A Vacation Post

[The following is an excerpt from a unpublished travel log written by an anonymous Pennsylvania man. Its historical value, as a documentary exemplar of the times, ought to be self evident.]

…and already we’d abandoned the familiar hills and dales, the pleasant faces of those we knew and loved. We entered the little, and yet somehow vastly unknown, state of Mary Land before the sun’s zenith had been reached. It was a strange principality, filled with weird place names, road markers, and no people. Nary a soul was to be seen by either myself or my traveling companion, on this road and life’s turnpike. Perhaps, as some of my fellow Keystonians theorized, the origin of the Mary Lander’s reticence at the sight of strangers is a result of the great Civil War that raged here in the distant, but still felt, past. You can see the marks of that great human cataclysm everywhere. The terrain vibrates before you, as if in the throes of combat. The sky, grayed as if in furled brow, finds no succor in the deadly panorama wrathing below it. You can see forests and hills that must have been the scene of many a combat, many a bloody deed. The hills do not roll into each other in smooth transitions; no, they heave abruptly out of the dark earth, in struggle’s breath, gasping for oxygen amidst the memories of explosions and shrapnel bursts.

Whatever the reason, we passed through this tiny section of the map without serious incident.

West Virginia we crossed into with the sun at highest beam. Like its neighbor, it was a dark, foreboding place, carrying no doubt its own battle scars. We made camp for a spell at one of their highway stops. and there admired for the first time natives of a region not our own. In skin color they are not unlike Pennsylvanians, which is to say light. Many were tanned with the work of the farm, the work site, or the Martian field; although I confess that I know too little of their foreign affairs to know if they are engaged in any current wars, except to say that our two states are at peace. They looked to be of hearty stock, broad of shoulder and sloped of brow, fit to till rather than to rule. No wonder after their secession from Virginia during the Civil War they amounted to little, especially in comparison to the might of our own nation.

I must say, and my companion noticed this even before me, the wind seemed as violent as the history here. It howled, screamed even, personifying the frustrations of a state that has hardly amounted to any glory in the centuries since its independence; and perhaps also expressing a jealous hatred at a pair of innocent foreigners whose birthright is an example of that lost national dream.

Of interest, I should think, is the very real, and quite steady, decent in the quality of the roads as we moved farther and farther afield. One should not expect less mighty and prosperous states to be possessed of roads on par with those of Pennsylvania. We have been blessed, as you well know, by a hearty and loyal population, a wealth of resources deserving of a body politic willing to dig, till, and build, and an abnormally efficient and just government. As a result, we have the most extensive highway system in the inhabited world, excepting of course those mythical turnpikes made real only by the storyteller’s predication (California being the setting au courant of such fables).

At any rate, while Mary Land made an admirable attempt to emulate the engineering marvels of her northern better, I am compelled to report that Western Virginia, true to form, connects its little towns and settlements with a primitive, if technically functional, series of byways. Turned away from the wisdom of tolled roads by some misguided leader, council, or animal’s augury, they instead rely, I have little doubt, on the donation of the foolish, or the pillage of the weak (as is the custom of the less civilized) to fund their roadways. Indeed, they lack anything more than the most basic of provision centers along the side of these roads. When we made camp, my companion and I fully expected the availability of fuel; reality disappointed us with little more than latrines. It is a wonder they were divided between genders, a practice I am given to understand originated in our fair state. If only we had the time and resources to proselytize other innovations of our vigorous civilization!

After another hour on these roads the pangs of hunger proved too staunch a foe. We took our caravan off the main route and stopped at a local village, intent upon the local cuisine. I admit to a level of trepidation at the thought of eating the native fare. Who could fault me this? Every educated man knows that a strange dish is as likely to prove disastrous to the digestion as not. This, so far as my medical knowledge permits me to judge, is the result not only of our more polished methods of food preparation; this acts in tandem with the human body’s proclivity towards adaptation in times of hardship, and the solidification of habits in times of stability. My digestion, used to the food of its home, would likely adapt to foreign agents soon enough, provided I lived through the experience. It is probably also fair to say that if a barbarian were to sample the food of Pennsylvania, he would find it just as upsetting to his constitution as I his. Uncivilization has its price–and a fearful one at that.

As luck would have it, a vendor of foods found in my land was close to hand, busy spreading our enlightened diet to the foreigner. We dined there and ate heartily. Reinvigorated, we set ourselves upon the road once more.

Despite my nay saying, there is evidence of progress in this land. Several road markers indicated learning centers of some sort. I very much doubt students of the Keystone State would find much to gawk at, but these facilities probably suffice for the simpler needs of a simpler people. One cannot begrudge education; it is a universal, if unevenly distributed, boon.

