Sunday, 30 September 2018

Faith and Trust in the Mob

This was a long Facebook post, so I decided to put it on here:
I think that our society was built by a whole lot of people, including ancient Greeks and Romans, Arabs and Africans, Celts and other indigenous peoples. I think we have kept most of the good stuff, and are still in the process of getting rid of some vestigial bad stuff.

I believe in metaphors of roots and foundations. I think one of the worst things that happened during the transatlantic slave trade was that African people were cut off from their roots so that even now it is hard to rebuild any of that for anyone. I suspect Alex Haley would agree.

So the idea that we flail around and lash out blindly without forethought or plan, and just smash the old seems like a really bad idea. The idea that we call 2018 Western society as a whole “the patriarchy“ is hugely disrespectful to all of the women (like Marie Curie, Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, the suffragettes and all the other women throughout history) who worked to make modern society what it is. And to women currently devoting their lives to The System. Women with impressive titles and qualifications earned in it. Science is pretty useful, and is hardly 100% the creation of male people or European colonizers. Same thing with democracy and psychology and philosophy and economics and mathematics and literature and drama.Society shouldn't be lightly dismantled with no real agreement as to what to build in its place. Pretty sure no one wants to lump Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres into the terms "privilege" or "patriarchy," yet they are part of Western society.

So what I would like to see is the goal of including more people, rather than the smashing of what has been built. And I firmly believe that it is possible for us to include more people, and that it is equally possible, and historically far more likely that we could start a second Victorian Era, Middle Ages, or Stone Age, by misusing our wonderful technology or democratic or economic systems. Be careful with that stuff. Some of us are still using it to feed ourselves. And its a bit of a game of Jenga. (Please don't get me fired for having written this blog)

One of the things that a hard look at the much more problematic parts of the world reveals, is that the outcome of overthrowing a somewhat oppressive, “mixed bag” government can be far worse than leaving it alone, if one isn’t careful. In Iran and Russia and countless South American and African nations, the mob (sometimes incited by a foreign government like Britain or America) rose up and overthrew a slanted, inequitable society, destroying everything and resulting in chaos, confusion, pain and death(leaving the country unlivable), only to have tyranny then take advantage of the chaos and start the whole process over again, only worse. Chile, Cuba, Rwanda, Argentina, Iran etc.
France, even. Do we want The Terrors again on any scale at all?

I guess I have limitless faith in the human predilection for going WAY too far, and not knowing when to stop. I have NO faith in the mercy of mobs out looking for payback. It is very easy to get angry and outraged and stirred up into a mob frenzy and smash a mixed bag of good and bad things into a useless bag of broken things with sharp edges. I am not optimistic about outrage or mobs crying for change.

I am not hopeful as to the potential of mobs to create. To be fair. To heal things. To be wise or sensible. To make anything that will last.

People are telling and hearing different narratives.  So, which one has deeper emotional resonance for you?:

     a) people are at heart mean and oppressive and selfish by nature, and laws and witnesses, courts, committees and accountability need to be maintained. The future holds more of that ugly stuff we know from the past, given what has not been expunged from out history books. The vulnerable being forgotten at best and oppressed and exploited at worst. Mobs tearing down structure, only to have worse tyrants with better technology and strategies replace them.  A new, scarier, more subversive form of control. Bad news all around. (we were raised with this one)

     b) people are at heart, good, and anything else we see is mainly from upbringing and social conditioning.  The future holds better information, better socialization, and a whole lot more inclusion and equity all around. A kindler, gentler kind of human being. We will win because our ideas are fresh and right, while they are old and will die out with their outmoded dinosaur nonsense.  Good news all around. (we were not raised with this one, but it’s popular right now.)

Things are comparatively good right now, in the context of the entire world, in the context of all of human history. To say otherwise is the definition of privilege. To say we can make it better? We had better.

And I think it’s relevant, when trying to create a more equitable future, to ask what Nelly McClung would think of it.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Core Virtues

I'm bingeing Jessica Jones Season Two, and I noted two episodes in, that the central theme (just as Season One's was "consent") is clearly "dealing with the past/your shit." (and "keeping self-control so you don't repeat past mistakes" and "women being vicious and men being weak.")
    It strikes me that this "dealing" thing is a sacred cow of mine.  A core virtue.  And core virtues can make us stupid. We put our pet virtue up above all other considerations, and we get tipped off balance. By something important, but not all-important. 
    We can prioritize "rights" so much that we lose sight of the necessity for "responsibilities." We can prioritize "diversity" so much we lose sight of the importance of "unity/being able to work together."  For many of us, there's only room for one sacred cow. Being balanced and open is hard.
    Thing is, when we follow one core virtue and neglect all the other ones, we are easily, as a society, polarized into two or more warring groups who can't even talk to one another, let alone work together.  We rally around the flag of "free speech" or "the family" or "social justice" and we fail to notice that that flag is in a little livestock pen.  That we've been penned in.  Divided, we fall more easily.
    One time, I was troubled by a person who clearly didn't deal with anything problematic, whose life axiom is "Think happy thoughts. If it's not a happy thought, don't think about it and it will likely go away. It does no good to think about troubling things." And so I spoke of needing to "deal."  I felt pretty responsible and adult pointing that out.  Because I've seen m any, many TV shows about people fleeing their troubled pasts.
   But right away, I was asked what "dealing" even means.  ("What even is "dealing"?)  And I realized I was having trouble even thinking, let alone explaining to a closed-minded objector, about what my core virtue ("deal with problematic stuff, or it will become your Jungian nemesis figure") really meant. I just believed in it passionately without knowing why.  And people who don't deal with anything make me very uneasy.
    This is very cultural.  It's my growing up strenuously objecting to a church culture in which one wasn't to ever discuss anything we didn't already know we'd agree upon, lest there be "discussion." "Discussion" (but not communication or "dealing") broke out in my church and it blew up.  It was successfully quelled in my family by my father, who had seen discussion and trying to speak about troubling stuff break out in his own family growing up, and watched it all end in acrimonious divorce.  The lesson, he felt, was "there's no use arguing." So to this day, we don't talk much. It's my watching generations of not dealing with anything reach critical mass and implode.  It's watching situations at jobs and more social ones go nuclear because of a collective policy of passive aggression and snark over blunt directness, of adhering to a long list of topics not to be broached or in any way dealt with. Of fearing "dealing."
    But it's a personal core virtue.  A sacred cow.  Something to watch out for.  Because there's other stuff.  Other stuff that's also important. 
    Back to Jessica Jones and her superheroic jeans.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

