Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Travelogue: Sweet Home Alabama

Think about it. Nothing has done more to rehabilitate Alabama, and perhaps the South in general, than Lynrd Skynrd’s anthemic tune, don’t you think? If you’re from Alabama I’m sure you don’t need this song to realize the wonderful experiences of your life. Listen, I’m no Southerner, but neither am I a self-righteous liberal like Neil Young who pontificates about the “southern man.” I’m glad Skynrd tarnished his name in the second verse. Who remembers his worthless song anyway?

Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. Having always lived either far west or far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I’m a Union man all the way. Lincoln and Grant are my heroes. (Sherman was an ass, but he did more than anyone to end the war early and save lives in the long run.) I recall at basic training expressing my disapproval of some Southern states still incorporating the confederate symbol in their flags. That didn’t go over well with my southern buddies at Fort Leonard Wood, but we had a civil discussion about tradition and heritage, state’s rights, and the evils of the past. But I’m no Neil Young, even if he comes from my home state of California (after transplanting himself from Canada). I love the South. I love the Southern people, black and white, plus the Indian family that operated the La Quinta Inn & Suites we stayed at last night. I love the southern accent, only the Dallas-Fort Worth twang excepted here. And, besides, should we come to blows in another Civil War, the South, where most of the major military installations are located, would eat the North alive! So I want to stay in the South's good graces!  I still say, though, that any symbol of the Confederate past is essentially a symbol of slavery and one of the darkest chapters in our national history.

The vacation improved hundredfold when we finally stopped at a hotel in Evergreen, Alabama and I got some sleep. The next morning we arrived at our destination, Orange Beach. The weather was great and the beach was spectacular. The sand is so white and fine. Yesterday Jessi and I walked ten miles along the shoreline; we almost stepped on a jelly fish. Our hotel overlooks the Gulf. This morning before breakfast, around 6:20 am, my wife and I enjoyed sitting in the outside whirlpool, the only time of the day when it's not filled to the brim with boisterous, bikini-clad and beer-bellied primates.  Love the NASCAR crowd....not.

Now we’re making our long way back home. We just stopped at an outlet mall near Gulf Shores. My wife and kids are shopping whilst I sit in Starbucks and waste away again in Frappuccinoville with my laptop. We’ll be heading up through Mississippi en route to Memphis—Graceland to be exact. My wife is no Elvis fan but she wants to experience a bit of Americana. Meanwhile, we pass Civil War battlefields and monuments of the Civil Rights movement like discarded relics of a forgotten past. Popular culture trumps history on this vacation. My plan to visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum on the last day is also getting the boot. I’ll have to make my own vacation to these sites this summer when I drive down to South Carolina for military training. I’ll probably crank up “Sweet Home Alabama” along the way. After all, all roads lead to Lynrd Skynrd.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Travelogue: Kentucky and Tennessee

As an old Olivia Newton-John song has it, “I’ve got good Kentucky whiskey on the counter.” I don’t doubt the goodness of bourbon, but when it comes to spirits I’m a Tennessee man all the way. My family and I took a tour of the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee this morning. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

We’re on a family vacation to Alabama. Yes, you heard me correctly—Alabama, not Florida or California.  My wife and second daughter Jessi wanted to go to the beach—a real beach, as in one on the ocean—so we embarked on the twenty-hour drive to Gulf Shores. As I’m writing, I’ve been up for over thirty hours, and we’ve been on the road for about 15 hours, apart from our three-hour visit to Lynchburg and environs this morning and a shorter stop last night for dinner. Our trip didn’t exactly go according to plan, my original itinerary anyway. Yesterday afternoon the three of us took a detour to the southwestern part of our state to watch Monika’s soccer game and pick her up. (My eldest daughter, Erika, now 19, stayed at home.)  So I drove the 12 hours to Lynchburg, with just one 45-minute stop in Peoria for food.  Wired on a Venti Americano, and with my wife and girls dozing off, I cranked up Lamb of God and Disturbed, but to little avail. Illinois has got to be the largest, most boring state to drive through!

Lack of sleep and unfamiliarity with my wife’s Nissan led to a predicament. I almost ran out of gas. It was about 2:30 in the morning, and we were driving through some ungodly place in the last stretch of the Interstate before the Kentucky border. So I got off on an exit that didn’t look promising, but the gauge was reading low so I took a gamble. Sure enough, I made it to the gas station, but it was closed and the pumps were shut off! So I got back on the Interstate and took the next exit with gas service, which drew me in two miles down a lone highway(!). Then, all of a sudden, we entered a surreal, bizarro world. The town was totally empty of cars and people; all the gas stations were closed for service. It felt like that Twilight Zone episode where the guy’s walking around a vacated town and no-one’s in sight. Only by happenstance, and with probably only a ¼ gallon left, did we come across a BP station on our way back to I-24. (It's not on MapQuest.)  Thank God for the Brits!

By the time we entered Kentucky it was raining in biblical proportions and I had to maneuver around an armadillo carcass every other mile.  As tired as I was, I had to keep my wits about me, especially if we made any stops. I figured we were close enough to the Ozarks. I’ll be damned if I’m going to be some hillbilly’s Ned Beaty; fancying myself more the Burt Reynolds character, I’d grab the combat knife and steel baton tucked under my seat and take those f-sticks out—the whole lot of them.  The only good sign after having entered Kentucky?  Well, it's literally a sign: speed limit is 70, not 65.  Daddy like.  It's time to put pedal to the medal, make some good time, and run roughshod over those ugly creatures, be they armadillos or toothless banjo-playing hillbillies.

The tour at Jack Daniel's distillery was fun, despite my fatigue. The original plan was to check into a hotel nearby, sleep for the night, and visit the distillery the next day. I didn't realize my wife wanted to get a move-on and race to our destination in one fell swoop.  But I see she's wearing her game face.  Listen, I've driven straight from Los Angeles to Wisconsin non-stop three times, but I wasn't prepared to spend my vacation driving the whole 2o-hour trip in a straight shot.

Speaking of shots, I suppose the highlight at Lynchburg was getting a good whiff when the tour guide with a heavy Tennessee accent lifted up the charcoal mellowing vat. I concluded right then and there that Jack Daniel is one of Tennessee’s two greatest exports, the other being that depraved reprobate with a golden voice, Elvis. (Sadly, the state's two worst exports include the KKK and country music.)  Having seen the process, and the great care that the Jack Daniel's people take in making their product, I must say, I'll drink the amber elixir with greater appreciation than ever before.  It certainly made my drive through Kentucky more enjoyable and interesting.  (Kidding!)

So here I am in the passenger seat writing in my notebook, totally exhausted but unable to sleep. A Toyota Landcruiser just passed us in the fast lane. All I could see was a brown lab with his head stuck out the passenger window enjoying the wind in his face. For a brief moment our eyes met. Something in his piercing gaze told me he knew he was having his day (as all dogs do) but I wasn’t. Did he pity me or just commiserate with me?

