Tag Archives: ruminations

A Piece of Dead Poets Society Fan Fiction

It is the year of Our Lord 1959 and my son has committed suicide.

My wife sobs in our bed, where first she felt the spark of his life kindled within her.

He ended his life because…

Please allow an aggrieved father a moment to compose himself. To write in haste would be to let the my flood gates open. Composure requires time, so please allow me a few extra words and a few extra seconds.

My–my son has committed suicide. Reason, that tower, threatens to crumble; my heart quakes the foundation, pounds mortar and brick and thought into dust–choking me, blinding me.

I descend and walk cautiously into a forest of exposed nerves. I tread carefully betwixt these raw, these weeping trees. A branch grasps at me and I stumble–“Father, you are a good father, but you work too much.” His face, so young…

My vision grows dark. Yet still, I must not lose myself here in this Wood of Suicide. I must not make the same mistake as my son. I must persevere; I must understand.

I did not understand him. I did not pay close enough attention. Where was my mind instead? Wandering down corridors where ends meet; single-minded, I forgot that others existed around me, other minds for whom I worked, for whom I breathed…

He killed himself because he felt trapped, by me and therefore by life itself. He was seventeen, that age where one is neither man nor boy; too old to take paternal diktats at face value, too young to rationally refute them.

He killed himself because I would not let him act in the school play. By extension, I would not let him be himself. That is the immediate cause. And being immediate creatures, that is all his friends will see or understand. That is likely all they will ever see. I am a monster to them, an abyss. The stings of their gaze–hateful eyes–humble me still, though the funeral is long over. I pray they do not stare overlong at the abysmal thing that I have become, lest in their hate they become like me, like I was: uncomprehending. They do not understand, as my son did not understand, and as I did not understand.

I would not let him be himself. What was he? Adventurous, restless, smart, something of a dreamer–qualities not unique in any young man filled with potential. It is such qualities that grant happiness to some, sadness to others. Why did they throw my son into the abyss?

These qualities knocked themselves against my stern Realism. Please, I hope my tears have already convinced you that I write no apology for myself. It is a mere statement of fact, or near to one as a man can manage. My son was a dreamer; it is a father’s duty to understand and cultivate his son’s dreams, but equally so must he also temper them with his experience, such as it is.

What have I experienced? In my youth I was very much like my son. Is that so very surprising? What could he have become, had he only lived a few more years; I spent so much time as a young father dreaming such castles in the air for my son’s future. What I dream now–

My youth was that of the 1920s–a time for dreams, for adventure, but also a time when dreams withered in excess. I reached economic maturity right as it all came crashing down. My son knew nothing of such hardships. I strove earnestly that he would never have to.

I do not claim this as a mistake. I worked hard to let him have a better life than I, and  will die believing this to be the right and honorable thing to do. What went wrong?

I dream of dungeons now, sunken in the earth, far forsaking the castles of my youth.

My son killed himself because he felt trapped by me. He felt trapped by me because somewhere along the way I grew not just stern, not just stoic; I became callous, towards my son, my wife, myself. I thought only of the future and narrowly, economically, trammeled by the dollar: my professionalism roared, drowned out all other sounds. Cacophony to mute, everything to nothing…

At some point, I forgot the sweet laughter of my son as he pretended to be Lindbergh flying across the ocean, and thought instead only of how he would provide for himself and his family when he was no longer under my protection and tutelage.

I reiterate: this was a noble goal. A father ought make sure his son is ready to take on the Great Wide World. But to what end? I toiled that he might never face the hardships I faced. Did I ever stop to consider that, in doing so, he would face different traumas altogether? I believe this to be common to all human experience. Pain is contextual. Human life is a series of yearnings, never truly satisfied. In striving so hard to make sure his life was economically stable, I starved him of something else entirely.

I did not understand the pain he endured. Further, I did not see that in his pain, in his youth, he did not understand all that I did for him, all that I had been through, all that I was. He did not see a human man striving for his child; he saw a tomb growing darker with each passing day. He did not see the castles that I dreamed for him, only the dungeon of our home. Is it any wonder that at some point he sought to free himself from being buried alive?

I let myself die, and because of that my son killed himself. Call him misguided; call his solution an overreaction. Fair enough. But was it fair to him that I placed him in such a situation in the first place? He can never learn from his mistake, and though I continue to live I can never really learn from mine.

