16 August 2014

Masculinity and Virtue

From The Federalist, a blog that tries to find a happy place between libertarianism and traditional values:



The object of a man’s dominance, power, and violence is himself alone, for to be a man is to have subdued one’s self entirely; and to do so is not at all a peaceable thing, for the bestial passions of man, his lusts and fears and selfishness are all quite strong, and so die hard. [...] A man is something that is made. He is made because his masculinity consists in the destruction of his own nature, not in the maturity of it. He is born subject to a slew of desires, some more despicable, such as an unbridled lust for sex and drink, and some more acceptable, such as a desire for fame and affirmation. Though some of these passions are perhaps less unbecoming than others, they all make the man a slave for as long as he is in thrall to them and acts according to them.The act of being a man is realized when all such things are put under the rule of his will and are broken with a rod of iron; when he is no longer driven by his lusts as the Greeks would term it, or the flesh as it would be known among Christians, but rather commands them. Such is the dominance which is to be acquired by the power of his will and reason, and the acquisition of such dominance is called among us “virtue,” which is merely Latin for “manliness.” 


14 June 2014

Look Up

Recently a friend of mine and I who met through Aol Instant Messaging 13 years ago were chatting about the way kids today spend all of their time chattering away on phones, and I wondered if it was really so different from the way she and I, and other teenagers of that generation, would stay up all night talking on instant messagers and sending one another funny pictures or .wav files.  There are big differences, of course; we couldn't talk on MSN or Yahoo while we were at a dinner table with family, or while walking down the street If it were possible we certainly would have, I suppose.   In another way that direct connection with the phone is far more intense than the computer messaging programs; phones have become the default way people experience the world.  We navigate cities by phone, get restaurant reviews by phone, call cabs and reserve rooms by phone, take pictures of everything that happens by phone,  and those square codes that can be read by phones for more information are popping up all over the place.  They've become appendages. She responded by sharing this breathtaking video with me, a spoken-verse reading about the way technology impacts the way we experience the world and one another.  I've included the transcription below, but the music and visuals really drive the performance home.


'I have 422 friends, yet I am lonely. 
I speak to all of them everyday, yet none of them really know me.
The problem I have sits in the spaces between, 
looking into their eyes, or at a name on a screen.

I took a step back, and opened my eyes, 
I looked around, and then realised 
that this media we call social, is anything but 
when we open our computers, and it’s our doors we shut.

All this technology we have, it’s just an illusion, 
of community, companionship, a sense of inclusion 
yet when you step away from this device of delusion, 
you awaken to see, a world of confusion. 
A world where we’re slaves to the technology we mastered, 
where our information gets sold by some rich greedy bastard. 
A world of self-interest, self-image, self-promotion, 
where we share all our best bits, but leave out the emotion.

We are at our most happy with an experience we share, 
but is it the same if no one is there. 
Be there for you friends, and they’ll be there too, 
but no one will be, if a group message will do.

We edit and exaggerate, we crave adulation, 
we pretend we don’t notice the social isolation. 
We put our words into order, until our lives are glistening, 
we don’t even know if anyone is listening.

Being alone isn’t the problem, let me just emphasize, 
that if you read a book, paint a picture, or do some exercise, 
you are being productive, and present, not reserved or recluse, 
you’re being awake and attentive, and putting your time to good use.

So when you’re in public, and you start to feel alone, 
put your hands behind your head, and step away from the phone. 
You don’t need to stare at your menu, or at your contact list, 
just talk to one another, and learn to co-exist.

I can’t stand to hear the silence, of a busy commuter train, 
when no one wants to talk through the fear of looking insane. 
We’re becoming unsocial, it no longer satisfies 
to engage with one another, and look into someone’s eyes.

We’re surrounded by children, who since they were born, 
watch us living like robots, and think it’s the norm. 
It’s not very likely you will make world’s greatest dad, 
if you cant entertain a child without a using an iPad.

When I was a child, I would never be home, 
I’d be out with my friends, on our bikes we would roam. 
We’d ware holes in our trainers, and graze up our knees; 
we’d build our own clubhouse, high up in the trees.

Now the parks are so quiet, it gives me a chill 
to see no children outside and the swings hanging still. 
There’s no skipping or hopscotch, no church and no steeple, 
we’re a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people.

So look up from your phone, shut down that display, 
take in your surroundings, and make the most of today. 
Just one real connection is all it can take, 
to show you the difference that being there can make. 
Be there in the moment, when she gives you the look, 
that you remember forever, as when love overtook. 
The time you first hold her hand, or first kiss her lips, 
the time you first disagree, but still love her to bits.

The time you don’t need to tell hundreds, about what you’ve just done, 
because you want to share the moment, with just this one. 
The time you sell your computer, so you can buy a ring, 
for the girl of your dreams, who is now the real thing. 
The time you want to start a family, and the moment when, 
you first hold your baby girl, and get to fall in love again. 
The time she keeps you up at night, and all you want is rest, 
and the time you wipe away the tears, as your baby flees the nest.
The time your little girl returns, with a boy for you to hold, 
and the day he calls you granddad, and makes you feel real old 
The time you take in all you’ve made, just by giving life attention, 
and how your glad you didn’t waste it, by looking down at some invention. 