What the Urge to Create is Fueled By (According to G.K. Chesterton)

    "Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I have often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of our modern world. I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it.
     The publisher said of somebody, "That man will get on; he believes in himself."
    And I remember as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written "Hanwell" [Insane Asylum]. I said to him "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums."
    He said mildly that there were a good number of men after all who believed in themselves and were not in lunatic asylums.
    "Yes, there are" I retorted, "and you of all people ought to know them. That drunken poet from who you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consider your business sense instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can't act believe in themselves; and debtors who won't pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness. Believing utterly in one's self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote [a self-proclaimed religious prophetess of the Victorian era]: the man who has it has "Hanwell" written on his face as it is written on that omnibus."
    And to this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, "Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?"
    After a long pause I replied "I will go home and write a book in answer to that question." This is the book that I have written in answer to it."
-G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy"
And yet, sometimes it's healthy to pursue madness.  Because there is a form of grey, ground-down, deathly sanity that is far worse than any madness.  Better to let that madness coalesce into some shareable, forwardable, downloadable, streamable form and spread it to the world. 

(But to be fair, Chesterton wouldn't have called that madness, really.  He was a fan of expression and creativity. I just felt for those untalented hacks who believed in their own work and yearned to share it with an uncaring world.  Because I used to and I miss that.)

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Why I Liked the Individual Bits that made up "The Last Jedi," but Hated the Movie Pretty Hard

needless to say, SPOILERS.

This isn't a blog post.  It's a copied and pasted Facebook comment that seemed to keep growing:

The Last Jedi was FULL of really fun bits which all added up to inconsequential nothing or transparent and pointless stalling to fill out the time, and often felt like nothing less than a targeted attack upon/dismantling/strip-mining/fracking of the original movies. It felt like it was always rushed in presenting things that ultimately didn't matter anyway. Many of the scenes could simply have been cut with no effect whatsoever on what passed for an overall story or direction. There was nothing holding the characters back from enacting the space climax scene at some point before the movie had started/before all the casualties became necessary.

The main thing that many viewers felt, without even going all analytical on it, is the fact that movies of this kind are built on dramatic setups, followed (sometimes in the next film) by satisfying, climactic payoffsThe Last Jedi started by rubbing the viewers' noses in the fact that it was going to be built around a large number of dramatic setups, including ones brought forward from the previous movie... followed by a series of jumbled letdowns. You could almost hear the sound of a balloon deflating with each one.  And sometimes, rather than a hugely disappointing payoff, there was just a whole lot of nothing.  No payoff at all.  

Now, that's just bad storytelling. Subverts expectations, alright.  By not delivering on a promise, thereby pissing viewers off and leaving them feeling tricked and misled.  And by a bad storyteller, not by a genuinely innovative, creative or clever spinner of space yarns.  One whose story somehow made less sense than The Phantom Menace.

Worst failing of all, Rey, the film's protagonist, is lovely and charming and well acted, but the characterization is boring as hell.  At least we knew little Jake Lloyd was going to grow up to be Darth Vader.  Rey seems like she'll never grow to become anything, neither bad nor good.   She seems to think she is Mary Poppins, already perfectly perfect in every way.

Writing 101: Rey needs conflict.  She needs to at least have the risk of maybe losing.  At some point.  She needs to have to try again after failing, for example, having a hand cut off.  (almost every interesting Star Wars character is improved by having a hand cut off.)  

What Rey does not need is to be tediously right all the time about everything, and beat everyone at everything all the time. She can beat Kylo Ren at light saber duelling.  She is wiser than Luke or Yoda and doesn't actually need either of them.  She doesn't need jedi lessons.  When the time comes, it seems she ought to be the one training Luke.  (I know, in the age of millennial falcons, she's "just special" like all girls are special, and her gender is supposed to be deeply empowering, all on its own.  Like Jonathan Pageau points out, she's the best at everything, from the beginning, and better than all the guys, just because she just is.  She came like that. No lessons need to be learned. She simply needs to be freed and she'll empower herself, once toxic male Fynn stops grabbing her by the hand and trying to save her, not seeing her unique value and the fact that she never needs to be saved. (Not like him, Kylo, Luke and the other dudes).  Success at no cost. No austere Jedi lifestyle here. Just free, inborn empowerment. The millennial dream.  What an important lesson for girls!) 

But meanwhile in movieland, the character is crying out for some depth.  Not just an empty McGuffin.  Right now she's failing to keep up with Watto and Boss Nass for depth.  In fact, she's tied for last place with Bossk, IG88 and Salacious Crumb.  At this point her parents might as well be Female Rebel Soldier #3 and Bespin City's Lobot for how much we're able to care about them.  It doesn't matter.  The "Rey's parents" thing is as boring and pointless and misleading as everything else.  The fact that we're supposed to care about a backstory that's being withheld years longer even than "Who is Luke's father?" is ruined  by the fact that the movie isn't explained by, and does not require its characters to have backstories.  It's too busy whizzing around in CG space, in a terrible mad rush to tell us... nothing much of anything at all.

In a good movie, like Empire, the Empire strikes back... and wins.  And the hero fails.  In this movie?  The New Order strikes back.  And... boringly, fails.  After all the buildup, Snoke fails.  Kylo Ren fails. Luke fails. Poe fails. Finn fails. You know who doesn't fail?  The hero.  Rey. And, even more boringly, she doesn't really win either. She just... nothings. The Vice Admiral wins hugely, overshadowing Luke's shadowplay, by topping him for being right and being a martyr and saving everyone.  Now why didn't she tell Poe she was going to do it, and do it before the film started?