He was our only child.

 

Running Scared: a Movie Review that Devolves into Politics

From what do we run?

Ourselves.

That is the thesis of Running Scared.

The movie takes place in a stylized rendition of New Jersey and tells of one night’s combat between the Italian Mafia, the Russian Mafia, crooked cops, and the people caught in between. Our protagonist, and the man who does the vast majority of the running, is Joey, a low-level tough tasked with disposing of a gun used to kill a dirty cop.

Things do not go well and therein adventure lies.

Or perhaps not. While the gore and the cinematography and the music all drew me in—and have over half a dozen viewings—what really interests me are the psychological adventures of many of the characters. Consider:

Joey turns out to be an undercover cop. He presents a hard edge, but as his wife puts it, “I didn’t marry an evil man.” He pleads with his wife at the end of the film, when it seems he is on death’s door, that he was always “the real Joey.” There is a disconnect between the person he presents and the person he is.

His Russia neighbor, Anzor, beats his wife and abuses her child; and in turn gets shot by said child (precipitating the running of the film). Yet we learn from that selfsame wife that he saved her, still pregnant, from being killed by his uncle for not having the child aborted. The price for this was being ostracized from the family. Now a decade later he has devolved into drugs and paranoia, yet underneath the grime there is a man who is deeply, almost pathologically devoted to John Wayne and the cowboy ethos. He ends the movie refusing to kill the boy who shot him and dying for his honor. Another double life.

Teresa, Joey’s wife, finds herself looking for Anzor’s kid Oleg (himself running after shooting his guardian), and discovers that he has been stolen by a married couple who kidnap, film, and desecrate children. She saves his life, along with 2 other children, and kills the deranged couple with no hesitation. As she puts it to Joey, “I have never seen true evil until tonight.” Another example of an inner reservoir of strength not readily apparent at the beginning of the film.

As a final example, we have Lester the pimp. He finds himself beat up a few times but ultimately in possession of the gun everyone is trying to find (the one Oleg used to shoot Anzor). In confronting Oleg and Joey at the end of the film, Lester blurts out “Say hello to my little friend,” before shooting Joey in the side. What does this evince but a man running from his own sense of inadequacy and lack of real power?

This movie has been criticized for a lack of character development. I submit that good stories need not possess character arcs as such, wherein someone learns something and becomes “a better person.” Rather, a story like this benefits from an arc of discovery on the part of the audience. These people are presented to us fully formed, and as such each is his own enigma at the start of the movie; with each reaction and every bit of information they share, we learn more about who they are.

Doesn’t that seem more psychologically realistic than a 3 act story where clear lessons are learned and growing happens as a matter of course? Most people do not change beyond a certain point. Their characters are set by years of social development mixed with genetic predisposition and a little trauma thrown in for good measure. By the time adulthood is reached, I contend, most people stop developing. Instead, they grapple with the world using the tools they find themselves possessing and go from there.

Growth can happen, does happen, needn’t happen. It is not guaranteed. Some characters, like Joey, are just good guys caught up in something that is unraveling in their hands, fighting the good fight but facing defeat at every turn. Others, Anzor for example, degenerate from a childhood ideal but retain that core somewhere—rarely called upon but there nonetheless. As his wife says, “He’s not a killer.” She was right. He was a junky with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.

I love this movie because of these psychological depths. I love this movie because we are privy to developed characters dealing with situations they were never prepared for, situations that don’t yield growth so much as truth: their real selves are exposed in the light of trauma, and we get to see what each of them are made of.

I am reminded of Lord of the Flies, a book I cannot get out of my head of late. The lord of the title is a totem left by a group of boys surviving on a desert island, a pig’s head impaled upon a stick and stuck in the ground. It is there as a ward against an unknown beast that stalks them as they hunt and play and devolve. In reality, of course, the beast is no external monster: it is the savage in each of the little children, and they pay for their lack of insight with the deaths of at least 3 of their number.

This reminds me of something a little more contemporary: Mr. Trump. Having watched his rise in popularity, having caught his speeches, researched his claims, and dug into his various positions, I have come to two realizations.

First, he has no substantial political platform. Over the past six months, he has changed positions on every single issue on which he has given an opinion. There is no need to give proof of this here. Those who realize this never supported him, and those who do not will not be swayed by anything  I say here.