There was also evidence of religion, that great upholder of social order. As a patriot, I am a vocal proponent of my state’s brand of Godhead, but my more worldly compatriots inform me that the religions of these outer regions do not differ substantially from our own. They have within them the same common core, even if the ritual surrounding might strike me as ungainly. To wit: we passed a church on our foraging expedition. It did not have the grandeur, nor the durability of our own churches. At the same time, its local color bespoke a level of community sorely lacking in some of our own congregations. I will refrain, unlike Tacitus, from lionizing the virtues of others as a method of highlighting areas of improvement (as he did in writing about Germany for the benefit of Rome); I would only point out that every culture has its bright spots, however dim; and even the most advanced and prosperous peoples are not without their faults.

At length, we emerged from the wilderness that dominated Western Virginia, and came finally into Kentucky, our destination. I must say, with all due candor, it was a land full to the brim with breathtaking vistas, vigorous terrain, and majestic skies. Heretofore, my companion had been charged with navigating our way through the unknown. Succumbing at last to just fatigue, we exchanged position, thus putting me in direct control of our fate.

What struck me more than any other single feature about this state was its supreme sense of history. Alas, we in Pennsylvania, enamored of our modern success and power, have too little sense of the achievements of our forefathers. Not so Kentucky. Her highways overflowed with museums, monuments, and sundry historic sites. If memory serves, this makes a great deal of sense, as Kentucky was the unhappy home of some of the most crimson days of the Civil War. It would not be an exaggeration to say that for a generation the majesty of this state’s blue grass was stained red in the face of that failed amputation.

I observed, through travelling several hundred miles through this land, only a single police unit patrolling their many highways. This I found quite extraordinary, as in both Pennsylvania and Mary Land the vehicles of the police abounded. Indeed, in traversing Mary Land, police seemed hidden behind every rock, around every corner. This robust police presence in our home state is the result of vigorous legislation, preemptive in nature. In Mary Land, it is my understanding the police are the active, albeit belated government reaction to the terrible brigandage that plagues that land. Western Virginia, it must be said, had little in the way of police; however I attribute this less to moral virtue and more to demographic reality: it has too few people to require a large police force. Kentucky alone had a large population and little in the way of highway police. Why might this be? I can offer little in the way of explanation. It serves simply as an example of those anthropological mysteries that one is not unlikely to encounter during foreign adventures.

Through many an uncrowded road we traveled, pleasantly enjoying the setting sun. I made good time, taking full advantage of the lack of comtravellers. At long last, after half a day’s time, we came to the last stretch of our journey. Signs pointed towards the little town towards which we drove. The sun at this point was hide amidst ominously darkening clouds. Several cars began to gain on us a sudden….

[It is at this point that the document breaks off. The first editors to come across this text assumed it was written more or less simultaneously with the details it describes, and blame native interference for the sudden silence. The academic community is currently divided on the issue.]

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

Self Harm

My flesh hard and calloused,

Made so by my pain.

I crave to feel

Something, anything!

So I begin to peel,

And see blood dripping.

Self-mutilation they call it;

Self-excitation I reply.

Suicidality they see.

I wish not to die,

But to live! Feel! Exist!

As humans ought:

Feverishly,

And with open wound.

Slice away the layers,

And let Passion

Infect.

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.

odds

Pain and Gain, a Review

Back when it was in theaters, I watched this review of the movie Pain and Gain.

As always, MovieBob has interesting things to say. After watching the movie, I rewatched his review, just to see how my viewing of the film meshed with his interpretation. Why? Well, why do people read commentaries on Plato and then read Plato? Because it’s a place to start.

Michael Bay is no Plato, but his movie is interesting, fun (yes, more fun than the Republic), and thought-provoking nonetheless. I think Bob was correct in identifying a kind of nihilism at the heart of the work, but what exactly that means is something else altogether. Yay for different perspectives.

See, I work in healthcare, specifically the field of mental health. I’ve witnessed thousands of people being told to “think positively,” to try “goal-centered behavior,” to attend AA meetings, to talk to their therapists, doctors, or counselors. Then they leave the hospital and do whatever the fuck they want.

Pain and Gain was agonizing to watch in part because the bull shit spewed by all the main characters echoed the same things we in psychiatry tell people every day. Lugo, the main character, is described by MobieBob as a psychopath, but I think that is doing him a disservice. He is the epitome of what modern psychiatry wants out of people: he is driven, he thinks only positive thoughts, and he sets for himself goals that he then tries to achieve.

There is a whole lot else going on in this movie, but after finishing it,  my mind could not stray from its focus on this rampant positivity, this religion that treats people as if they were merely subatomic particles circling around the universe. How else could we describe people as positive or negative, unless they were simply protons or electrons?