The time you hold your wife’s hand, and sit down beside her bed 
you tell her that you love her, and lay a kiss upon her head. 
She then whispers to you quietly, as her heart gives a final beat, 
that she’s lucky she got stopped, by that lost boy in the street. 
But none of these times ever happened, you never had any of this, 
When you’re too busy looking down, you don’t see the chances you miss.
So look up from your phone, shut down those displays, 
we have a finite existence, a set number of days. 
Why waste all our time getting caught in the net, 
as when the end comes, nothing’s worse than regret.

I am guilty too, of being part of this machine, 
this digital world, where we are heard but not seen. 
Where we type and don’t talk, where we read as we chat, 
where we spend hours together, without making eye contact.

Don’t give in to a life where you follow the hype, 
give people your love, don’t give them your like. 
Disconnect from the need to be heard and defined 
Go out into the world, leave distractions behind. 
Look up from your phone, shut down that display, 
stop watching this video, live life the real way. 

16 May 2014

To Make Much Use of Time


A little over a year ago I experience my first death, that of a friend in town -- a musician, beloved by the entire city, whose funeral saw a mass choir from five different churches. I'd known people to die before, early in childhood, but their disappearance from life didn't leave an impact. Since witnessing his funeral, I have been haunted by the thought of death. It makes plain the inevitability of age, previously a thing more theoretical. I look at the faces of people I know, I realize: one day I'll have to bury you, too. What a thing to contemplate, an adulthood marked by the funerals of friends. No wonder immortals in fiction are always so horribly depressed.

I lost my grandfather last week. We knew the end was coming; he had been on dialysis for seven years. For most of my life he was a tired, ailing old man, and my chief regret is that I have so few memories of  him in his prime. It's hard for me to imagine him even standing on his own feet, without aide of a walker. Yet I made the most of the time we had left, I hope, and the garden at his home I planted under his tutelage still stands, still flowers. It's a reminder of life in a month now marred by death.

It struck me recently that part of  my mourning has been obscenely selfish; I have wept not at his absence, but for the death of my childhood, or most of it. The most poignant words I've ever heard come from Kurt Vonnegut:

Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again.

Home, indeed,  for me is the 1990s, when my sister is a teenager and I am a child, and my mother is in the kitchen burning fries and every week ends with a ride up to my grandparents' house to sit in the porch swing in the summer or inside in the winter. Part of that childhood died in 1996 when my sister graduated high school and moved out; another part, an enormous part, was buried only a week ago.  I realized while out on a drive in the rain a few days ago that it's just a rite of passage we all have to endure -- the loss of grandparents, and then of parents, and then of our friends. It's easy to say a thing like that, to appreciate it mentally, and another to experience it, to know it in your owns. I always knew my grandfather would pass away, but I never realized it would leave this impression. I've never been more impressed than now with the reality of the epitaph, "As you are, I once was;  as am I, so shall you be", or that poem touched on so effectively in The Dead Poet's Society, "To the Virgins, To Make Much Use of Time".


GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may, 
  Old Time is still a-flying: 
And this same flower that smiles to-day 
  To-morrow will be dying. 
 
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,         5
  The higher he 's a-getting, 
The sooner will his race be run, 
  And nearer he 's to setting. 
 
That age is best which is the first, 
  When youth and blood are warmer;  10
But being spent, the worse, and worst 
  Times still succeed the former. 
 
Then be not coy, but use your time, 
  And while ye may, go marry: 
For having lost but once your prime,  15
  You may for ever tarry.

His funeral was a Christian affair,  in which both guests and the minister preached at the mourners. The Christian promises of eternal life have never meant much to me, and still do not. I'd like to imagine closing my eyes one day  and opening them in the presence of a man who looks startlingly like me, yet different, a man in his prime, with the strength and confidence of adult manhood, but I can't believe that will happen.  As a skeptic, I believe the grave is the end:  his and my atoms may scatter to become new things, just as they were scattered part previously before being drawn together by physics and biology to give us life,  but those atoms aren't quite me.  Never before I have I so appreciated the  bond of family, the continuance of genes and family-specific traditions. Eventually they too will perished, like an echo fading after the voice has gone silent, but that eventuality is so far in the future that it needn't matter.  Eventually the entire human race will perish, the Earth, even the universe -- but who can imagine a thing like that in full? I certainly can't. I can think about it, but I can't feel it.  I live now, in this life, and for me death is conquered not by theology but by a standing garden, by a host of cousins who bear his name, by  stories he told that we now tell, by the furniture he built with his own hands while he had the strength to do it. What I hope to take away from this meditation on death is to find a way to leave something of myself when my own time goes -- to gather my own rosebuds. 