His lack of any semblance of a platform led me to my second realization: his is the candidacy of the flies; it is his head that so many of us wish to hold up against the beasts of the night; his talking points that buzz around and die like the flies that dance around the pig’s head, deafening us to their void-speech. We support him because we are afraid of the savagery within every human breast. We support him because he presents himself as a fighter and a champion against that savagery.

We support him because we don’t think he would run from what scares us, not realizing that because his internal man is so radically different from the external, that he is a coward that presents as a brawler, he would be at the head of the race and beat us all into the abyss.

We do not realize that he is a product of our fear, not a champion against it. His popularity is the result of looking for solutions through broken glasses. He is the destroyer of civilization, not its savoir.

I suppose the logical thing is to ask towards what ought we run? Or put more politically, whom should we look to as our champion?

What ought we look for in a leader? Someone who gets things done, who doesn’t bullshit, who respects the law (or doesn’t, if he’s breaking it for something you support), who reverences the Constitution (or recognizes it as a fallible human document), who will defend our country (but does that mean preemptive action or just diplomacy), who will invigorate the economy (whose economy)…

We live in a federated republic. That means our leaders have the impossible job both of responding to the general will and tempering the extremes of popular opinion for the sake of compromise, stability, order (control, if you like). It is an impossible task because what some see as a mandate from the people others take to be mob violence against political minorities, or just the loudest minority getting their way by acclamation.  It is a job I do not envy.

My vote, such as it is, will go to Bernie Sanders.

I don’t agree with everything he says. I am suspicious that we will be able to get enough money by taxing the billionaires and corporations to pay for what he wants to do (although does it really matter if the government technically has enough money, because it doesn’t seem to…); I tend to think free trade does more good than harm (but perhaps the agreements we have in place are better for businesses than their employees); I appreciate his stance on gun control that there needs to be compromise between urban and rural citizens.

I am not convinced that healthcare and education are universal human rights, but then again I remain unconvinced that rights are really a thing at all, except within a cultural context. If enough people are convinced that everyone should be able to speak their mind within reason, then suddenly we have that right; if enough people think that basic healthcare (however defined) is required by all, then suddenly it becomes a right. I do think that, in the ideal, basic healthcare and higher education have the potential for civic utility and should thus be taken seriously as ideas. This assumes the healthcare is not extraneous and the education useful and meaningful, but if we take those assumptions as granted, then there is a real conversation that must needs be had.

Regardless, Sanders has several things going for him that I find compelling. I think he is a good citizen, well spoken. Unlike Trump or Clinton, Sanders comes across as a man trying to do his best for the national community rather than merely for himself. Trump’s campaign is about the Brand; Clinton’s is about the Legacy; only Sanders cares about the Union.

He also strikes me as the most rational candidate, in how he presents himself, how he converses with others, how he interviews. I get the impression that I could sit down and have an actual conversation with him, dialogue about the issues, and have him actually hear me.

I also admire his consistency, not so much on various issues but in his efforts towards doing real civic good. I don’t care if this or that position of his has or has not changed over his political career; I care that for the duration, he has striven towards the public good. Trump, the developer of casinos, thinks only of his private aggrandizement. Clinton, the head of a decades old political machine, is just as selfish.

So, I submit that Sanders is the man to vote for. If you disagree with his policies, there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that he has come to his opinions after, I think, real consideration for their public worth. The second is that our political system was built such that no branch has all the power. As Sanders himself has stated, without Congress behind him, he will be able to accomplish very little. If enough people want his reforms to pass, it will happen with the approval of the legislature. If not, then he will have a difficult four years. Either way, compromise is inevitable; the tempering of his platform is inevitable. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, no one with whom you will agree 100%. But there is such a thing as a candidate with a “good brain,” to quite Trump, such a thing as a candidate willing to put the Union above himself, such a thing as a civically-minded politician. I think such men deserve to be elected. If reason is against them on an issue, they can be swayed. If money or power tempt them away from the public good, they have the fortitude to at least put up resistance.

There is no shame in electing a man for his virtue. That, as Montesquieu was so fond of reminding us, is the well-spring from which Republics flow.