I shouldn't complain too much.  I see my role as more of a security escort than the engaged father I once was during road trips.  The kids are older now.  And, honestly, my thoughts too often appear to be elsewhere than the here and now.  We've now entered Alabama. I look longingly at hotels we're passing, as I try in vain to get some shut-eye in the passenger seat.  My lovely wife's got her 32-ounce diet Dr. Pepper and has subjected me to John Mayer's live CD.  You probably have the same rule: whoever drives selects the music.  Need a bed.  Need sleep.  The trip thus far has been vexing and tiring.  Will Alabama be a better experience?  After all, it's our destination.  That’s a story for another day…

Friday, March 26, 2010

Three Isms (3/3)

Finally, saint-and-aintism involves the reflexive mental process of separating friend and foe, black and white, good and evil. Practitioners of this ism relegate other political views that diverge from theirs even in the slightest to the nether region where ignorant and evil people, you and me that is, gnash their teeth. Contrariwise, partisans hold up their leader, except in rare moments, as virtually without flaws, or at least they transform these flaws—moral transgressions or lack of judgment—somehow into virtues, like a medieval vicar officiating transubstantiation during Mass. To be sure, saint-and-aintism intensifies during election season. Similarly, systems engineer Barbara Oakley describes in her book Evil Genes the Machiavellian personality: “each party’s followers can’t help but reassure themselves that their candidate and party couldn’t possibly be Machiavellian, aside, perhaps, from a cursory jot and tiddle. Or perhaps they suspect ‘their guy’ has some Machiavellian traits, but they believe the end justifies the means.” We expect editorialists and campaign managers to offer only one view as the gospel. It can be particularly aggravating, however, when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone and they kick into high saint-and-aint gear.

Seeing the world in such Manichaean terms is not the preserve of religious fundamentalists whose conception of Heilsgeschichte populates the earth with the Elect and the Reprobate awaiting a Judgment Day. I suppose we’re talking essentially about an “us and them” mentality. This secular winnowing of the wheat and the chaff takes on religious tones and evinces the same kind of puritanical intolerance of the Other one readily finds in the annals of theological dogma. A case in point would be our American heritage, which in the hands of painters and poets throughout the last two centuries became saturated in theological imagery. We have our martyrs and saints, St. Abraham and St. George, and their respective shrines. We have our infallible Bible, the U.S. Constitution, which like the former needs some exegetical tweaking and “clarification” once in a while to fit current cultural contexts. We have our reprobates in this unfolding epic of redemption: Pennsylvania Congressman John Dickinson who did not see the light, King George III who massacred the innocents, and Judas-like Benedict Arnold who betrayed manifest destiny, to name a few. In this context I also think of the columnist Christopher Hitchens, who, in his iconoclastic and provocative book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, attempts to identify with the disconsolate reader, whose traditional faith he has sought to undermine, by relating his own disillusionment with Marxism. Dialectical materialism had no use for God or a spiritual realm, but “it most certainly had its martyrs and saints and doctrinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies…its schisms and inquisitions and heresy hunts.”

I submit to you that every individual, consciously or not, processes information into two categories: the reprobate who are either misguided or evil, on the one hand, and the enlightened ones who share, vindicate or heroically affirm the saint-and-ainter’s own viewpoint, on the other. This mental calculus is oftentimes more semi-conscious than fully cognizant. To keep the metaphor, the right hand often doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The problem with this sort of thinking is that, generally speaking, if we see no redeeming qualities in a person, viewpoint, or ideology, it’s a telltale sign that we are allowing passions and partisanship to becloud our thinking. Reversely, refusal to concede blemishes in our spokesperson or candidate because we fear such a concession would be a crack in our armor or because we are temporarily caught up in fanatical devotion is an unenlightened (but not unnatural) position to take.

It doesn’t take long to identify a saint-and-ainter. They usually have a compulsion to let their views be known more than most people. They’re the type with the bumper stickers—a passive-aggressive form of proselytization. Though they’ll say otherwise, of course, the truth is that they cannot handle living in a pluralistic society wherein diverse opinions are supposed to coexist. They are accustomed to being in the company of almost-exclusively like-minded friends and acquaintances, and they have little experience in discussing or interacting socially with those who share divergent, led alone, contrary political or religious views. Take for instance the old guy at the locker room the other day whom I overheard blurt out, “Finally we’re gonna get rid of those Clinton sleazebags!”

An easy way to ferret out saint-and-ainters is to ask them, in the most courteous tone you can muster, to state some positive attributes about a particular person or viewpoint they have a proclivity to bash and denounce. The tiger will reveal its stripes before too long. How committed are they—indeed are we—to calling a spade a spade and not, as the political commentator Walter Laqueur wryly has it, an agricultural implement?

Unless we’re talking about a Hitler or Jesus, the world is too complex for simple saint-and-aint categories. The good commingles with the bad, and so it’s intellectually disingenuous to be selective and partisan under the guise of liberality. We pay lip service to such complexities, pluralities and ambiguities, and in our heart of heart promote our dogmas. If you want to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue with someone who does not share your perspective, you must exert effort to reverse the curse of xenophobia and intolerance that, optimists notwithstanding, nature has bequeathed us. For those of you who have fought this fight within and are thus more sensitive to saint-and-aintism, you know how maddening it can be when interlocutors deny they see the world as black and white and then proceed to demonstrate their “sheep and goats” worldview in their next utterance.

The Pentecostal preacher, with an unctuous smile, spittle escaping the corner of his enormous mouth, wearing a countenance intermittently kindly and stern, employs a homespun play on words as he belts out the alter call: “There are saints and there are ain’ts.” He pauses for effect, fixing his gaze on first-time visitors among the congregation. “Which do you want to be tonight, my friends?” It’s been said that the world is a simple place from the pulpit, but we know from the foregoing paragraphs that this subjective division between the philistines and the cognoscenti foisted upon the unsuspecting soul by those hawking their partisan tripe, is not restricted to church folk. Gird yourself against the ubiquitous saint-and-ainters in whatever guise they appear.

In the end, my contention is that politics is essentially a visceral, and not an intellectual, endeavor of our species. True, we construct intellectual arguments to make our case—for this candidate, that idea, these policies—but in the end we make our decisions based on our individual sense of morality and our partisan loyalties, ever tribal and primeval in origin, whether we’re fully conscious of doing so. Maybe our “caveman” demons still dominate our will and emotions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that history can teach us important lessons but unfortunately “passion and party blind our eyes.” Rarely do intellectual arguments convince someone to change political sides or reverse their Weltanschauung. Instead, we re-trench, determined that we’ll have a better answer next time. Consequently politics can become so partisan, mean-spirited, intolerant, and hateful in even putatively civil societies such as our own.

I am also suggesting that everyone, somewhere along the line, is an Apostle of a particular outlook, cause, policy, habit, or what have you. And there’s a wide range here. One might be pushing for the “rational” approach to international diplomacy or perhaps the “proper” amount of milk one should add to one’s Captain Crunch cereal. If I can distort Alexander Pope’s words: to proselytize is human. We baptize our proclivities, our idiosyncrasies, opinions that come easy to us, as self-evident truths or general principles applicable to those who to wish live wisely—their understanding of wisely, mind you. So, while we all engage in one of the three isms from time to time, the doom-and-gloomer, axe-to-grinder, and saint-and-ainter do so on a regular basis either because they lack self-cognizance or they feel compelled to have you agree with their view. In either case they wish to conscript you into their cause. We know to take their pronouncements and lamentations with the proverbial grain of salt.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Three Isms (2/3)

Likewise be on your guard against axe-to-grindism. When reading a book or article or listening to a commentator of some kind—particularly in matters related to sex, religion, and politics—you should be asking yourself a few basic questions. Does this person have an identifiable agenda that he or she is pushing? Is the author or speaker predisposed to a particular viewpoint because of any ethno-religious tie, economic benefit, or ideological commitment? Because this “ism” comes in many guises, detecting it can sometimes be a complicated undertaking. It can take the form of a diatribe or polemic, replete of course with a tone of righteous indignation. Sometimes axe-to-grinders will pose a “question” merely as a means to subjoin their own answer—and political outlook in general—for the benighted souls in the classroom. Another means at their disposal is to evince disgust or shock that anyone would hold a particular view, not knowing, or perhaps suspecting, that you just might be holding that view.