In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope was a movie full of subverted tropes and unexpected reversals and innovated gender roles, especially for its time. But the Gen Xer one-trick pony's only trick is to reverse or flip expectations. And that's it. The troll, pirate, vampire, robot, witch, serial killer or demon is actually a supa cool brooding anti-hero you'll be cheering for. The charming prince, noble knight, helpful priest, heroic vampire-hunter, hero, cop or military general is actually... the Bad Guy! (this was surprising for the first decade or so. Until it became Every Time.) And all of the 2 dimensional characters' genders could be inverted without changing anything else about the characters whatsoever. 

Post modernism. It's all about flipping everything.  Mother Knows Best in Tim the Toolman Taylor's house.  The reptilian ninjas from the New York sewers are pizza-scarfing saviours rather than the terrifying unnatural threat. The werewolf plays basketball. Starsky and Hutch are buffoons. Charlie Brown and friends swear and fart instead of being sweet and telling the true meaning of Christmas (South Park). Give it a try: think of something pre-90s, and turn everything on its head.  Dorothy is actually the villain of Oz, and the "witch" is the hero. The Sheriff of Nottingham is a fair ruler with a dangerous outlaw bandit to contend with, troubling his woods.  Tarzan is an African tribeswoman descended from a line of female chiefs, but who is shipwrecked in England where she needs to run a corporation. The Hardy Girls are sisters who narrowly escape being caught smuggling counterfeiting plates.

George Lucas was ahead of his time doing this "subverted expectations" stuff in the 70s, when The Princess Bride and Shrek and Spawn, Twilight, Dexter and Deadpool wouldn't hit the screen for a decade or so. He was at least fifteen years ahead of most of his peers in the industry. He was doing Oedipus instead of Prince Charming. Luke was in danger of killing his father and marrying his sister (and the prophet/oracle figure wasn't warning him, even though it hadn't happened yet and Obiwan and Yoda both knew. Weird.)  Now, a Gen Xer is going to feel all edgy "flipping" all of that.  Flipping Oedipus.

But: If you try to flip Star Wars: A New Hope and the next two movies upside down, you simply turn it back right-side-up again, back to a much more traditional fairy tale. You get more old-fashioned female characters. One-dimensional male heroes and villains. Galactic senators are all males again. The Empire isn't a racist and sexist tyranny anymore, but has become an oddly diverse, equal opportunity group of space Nazis.
Vader is secretly Luke's evil uncle, who killed Anakin Skywalker (Luke's father and the rightful king). Greedo shoots first, and Luke gets shanghaied off Tatooine to slave away aboard the Colonial Falcon, under the shifty pirate bootlegger Han Solo and his bestial first mate, Chewbacca, who wields a space whip. Luke has to kill the treacherous Han Solo and does, defeating his henchman Chewbacca first, to escape and continue his adventure to kill his evil uncle Vader, and marry the princess. R2D2 doesn't understand anything and therefore needs everything explained to him by the smarter, sensible C3P0, which is all supposed to be very cute.  The witch/Emperor is female again, and merely assists King Vader rather than being his superior. The wise woman/oracle isn't Yoda anymore. The princess doesn't use a weapon and doesn't run the war anymore. Alderaan is saved in the last act. The Rebellion is run by a man again, instead of the venerable Mon Mothma. Luke is secretly a prince, and gets the girl (Leia) in the end, and she isn't his sister. Luke has to kill Vader in a light saber battle, and does.   Jabba is an empress/madam/evil queen/female trader.  The helpless Ewoks need to be saved from the Empire entirely, rather than just being helped out a bit. 

If you "flip" Oedipus, you get the story of a young woman who is killed by her mother and whose father doesn't, therefore, marry her.  (Or something else that doesn't work. That is trying way too hard to be clever, but lacks the gears to get up that hill.) 

Not terribly helpful if you want to make the true threat to the Resistance/Rebellion Lite the evil "toxic masculinity" (toxic Star Wars masculinity: running around with sabers and blasters, flying too fast, risking your life and disobeying the overcautious, controlling older adult figures who don't get it, which one would recognize from any other Disney movie, and, say, Harry Potter).  

Here, for your edification are two articles celebrating 2017's use of nerd properties to throw a preachy, tedious spotlight on toxic masculinity: First, second.

And... if you flip things, it's not a star war anymore. It's fleeing refugees and suicide bombers, rather than rebel soldiers with military attacks. Rey doesn't get to be "Commander Rey."
Vice Admiral Holdo can't be bothered with boots, medals or a uniform with insignia. Star Wars becomes Star Trek, with mostly talking/arguing, and insoluble ethical dilemmas.  Kirk/Vice Admiral Holdo opts for not sending out a fighter craft with the hopes of the movement resting on the shoulders of one lone hero, but instead, prefers to do things like sacrifice the Rebel base ship Enterprise, set on self-destruct, to blow up the enemy ship/threat to the Federation.  In Star Trek, this threat is usually the work of less evolved, testosterone-poisoned neanderthal aliens who can't stop raging long enough to sit down and talk/work things out. Beings who haven't been told that the future, and the past in a galaxy long long ago and far, far away, are alike female.  After saving everyone, Spock/Luke/Holdo dies, with the possibility of appearing in the next movie anyway. Star Wars III: The Search for Luke. (Put a Gen Xer on the job of jawa-ing the movies and Kirk sacrifices his life for 3 minutes instead of Spock dying for real, and instead of Leia being shot with a stun blaster by a stormtrooper while talking with R2D2, Leia shoots her best rebel soldier in the head with a stun blaster and R2D2 doesn't have anything much to say about anything at all.  What a twist!)

So, Star Wars, it turns out, is beyond the scope of a Gen Xer's hack job. Especially one with all of Kylo Ren's understanding of and respect for the past.  Jawas don't build new droids. You can't just flip everything, guys. Can't just jumble the pieces and put your Star Wars Lego minifig's heads on random bodies and  subtly change the spaceships' shapes a bit with a few pieces swapped out here or there, or some new colours.  You have to make something.  You'd need to actually bring in something new. You'd actually need to know something about human history, psychology, philosophy, religion, Jung, fairy tales and ancient myth, and then subvert or flip that newly-acquired source material, not try to flip the already-flipped Star Wars rehash of mythology that you inherited.   You'd need to be capable of doing Star Wars again, yourself, rather than just recycling it.  You'd need to be able to create. To invent more Star Wars.  (Like they did somewhat in the two computer-generated cartoon series, which are both far less derivative than the big budget Hollywood sound and fury signifying nothing shows.)