Why The Second World War was Fought

JFC Fuller was an interesting man. Did you know that he was a member of the British Fascist Party? Wikipedia told me that. Pretty neat, huh. Bet you didn’t even know there was a British Fascist Party. Bet you didn’t even know a man named JFC Fuller existed. I know of him. That makes me better than you.

That’s how internet debate works, no? It’s all about being the better man. Man A presents a thesis, the force of which doubtless reflected in the multitude of grammatical errors present. Man B counters with insult, vitriol, or at best a fact or series of facts followed by insult or vitriol. Sometimes Man C comes along to ask a snide question, or Man D blasts everyone with something entirely different but (more likely than not) of equal condescension. Knowledge in this context leads to arrogance, not understanding.

I’ve heard this state of debate lamented, as if it were unique; or at least as if the recent past could be held up as a better time, a Golden Age. Funny thing about golden ages: they’re bullshit. Hesiod was a bullshit artist, a storyteller. Like all men, he weaved a narrative that befit his view of things as he thought they ought to be. Everything fit just so. The world was made comfortable.

Obviously I am doing the same thing.

My narrative is thus: people fight, debate is a verbal extension of that combativeness, and when words fail, we resort to warfare. Generally speaking, by the time words fail, we’ve forgotten what it was we were originally arguing about. Read any YouTube comments section and you’ll likely find this to be the case. The original point of contention has been buried in heaps of bile, phlegm, all that is humorous in the human mind.

Think of World War Two as a giant YouTube comments thread. No one could remember, let alone agree upon, what was at stake, but everyone wanted to fight about it. Memories were conveniently short, erratic, inconsiderate. Germany invaded Poland to regain part of what was lost when she lost World War One, and as a first step towards Lebensraum. France and Britain came to Poland’s defense as an act of desperation following the fiasco of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Then followed a year of nothing from the Allies, nothing but movement and conquest on the part of the Germans. Then Germany invaded France, hoping to knock her out and preclude a second front festering her planned invasion of Russia. Italy entered the war hoping for the easy loot she failed to obtain during the last conflict.

France fell, leaving Britain alone. Churchill came to power and turned what had been a political war for the Allies into a religious one, a war of Freedom versus Nazism. Germany turned away from Britain, having no means of crossing the English Channel, and began her long war with Russia. She had already forgotten her fear of a two-front war. Britain joined with the USSR, already forgetting the fundamentals of her crusade. She convinced herself that in fighting German tyranny and hegemony, she could readily ally herself with a different tyrant and hegemon. Spain allied with Germany only insofar as her Catholicism wanted to crush the atheistic Soviets.

Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, hoping for a limited war to secure her economic interests against an America that has shown nothing but hostility towards an Asiatic power conquering her neighbors like a good European. In response, the US declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on the US, Japan struck at the British and the Dutch, and the Allies and the Axis solidified at last.

Then came the Atlantic Charter, wherein the Allies affirmed the principles of Freedom against those of tyranny. Britain and America had already forgotten the purges and famines of Stalin and his USSR. Soon thereafter, Unconditional Surrender was made the only mode by which victory might be attained. Poland, Pearl Harbor, politics itself were forgotten amidst the ardor of this crusade against Evil.

As the tide turned against Germany, she spoke less of her new Empire and instead propagandized once more about the evils of Communism. Nostalgia for the 1930s, when Nazism was seen as a bulwark against Communist aggression, could not stem the tide of Allied hatred. Germany was to be obliterated.

The comments thread ran deeper. Strategic bombing campaigns against Germany and later Japan came to fruition, allowing the Allies to butcher as many civilians as their Cause would allow. They had already forgotten the atrocities against which they fought. Hundreds of thousands were butchered, burned, rendered mute against the blast waves of a million tons of TNT. Technology being what it was, and the doctrines of aerial warfare being what they were, it was both far easier to bomb a city rather than a facility, and seen as far more effective, hitting both the economic and moral heart of the Enemy. The atomic bomb was the thousand-sunned climax of this strategy. Morality was forgotten in the rubble of expediency.

The war ended in more ruin than any other endeavor that has come down to us through the gory pages of recorded history. Germany, Japan, Italy lay in smoking ruin. Eastern and Central Europe bore the scars of the largest battles ever fought, and of the most mechanically deliberate extermination ever attempted. Britain, though bloodied, received but a fraction of the civilian destruction she inflicted upon her enemies. America had to sustain more discomfort from her own government than from her foes. Western Russia was the mass grave of nationalism and national socialism.