At other times axe-to-grinders will try to co-opt you through the use of language. Be mindful of adverbs like “obviously” and “clearly.” Global warming is obviously a man-made phenomenon. Their self-evident truths might not be so self-evident; their conventional wisdom less than conventional; their common sense far from common, even if they would present their views as baptized by fire or inscribed on the tablets of Sinai.

They might use the latest neologisms or political speak to make their case implicitly, and sometimes deceitfully. For example, someone might take you to task for using the term “Indian” instead of “Native American.” I have no objection to avoiding a term based upon Columbus’s mistaken notion that he had discovered the (East) Indies. If the objective is to circumvent a Eurocentric viewpoint, however, it will not succeed. After all, Amerigo Vespucci did not cross the Bering land bridge some 20,000 years ago, and yet Americans, native or otherwise, bear his European name. While this is a case of ignorance, another term, “First Peoples,” which was in fashion for a while possibly to get around this problem, induces the listener to agree implicitly with the axe-to-grinder’s ideological perspective. Even this label, I would argue, is problematic. Paleontological evidence does not confirm the much-vaunted claim that many Native Americans today are descendents of the first ethnic group ever to set foot on North American soil. To use such a term implies that Native Americans, or people of a particular tribe or nation, merit some special status or that their victimization is all the more tragic. Political correctness has its place when it comes to respecting the labels and names with which people wish to identify themselves, but it goes beyond the pale when embedded in the word or phrase is an axe-to-grindism that attempts, intentionally or otherwise, to manipulate a topic in a way favorable to them. In the heart of every axe-to-grinder is a social engineer.

Here’s an assignment for you, if you haven’t tried this already. The next time you’re browsing at the bookstore and come across a book that you suspect contains axe-to-grindism, go through the index and find the pages where the author deals with those hot button topics. You can usually tell at first glance on the page where the author is coming from. Frankly, you usually don’t have to go this far, for you can often judge a book by its cover. You can gauge the degree of axe-to-grindism by the title, subtitle, book publisher, or the reviewers’ blurbs on the jacket.

Deflective or inversive axe-to-grindism, part of the same genus in our taxonomy, is also noteworthy here. This form of disingenuousness occurs when a critic wants to rant and rave about something or simply show disdain but doesn’t want to look like a sourpuss or figures subtlety is a more effective way to make the point. Deflective axe-to-grinders can look back on a long and not-so-venerable tradition. The Roman historian Tacitus praised the barbaric Germans in his Germania as a way of condemning his own society, which he saw as decadent and corrupt. (Since Domitian was indeed a douche and the Empire’s rowdy northern neighbors came up with Oktoberfest—of which Tacitus’ is the first account in history—we can’t blame him too much). To update our examples, we could mention here Hollywood celebrities, say, who make their own PR visits to the Hugo Chavezes and Fidel Castros of the world and sing their praises, while otherwise, oddly, supporting free elections and human rights. Perhaps they shouldn’t quit their day jobs. More to the point, drawing these contrasts is another form of axe-to-grindism.

All thinking people with analytical abilities possess ideological underpinnings. By ideology, I mean a set of principles and presuppositions that account for the ways in which humans interact and behave. That is, we all have a worldview. Having an explanatory paradigm or interpretive grid through which we assess phenomenon in the world is tricky. We must not let it constrain or imprison us. You might suggest at this point that one should be free of any ready-made viewpoint so as to avoid bias. However, the human condition (and biology) suggests that we are not blank slates; having presuppositions and prejudices is a given, so the name of the game is to marshal these impulses to attain objectivity as much as is possible. It might turn out that, in your estimation, axe-grinding is merited. So be it. But heed the Delphic oracle and be self-cognizant of your position.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Isms (1/3)

I would like to alert you to three prevalent mindsets that infect a fair number of thinking people nowadays: doom-and-gloomism, axe-to-grindism, and saint-and-aintism. If you can detect these indicators of deep-seated bias, you are in a comfortable place to ignore or show disdain for their disseminator. Be mindful that all of us succumb to these “isms” once in a while, though some proselytize them more than others.

The first malaise, doom-and-gloomism, stems from a narcissistic notion that the present times in which we live are significantly worse than previous eras. Some of these doomsayers deny their pessimist outlook; others seem to revel in it. In either case you recognize the sentiment when you hear it. For those who seem to sail through life without an intellectual anchor, these self-indignant jeremiads might seem convincing. On closer inspection, though, one would find that these general portraits of Armageddon, painted in dark hues with broad brushstrokes, originate in a petty issue blown out of proportion and disguised as a major catastrophe of our times. It could be something as superficial as partisan dissatisfaction over who occupies the White House. For conservatives the Clinton era of the 1990s marked the demise of American values, whereas for liberal democrats the subsequent Bush years spelled the end of democratic institutions in our country. Doom-and-gloomism could also emerge simply from anger and frustration that a certain issue, be it the Kyoto Protocols or the Second Amendment, is not being addressed to the moral satisfaction of the doom-and-gloomer.

The flipside of this neurosis is what we shall call the Myth of the Golden Age. An equally fallacious mindset, the Myth refers to our innate longing for a lost paradise. We tend to view the early days of any movement or historical development as pristine and exemplary. Christians since the Renaissance have looked back, under the slogan ad fontes, to the early church as a model for theological and liturgical purity, before the papacy evolved into a powerful political institution. Likewise, Muslims long for the golden era of the High Caliphate—a time when the arts flourished and the Mongols and Crusaders had not yet raped and pillaged their way through the Middle East. Emotion drives this longing for the halcyon days of yore more than historical objectivity. Life might not have been so wonderful back in the day, for we know that human nature, with all its foibles, has been a constant in history; but we believe it was better in earlier epochs nonetheless. People individually and collectively look back to a time when life was simpler and the early community held to high moral standards. Whether or not this rose-tinted past corresponds to the reality is a different matter.

Take for example the view that the world today is a much more violent and dangerous place, what with nuclear bombs, industrialized warfare and almost incessant occurrences of genocide and ethnic cleansing. The Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, in both an article and widely-circulated lecture entitled “A History of Violence,” has forcefully argued that we are kindler, gentler and less violent as a species today than in previous epochs and eras, the great atrocities of the 20th century notwithstanding. He bases this claim on close analysis of death rates and body counts of foregone eras, and his observations regarding violent pastimes the modern world, particularly the West, have long since abandoned. On the face of it, he writes, this view appears to be “somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene.” Our penchant for a golden age would tell us so, but, according to Pinker’s thesis, you would be wrong.

We as individuals tend to engage in the Myth on a micro-level when it comes to our own life experience. “Kids were not so rowdy and impolite in school as they were 20, 30 years ago,” we might say. “Back in my younger days we weren’t so caught up into materialism.” The return to an earlier paradise is a compelling longing, but those who have studied history know that human nature has been rather static. Pristine eras and golden ages, it would seem, are chimeras captive to the subjectivity, longing, and hopes of the descendent generations.

Doom-and-gloomism is more volitional than delusional per se, though the latter diagnosis seems the case ostensibly. Before we get out our air violin to serenade the doom-and-gloomers’ pathetic lamentations with gleeful mockery, we should at least try to understand the phenomenon. The best offense is a preemptive defense. Doom-and-gloomism serves as a safeguard mechanism; the doom-and-gloomer exaggerates policies, developments and events that he or she finds personally distasteful so as to provide psychological comfort when things turn out to be not as bad as they had told themselves. I tire of it, and so should you.