The best symbolism in The Last Jedi is when Anakin/Luke's light sabre from A New Hope is being fought over by "I'm searching for hope, insight and spiritualism" and her opponent "the past must DIE... just 'cuz" and that saber represents Star Wars: A New Hope itself.  And between the two of them, they tear it in half so it doesn't work anymore. That torch that Luke churlishly tossed over his shoulder instead of passing it to Rey.  Just as the new guys have done with the franchise. The past must be chucked over one's shoulder. It's 2017.  And that stuff's toxic and old.

Oedipus is very old, yes.

The best-written, complex, unmuddled character of The Last Jedi was the erstwhile Ben Solo, Han's very own all-too-millennial falcon. In a movie that came out in 2017, even Han Solo and Leia Organa were naturally going to have spawned a lazy, whiny, conflicted, angry baby with no respect for the past, and a cynical, pragmatic (yet somehow naive, starry-eyed) nihilism to offer the world in lieu of hope. He's a destructive, angry victim, mirror to Poe's quipping, privileged competence. Kylo's pain isn't the loss of his mother, or having no father; it's his sketchy uncle/Jedi camp counsellor coming in and being inappropriate at night when he's sleeping, unsheathing his... saber. #kylotoo

And it's people who are my age who are to blame for Hollywood right now. The movies. The scandals. The complicitness with sexual exploitation. The cover ups of same. The hypocrisy regarding it. The backlash to it. The backlash to the backlash. We-a culpa.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Has Dating Changed Much Since the Middle Ages?

I'm taking medieval longsword lessons.  I'm also taking an online Chaucer course.
I'm doing a research paper on "Troilus and Criseyde," comparing Pandarus, who sets them up and encourages their affair, with Tinder and online dating sites and services.

I need people with modern dating experience to do my 15 question anonymous survey. You can just click boxes, or type in text. Zero knowledge of Chaucer required. I won't have any idea who responded to it.

Please lend me a hand by sharing this so single friends will consider doing it?

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Vulnerability and Forthrightness Are for Kids

I'm watching HarmonTown, alone, on my weekend.  And I'm thinking about what it's like to not look to be in terribly great shape, to have facial hair, to be middle-aged, and to have clearly failed to build a family to grow old with.  HarmonTown is about Dan Harmon, one of the misfit nerds who created shows like Community and Rick and Morty, which shows entertain and touch us similarly-spirited people on a deeper level than we can quite explain. We are filled with utter delight when Harmon, or Kevin Smith, or someone like that, depicts or talks about something that's an important part of our lives, but that previously hadn't really existed, as far as TVtonia and MovieLand were concerned.

I can watch documentaries like this one, and I can pretend to be outside of it.  I can "diagnose" or profile the guys in them: fat, smart, sensitive guys, who are still close with their mothers, who love animals, who tend to have messy/long hair and beards, who love fantasy and worlds of imagination and a mix of cerebral humour with potty jokes. Sometimes trying to get tough with tattoos and piercings, but still looking baby soft.  Man-children.  Nerds. Trekkers. Middle-aged men who collect toys and games from their childhoods, which childhoods they claim were pretty unhappy, but for those things they're collecting. Whatever.  Mostly lonely people who are part of our culture's ever-expanding vista of solitude and social alienation leading up to lonely death.

But I'm watching me, really.  And a whole lot of people I know.

There's a real sense in all of it of feeling like one has failed to grow up.  Hasn't managed to adult.  (Also... feeling like growing up would really suck.) Because (Biff!  Pam!  Pow!) comic books may have "grown up" enough to really make an impressive annual salary, but many of us who used to read them haven't.

And why would we?  Is there any reason other than "I have kids" to stop living like them?  Kids imagine.  They aren't held responsible to make a real home, or a real life.  They can make up elaborate fantasy worlds together and play in them.  They can argue for hours about which house they'd be in at Hogwarts, or what race they'd be in Middle-earth.  If they have special allergies, conditions, syndromes or needs, they just get more and more attention and stuff.  They've got no one to fool, really.  So they generally tell you straight up what they're thinking and feeling, without being afraid you will judge them.

Grown up people aren't like that. They don't share like that.  They can't afford to be vulnerable like that.  They need to maintain the illusion of adulthood.  Unlike some of us, they were no doubt raised that the "white lie" is absolutely essential to getting by in society. 

So, if you do share vulnerability, or tell your real feelings, people tend to say it's so brave. But really, they're thinking it's crazy.  A bad move.  Because it's a Really Bad Idea to be vulnerable. You have a persona to maintain.  Be vulnerable and open, let the mask slip and get seen for more of who you really are, and you might wreck it all. (this is not taking into account those not-really-being-human folks who aren't aware of having anything at all under that mask they paint daily. Because what can be said about them?)  Many adults are so adult they never let even themselves see a clear glimpse of what's going on behind their personas/roles.

For some of us though, sharing and being vulnerable isn't risking anything much.  Because we have conclusively failed to fool anyone with any kind of adult, successful, strong, competent, respectable, unbothered, content, relationship-worthy persona to begin with. 

In fact, we failed so badly at making one, that others around us make charity loaner personas for us to wear if we're going to be meeting their real friends.  Roles they hand to us at the door for us to put on, which personas they tossed together because we clearly need one. Personas that include the idea that we need to be "explained."  That we Won't Ever Get It.  That we Won't Change.  Personas that do the very opposite of what theirs do for them. Personas that tell everyone "He's not fine just the way he is, but tell him he's great, ok?"  Personas they hand us that it would be an utter delight to wreck utterly.

"This is Tom.  He's very negative, but he's just being so very funny. We just laugh. He doesn't mean any harm. He's single, but he won't date my fat cousin even though he's fat himself. He has a speech impediment, so don't comment on what accent you think he has."   "This is Bob.  He's a computer guy. Builds computers in his basement and all of his friends are computers.  And he loves spicy food. Like, to an unhealthy degree.  I hope he doesn't say anything sexist. He doesn't drink coffee or tea. Likely on prozac or something like that."   "This is Tim.  He's kind of autistic?  Like, not literally, but kind of... you know.  And we don't think he's gay, but he hasn't dated anyone since we've known him. And he loves those movies with swords and magic, but doesn't watch sports. Like, ever. So he won't really talk about hockey or football or anything in a normal way."  Apparently we need disclaimers.  "The following interaction may include mature conversations that get real and go beyond the niceties of small talk.  Viewer discretion is advised."