Why was the war fought? The reasons changed with the context. First Lebensraum and Poland; then Freedom and Justice; national  or economic survival; to fight the scourge of Communism, because winning is always better than losing…By 1945, the only country with a clear political objective was Russia, and that objective was achieved, namely that of carving its own empire out of the little corpses that dotted the map of Eastern Europe. The threat of German dominance was replaced by the reality of Russian.

But that is not to say that the Crusade against Evil was a failure. It was, but not because Russia came out at the top of the political heap. Stalin was a shrewder statesman than any of his peers, matching his guile, patience, and foresight against Hitler’s religiously confident audacity, Churchill’s skill with words, and Roosevelt’s knack for democratic politics. Stalin had a clear, realizable objective and he obtained it. That is the point of war. It is argument by other means. The eradication of evil is not a realistic objective, because that evil resides within the human heart itself. Only nuclear holocaust would gain us that objective.

The Crusade against Evil was lost the moment it was conceived, because that is not the purview of war. Now, as it happens, this unrealistic war did have one moral consequence the import of which cannot be forgotten. It stopped the Holocaust. It is tempting to think that, once Greater Germania had been liquidated of undesirables,  this mechanized butchery would have ceased. Perhaps. Then again, perhaps, with the economic strength of a united Europe and the sense of destiny born of a hundred stupendous victories, the successors of Hitler, raised on Goebbels’ propaganda, would have tried far worse. It seems better, at least given the limited time with which he have been able to judge the result, to have weathered the iron curtain than it might have been had Europe had to endure the brick oven.

Short of annihilation, how might humans eradicate evil from their hearts? I doubt it can be done. Emotion is the stuff of life, for better and for worse. Without love, life would seem to be pointless. Of course I am biased. The flip side, however, is hatred. It does not seem possible to have one without the other, our emotions being so intricately tied together. As long as we are individual, we will have points of view; as long as we emote, we will want to defend those points of view beyond the bounds of dry logic; as long as we wish to defend even that which might be incorrect to the “objective observer,” should such a vantage exist, we will eventually come to blows. And whether those blows come in the form of internet sass or Zyclon B, it will be the product of the human psyche.

And I still know who JFC Fuller was.

On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.

*

My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.

*

Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?

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My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

Heinlein, Steinbeck, and the Prospect of Reform

Of what benefit is reform? Given the blood-soaked pages of history, and the road to hell paved with good intentions, is it even worth the effort? To answer that, I propose to look at two literary men bent on reform: Robert A Heinlein and John Steinbeck. They are of interest because they were 1. good writers, 2. thoughtful individuals, and 3. looking at American society and its various problems during the same time period, but with different perspectives and through works of radically different setting.

Heinlein began his literary career after a failed political one. His first book, then, was a reaction to the thwarting of his political life. Being very opinionated, he could not help but do something, even if office holding was not in his stars. For Us, the Living is a story about a man catapulted into the future, one where the barbarities and injustices of the 20th century are laid bare for the time traveler by the inhabitants of the future. It is full of blunt criticism, the kind Steinbeck would likely approve of. He dwells on wealth disparity, class disparity, political corruption, and our ridiculous sexual mores, to name a few. Indeed, the protagonist’s chief future liaison is a woman, one with much more education, responsibility, and vigor than the typical (read: culturally idyllic) woman of the America of the mid 20th century.

Later in Heinlein’s career he authored Starship Troopers. It is remembered as a militaristic polemic wallpapered in sci fi gadgetry and alien warfare. In reality, it was Heinlein’s attempt to clarify and defend his political views against those in the science fiction community who took issue with his support of nuclear armament. In broad strokes, he envisioned an earth where the weak social democracies, built on the laziness and entitlement of the mob, failed into violence and chaos. From that chaos rose the veterans, who built for themselves a two-class global polity. Civilians enjoy the rights of free expression, economic endeavor, and justice; citizens enjoy the privileges of political life. The difference between the civilian and the citizen is federal service, usually military in nature. Only a veteran can vote or hold office. It is Heinlein’s solution to what he saw as a crippling problem of modern democracy, namely that those who have no active stake in society dictate policy for that active minority that seeks to defend hearth and home. It is doubtless his most controversial and (I think) misunderstood work. This misunderstanding is most clearly evinced in the film version, which satirized its fascist undertones, forgetting that fascism stole erratically from anything that looked practical at the time, thus negating its superficial similarities to other political ideologies (militarism, limited political franchise, etc).