Such pseduo-thought is the kind of vapid, commercial philosophy that only mammoth corporations, in their quest for things like “wellness” could come up with. Except that’s not true, is it? Countries come up with initiatives that are equally ridiculous. Ever watch a fatherhood.gov commercial? Ick. There’s something a little terrifying about the government telling me what my responsibilities as a father are; just as it is a little off-putting for a corporation to be concerned about how well I am feeling.

The obvious question then becomes, what is so unsettling? I think it’s the insincerity of it all. Say what you want about organized religion, but those guys, at their best, have always struck me as sincere people. Indeed, that is what makes things like the Spanish Inquisition so terrifying. They really thought that people who disagreed with the Catholic Church were ignorant of the Truth; they really believed that those who could not be dissuaded of this opinion were an evil influence on the rest of the population; and they really burned people at the stake in the hope of maintaining the salvation of the rest of the people under their care. If you take it for granted that the Catholic Church is the epicenter of Truth, and that as a member of that church it is your responsibility as a priest to save as many people as possible, then it suddenly makes sense why you would imprison a fair number of people, torture some, and kill fewer still. The objective was not slaughter, but salvation.

To my mind, there is at least something noble in the end goal. It is, however, unsettling for a different reason: the utter sincerity of it all. This is what South Park finds so funny about Mormonism. But back to corporations and governments. If religion is unsettling for its sincerity, corporations and governments make me uneasy for quite the opposite reason. Why do corporations want you to be fit and healthy? Not because it might make you a “better person” in some squishy, pseudo-spiritual way, but because you not getting obese and diabetic will save them money. Why do governments prefer decent fathers? Because its their hope that children with good dads won’t become a burden on the state, but instead will become productive members of society, able to adhere to corporate wellness programs and, in so doing, giving them tax revenue.

Corporations, governments, religions, oh my! How did we get so off topic from Pain and Gain? Well, because I think the kinds of people that are bred by the empty, void-philosophies of positivity and wellness end up looking more like the men from that movie than those of, say, Gladiator. There is no “strength and honor,” no greater good here. There is only shallow materialism. They are also the kind of people psychiatry produces, the kind of people who thrive in an “I can eat thou” society.

Is there a point or solution? I doubt it. And so, it seems, does Pain and Gain. Yes, the muscle heads who kidnap and torture the millionaire are caught, their gym is dismantled, and Ed Harris’ honorable detective gets to sit by the dock with his wife and enjoy “the simple things.” But Miami, an “I can eat thou” city if ever there was one, still stands. The millionaire, who the movie goes at great lengths to show us is just as horrible as his assailants, is still around. The lazy, uncaring police department that didn’t give a rat’s ass about the kidnapping/torture until it was embarrassed into action is still very much the same.  The TV infomercial guy spewing his “do-er vs don’t-er” philosophy is still on the air…

The main “scumbags” end up behind bars, but the world in which they inhabit, the world of men eating men, of muscle purely for the sake of muscle, of greed, narcissism, and sociopathy–that’s alive and well.

Or maybe I am wrong to doubt. Maybe Ed Harris’ detective had it right. The System, the World, whatever, might be sickening, depraved, “going to Hell in a hand basket.” What does it matter? As an individual, maybe all I can do is try and enjoy the little things. Maybe all there is to living a decent life is letting others alone and tending my little garden. The inquisitors, psychiatrists, Mormons, and government officials might say otherwise, which just makes me think I am on to something. Maybe Michael Bay was as well.

5/5 stars.

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Concerning Pet Ownership

Recently I came across a bit of news that can be summarized as follows: 1. person adopts dog; 2. dog inundates owner’s home with farts; 3. owner returns dog.

The article is here:

Does that sit well with anyone? It does not with me. Let me elaborate (or don’t; I’m going to regardless, neener neener).

I grew up with pets. We had a series of dogs in my house. They are all dead now. “These were comrades whom I had; there are no better.”

In college I had a pet rat. She brought a lot of joy with her wee little body. She, too, is dead.

I have a history with animals. That is not to say I don’t love eating them, but I do take the Christian idea of man as caretaker of the lower orders of life to heart. Assumptions of hierarchy aside (a topic for another day, to be sure), mankind has a duty to steward the life that shares this space with us: great power, great responsibility and all that jazz.

Pet ownership is one facet of this responsibility. I do not know enough about the ins and outs of the pet industry to speak at any length about it, although I suspect it’s not as happy and lovely as the kittens it produces. I do, however, know something of the act of owning an individual pet. It is that upon which I will focus.