Mostly they get us very, very wrong, and mostly it really doesn't matter to them.  People just need to feel like they've got a handle on us.  "Guy who eats only tacos and has three cats.  Got it."  Even if that was you for one summer at age 15, and it was part of a contest, and your one cat died five years ago.

The mysterious thing is that anyone who looks at you and talks to you for about two minutes can see pretty much everything important about you.  It's not like you're mysterious or hard to figure out. But it's like they are still having trouble believing who you are.  Because you aren't quite like them, in small ways. So you're confusing to them.  You've got to be something other than how you come off, don't you? Because surely no one is actually how they come off? Just...

But maybe you don't know to feel the shame or try to hide anything about what you are. You don't know how to "get along," or "play the game" or "work the angles" or "put your best foot forward."  You put whichever foot is next forward.  Left after right.  In whatever shoes you happened to put on.  Maybe you knowingly and unknowingly commit any number of social faux pas, and it's not really worth it to you to bother with any of it. It's not like "playing the game" is going to make you win it in any appreciable sense.  It's not like you're a courtier in the palace of Louis XIV of France.  So you don't bother with a persona nearly as much as everyone else.  Don't have a corner of your brain that's working all day long, automatically helping you total up things that make you look good or win points with others.  So they treat you like someone without a face who therefore needs a mask handed to him at the door.

They're different.  They fake smiles, and cultivate a cute little vocabulary of evasions, non-answers and readily deniable, only half-said things. They know how to hint at their feelings and thoughts without committing to them in any way that one might be able to build on in future conversations.  Because they've got too much built to risk their own personas through being known more fully.  To let the personality past the PR men.  What would happen if people saw through their personas to the rest of them?  They might stand out.  Be harder to integrate into social events.  What pass for their friends right now might start forgetting to invite them to things. It might just be easier for everyone that way.

Well, for many of us, we don't have all that stuff to lose.  We look up the social hierarchy to those just above us, who have families and lovely homes and cottages and back yards, and who have occasionally invited us to them to do things, instead of just to bars, and often we know that they won't be continuing to include us.  Why?  Mostly because, in a hierarchy like that, if you even slightly piss off any one person who is higher up than you are (especially if they are part of both "A Couple," and also "A Family Whose Kids Play With Our Kids") you drop out of the running.  We can't help wishing we could fit, but we can't and won't change anything to try to fit.  We're pretty sure there's no use in thinking about it.

Family gets prioritized over friendship.  Every time.  (Or you lose your family.)  So, even if you have forged a number of strong friendships in your 20s, you can very rapidly lose those once your friends have families that then "outrank" you. And if any of your closest friends start living with someone who'd prefer you don't come around too much, perhaps having her own friends she'd rather have around, you've not going to be coming around much anymore.  That's it for you. They've graduated. You haven't.

(Of course you can always hope they'll break up and then you'll be persona mucho grata again, but that doesn't always work out either.)

We singletons also look "across" the social hierarchy to people who are managing to get by while being a lot like us, but who also seem to have some kind of group.  And these things are precious to us.  Often, we either can't really get/fit into these bands, clubs, teams, clubs and relationships to begin with ("Thanks for auditioning. We'll call you.")  Or these groups kind of fall apart due to internal stressors. We have to really watch we don't tear our little islands of being-with-other-people apart over petty stuff.  ("petty" is from the French word "petit(e)" for "small/unimportant.") 

And we look down the social hierarchy to those just below us who are un(der)employed and perhaps still living with their parents, or on social assistance, and who definitely have no kids or connections either.  And we hang out with them.  And when they meet our friends?  We're tempted to "explain" them.  After all, they're single. And have no jobs.  So we try.

And then we realize we're just as bad as everyone else at playing the game.  At climbing.  There are just different weight classes of playing the game.  And some of us are middle-weights trying to move up and lacking what it takes.

"Thanks for your... most interesting audition!  We'll call you!"

Monday, 31 July 2017

If You Wish Upon Believing In Yourself

To amuse myself this vacation, I'm mainly taking in stuff that feeds my mind. (A refreshing break from daily trying to feed other people's minds.)  Learning more about stuff I like, mostly.  So, one of the many things I'm watching is a series of online lectures by a Tolkien professor, about Tolkien's writings.  Along with several other things, this is all further cementing in me a love of things classical and old-school, gently and respectfully deconstructed, rather than savaged and dismissed as harmful.

In a time when all that is old is being dismissed simply because it's old, and seen as part of Eurocentric patriarchy, I am determined to be the most useful and trustworthy of fatherly European figures in my classroom this year, informed and grounded and aware of things beyond the ken of presentist post-modernists.  Because it's so much easier to just say everything's shit, than to start to actually get to know your shit.  About something or other quite specific.  Because you can't know everything about everything, and it's not good enough that it's all somewhere on the Internet. 

Characters Of Good Character
One of the things that I noted, when dipping my toe in some Tolkien, was how much of his thinking was entrenched in that pre-WWI notion that adversity reveals and builds pre-existing character (or reveals the lack of it).  Character and virtue are honestly presented as germane and useful things without any hint of finding this view embarrassing or old-fashioned.  It's not just that having virtues is nice. It's that virtues work.

Nowadays we mostly look at vices instead, and call them “diseases,” quite often.  Or syndromes.  And we work to accommodate and accept them.  We let them limit us.  We "raise awareness" of them.  I hate to be positive, but there's something to be said for "working your strengths/virtues" rather than putting everything into accepting and feeling ok about your vices and weaknesses.

It's very compassionate to try to live in and view the world as a place where everyone's equal in some theoretical way, where no one's better than anyone else, but... history, psychology and law.  It's just not like that.  Some people are more this or that.  In any given setting, some people are more effective there.  Some people are, for example, generally smarter than most others, no matter how much we try to deconstruct how we recognize, treat and generally deal with the fact that the people we meet in our lives clearly run the gamut all the way from genius to profoundly handicapped.  