Is there cause for alarm? Is the sky falling or the heavens darkening? Are the dead lurching from their graves? Don’t get me wrong. You might have gathered that I am not an optimist, except perhaps in Mark Twain’s definition of the pessimist: an optimist with experience. I have a somber understanding of human nature and a proclivity to see grey skies; however, this partisan-based depiction of doomsday is ridiculous. If we were living in Europe during the Black Death of the 14th century or the fascist-ridden and depression-filled days of the 1930s, if we grew up in Darfur or parts of central Africa today for that matter, we’d have reason to think the world had descended into a dark age. The Congolese woman running from Hutu death squads and UN soldier-cum-rapists understandably might believe she’s living in an era of gloom. But is 21st-century America and the world in general on the brink of collapse? Intellectual honesty compels us not to draw such an emotionally charged conclusion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

If Only I Were a Supermodel. Or: Thank God for Airbrushes, Diet Pills, & Voyeurism

A decade before the Gore campaign hired her as an image consultant for the vice president’s presidential bid in 2000, the feminist Naomi Wolf published a thought-provoking book entitled The Beauty Myth. She argued that antifeminist conservatives constructed the ideal of feminine beauty as a means to keep women in a submissive status. The diet, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, and pornography industries provided the market forces to aid conservative ideologues in mounting a “counteroffensive against women.” “A woman’s appearance is more often called to her attention for a political reason,” she wrote, “than as a constituent of genuine attraction and desire.” Since The Feminine Mystique, women had been liberating themselves from the home and were able to see through the postwar propaganda designed to domesticate them and turn them into mindless consumers. But now the final frontier: women’s bodies, or rather, women’s perceptions of their physical appearance, became the new target of antifeminist social engineers. If we can get women to focus more on their weight, wrinkles and wardrobe, the thinking went, we can manipulate women’s apprehension about their newfound independence in the workplace and at the same time boost the economy. Consequently, plastic surgery, breast implants, eating disorders, overtly sexual advertisements, pornography, and the incessant parade of new diet plans contribute significantly to our cultural landscape.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The New Black (1/2)

The smell of roses is the smell of death. It's the bittersweet scent—no, the foul odor of a white coffin being lowered into a rectangular hole, as people dressed in their Sunday clothes stand around on one sunny day. It’s the unsettling bouquet of a procession of cars making their way from the funeral home, up and around a paved road that leads through a grassy hill in almost a complete circle before stopping near the final resting spot. The smell of relatives from Texas sitting behind me at a place called Eternal Valley, a five-minute-drive away from my childhood home, and trying to manufacture a smile out of their disconsolate faces when I turn around to look at them during the funeral. It's the strange, disturbing aroma of a thirteen-year-old girl in a casket, and a boy not completely understanding the situation but sufficiently cognizant of a permanent loss. I could never figure out, or much thought of, my revulsion to this scent, a scent that was evidently, perplexingly, fragrant to others. On birthdays and anniversaries I’d get carnations or forget-me-nots or violets—not roses, anything but roses, apart from nowadays when I’ve ordered them online, well removed from the smell and the concomitant memories of pain and sorrow that they evoke.

My elder sister, Laura Lynn, died when I was five years old. In long and hard retrospect I see that her death altered the course of a family, though it did not destroy it. My brother was born two years after this event, and I suspect his arrival was an attempt to bring new life out of a tragic event. As the decade rolled on, we, a replenished family of five, eventually stopped going to church. I think my parents, and perhaps my mother in particular, had been struggling with theodicy, though of course she wouldn’t know the term; might I refer instead to C.S. Lewis’s oft-cited phrase, the problem of pain. The problem of suffering. The problem of evil. It’s all the same problem, particularly if you subscribe to a benevolent, providential and omniscient deity who stands at the helm of His creation. Why has something like this happened to a regular family who dutifully attends Baptist church and just trying to live up to the American dream? Why snuff out Laura’s short life?

It took me years to realize the source of my discomfort with roses. And at some point in my thirties I started to visit my sister’s grave whenever I visited my home town, at first attempting to recreate the images in my mind from the scenes of a funeral and then simply sitting silent next to the gravestone thinking about the sister who didn’t live into adulthood and my own impending mortality. Because I was so young at the time, the memory remained buried deep within my psyche. I’ve come to understand that Laura was my protector, the protector that I had lost mysteriously one day, as she succumbed to cancer. I base this on one vague memory I have of my sister, and it’s possible I’ve jumbled up two events into one single narrative. I think I got into a childish dispute with my sister Linda (one year younger than Laura) and her friends. I remember Laura sticking up for me and being concerned about me. This memory has lived on throughout my life. What I am about to write about is not a sob story, but an attempt at self-discovery.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Age of the Flapper

The older generation of suffragists were appalled, let alone the good folk of Middletown America. The flapper made her mark in this postwar and pre-Crash of ‘29 era, flouting convention, throwing caution to the wind, and, ultimately, rejecting in toto the confinements of a patriarchal society still oblivious to the 19th Amendment. There she was in the smoke-filled jazz club late at night, with cigarette in hand, gaily laughing in the company of men, a queen of dalliance neither quite urbane nor exactly meretricious, self-absorbed, and exuding a new kind of sexuality, a strange cocktail of boyishness and coquetry. She’s left behind that awful tight-laced corset, that torture device of men. For that matter, she’s done away with the bustles, wasp waists, layers of undergarments, and the archaic image of femininity as a domesticated breeding machine. No more restraining clothing. She hid her breasts, cut her hair short, and let her black skirt just hang from the shoulders. Bare arms, knee-high skirts, rolled-down stockings for the modern woman of the Roaring Twenties. But above all, Jazz, gotta love that Jazz!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chopin's Prelude 16 in Bb Minor

If you wanted to know the real me, my essential personality, I recently told a dear friend, one approach would be to listen to Chopin's Prelude 16 in B-flat minor.  I have a rocky past with this piece as a former pianist.  I can't recall how I first came across his 24 preludes, but Chopin is an ivory god to me.  His compositions, his virtuosity, his melancholic passion, his dissonance—they all send me into the most delightful reverie and bedazzle me with clever and ambitious finger work.  Back in the day I studied classical piano at Cal Arts under a wonderful young instructor named Howard Richmond.  Somehow I got it into my head that I should play this piece and, let me tell you, it was an arduous, up-hill battle.  I never mastered the song by any means.  Howard, of course, could play it almost flawlessly in an instant.  Practicing the prelude really required (at least for me) separate labor devoted to the left-hand and right-had parts.  Then, I'd put the two together, playing it slowly at first and incrementally building up speed ultimately to a "fiery" pace—presto con fuoco.  I never quite made it, though.  Prelude 16 might be responsible for my decision to become a rock keyboardist instead of a classical pianist—yes, both very practical career decisions!

So what is it about Prelude 16 that's me?  Honestly, the song probably demonstrates what makes me tick more than it describes me per se.  In a flair for drama that characterized Chopin, the opening chords serve as a starting line.  Then, all of a sudden, the relentless gallop of the left hand jumping two to three octaves on the lower register provides a solid, brisk infrastructure over which a barrage of frenetic 16th notes in the upper reaches of the keyboard comes down.  Finally, in the last four bars, the race to the end comes to a crescendo as both hands climb up four octaves playing sixteenth notes in unison.  Quite a rollercoaster ride!  I vividly remember playing the prelude on my laptop for a Western Civilization course I taught for troops in Afghanistan.  We were discussing the Romantic era.  It transported me, and perhaps a few soldiers and airmen, away from the combat zone, albeit for just one minute!  Those who know me know that I like my music fast, hard, and dark.  Prelude 16 isn't dark, but it's not particularly cheerful either.

