Sunday, December 27, 2015

Of Hawks And Men

"Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.”  - John Steinbeck
In “Mice and Men”, Steinbeck is concerned with a few aspects of human nature, but especially oppression and abuse. When I first read the classic back in high school, I wondered if the “mice” imagery would come through as a condemnation of cowardice within humanity. I still wonder that to this day, though that is the one animal imagery from the book that is not necessarily intended to represent cowardice. But one important understanding has tipped for me since my high school days: my view of what a coward is has evolved dramatically.
At its most simplistic stage, I used to think of a coward as someone who was afraid to fight. Immediately following were those who would attack or abuse those who are significantly less powerful (that much was central to Of Mice and Men). Soon enough, the definition began to include those who would blindside or backstab you. That of course is a delicate expansion of the definition: given the benefit of context, it can be argued that sometimes you have a justifiable option to blindside. But only to someone who has proven to be a serious (and presumably unprovoked) threat to your existence. And therein lies a huge complication to the moving-target definition of bravery.
For almost forty years since I first read Steinbeck’s masterpiece, that’s roughly two generations, I have observed a peculiar thing about some fellow humans: the tendency to over-generalize out of what can only be irrational fear. It typically manifests itself in derogatory labeling, grouping, or stereotyping of nationalities, races, and religions. Predictably not our own.
I have also noticed that a certain percentage of the generalizers “double-down” on their generalizations. Meaning, when intelligently challenged on their logic, they simply repeat it louder. Not unlike when simpler minds travel to foreign countries, and speak their own language louder when natives cannot understand them. It seems to me at that tipping point that only two things can possibly be taking place: they are either intellectually limited, or they are just intellectually lazy. In the latter case, they have conditioned themselves to be highly suspect of any use of the intellect for purposes other than work and immediate family.
While I can certainly understand the plight of those who possess less than average intellectual reasoning, I found myself frustrated in recent years with the intellectually lazy. They are the ones who know better, but choose not to. Their reasons vary, but I have come to understand they boil down to two: they have either indoctrinated themselves in the suspicion of intellectual thought and reason, or they have become addicted to a greed-driven existence.
Today I see a coward as someone who hides irrational fears (aka hate), or unchecked fears in the case of the lazy ones, behind a hawkish bravado. By contrast, someone who is afraid to fight, and admits as much, is nowhere near as cowardly in the ultimate scale of bravery.
There is no doubt that sometimes we have to fight. That’s a given. There is no doubt we have to be vigilant about potential threats to civilized individuals and society. But the false hawks, ultimately the true cowardly ones, always have been and continue to be a major complication in our mission to evolve. For all practical purposes, they are an evolutionary liability. 
Yet here lies the ultimate challenge: it’s not their fault. It’s actually ours, those of us who claim to know AND act better. Because we have too much contempt for the false hawks. Which makes us, at the end of the day, a hypocritical part of the problem: we hate the haters.
Steinbeck was right. We are not going to change the world by hating the haters. Our only hope is to try to understand them. You don’t have to agree with their views and actions. But understanding them better will finally earn you that moral high ground that we automatically, and mistakenly, assume is ours.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Selma: The Problem with The Problem

I have always believed that these are not the worst of times, nor are they the best of times. Nostalgia, like selective memory has always struck me as misguided, at best. Not that a story like Selma could be called nostalgic by any stretch. But upon watching it last night it stirred up a lot of mixed old feelings nonetheless. Mostly personal, even though my life experience could not possibly be any further away from Dr. King's. And yet, I have considered him one of the great ones ever since I first heard his "I have a dream" speech.

Great speeches tend to reveal great minds, as long as you're not easily impressed. When famous American writer Gore Vidal passed away a couple of years ago, it prompted me to revisit the way his mind worked.  I looked up a speech he gave in '92, "(The Great Unmentionable) Monotheism and its Discontents".  As I began reading the text, I was reminded from the start what made him a great writer.  But as I read on, I almost had an out-of-body experience:  a part of me was transported back to the 90's, while another part refused to drink the Kool-Aid of nostalgia.  One side of me was cheering Vidal's speech, feeling that adrenalin that kicks in when someone stirs up passion within you, and the other side was left looking at the angry young man I was twenty years ago.

When I use the word angry, I feel I need to qualify the context: I was not "Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand" angry.  I was more of Billy Joel's "with his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand" angry.  And apparently, I also enjoyed a touch of Gore Vidal cynicism.  Who knew. But either way one thing has become clear to me: most people I meet eventually reveal some level of anger in them, and they tend to refuse to call it that.

I've been dedicating a significant part of my adult life to understanding the nature of anger and/or cynicism (a sanitized form of anger anyway). And one thing I've learned is that it doesn't matter who or what the target of anger is, the source is always within. Must be that silicon chip we all have inside our heads.

As in any life-consuming addiction, anger will inevitably dump you in a ditch on the side of the road.  Whether that's literally or not, it doesn't really matter.  Either way you wake up one day asking yourself the same question: how the fuck did I get here??