We want to say "everyone's smart in their own way," but nothing much really seems to support that, Howard Gardiner's entirely unsubstantiated but blindly followed, sacrosanct "Multiple Intelligences" theory, and "varied learning styles" ideology to the contrary.  Some people are smart in many ways and can also learn in just as many ways. Some people are borderline average in only one way, and very sub-par in every other way, and no attempt to change that does a whole lot.  Some people are below average in everything and don't seem to learn no matter what strategy is tried.

And this obviously isn't only true as to intelligence. It's true about everything. Some people are more physically fit in terms of cardiovascular health. Some people are stronger in their upper bodies and cores.  Some people are more emotionally stable in times of stress. Some people are taller than others.  Others are younger.  And there's hardly a virtue or talent that survives very far into extreme old age. 

We have what we have.  Right now.  Physically, mentally and psychologically.  Even, one could argue, in terms of moral character.   Some people seem to have come with a lot of it.  Others seem to have squandered it, or had their moral strength corrupted.  Is strength of character something that, if you don't "build" in children, then it doesn't happen later?  Or can it form later on, well past the formative years? 

Everybody's got to live in a world filled with others.  And hope is important.

Someone like C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien probably never gave a second thought to the idea that one might find one's hope in the virtues of other people one trusts.  In their stories at least, the various characters' virtues (talents, affinities, strength of character) are essential to getting anywhere.  And a well-rounded moral character is important.  You can be as smart as you like, but if you're Saruman the White, your lack of moral character will take you and everyone around you somewhere very dark and treeless.

Contrary to popular misconception, Tolkien does not write wholly good or wholly evil characters.  All characters in Tolkien have great capacity for good or evil, and spend most of their time in the middle, the grey, the doubt, trying to make sensible choices and hoping not to be thrown in too far over their heads. Hoping their inner character will be revealed by adversity, and it will end up being more of a Faramir situation, and less of a Boromir one.  Most characters in Tolkien make mistakes.  Some get second chances. 

If the Ring does anything, it reveals the moral character of not only Boromir and Faramir, but even people like Gandalf and Galadriel.  Tom Bombadill (and if he is to be believed, Faramir, in the book, as opposed to the movie) are the only characters who don't seem to have to struggle to have enough moral fibre to avoid succumbing to the corruption of the Ring.

And it really isn't all simply about repression in Tolkien.  Self-control is only one moral virtue, after all.  In terms of character, you get what you get, just like you get better or worse sight and hearing and intelligence, and you can make the most of it, or damage and squander it.  If you lack strength of character, perhaps you’d best not be left along with a palantir.

Old-school Virtues
Some virtues in particular, some features seen in characters with strong moral fibre in writings like Tolkien's, seem to have been lost today.  Seem to have faded.  Even hearing the terms "character" and "moral fibre" make one expect that one's sainted Aunt Hattie is talking about the past and how no one wears gaiters anymore.

So they're becoming lost and faded.  Lost as in, their meaning has changed to something lesser, or they are viewed today as simply not terribly good or important anymore.  Spoken of a problematic, too, when taken to extremes.  Faded as in they no longer shine so clearly in people's mind's eye as important and worthwhile. 

Any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice, of course.  But any virtue that is utterly lacking is guaranteed to be a problem. For everyone around. Surely that is self-evident?

As a virtue, pity is an important one for Tolkien, writing in the 30s and 40s. Pity as in empathy. Not the same thing as condescension and feeling superior.  Just the good old putting yourself in someone else's shoes and feeling their situation second-hand.  Frodo and Bilbo alike could (should?) kill Gollum, but they don't, because they can see themselves in him and identify with him to some degree. They start to feel how easy it would be for them to end up where he is one day. 

And it affects their actions.  Makes them doubt themselves when they are tempted to "mete out justice" too hastily.  Makes them listen when Gandalf says maybe they're not the ones to do that.

But today, "I don't want your pity!  You're not better than me!" is what we think of when we hear the word "pity."  It seems like something only priggish, superior, arrogant people might feel. Like pitying someone is a really bad thing.  An insult.

But Bilbo and Frodo aren't motivated by feelings of superiority to Gollum when they pity him.  For one thing, they feel how terrible it would be to live his life.  Pity as in "sympathy coupled with a wish to not make things any worse."  For another thing, they know that, having had their character eroded, corrupted, and infected by the One Ring, they might end up doing not even as well as Gollum has, considering how long he's been exposed to it.  They have a realistic measure of their own potential to fail.  This is an old-school virtue that used to be called humility.

Humility in the sense of attributing one's own success and position partially to things external to one's own choices, talents and work.  It takes humility to know when you've been lucky.  To know when one has done well partly because it was easier for one to win through than it generally has been for others.  Humility is often coupled with gratitude, understanding the role that other people and things have played in helping one succeed. It is about not attributing one's successes solely to being a uniquely special individual.

That's what humility does as to one's attitude about the past and present.  As to decision-making affecting the future, humility can produce prudence, which warns one when it is wisest to stop and not act. It indicates where the borders are.  What too far might be and what might happen if one goes too far.  When prompt, decisive action isn't likely to work out well.  Prudence can involve knowing one's own limits, the limits of others, and the true complexity of a given situation.

Prudence and humility absolutely fly in the face of our ubiquitous "believe in yourself, the only one holding you back is you, you can do and be and get anything you can imagine in your own special little head!" doctrines.  They let us know when the best thing to do is to wait or do nothing.  Prudent, humble people do not "leap in where angels fear to tread."  They are given too much wisdom by their prudence and humility.
In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir (in the books far more than in the films) is prudent and humble.  His elder brother Boromir had looked to "show his quality" by impulsive, strong, decisive acts of bravery, eventually daring to overstep his limits and in so doing, breaking the Fellowship.  Their father Denethor is also lacking the prudence and humility to stay within his own limits as Steward (not King) of Gondor.
Faramir is very different.  He shows the quality of his character as being one that almost rivals his elder brother's in terms of virtues like courage and strength and decisiveness, but he has the prudence and humility to know when to step aside.  He knows not to take the Ring from Frodo and present it to his father Denethor, not to try to wield it himself, and finally to support, rather than question, it being taken into Mordor and destroyed by people much smaller and weaker than himself. He knows it's not his call.  (He also knows that his failure to interfere will have consequences for him, which consequences he is willing to reap, being of strong enough character to need to do things that way.)
The One Ring aside, Faramir thinks Gollum should be killed for everyone's safety, but even lacking pity for Gollum, he has the humility to defer to Frodo's decision that Gollum will not only be allowed to live, but that the little bling junkie will serve as Frodo's guide into Mordor.  A less prudent, less humble man (like Boromir) would have taken this decision into his own hands and ordered Gollum killed, robbing Frodo of the chance to do things how he sees fit.