The song describes my personality, I suppose, in so far as I can be a rambunctious character who always seems to be in a hurry.  I find myself sometimes literally running from one thing to the other.  My mom remarked on this peculiar trait when I was a kid.  I was running then, and I'm still running in my forties.  Don't try to pigeonhole me as a "manic depressive," as some have, however.  And what I'm about to write probably isn't going to diminish your resolve to label me so.  But the one thing the prelude does not capture about me is my more lugubrious side.  I'd have to refer to another Chopin piece for this purpose.  I'm well aware and gratified by the fact that Der Viator readers are avid listeners to Chopin.  So next time you sample the sixteenth prelude at a listening party or otherwise, think of me running to my next task.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Persecution of European Jewry in the Middle Ages

Wilhelm Marr, a journalist and self-proclaimed prophet of race theory, popularized the term Anti-Semitism in 1879, thereby cloaking the centuries-long sentiment of Jew-hate (Judenhass) with a pseudoscientific nomenclature and marking a new chapter in a grotesque history of xenophobia, ideological hate, and homicidal greed. Marr saw himself as the harbinger of a new tone in politics and wanted to bring the latest insights from “race science” into public discourse. He lamented what he saw as a Jewish hegemony over Aryans in the historic struggle of the races that was ultimately heading toward the fall of Aryan civilization. When we step back from this cosmic struggle and look at Marr, however, we see a failure in life whose chronic impecuniousness and difficult personality led him into two disastrous marriages with Jewish women who grew weary of supporting him. When we discuss antisemitism and race theory, let’s not forget that “isms” and ideologies are sometimes window dressing for the more mundane aggravations of the human condition.

Throughout the Middle Ages Jews faced intermittent pogroms, occasional expulsions, and severe restrictions on their living space and livelihood. Antisemitic myths and legends, born in antiquity, came into fruition at this time and could be reactivated for massacres during times of economic or political difficulties. Throughout the Middle Ages Jews gradually migrated eastward. They had been expelled from Belgium (1261), England (1290), France (1306 and 1394), Spain (1492), and Portugal (1507). Some of the worst paroxysms of violence occurred in Germanic territory during the First Crusade in 1096 and the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1348. By the 19th century, the majority of European Jewry lived in Eastern Europe, leaving only pockets of forlorn ghetto communities whose survival depended on the whim of regional and local magistrates.

Three hateful legends about the Jews developed in the Middle Ages: the blood libel, host desecration, and well poisoning. Although the myth of ritual murder, or blood libel, took shape in the Middle Ages starting especially with the Second Crusade, it had been around a long time. The first recorded blood libel case occurred in 1144 in Norwich, England. The body of a boy named William was found during Holy Week. The death was blamed on the Jews who allegedly kidnapped and tortured the boy in a mock reenactment of Christ’s death. To their credit, the local government officials dismissed the accusations and protected the Jews. The blood libel reared its ugly head again in 1255 when the Jews of Lincoln were accused of kidnapping, torturing and crucifying a boy named Hugh. Almost one hundred Jews were imprisoned, some were executed and Jewish goods were confiscated.

The legal status of the Jews in the Middle Ages was precarious. They could not gain citizenship and were usually protected only by the capricious grace of a monarch who valued their economic services in the face of a hostile church and populace. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 marked the epitome of antisemitic legislation that had occurred intermittently for centuries. Innocent III marked the zenith of papal power in the Middle Ages, distinguishing himself from other medieval popes not only in securing power for the church but also in his opposition to the Jews. As a result of the Council, Jews could no longer hold public office and they were required to wear a yellow badge on their clothing. In other synods and councils later in the century Jews were forbidden to debate religion with Christians, obtain academic degrees, buy or rent real estate, and live outside ghettos. It is difficult not to conclude that the wearing of distinctive badges and conical hats were designed as much to humiliate Jews as to indicate merely their separate status.

The great outbreak of bubonic plague in the middle of the 14th century, known as the Black Death, is clearly one of the worst epidemic disasters in world history. It was a severe blow to European civilization and made its mark on the culture, economy and population for the next two centuries. The plague killed off more than a third of Europe’s population. Although it carried away Jew and Gentile alike, Christians attributed the Black Death to God’s punishment for tolerating the infidel in their midst. Moreover, they accused the Jews of spreading the plague by poisoning the wells. Under torture, Jews confessed to such crimes. Thousands of Jews were burned alive in the gruesome “holocaust.” The chronicler Jacob von Königshofen recounts the murder of 2000 Jews in his city of Strasbourg in 1349. He explicitly states the economic motivation of the perpetrators:

And everything that was owed to the Jews was canceled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working-men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt.

But one thousand Jews got baptized to avoid being burned to death. (Religious conversion was not an option during the Nazi period.) In the same way that recurrent famines and epidemics in the decades prior to the impact of the Black Death made the outbreak of bubonic plague even more damaging to European civilization, likewise the pogroms of the Black Death were a result of long-standing tensions over the centuries.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique in Perspective

Betty Friedan put her finger on the “problem that has no name” that had been silently plaguing a number of domestic women of her generation. She received letters of gratitude from all over the country. However, scholars and critics have noted in her book three deficiencies that, I think, augur some of the problems that feminist activists would face in the next two decades. First, Friedan did a good job of describing and defining the problem, and she documented The Feminine Mystique well with numerous stories from suburban housewives. She drew upon questionnaires that she had intended to use for an article in McCall’s.

Nonetheless, she did not offer practical steps for women wanting to leave their “Stepford Wives” existence and experience a life outside the home. Second, although Friedan had a background in left-wing political causes and was keen to expose the program of social engineering in mainstream conservative America, she underestimated the degree to which men would cling to their dominant status. Radical and socialist feminists would criticize the goals of Friedan and NOW as insufficient and even delusional. Lastly, the problem for Friedan was a problem for white middle-class housewives. Many minority women, who had to work long hours and who faced racial discrimination, could not relate to the suburban boredom that Friedan was discussing. Moreover, Friedan did not address the needs of the “Lavender Menace,” the Lesbian community emerging in the late 1960s. Consequently, as one writer has it, “Friedan’s conclusion tended to mirror her own experience.” This experience, moreover, stemmed only partly from her role as a wife and mother of three children in Midwest suburbia. As the historian Daniel Horowitz has brought to light, Friedan developed her ideas also as a labor journalist and activist in leftist politics in the late 1940s and early 1950s—activities she did not mention in The Feminine Mystique. Ultimately, such biographical details do not detract from the value and influence of her book, but they do help place her viewpoint in a broader perspective.  The photograph above shows the founders of NOW. Friedan is in the middle.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Whiskey Cured Me of My Existential Crisis

Do you ever feel alone even in a crowd? Do you see yourself as some kind of phantom that goes through the motions of daily living and that's detached from the ostensible world of reality? Do you question whether there is a reality outside your mind?  Do you feel like an observer of your own life rather than an active participant in it? Do you identify with Meursault in Albert Camus's L’Étranger, realizing that society has certain expectations of you, for you, that are artificially imposed? Do you ever see yourself imprisoned in a solipsistic universe and everybody else is merely a prop, a backdrop, for your own sick theater of the mind? Have you ever wondered if everything you’ve ever known, been taught or held dearly was nothing more than a façade to make this meaningless life livable? Do you ever wonder if you’re just a parasite living inside the left testicle of a gigantic llama from another universe?  Well, not me, not anymore.