The irony to me lies in the observation that my own cynical judgments were full of causes that paid plenty of lip service to freedom: freedom from oppression, freedom from violence, freedom from entitlement. You name it. Just add the word "freedom" in front of it.

So why is anger in the name of freedom an irony? Well, I finally realized that something life-changing happens when you are able to free yourself from anger. Dr. King brilliantly reminded me of it again last night: when you overcome anger you begin to understand what freedom is, for the first time in your life.

And therein lies the paradox... the more that injustice affects people's lives, the more difficult it is not to sympathize with the anger that it generates.  It seems to me that black Americans experienced a tipping point moment during the civil rights movement.  At that crossroads, a great number of them were faced with the decision to line up either behind Malcolm X, or behind Martin Luther King.  Fight fire with fire, or take the higher road.

MLK must have known something that only a handful of men and women throughout recorded history have truly understood: that anger is the ditch on the side of the road of humanity. And as some of the brutal images from Selma were flashbacked again on the big screen, it hit me: when anger reaches its boiling point, it becomes hate. At which point you cannot tell it apart from cowardice.

I have amassed an impressive artillery of cynical things that I can say about all the economic, political and social dysfunctions that bombard us every day.  Whenever I happen to stray and choose that beaten path, I notice the usual dead-end results: some people get angry alongside with me, others get angry at me.  And pathetically both sides are wrong.  

Every time I'm confronted with a problem, I try to remind myself of a simple lesson I've learned from the likes of MLK: anger is the problem with the problem.  Figure out how to remove it, and you are left with a clear understanding of what the true challenge is. 


***

A Tribute to MLK:
I Have A Dream / Amazing Grace



Sunday, January 4, 2015

Freedom's Just Another Word

A friend and I were talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Europe and the U.S., when he happened to use the “f” word. No, the other “f” word. “Free” is a word that comes up frequently in the U.S., often in context of democracy and liberty, but it extends heavily into economics. My friend was referring to the economic kind, as in “free” education, healthcare, and other social net services. At which point it hit me: freedom has to be one of the most prostituted words in the history of mankind.

Semantics is where we often park our words when we’re too busy surviving. The complication is, some words represent the dearest values in our lives – as in “love”, “happiness”, “freedom”, and a few others. We might be able to survive for a while without the presence of those basic values, but we can’t prevail without them. And the difference between surviving and prevailing is too important to dismiss, as William Faulkner once pointed out. Yet it seems we constantly run out of time to understand the true meaning of those words, never mind agree on their significance. So we throw our arms up and agree to disagree, at best, or frequently contradict ourselves. All of this takes a serious toll over time when it comes to the quality of our lives, which… is where that elusive prevailing comes in. It’s all just semantics in the end anyway, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t. Look, I realize most of us manage to not lose much sleep over words. But I'm not talking about the words themselves, I'm trying to point out the force behind them. And if we can agree for a moment that the force behind words like lovehappiness and freedom is what we hunger for the most in life, then it might not be so crazy to take a closer look. Seems a bit unorthodox, I'll admit. But challenging our mindset every now and then might be worth a try, considering the upside.

So let's take that mindset back to the word “freedom” for a moment. While the pursuit of freedom is an inalienable right, the pimping of freedom is an unfortunate political manipulation, one which we have allowed to linger for too long. Consider the following observation: the use of the word free in “free market”, to imply that a government does not interfere with price and competition, is a borderline insulting reference to the essence of freedom. A truly free marketplace would be one where everyone has access to it – including the significantly disenfranchised. You can't appropriate the word "free" and then ignore people who can't even touch the marketplace, through no fault of their own (for those who may be need further definition of what "no fault" means, try abused or neglected children and elderly, mentally ill, significant physical handicaps, etc. In the US that count is in the millions, not in the thousands). In that regard, Communism and Capitalism are ironically a negative and positive of the same image: Communism tried (and so far failed) to insure that everyone has limited but equal access to goods and services, with an elite that has unlimited access to the goods. And Capitalism insures the same for the elite, while everyone else has unlimited but unequal access to goods (unequal meaning in some cases none). Meanwhile, nothing in the Socialist middle is free: it is shared by consensus.

These clarifications are not semantics. They are truth-seeking definitions that filter the noise from our perceptions. We can argue politics all day long about which economic paradigms are or should be "free". But it can be far more sobering to challenge conventional wisdoms every now and then. Ask yourself tougher questions. Hell, ask everyone tougher questions. If they kick you out of your church for asking tough questions, you were in the wrong church anyway. As The Lion King's Rafiki would say: look clooser... Freedom is an abstract that we wave around frequently, but it will remain dysfunctionally abstract until we realize what the true driving force is within it. Whichever system you subscribe to, figure out its true meaning first. Don't just defend it blindly, challenge it and make it better. 

We take these very important words and distort them in an endless string of careless arguments, until we render them meaningless. Then we wonder why we’re not happy often enough. Or why meaning eludes us. Or why we’re often in survival mode, where prevailing is just a dream. And I'm not just talking about survival or freedom of the economic kind here... but hey, they're only words. Or not. Your choice. 

Kris and Janis were right: freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose... and nothin' don't mean nothin' hon' if it ain't free.




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