08 February 2014

The Emperor Drives an AT-AT

Next year is an election cycle in the United States, and the airwaves will be filled with congressmen and other officials demonizing their rivals and hurling invective, promising change or restoration, before sweeping into office to do what their predecessors have done for dozens of years previously: very little of worth. A few years ago I wrote that the American political system had been ruined by finance-driven election campaigns. I still believe this, but in recent years I've begun to see it spoiled in another fashion. When considering how vast the government has grown in attempting to tackle complex problems, I suspect it has gotten too big to be effective. I consider it a truth that the greater the complexity in a system, the greater its fragility.

In 2008, I was  joyful that Barack Obama had been elected president. Not that I voted for him; that was out from the moment I learned he had supported the PATRIOT Act.  But -- in addition to dreading Palin and the bellicose McCain -- I had become fascinated with popular political movements, direct action,  direct democracy -- the politics of people congregating in mobs and forcing the government to respond to them, as with the Civil Rights movement.  Obama's language indicated that he believed in that, too; his best political speech to date was one given after he was beaten by Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary; he told a story of America that featured ordinary citizens as the agents of change, the central actors in the drama:

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.

Save for the mention of JFK's enterprising vision, , the people in this story were not civic leaders, and certainly not politicians; they were ordinary people effecting changes themselves. Maybe he had voted for the PATRIOT act so he wouldn't be criticized as soft on terrorism, I thought. In view of his emphasis on grassroots campaign financing, I dreamed: maybe the man and the vision were one, maybe he was a leader who wanted to empower people to help themselves. The president of the last six years hasn't been that man, however; he has instead been like the last man to sit in the big seat:  frightfully comfortable with its power. The chair in the oval office is one that molds the occupant to its contours, rather than being molded by theirs. I do not believe Obama is malevolent;  I believe the NSA scandals and the like simply bear witness to the fact that power is corrosive. People weren't meant to wield the power a president has;  there's a reason lawmaking was supposed to be the province of a Congress that would spend its time arguing instead of doing things, because our brains can't handle the rush.  Although I am woefully disappointed in the dream, the failing is in the system and not the man. Simply put, I do not believe Obama, Bush, or any congressman is actually in charge.  The systems controlling American politics -- banking, economics, etc. - aren't under the control of any one man.  Perhaps these systems aren't even under the control of a group of men, perhaps they're plowing along under their own inertia.

We look to the President or to the Prime Minister to do stuff because at heart we are chimpanzees whose idea of a leader is an alpha who can take direct, immediate, precise action. He can say "move", and the troop moves; "attack", and the troop attacks.  Modern political leaders aren't in that position. Even if they sit in the big seat and amass power, , they can't do it because the things they're trying to do are too vast.  A president can't dictate food prices, or alter the atmosphere. They can try -- they can pour enormous subsidies into agriculture, for instance -- but they won't necessarily get what they want. At that level, they're using so much power they can't predict what will happen. Nixon wasn't trying to create a nation where obesity and diabetes were more common than health, or where the life of rural and small-town American had been destroyed by agribusiness, but that's what he did.   The politics of the modern state put a leader in a position of having to exercise enormous power that he can't really control;  he is made captain of a runaway locomotive. The tracks dictate his course;  he can blow all the whistles he likes, but the machine is moving on its own inertia.  This brings to my mind -- my SF-addled mind -- the image of someone trying to drive an AT-AT.



The AT-AT, introduced in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,  is the largest, most stupidly-contrived war machine one might imagine.  They are enormous and under the direction of men sitting in their heads, who are somehow expected to move four clanking legs and direct fire from the head while being unaware of anything happening behind them. In the movie, the machines are not destroyed by weapons, but by their own clumsiness: the rebels trip the legs and the great terrible machine falls down.  Imagine how destructive these machines would be in action, even without their guns;  the clumsy 'feet' would constantly smash things on the ground even if the drivers weren't aiming to.  AT-ATs are too big, too removed from the action, too sluggish to respond -- they are doomed by their own size, either to blundering or to eventual destruction.



For this reason I have lost interest in national politics, because it doesn't matter who is captaining the AT-AT: it's going to ignore important matters,   crush life underfoot, and stumble ever-forward intending destruction.  The state, I think, is a machine that answers to no one's direction, and takes would-be commanders of it along for a ride. National politics, because it seems to be an exercise is spending money, and arguing, neither of which fascinates me. What I am interested in, what I think we need all over the world, are healthier places and more fulfilled people. My politics are local, limited to my home, my neighborhood, my city. Beyond that governance is too abstract to bother with.  I don't know how this emphasis will be expressed in my life; presently I am researching local, sustainable agriculture. There is a great deal of interest in that in this area, for we are an agricultural region and still peopled by those distrustful of those in power, from corporations to the state.  Whatever the expression, I believe localism is going to be at the heart of my thinking, and both the end and the means have to be local.  Living in a town with the painful history and lingering problems, I know we have to effect its healing on our own. Industrial agriculture can't restore topsoil and heal the land;  that takes the careful husbandry of a few people on the ground, people with a stake in restoring it. The same is true of other political problems; we have to build on personal, civic responsibility. I am no longer interested in people forcing the government to respond to them; people ought to effect the changes themselves and let the AT-AT stumble about as it will.  We have to create our own pockets of civic health everywhere.