When I inadvertently mentioned to my general physician my misgivings about the life that I'm living, he diagnosed my melancholy as suffering from bipolar disorder and a severe lack of serotonin, so much so that on the spot he prescribed for me a vast array of anti-depressant drugs in a neat variety of colors with variously sized capsules. But I think he was too apt to mistake the symptoms of a deeply rooted psychological problem for a quick-fix biological remedy. Nonetheless, I still took my medication, if for no other reason than that I told myself I'd do whatever I could, follow any kind of advice and counsel. I followed up on his instructions probably more so because I didn’t want anyone objecting later that I didn’t try to find a solution to my crisis than because I harbored any real expectation that these so-called remedies could help. Besides, I thought the pills were so cool-looking.

After I ran out of meds, and concluding that they had no effect other than making me limp and producing a purplish rash all over my body, I was quite proud of myself in seeking an alternative. For a while I underwent cognitive behavioral therapy on the recommendation of my general physician. After just a few years of the therapy, however, I deemed it no better than the medical treatment I had received earlier. It seemed like my therapist, whom I’ll refer to simply as “Felicia” for the sake of confidentiality, was being rather reductive, searching for a cause and then proscribing some weekly assignment like keeping a diary of my feelings or reminding myself at certain times of the day that I can turn my funk around with positive thinking. I told Felicia about my doubts in her treatment during dinner one evening. She was at first dismissive, then she took it personal. She not only dropped me as one of her clients right then and there, but she dumped me as her lover. But that's okay; I had another solution to my problem.

I was so distraught by this experience. I was getting quite pathetic, to be honest, but I admit that I often succumb to a woe-is-me attitude; hypersensitivity is my default mode. So not only did I continue having these deep-seated queries in my primate brain about life’s meaning, but in matters of the heart I felt forlorn and forsaken. After Felicia stormed out of the restaurant (leaving me with the bill), I had another drink….and another. Before I knew it I was stumbling into the hotel bar and ordering a double shot of whiskey. You’ll perhaps find this hard to believe, but I had drunk alcohol only one time in my life, in my early twenties, but it was a bad experience. I woke up in a swimming pool somehow in a cowboy outfit from the waist up and only my birthday suit from the waist down. I would have drowned were it not for the pony-shaped flotation device that I was slunk over (plus my friend’s sister and his girlfriend pulling me out onto the back patio). However, though I was making an ass of myself at the bar and my speech was evidently slurred to the point that no one had a clue what I was saying (as the bartender informed me a few days later when I stopped in to pick up my wallet that I left behind), I had forgotten about my existential crisis. My inner demons seemed to leave me alone when I was drunk. Well, that's not entirely true, for there was one persistent little devil hiding in a dark corner of my mind—a question about the "undiscovered country" and a fear of non-existence.   But another quick swig of the juice took care of that little fiend.  For the most part I didn’t think about a meaningless universe and my insignificant life. My only lingering concern was whether I would ever get out of this damn llama (if I am inside one, that is).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Veni, Vidi, Vici

Okay, maybe not so much Vici.  I ran a 10K this morning.  My time wasn't great, but it was respectable for a guy who doesn't usually run a race: 51 minutes and 20 seconds.  Actually, who am I kidding?  My time sucks.  I did a 10K once when I was in Afghanistan, on an airbase, but this is my first civilian 10K.  I hope to participate in more in the future, a 10-mile and "half-marathon" in particular.  I lined up at the front near the starting line where all the serious runners jockey for position.  I knew they would leave me in the dust, these reptilian-looking creatures, largely males in their twenties, with tan, lithe bodies, and lean, muscular legs, wearing the latest running gear.  I felt like something the cat dragged in, sporting the ski cap I bought in Japan, my army PT shorts, and makeshift ankle socks rolled down, not to mention the cigarette in my mouth and the smell of whiskey on my breath.  (Okay, I added the last two, for dramatic license.)  But until the sound of the shotgun, there was a sense of camaraderie.

I must admit it was kind of fun being a part of a large crowd of people who like physical fitness and whose registration fee partly goes to a charitable cause.  I'm the archetypal lone wolf.  I do most things alone, and while I have a few friends that I'll hang with every now and then, I'm pretty much a solo act in my non-working hours.  Yet I enjoyed the spectacle of the crowd and all the hoopla earlier today.  Now I must return to the cave whence I came.  My usual idea of having a good time is reading Edgar Allan Poe, say, maybe sipping some Jack Daniel's, and having CNN or Fox News on in the background.  Yeah, I'm a real party animal...not.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Shoot to Thrill

I came to the conclusion a few years ago that a judiciously selected AC/DC song, with sufficient volume level, can often improve a situation or at least change your demeanor for the good.  Your best bet is tunage from Highway to Hell, Back in Black, or For Those About To Rock.  I'm not what you'd call a devoted fan of the Australian hard rock band, but they do hearken back to my youth.  The key to AC/DC's ability to produce so many anthemic rock songs, other than their skill as songwriters, is the principle, often described by critics and fans, of "less is more."  I like metal, but I generally prefer the "more is more" concept, that is, hard-driving music with a bit of complexity and virtuosity thrown into the mix.  Nonetheless, AC/DC can "hit the spot" like no other band, and I'm evidently not alone, nor am I dating myself particularly, for Angus and Malcom and the boys seem to be a perennial favorite even for younger generations.  If you're hazarding the barren Afghan landscape in a military convoy, as in the opening scene from the movie Iron Man, or if you're putzing around the house and no-one's around, or when you're in the car on a lone desert highway, heck, if you've had a long day at work, pull out your air Gibson SG guitar and crank up AC/DC.  It just might shake you out of your funk.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dictatorships Suck, unless You're a Dictator

Let’s face it, if we had the opportunity to exercise absolute power, we’d take it. Not only that, we’d use it for our own selfish gain. Aren’t my acute observations of human nature amazing? Moreover, we’d descend into the abyss, chastising those who disagree with us with the sword and rewarding our thuggish cronies with the state coffers. We also wouldn’t be averse to some time-honored ethnic cleansing of minority groups.  Okay, sure, once in a blue moon we get a George Washington who relinquishes such absolute power, but most people aren't George Washington.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m thankful for civilization, especially the wonderful democratic institutions we've largely inherited from Great Britain. These innovations in the long, violent history of Homo sapiens are valiant efforts to save us from ourselves. I’m not a Rousseauian believer in the "noble savage."  It's society that corrupts us, huh?  As a Bavarian neighbor of mine used to say, Quatsch mit Soße!  Our worst enemy is the base instinct that nature has bequeathed us. Hobbes, Nietzsche and Freud had it right: the painstaking process of building civilization is the best thing we have going for us, and unfortunately its viability in the future, for each new generation, is always tenuous. Who knew that an era of "darkness" and decline would follow Greco-Roman civilization during Europe's early medieval period? Who would have guessed that long after the European Enlightenment of the 18th century, Europe would spawn two horrific world wars and the most extensive genocide yet perpetrated by the sons of man?  Have we finally arrived as a species, or, to quote Churchill, will we "sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age" yet again?  What we have is so fragile, so let's cherish it and not buy into this nonsense about government or modernity being the problem.  Please!