But Frodo knows far more than Faramir about the Ring and Gollum both, having attained a fair bit of experience with them.  Because of this, Faramir is humble enough to act in the knowledge that he himself, though the wisest, bravest, mightiest warrior of Gondor, needs to step aside and let frail little Frodo go on, taking Gollum and the One Ring into Mordor and beyond his control.  This even if he doesn't understand and disagrees with Frodo's decisions.  Part of strong character is not needing to impose one’s will on someone else, even if that person is lacking one’s strengths and resources.
Boromir had been a very different man.  At Rivendell, Boromir had warned that one doesn't simply walk into Mordor to destroy the Ring.  But really, Boromir isn't being humble and prudent when he argues against the coalescing plan of the Council of Eldrond.  He has a whole different thing going on.  He is focused more on "showing his quality" by coming back to Minas Tirith to hold up his hand, upon which he is wearing the One Ring, to be used as a weapon against the Enemy.  He is not humble enough to know that, though he may know more than most people about fighting Mordor, he doesn't know anything about magic, or rings of power.  Boromir's lack of humility causes him to act imprudently, and he shatters the Fellowship as a result, making Frodo need to scratch Boromir off the list of allies and defenders, and put him right at the top of the list of immediate threats to the outcome of their quest to destroy the Ring.  A more humble Boromir would have been less of a danger to the quest.
Nowadays though, the word "humility" makes us think of humiliation, of feeling bad about ourselves in a time when we are told to believe in ourselves if we want to succeed.  Humility is seen as folly, in other words.  As a bad idea.  Something that would fuel timidity, hesitancy and passivity (often seen as a weakness), if indulged in too much.  Not healthy.  It is thought to come with shame, a known tool and manipulative tactic of Religion, which we are too wise to be fooled by anymore, material rationalists to a person.  

And how are modern folks taught to deal with shame?  By denying it, mainly.  Not thinking about it.  Putting it from our thoughts.  Feeling ashamed and awkward about having felt it.  Pretending it isn't in our hearts.  In other words, repressing it.

Where Sigmund Freud wrote that repressing urges made people sick, we now seem to be counselling young people to repress their fears, their shame, their hesitancy, and other feelings that people are tempted to label "negative."  To focus on "the positive" only.  That they need to push "negative things" aside/inside/behind.  If they want to get anywhere in life, anyway.  "Don't dwell on the negative. Move on.  Focus on the positive."  Just as if you can walk away from something that's inside you.  Just as if you can flee and hide from your own shadow.  More on Carl Jung later.

Shame Isn't a Virtue
Let me say emphatically that shame isn't much use, most of the time. It doesn't help.  Not like a nuanced, balanced self-knowledge does.  In fact, shame isn't even terribly effective at stopping people from going ahead and doing things they will later feel ashamed of.  It can often function merely as the coin with which one pays in future for present joy.

Now, there is such a thing, even nowadays, as sitting down and having regular conversations about one's established, long-term vices.  Groups like AA either work or they don't, partly based on how much self-knowledge and reflection occurs.  How many epiphanies are allowed to trickle in.  Good, bad, indifferent.  

Shame doesn't help at AA either.  Shame is kind of a hammer, when what is required is more of a screwdriver or scalpel.  Shame often provides almost no understanding of whys and wherefores, and simply overloads the emotions in the moment without anything being learned for later.  And it's usually too broad.  If you tell yourself and others simply "I'm a terrible person" or "I just generally have an addictive personality" or "I'm the worst friend/husband/father ever," you're kind of avoiding getting down into it and figuring out what specifically is really going on and what's really required to better things, or at least make them stop worsening.   

It was Hannah Arendt, Holocaust survivor, who said that if we (in her case, Germans) are all guilty, then no one is.  She wanted actual Nazi war criminals to be actually punished for specific things they actually did personally, rather than all of the Germany simply saying "Whooops!  We were all wrong. Very, very wrong. We collectively share the blame."

Shame is like that.  If you decide to imagine for a dark evening that you're terrible in almost every way, you won't actually need to identify your biggest problem.  That thing that, if improved, would bring about the most dramatic improvements.  Instead, you cuddle up cozily with some generalized, short-lived, overwhelming shame pressed to your bosom until tomorrow.

Today shame is seen mainly as the arch-enemy of self-esteem, which we seem to believe makes the 21st century world go round the way love used to.  (The old-school virtue of love has long been heavily downgraded to mere tolerance, of course.)

But thousands of years before the 1950s, a very different virtue from "self-esteem" was where people put their faith, hope and trust.  It wasn't even self-acceptance they trusted in, which virtue seems more foundational and important than valuing (having esteem for) yourself. Self-acceptance might even represent a prerequisite to self-esteem.  But before self-esteem was crowned king, we prized self-knowledge. It was what all the thinking and writing and learning seemed to be about.

All this was before we discussed "fake news" and long before we thought there really was such a thing as a "negative fact" or "violent statistic."  We were willing to just know stuff.  Even if we thought it was "negative," which although it sounds very absolute and objective, mainly just means nothing loftier than "stuff that makes me feel yucky in my tummy."

Dealing With "Negative Facts"
The 20th century was fleeing self-knowledge so quickly, upon tossing out religious approaches to spirituality, wisdom and psychological health, that Carl Jung had to step up.  People wanted to feel good about themselves and their lives without taking a very close look at them or learning about them or working to improve them in any way.  They'd had enough of priests and confession, after all.  They'd had enough of choices mattering in any larger narrative.  They’d had enough of the past mattering.