His two greatest works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, look uncompromisingly at the human condition. The former does so on a future earth by way of an alien analogue to Christ, a satire of the worst aspects of Christianity and of the corruption of bureaucratic government, a complex look at human love and sexuality, and a pantheistic faith where “Thou art God.” The latter takes us centuries into the future, wherein humanity has colonized the galaxy, moving from world to world. It chronicles the oldest living man, his history according to his own accounts, and his potential future. He regales us with tales about buying two child slaves, raising them to be self-reliant frontiersmen, and then setting them free, to feast or famine on their own; about his adventures raising a family on dangerous, almost uncharted frontier worlds, etc. The main line of the story has the protagonist regenerated from self-inflicted old age, reinvigorated by his discussions with a sentient computer, that computer’s transformation into a person, and their attempt to forge yet another new world for them and their growing family.

Heinlein spent his whole literary career critiquing humanity in general, but he also attempted to point towards reform. We will get to his vision in a moment, but first, let us outline Steinbeck. Unlike Heinlein, I have not read enough Steinbeck to give a representative account of his body of work. I’ve read three of his books: Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus (short, personal, psychological character studies), and The Grapes of Wrath (a reformist manifesto if ever there was one). It is upon that last book that I wish to focus. Unlike Heinlein, it deals with a setting that was very much contemporary for the author, the America of the Dust Bowl. Steinbeck spends the majority of the novel railing against the injustices of banking, the greed and corruption of large business, and the governmental apparatuses that defend such inhumanity towards man. He chronicles the dehumanization that occurs when a man owns far more than he can cultivate with his own bare hands, the loneliness, isolation, and fear that accompany financial tyranny, and the misery suffered by the poor when they are crushed under the boot heels of such machine-men. This book, too, offers up some ideas for reform, both practical and philosophical. Let us now compare the reform notion in both authors.

Heinlein starts off by thinking of the future as a useful lens for the present, so that the present might see itself in a truer light and correct its blemishes accordingly. By the time of Stranger in a Strange Land, this proclivity is fully formed, as he uses the idea of a man raised by Martians and returning to earth as a vehicle for growth, critical analysis, and, ultimately, a profound attempt to change what it means to be human, ie the very make-up of society–of man’s relation to man. After this work, however, Heinlein turned away from reform in the here and now. This is clear in Time Enough for Love, where the main character points out that when a planet’s population grows obese with time, it always degrades–freedom always gives way to security, chaos to order; the system always grows too bloated for its own good, and the meddlers, thinking they know what is best for everyone, reign supreme. Thus, liberal humans are always striving towards the frontiers, and the main character himself has led many such expeditions to new, dangerous, chaotic, but free planets. It seems Heinlein’s contention, by at least the late 1970s, that humans will always muck things up, so the only practical solution is to keep expanding–if, that is, your desire is freedom.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck hints more and more as the book goes on that the plight of the poor and underprivileged is building towards something, that something is simmering under the surface, that the bankers are only hurting themselves by dominating their laborers, and that eventually the emotional dam will burst, letting out a flood of reprisal and reform. He looks towards collective action as a means to this end. He also sees pantheism, as expressed by the character of the ex-preacher, as the ideology of contentment for this new cosmos, where man will help man, where all the universe is God, where tyrannical hierarchies, be they corporate or Christian, have no place (the world being a level spiritual field; so long, Pseudo-Dionysius and your celestial hierarchy!). He does, however, brook caution. Realistically, he sees reform on the horizon, and has no love for the business class; at the same time, he sees the French Revolution and Ancient Rome as somber examples of failed reform, wherein the oppressed cast down their oppressors and oppressed in turn, perpetuating a cycle of domination and dehumanization. He ends the book with a single act of kindness between strangers, as a starving man is suckled by a woman who just had a stillborn baby. This indicates that he is suspicious of systematic overhaul, and places his faith more in individuals and their innate kindness towards each other in times of troubles.