Primatologists like Frans de Waal at Emory University, whose opinion  I highly respect, will tell us that primates—and by extension, we humans who share over 98% of DNA—have the natural capacity for empathy and consensus-building. I don't doubt it, but too often these commendable innate qualities succumb to the darker forces within us.  Xenophobia and a penchant for domination are hardwired into our monkey brains and savage hearts. Humans constructed civilization not so much to ease our daily lives but to keep us from bashing each other’s skulls in. What is this quintessence of dust, you might ask?  Our human nature has been around much longer than civilization, so we still have “primitive” instincts that outweigh (1) the relatively new dictates of society (a mere 10,000 years or so) and, more disturbingly, (2) a sensible and peaceful use of modern technology. Give us another 500,000 years and maybe we'll be predisposed to help one another; altruism, if there is such a thing, will become our first instinct rather than second nature. That's the best we can hope for, I’m afraid, but don’t count on it. I've done the math.  That would be like expecting a troubled young man who'd spent years and years of his life in an abusive home and out on the street to be an upstanding citizen after a week at a reform school.

Despite your protestations to the contrary, you self-professedly sensitive liberal types ensconced smugly in Starbucks with your laptop and iPhone would be the most vicious dictators of all if you were to acquire such unchecked power. And remember that neither the political right nor the political left is immune from exercising such tyranny—witness Hitler and Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and Mobutu. You’d decline this power and give it to the people?  You'd put together a blue ribbon panel to draw up a constitution and insist on the rule of law?  You’d use this power to make the world a better place, you say? My arse! Besides, with these world-changing objectives, you’d be in good company: Pol Pot and Robespierre sought to create a Year Zero, to start anew, to erase the past and create a utopia. Problem is, the guillotine and the killing fields became their respective means to a not-so-noble end.  Granted I'm addressing males more than females, and I'm not saying that someone would offer you such power ex nihilo.  No.  You don't become a Nero overnight.  It's a gradual process, as circumstances allow and as your risks pay off.

So I say, live it up! If heads need to roll, then so be it. It’s good to be the king. Like the Legalist scholars who advised China's first emperor Qin Shi Huangdi: a good dose of suppression is just what the doctor ordered if you want stability and discipline.

And talk about absolute power! Julius Caesar got his start as part of a three-man rule called appropriately enough a triumvirate. He’s the first dude in history to go up to two other dudes—in this case Pompey and Crassus, Roman generals—scratch their heads at the same time and say, “Man! My balls itch.” That is so cool.  With this audacity, it was only a hop, skip and a jump to his dictatorship.  And wouldn't it be fun to take an axe from the executioner like Peter the Great did and start lopping off the heads of political opponents on the execution platform just to show who's boss?  (That's at least what Maximilian Schell did in his performance of the Russian tsar!) But watch yourself, dictator wannabe, for as the case of Julius Caesar shows, you might be hoisted by our own petard.  Beware the Ides of March!

Take counsel from Hobbes, not Rousseau, folks. Life for humans in a state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Setting the Record Straight

Due to overwhelming requests from readers about my personal life, some vicious rumors and strange allegations in particular, I, your own Der Viator, have decided to set the record straight once and for all. Since I am too shy, private, aloof and otherwise deranged to discuss these issues with some of you face to face, like a reclusive Mr. Kurtz overseeing his fiefdom of corpses and ivory and suspicious of would-be intruders, I thought a Q&A format in this blog entry would be a more comfortable way for me to clear up many misconceptions and, frankly, falsehoods.

Let me just say first that I appreciate your interest in my whereabouts and undertakings. I realize that many of you for good or ill see me as a mountain of manhood and have been impressed with my perspicacity and sesquipedality. I certainly don’t want to disabuse you of these nice perceptions of me. Everyone needs a hero, a paragon of virtue, to help one get through life, even if one's image does not match the reality. I am not necessarily saying that these things aren't true, though. Who am I to contradict you? That would be the height of presumption indeed. Now for your questions:

Q: Is it true that you tickle the ivories?
I do indeed, provided by tickle you mean finger and by ivories you mean crotch. That understood, I “tickle the ivories” virtually without cessation, the exception being Thursday evenings. That's karaoke and Pictionary night; I try to stay focused for social outings.

Q: Are you in the military?
Yes. I am an officer and a gentleman. I can't believe they pay me to go overseas and kill people who like to throw acid on women's faces and sodomize "dancing boys"! (Actually, our secret, they don't have to pay me at all for this).

Q: Is it true that you are gay?
Nope. I will only say that one time, and one time only, more or less, the stars aligned: a great dinner at Red Lobster and a romantic comedy is one thing, but if you can cap it off with stimulating, intellectual discourse at the end of a magical evening, it would be surprising, seriously, if you could not get me in the sack, regardless of your gender. That said, it's just hearsay. (By the way, Tonito and Francisco, if you guys are reading this—and I don't know if you get the internet in the Philippines—thanks for something special.)

Q: Is it true that you coined the endearing phrase “Don’t let your meatloaf”?
Thanks for the great question. I’d love to take credit for this witty expression, but, alas, I’m not the author. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, I did not come up with “Don’t get your panties in a wad.” My contributions to the English lexicon, I’m afraid, are more modest. I invented the euphemistic obscenity foxtrot-stick, as in the saying, “You frickin’ foxtrot-stick!” Another claim to fame, I suppose, is my neologism rectalfy, a clever contraction of rectum and rectify that, admittedly, and sadly, has limited application outside a scatological context.

On a more serious level, I developed the philosophical concept known as Bobbitt’s Blowback, a corollary to Ockham’s Razor. The latter cautions us to do away with unnecessary contingencies, whilst the former describes what happens when we hastily cut off all explanation.

Q: Are you a parent?
Yes, I’m the proud father of three lovely daughters. But that’s not counting my numerous illegitimate offspring strewn throughout various parts of Eastern Europe and central Asia. To quote from Proverbs, my quiver is full. (By the way, Ms. Nazarbayev, thanks for keeping the South Kazakhstan Orphanage in immaculate condition. Zhanna and Tara , on my last visit, said they are happier now.)

Q: Do you like the bands Dream Theater and Disturbed?
Sorry, dear readers, but I’m a private person and don’t like to address personal questions like this.

Q: Are you writing a book?
Yes. It’s the fourth volume of my autobiography. The full title is: The Musings of a Muserer: Der Viator, An Extraordinary Life, vol. 4: Vale of Tears: The Adventures of a Melancholy in an Age of Terror, 2001-2008 (Dystroika University Press, 2009). I realize that page 179 has become controversial, but I didn’t want to hold back the truth. I apologize to those of you who were deeply affected by my revelations; I never intended to cause such harm.

Q: Do you wear a mullet?
Most assuredly not! I concede that I used to wear a mullet back in the day, however. But many a lady informed me in no uncertain terms that it made me look so frickin’ sexy; for this reason I didn’t want to be a stumbling block for the weaker brethren, er, I mean, sistren, who would compromise their relationship with their significant other, what with such lust for me in their heart.

I retired the mullet years ago, though sometimes I catch a glimpse of it, floating like a wrathful, restless wraith in the dark forest of my memory. I’ve written about this extensively in my 1998 book, Mullet: My Years as a Reluctant Sex Symbol. Those who are interested can peruse the book for details. (I advise that you skip chapter 4, though, wherein I discuss my crazy rock band days when I used the mullet as a kind of loincloth or codpiece while playing covers of Iron Maiden and Queensrÿche tunes otherwise in my birthday suit.)