Purchasing a pet is not the same as purchasing a laptop. Such lifeless hulks (artificial intelligence not withstanding) are used, then discarded when their utility has expired, or when the owner decides, wisely or not, that he wants a new and improved (eek!) device. These inanimate objects are at the mercy of their owners, be they grandmas who fill them with spam and viruses, but who at least keep them for 10 years, or tech savvy 20 somethings who upgrade more frequently than congressmen are elected to the House. And that is ok, insofar as there is no moral outrage in the act of replacing a laptop at the first sign of discomfort (issues of waste and rampant consumerism not withstanding).

This is not so with a pet. Yes, once you purchase a pet they come under your complete dominion. Like the laptop, the pet is at the complete mercy of its owner. That pronoun is misleading, for this thing purchased is not an “inanimate fucking object,” it is a being endowed with the breath of life. The study of animal consciousness, emotion, memory is still very much in its infancy, and there seems to be great scientific debate as to whether certain animals should be considered conscious, whether any are self conscious, whether some feel pain, how much others can remember. Those questions are irrelevant in this context. What matters is the basic idea that you, the human, are assuming ownership over, and therefore responsibility for, another living thing, regardless of the power of its memory, regardless of whether it knows it is an object divorced from other objects, and regardless of whether it suffers when you kick it in the ribs.

A bond like that cannot, to my mind, be broken. When you pick up that kitten and place him in your car, you are telling that living thing, “Hey, cutie, I am going to take care of you. I am going to retard the development of your natural survival instincts by environing you in the comforts of the modern home. I will feed you, shelter you, and protect you from your natural predators, so you can share my life with me, and I with you.” Once formed, that bond makes the animal helpless in your arms. Helpless! It reaches maturity confined within the ivory walls of modernity, far away from the blood and mud of the natural world. How likely do you think it is that such a creature, once set free, would be able to survive on its own?

The idea that someone could enter into such a contract with a creature, then abandon him to the forces of chance, without even the benefit of a fighting chance, sickens me. I know life is unfair. “It rains on the just and the unjust alike.” Do we really have to add pile upon pile of puppy martyrs, mute in the face of a frailty that they did not choose, to the cruelty that nature already reaps upon itself?

I had a long conversation about this with my wife, specifically regarding a violent or aggressive pet around our future children.  I argued passionately that if we were to buy a pet, it would be forever fused into the fabric of our family, and in that respect it was no different than a child, violent or no. She pointed, however, that realistically we could not house both a child (who perhaps would not respect the personal space of others, even animals) and a pet who would react poorly if annoyed too much.

This was a perfectly valid point. I countered that unless the animal was definitely beyond saving, we had a duty to do everything in our power to pacify the animal, and probably educate the kid. That, I said, was the price to be paid for pet ownership. That animal would be just another child; indeed, more of a child than even the actual child, since the animal would be dependent upon its human masters for the entirety of its life (while the expectation of the human offspring is one of independence, however rarely that is ever completely achieved).

My wife, in her calm and thoughtful way, said that made sense, that she was actually kinda surprised at how deeply I took the commitment of pet ownership, and that, at the end of the day, if the animal was implacable, it would have to be gotten rid of, either by giving it to a more suitable home, or by killing it.

To me, such a decision should be reminiscent of putting a child up for adoption. It should not be easy. It should not be callous. It should not be reckless. It should not be convenient. It should be the last resort, the least bad solution to a terrible situation that no one wanted. For the act of extirpating a pet from its home, from its family, from its protection, is a breach of a very real contract, one that people follow with the same intensity and verve, which is to say with the same callousness and selfishness, as the contract of marriage.

By the end of the discussion, I came to a very sobering conclusion: I knew that if forced to choose, I would choose the child over the pet, cast it out of my family, and consign it to a fate out of my control; I knew that is what I would do, should the situation ever arise. In my heart, however, I also knew that such a decision would haunt me, that being forced to inflict such an injustice upon another living thing, one that I had personal responsibility for, would wound me deeply. The easiest thing to do, it seemed to me, was simply to avoid pet ownership altogether, to recognize that facet of my character, and act accordingly.

Animals are not people. They are not on the same level as people. But they are living things. And, as pets, they are living things brought under the domination of a human master, who in the act of purchase agrees to provide for the pet’s basic needs, needs that it can no longer meet on its own, thanks to the context in which it was raised. This bond between owner and pet, between powerful and powerless, between parent and child, should not be taken lightly. You ought never enter into it simply on a whim for a collection of molecules you find cute, but loath a week later because he shit the carpet.

Pet ownership is serious business. You, as the owner, have the destiny of another living creature within your hands. Do not take that responsibility lightly.

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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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