ever faced. Or put the other way, every “good” candidate or proposed law is the harbinger of peace on earth and the fumbling beginnings of a world made of sourpatch kids and sunshine.

How’s about we all take a step back, huh? Augustine wrote City of God at least in part because he saw the world around him collapsing in the face of barbarian hordes, and he wanted to assure both himself and his congregation that, even if that were true, so what? The kingdom of God is what mattered, anyhow. Now, as it turned out, things did not end. Quite the contrary, despite what hyperbolic historians of the day asserted, things very much continued. Humanity continued to prosper or perish. It just so happened that, all physical things being subject to change, different groups prospered whilst others, hitherto those prospering, more often perished. The Dark Ages, so called, weren’t very dark for the Muslim world, after all; and, so far as we can ascertain given history’s imperfect methods, apparently weren’t all that dark for western Europe either. It just depends on who you ask.

I think back to examples like that, or the fall of Constantinople, or the inauguration of the First World War, whenever a pundit screams at me that things are on the rain-slick precipice of darkness, only one slip away from the hungry maw of decadence, regression, poverty, whatever, and say to myself: “Things could always be worse, they could always be better; and I think humanity will go on failing beautifully regardless of the next president. All I can do is adapt and not complain so damn much.”

Such a view certainly makes me a pretty piss poor Active Citizen. I am not convinced that is such a bad thing. An active and involved citizenry can be a pretty dangerous thing. Here’s looking at you, 8th century Byzantium.

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