Q: Is it true that you once snuck into a zoo at night just to have sexual relations with one of the young chimpanzees?
That’s disgusting. I won’t even dignify this preposterous question with an answer. If you don’t know the difference between a chimp and a bonobo (who actually responded to my advances eagerly and was quite loving) then you are unworthy of my attention.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cambodian Genocide

Under the leadership of Pol Pot and his comrades, the Khmer Rouge, a repressive and totalitarian communist regime, killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians through starvation, overwork, torture and execution between 1975 and 1979. One of the worst atrocities in a century riddled with large-scale atrocities, the genocide in Cambodia stemmed from an intellectual Marxist elite trained at the University of Paris and committed to an extreme form of social engineering. Pol Pot sought to reverse the clock of "bourgeois" influence, create a Year Zero, and forcefully return the country to a pre-modern agrarian society. Pictured are some of the rank-and-file Khmer Rouge killers.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Coercive Legality

A popular misconception about Hitler is that he obtained power illegally. Indeed, he had tried unsuccessfully to take over the government in the Munich Putsch of 1923. But while he sat comfortably in prison writing Mein Kampf, he determined to seize power through the parliamentary system of the Weimar Republic. Once he took over Germany, he would then dismantle the very system that placed him in power. Hitler did just that. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels stated his view of the matter in 1935: “The stupidity of democracy. It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.”

Yet another misconception about Hitler is that he assumed power legally. I think that “coercive legality” is a useful way of thinking about the Nazi party’s political successes of the early 1930s. Brownshirt thugs did their part in intimidating voters on the streets. At a higher level, Goebbels organized a massive propaganda assault on the minds of voters via loudspeakers, posters, speeches, door-to-door canvassing, pamphlets, and films. Violence and intimidation were core components of Nazi campaigning and ultimately paved the way for victory in 1933. Technically, the German people did not vote for Hitler, nor did they have a say in the creation of a one-party state. True, we can’t ascribe the astounding parliamentary victory of the Nazi party in 1930 entirely to fear tactics. A great portion of the German electorate thought that Hitler had the answer for Germany’s problems. Voters winced at Nazi tactics, but they hoped that the crude SA bullying would dissipate; the responsibilities of governance would moderate Hitler and his minions. Au contraire! The Führer did not wait long to implement his radical plans.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Searching for God through the Backdoor

In perhaps an unguarded autobiographical moment I once characterized my adult intellectual life as a quest to understand three figures in history: Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther, and Adolf Hitler. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, my intention was to engage one of my classes in the reading assignments so that the students might not only learn of people and events, but also appreciate deeper truths about the human condition. The inspiration of Jesus and Luther needs little explanation, and these individuals correspond to my Reformed faith and scholarship respectively. The Nazi dictator, however, is another issue. I refer to him as a metaphor for a wider preoccupation with the darker episodes of history.

I've plumbed the depths of human depravity because I seek a sober, realistic assessment of humanity in all of its complexity. In developing an analysis I have availed myself of the social and biological sciences. On a more positive note, only an honest confrontation with evil and its disturbing implications for human nature, I submit, can help us achieve a more peaceful future. As journalist Lance Morrow wrote in his book Evil: An Investigation, “In the new instantaneous global dimension, it may be catastrophic not to think clearly about evil, not to be aware of what it is capable of doing.” To go a bit further, I also come to the Holocaust, and other odious events in history, for a source of hope and inspiration. When I read a book or watch a documentary about, say, Le Chambon, a small French village whose inhabitants risked their lives to hide Jews from Vichy officials and German troops, my world-weary soul receives more balm than if I had sung “The Star Spangled Banner,” not that I’m against that, mind you!

And yet acts of heroism are few and far between. Would that the world were a field of poppies, but when I come across a courageous soul who resisted evil at a cost, even when the society and culture opposed such resistance, it’s like finding a desert flower in a barren land—so precious, vibrant, striking, noble, beautiful, defiant. In quieter moments of contemplation, this search into things most foul and loathsome, I now recognize, has been a circuitous search for God, the divine, in a seemingly amoral and godless world.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Observation on Racism

Once in a while I teach a college course on women in American history.  When we get to the 18th century, one of the many colorful historical personages the students read about and discuss is Eliza Lucas Pinckney.  The basic facts of her life are well covered in textbooks.   Put in charge of her father's plantation in Antigua as a teen, Pinckney demonstrated skill as a landhold manager.  When the family moved to South Carolina and her father again left her in charge to pursue political office, Eliza, in a savvy business decision, introduced indigo, a plant that produces a blue dye.  She continued to experiment with various crops throughout her life and managed her husband's properties after his death.  She became a prosperous merchant and entrepreneur in her own right, and she was recently inducted in the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.  No less than President George Washington was a pallbearer at her funeral.

Fine.  But we're talking about a large plantation in the 18th century, so of course we're talking about hundreds of slaves.  (The photo, by the way, is from a South Carolina plantation during the Civil War, one hundred years after Eliza.)  I've made an observation over the years. Most of my students are white females. I've had few African American female students. And what do they think of Eliza?  They're divided along racial lines. In the past a small number of students have commented negatively on Pinckney as a slaveholder, but most have praised her business acumen and saw her as a role model for women.  This semester I've found that none of my (white) students said anything about the slave issue; they essentially ignored it and praised Eliza for her business savvy and can-do attitude.

I don't want to condemn my students as racists; don't misunderstand me.  Had they all focused on the slavery issue and ignored other aspects of Pinckney's life, to be honest, I would have been equally disappointed in them.  I tell them that as historians—and everyone in my classes are for all intents and purposes historians—we should avoid imposing moral judgments on the people of the past.   I praise students for being able to see someone holistically and not judging them because of one facet of their life.  Should we dispense with Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence and our third president, because he owned slaves?  Life experience shows us that when we get to know someone on a personal level, we find that person to be multifaceted, complex, and, as the Greeks had it, somewhere between beast and angel. We tend to assess people based on certain paradigms of what constitutes, say, good and bad behavior, just or unjust actions. We do this, I think, because we try to direct our own lives on the basis of certain values, knowing that this is the ideal and we will fall far short of it. With this experience in mind, we should strive all the more to put aside our value judgments that hinder us from understanding the past. We need to peel back the various layers of culture that separate us from the people of bygone eras.

Yet I'm still somewhat perturbed that none of my students this semester had anything bad to say about Eliza Pinckney.  When I take off my historian's hat I have a different attitude than the statement about objectivity in the previous paragraph.  For example, if there was once a great leader, even a president of the United States, who oppressed and enslaved "my people," I would have nothing but enmity for this person.  I could pay lip service to this historical figure's great accomplishments outside of slavery perhaps, but, honestly, that singular blemish in his or her moral character would be enough for me to condemn the person as a reprobate.  So why should I be surprised if most African-Americans feel likewise?

My students' opinion of Eliza Pinckney just goes to show that ethnocentrism, if not racism, is prevalent among us.  We can't really see beyond the invisible boundaries of race.  Think of the race riots in Los Angeles inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial.  Clearly the man was guilty of these heinous murders and if you ask even an African-American activist, away from the cameras and alone in a room, he or she will agree.  For all our talk and pride about individualism and the pioneering spirit being a quintessential American attribute, we, a nation of immigrants, still think in collectivities, collectivities of ethnicity and race.  My supervisor at work (and readers will note that Der Viator has a third source of income besides part-time academic and military careers), Eddie, is a spry African-American in his fifties who grew up in Arkansas and moved north when he was a young man.  He told me just the other day that he received a letter with the confederate symbol on the stamp.  The person who sent the letter probably had no intention to cause any grief, but caused grief he did.  Are there ways to combat the racism that so envelopes all of us and affects us in ways that we might not yet acknowledge?  Yes, but that's a blog entry for another time.  Suffice to say for now, Eliza Pinckney was a bright woman who adapted to a patriarchal society and held her own, but let us not forget the black slaves under her.  Who wouldn't give just about anything for their freedom?  Nobody.  And those who were benefiting from this evil system, whether they allegedly knew no better or not, certainly don't merit the status as role model.  Am I wrong?