What are we to think of these two men and their visions of reform? In the former, we see hope dashed against the inevitability of Systems, the victory of Order, the aristocracy of the Meddling class, leaving the frontier of the stars as the only refuge. In the latter, we have an author who sees reform inevitably on the horizon, who on the one hand relishes the collapse of corporate tyranny, but who on the other recognizes the historical precedent for a continual cycle of power and dominion.

I very much sympathize with Heinlein’s view that Systems seem inevitably driven towards decrepitude and stifling order, that the meddlers will always win out. Steinbeck seems to agree, at least so far as the verdict of history is concerned. In The Grapes of Wrath, he seems perhaps to agree that overarching reform will inevitably continue the cycle under different nomenclature, resulting in his very personal ending. Both men seem to think that there is more hope in individuals and small groups than there is in larger communities.For example, in Heinlein’s novel Farnham’s Freehold, the characters band together to weather the apocalypse (brought about incidentally, by the nuclear lunacy of warring factions); the emphasis in the Puppetmasters is on freedom of thought, liberal humanity over orderly aliens, and on the survival of one family in particular; The Moon is a Harsh Mistress deals with the growing pains of a new lunar society and the struggle to free itself from a bloated and oppressive earth, etc.

Steinbeck’s family in The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads, stick together through thick and thin. A few members die, two flee, and the protagonist goes off to fight the good fight against the banks and oppressors–and yet the book ends with the majority of the family huddling together amidst a storm; and the book stops not with the grand pantheistic reformism of the protagonist Tom, but with the simple kindness of his sister Rose and her charitable breast. Steinbeck, it should be remembered, does assert that humanity progresses, that even a step backwards is only a half-step, a prelude to several steps forward. The French Revolution, after all, inspired those of 1848, the democratization of Europe, nationalism, self-determination (and the Great War of 1914-1949, and the Cold War, and the modern surveillance state…). He seems to think that such progress will always be towards better worlds. Does that mean the corporation from the Alien movies, whose slogan “Building better worlds” is stamped triumphantly on every human frontier? Again, his very personal, very small ending seems skeptical of this grand progress, so vehemently and earnestly proposed in the middle of Grapes. Perhaps Heinlein is right: our answer is a fresh start on a new world. Shall we throw up our hands in disgust and try again somewhere else, as the Puritans or Greeks of yore? Let us hope such endeavors are not funded by multi-planetary corporations; that would defeat the purpose.

Concerning Inquiry

Which is to be more lauded, conclusions drawn from deductive reasoning, or those induced? Philosophical discourse until the “Age of Reason” preferred the former, much to the chagrin of those philosophes and scientists who were to inherit the intellectual organs of western thought in the Modern Era.

Moderns criticized the ancients and medievals for relying upon a priori reasoning, which is to say conclusions logically deduced from an assumption, the foundation upon which many a philosophic citadel has been constructed. The most obvious example is building a System based on the assumption that God exists. The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were especially lampooned for this methodology, which resulted in labyrinths of terms, logics, and deductions, unintelligible to all and thus of no practical value to anyone.

In contradistinction to this deductive approach, modern scientists and philosophes relied upon an inductive method, inducing conclusions a posteriori, based  not upon some foundational assumption, but rather upon empirical data collected and analyzed. The benefit of this method, so the argument ran and runs even still, is that it precludes drawing conclusions until the preponderance of evidence leans one way or another; while at the same time allowing for practical application. An example would be rather than philosophizing upon the various humors of the body as expounded by ancient authorities like Galen, a scientist would induce based upon dissection of the human body the inner workings of that machine, thus allowing medicine to advance beyond the counterproductive cure-alls like blood letting.

Inductive reasoning, solidified in the scientific method of today, triumphed over the deductive alternative chiefly because it yielded results, stupendous results. Scientific experimentation has allowed for the systematic collation, study, and analysis of every facet of the physical world, thus producing technological miracles undreamed of even 200 years ago.

Why bother bringing this little historical narrative up at all? Because it is false. Yes, there was an obvious shift in methodology in and around the 16th century. The primacy of Aristotle crumbled amidst the realization that many, terrifyingly many, of his empirical observations were wrong, and what’s more, they were easily corrected by the simple expedient of, well, actually looking at the things themselves. To give but one example: Aristotle asserted–or a student of his school asserted, it’s sometimes hard to know for sure, what with he having died more than 2000 years ago–that the semen of the Ethiopian was dark like his skin. Now, while the verification of this assertion might carry with it some awkwardness, it is something that can be checked. Egregious, and to us obvious, mistakes like this eroded Aristotle’s credibility, so unassailable (so far as natural science was concerned) during the Middle Ages.