Into this climate, Jung presented the idea of the shadow, a part of one's self he claimed was composed of the various real things that one wouldn't deal with.  (Often real things about one's own self.)  The shadow was the part of that self which Jung claimed was an unopened black box to everyone.  The part one might think of as "negative," though one really hasn't dealt with it enough to know much about it.  It's the part we don't want to know about.  The part we won't deal with.

(I was quite probingly asked, not too long ago, what it actually means to "deal with" realities.  It was a thinly-veiled way of challenging my view that it's very important to deal with "negative" facts/realities, rather than ignoring them and trusting them to stop being real when one stops looking at them. 

I was flummoxed at first that this was even under debate.  All I could think of was that to "deal" was to accept and behave as if real things were real, rather than pretending, denying, lying and avoiding thinking about them if we don't like them.  But we're taught that reality is whatever we imagine it to be, so long as what we imagine to be real doesn't invalidate anyone else's existence and represent violence to them and hurt their self-esteem, especially with "negative facts.") 

And the shadow, Carl Jung's best-known contribution to modern thought, isn't terribly popular right about now.  There aren't too many self-help books and seminars and retreats out there this month which mention it.  Oversimplified, again the shadow is simply the idea that, if something is real, but you don't like it, and so you cast it into the dark corners, thrust it behind you where you can't see it, that all of that stuff will continue to be real and do things back there, in the shadows, out of sight.  It will form a collective or body of reality in there and continue to be active.  That it will follow you around everywhere all of the time.  Your shadow.  The thing Peter Pan needed back.  Your psychological junk drawer.  A place where incredibly useful stuff is often found, in a time of need.  Like chargers for things.  And adapters.  And batteries.

Hope Comes From? wrote in a time when it wasn't terribly odd to imagine that for his hobbit characters, hope might come from, while recognizing the existence of Nazgul and orcs and Mordor far beyond the borders of the Shire, in navigating a path right to and through them.  To deal with the present situattion. To live to see a more hopeful future situation in which to live.  For everyone.  Even if this meant sacrifice.  (Another old-school virtue that's fallen on hard times.  Tolkien served in the First World War.  He lost friends.  This was bound to have an effect on him.)

Sometimes you need to sacrifice stuff, need to get off the couch and go deal with scary stuff, in order for there to be any hope at all.  One does not simply lie on the futon all month and hope to reap huge benefits.  And we want hope.  Life's not much fun without any.  And where is hope to be found?  For Tolkien, there was hope that one's character (not created by one's own self) proved up to the tasks before it, there was hope in the mercy, generosity, pity, help and grace of others one had found and formed close bonds with, and there was even hope in some kind of Overarching Thing that was temporarily foiled by chaos and evil, and validated by order and nature. Something transcendant.  God, Luck, Justice, Karma, the Cosmic Balance, Humanity, Britain, Science, Reason, whatever.  Something that one could raise ones eyes to look at and navigate by, like a star.  (A star is a more useful aid in navigating than "yourself."  Precisely because it is outside, beyond and above you.)

Unlike Tolkien, his creations Frodo and Bilbo don't have faith in a monotheistic creator figure looking down on them with an unfolding narrative in mind.  But they do feel that some things are meant/fated to happen and that other things aren't.  Gollum "has a part to play."  Bilbo is "meant to" find the Ring.  By something/someone other than Sauron.

So that's three levels of hope:
  1. Hope in one's own character being enacted in one's choices,
  2.  Hope in the allegiances formed with others,
  3. And hope in some inspecific fate or destiny (or "doom" it is even called sometimes, as in Mount") that makes some endings natural and desirable, and other endings cataclysmic, abominable and unnecessary.  (Or boring, wasteful, foolish and stupid.)

If this is a game, it is clearly possible not only to win it or lose it, but also to break it entirely into pieces and kick the bishops under the bookshelf.  Very tempting for a 90s nihilist.  If I'm not guaranteed to win, or it might take work (or worst of all, an attention span) I'll smash it all to bits and say it's just dumb anyway.  A waste of my all-too-precious time.

Hope largely comes from what you put your faith in.  Disney movies did not, in the twentieth century, so much teach or instill 20th century virtues, as echo them back at the people who held them, in a form they would accept.  So, in Pinnochio, America was not quite going to accept "If you place your faith in an ultimate power (doesn't matter where you ow-er)." But this can be worded "If you wish upon a star" so as to eat one's cake and have it too.

Religious people pray to Something Transcendent and put their faith in that Something possibly helping, and they derive hope from this.  Superstitious people (like religious people, but with no willingness to adhere to any real structure or logos) literally wish upon things like dandelions and stars and thus satisfy their immature but deep and primal psychological need to find hope by investing faith in something.  In anything.  In people. In communism.  In women.  In karma.  In science. In eating gluten-free.  In essential oils and crystal therapy.  In a new money-making book. In social justice. In a political party.

You don't need God if you have an ideology in which to put your hope, faith and trust.  It will do exactly the same thing for you, psychologically.  And you don't even have to grant it a personality or care what it wants.

Disney's Pinnochio came out before Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings.  And in the decades that followed, that "If You Look Above, Up, Out and Beyond Yourself For Hope..." attitude changed. And many things were lost. And things faded.

With no real discipline devoted to self-knowledge, the Path to Wisdom  Positive Feelings progressed right past the path of self-acceptance, far beyond the isle of merely holding one's self in high esteem, and traveled all the way to the summit of Believing In Yourself.

For some, this is a common sense, baseline reality. Just the mundane fact that if you flat out disbelieve in your chances at anything, you are not likely to succeed.  But for many, the message encoded into countless 20th century films is "Never mind knowing yourself, especially the weaknesses, vices or other "negative facts." Never mind taking too close a look at what you're up against; that might just discourage you.  Never mind knowledge, wisdom or awareness.  Just blindly believe.  Not in evolution, progress, society, people or anything that might sound religious.  Believe in yourself. Generally.  Because you're special and smart.  In your own way. If you only believe."

If you want to know what you have faith in instead of God, look to the quarter from whence you draw hope when you really need some.  And that's it/him.  That's God for you.  That's what you pray to when the night is dark.