This extended to other ancient authors as well, the eminent physician Galen coming immediately to mind. In short, scholars turned from books (as in the Renaissance) towards the objects about which the books concerned themselves. Thus scholars made the transition to scientists, theses were not taken seriously unless they be backed up with “scientific” evidence and exposition, and the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment.

That basic conceit being admitted, what could the issue be? To my mind, it is the following. The scientist’s criticism of the scholastic was and remains the latter’s reliance upon an assumption, upon which a logical argument is then constructed. The scientist, however, relies upon his own basic assumption, one that defies any attempt at empirical justification. Experiments, as mentioned, rely upon a preponderance of evidence, not so much to prove anything, but to indicate an ever-increasing likelihood of the truth of a given hypothesis. Technically, empirical data never proves anything as such; it simply pushes the conclusion in a more likely direction. (This, by the way, seems a point often dismissed, as any headline beginning with “Study Shows,” “Science Proves,” etc, etc).

Based on this preponderance of evidence, scientists then formulate what are referred to as laws, which are objective, generally applicable principles by which the natural world is said to function. They are objective because they remain the same regardless of the vantage point of observation; they care not for the subjective nature of human observation. Here, belatedly, is the problem: these laws rely on the assumption, a priori, that a phenomenon having been observed repeatedly will repeat itself under the same conditions ad infinitum. Thus an apple will always fall from a tree, a man will always die if his heart be removed, the three laws of motion will remain in effect– regardless of the theory of relativity, which is simply another set of laws that makes allowance for a universe very much more complicated that Newton supposed.

The problem is that there is no logical reason why this should be so. Just because an apple, once dislodged from a branch, is observed falling to the ground 10, 100, 1000, even 1,000,000,000 times does not necessitate that it do so the 1,000,000,001st time. To point to the laws of gravity, induced from such empirical observations, is to appeal to circular logic, since such laws were derived from empirical observations that need not perpetuate themselves.

What about mathematical proofs for natural laws? I must confess my almost total lack of understanding of that language. Nevertheless, I am vaguely aware that certain geometric proofs are based upon first postulates that must be assumed before anything else can be done. Perhaps my mathematical ignorance allows some skeptical bliss; it is a subject that is on my short list for further study.

An even stronger case can be made for the mutability, nay the unreliability of our own sense organs. How often do we mistake one thing for another, misremember things, fill in the gaps of our perception subconsciously with fragments of other half-seen things? It is sobering to consider how flawed our empirical observations really are. This scientists have striven to overcome through peer review, complex experiments, mathematical proofs, and now no doubt computer technology. Still, it is up to human being to interpret the data provided by these methods; and so we will always see the objective through the lens of the subjective.

From a philosophical perspective, inductive and deductive reasoning are in fact the same thing. They both rely upon assumptions. And even all the ingenuity and creativity of the scientist cannot overcome our own perspectival nature.

At the very least, this discourse ought caution the scientist. Even if he disagrees, and asserts the omnipotence of natural law, he must needs admit that his theories are ever-changing, bending and reforming based not, he hopes, upon his own prejudices but on what the data say. I do not think that to be the case. Prejudices are the colored glasses through which we view the world; and without them we are blind. Subjectivity makes up the very essence of personhood, and thus cannot be overcome. Nevertheless, for the ardent scientist, theories bend themselves to fact, and simultaneously, theories can never be proven, only rejected as contrary to what is observed. To prove something is to achieve certainty. Science, if it is to adhere to its own dogma, must remember this. If it is going to chastise philosophers, religious people, indeed the whole vulgar, non-scientific bulk of the population for adhering to various faiths, then it must above all else refrain from the same killer certitude that it (and here I specifically refer to the New Atheist branch of the scientific community) blames for the wars of religion, nationalism, and ideology that are loathed as tribal atavisms.

Science ought not brook certainty. To do so is to adhere to a creed, a faith, a dogma that its core beliefs cannot abide. And yet it is that very core of beliefs (their faith) that necessitates a rejection of belief. And so it goes, the circle of contradiction, the inconsistency that hobgoblins our little minds, one and all.

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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