Decalogic Schemalogic!

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shoppingMaybe you’ve seen it yourself. One of the many pieces of spirit-kitch floating about the net these days is a little gem called The Native American Ten Commandments. It might as easily be labelled an Indian Ten Commandments, or even the Native American Indian Ten Commandments.

…cause extra syllables make it all better.

Either way it’s just the sort of thing that goes with overly staged old photos or pastel-tinged paintings involving beautiful people and lots of feathers. To the left, you can see a poster version of the list. It is short on feathers, but totally cosmic, cause, well, Indians are good for that sort of thing.

…of course.

pst2831ntvam_grandeThat’s just one version of the native decalogue. Here is another! The list looks about the same, but the order seems to be different. Apparently, the order of this list isn’t as important to the Great Spirit as it is to the God of Abraham. I know, I know. Some of you are already saying these are the same thing.

Well maybe.

But seriously, I don’t think so.

See, one of the many things that I typically admire about indigenous peoples is that they aren’t the sort of people who normally produce this sort of nonsense.

…or at least they weren’t historically. (Progress ruins just about everything.)

So what’s wrong with a decalogue of commandery goodness? Well we could start with the commandment theme. It contains a whole host of culture-specific assumptions about ethics most of which seem screamingly out of place here, not the least of them being that ideas about how one ought to behave come from some being of cosmic authority. This one of many respects in which the politics of kings comes screaming through the metaphors of modern Christianity. Ten commandments construe morality in terms of fealty to a liege-lord who gets to tell us how to behave. Whatever else the Lord is, he’s also a Lord, which is to say neither a Democrat nor a Republican. He tells us what to do, and doing His will is what defines our own morality. That is the logic of the Ten Commandments. This logic gets softened a bit in the Native American variant. We don’t exactly know who is commanding us. It might not even be the great spirit. One imagines, perhaps an elder who wishes us to show respect for the Great Spirit, which is at least a little more egalitarian than a God who  starts his list of does and don’ts with a demand that we pay more attention to him than anyone else. So, yeah, it’s a little more egalitarian.

A little!

Tossing the commandment format out altogether would be a lot more egalitarian.

…and as far as I can tell, a lot more authentic. Maybe I’m missing something, like the history behind this particular decalogue. I wonder who produced it, and just what they hoped to accomplish with it. Suffice to say, it doesn’t strike me as having much connection to the traditions of any particular Native American people. It’s language and its metaphors are those of a generic pan-Indian culture, and in this case a pan-Indian culture as envisioned from the viewpoint of an outsider.

indexDo I object to the principles at stake here? Not particularly. Some of them sound rather cool. It’s the total package that sets off the red flags for me, not the least of reasons being its rather non-native packaging. What bothers me about this is the fact that some people don’t approach ethics in terms of a list of rules, much less imagine them to be the product of a cosmic legislator. The Native American decalogue invites us all to appreciate a kind of difference, but imposes an artificial similarity on the subject even as it pretends to acknowledge that difference.

And why ten? Seriously, can’t your ethics come in five or eights, or maybe even thirty-twos. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of listey philosophicals in general. The numbers always seem arbitrary, and along with that goes a lot of potential for contradiction, and very little potential for substantive understanding. It’s the matter-of-fact nature of such lists that seems to me an invitation to the most mechanical of moral sensibilities.

If there is a good place for such lists, I suspect it’s in less cosmic subject matters. They seem quite appropriate for a professional code of ethics, not the least of reasons that folks don’t usually expect a professional code of ethics to be complete. If your morality is dictated entirely by your job, then most folks would say you work to much. Then we just say; “Thou shalt get a life!”

…and thou better get on it, dammit!

Yes, I know I’m misusing ‘thou’. It’s not the worst thing I will do all day, not even in this post. Trust me!

commandments-colour-smallAnyway, I don’t really mean to pick on native Americans here. They aren’t the only ones to fall for the lure of the decalogue (or perhaps to have someone else fall for it on their behalf). Apparently, there is a Ten Commandments of Colour Theory. Ted Talks seem to have their own, ..um, TED Commandments. Unnamed sources tell me there is a Ten Commandments of Journalism. Actors have their own Ten Commandments. So do bartenders. I would not have guessed, but it appears that even Propagandists have Ten Commandments. Even Nudists have Ten Commandments. Writers have one just for social networking. Is there a secret to a successful marriage? Yep, ten of them. Typography has its own decalogue. Apparently millennials have their own Ten Commandments. Following these Ten Commandments will lead to weight loss. …surely. Computer programmers have a decalogue, though presumably they will work on it sometime next week.

5f3129f4f2e3c4dfde49270fbb5646ccAs I understand it, a list of Ten Commandments for Atheists has been floating around for awhile, though I assume the commandery parts of these Commandments is meant to be taken with a grain of salt. Actually, it seems there are a few decalogues for non-believers out there. Richard Dawkins seems to have produce one such list in The God Delusion. Penn Jillette has one too. I don’t remember reading it, but I’m told Bertrand Russell produced such a list long before him. Hitchens has his own list, so now his face appears on memes beside such a list. The guy at Daylight Atheism on Patheos blogs is not to be outdone. Oh look! The Atheism Reddit seems to have a Ten Commandments.

h9r6qCh…it looks like someone else made that up.

…probably not a fan of the atheist reddit.

Hey, there is a Ten Commandments of Logic! Hm…

There is a Ten Commandments for Musicians. Better yet, Captain Beefheart once produced a Ten Commandments for Guitar Playing. Classical Musicians have their own Ten Commandments. Drummers have a list of Ten Commandments, but honestly, I think they have machines for that now.

How many commandments do RPG Gamers have? Ten. It appears that Gamemasters have ten of their own. Do game designers have ten commandments? Of course. But there is a different one for educational game designers. There is even a Ten Commandments specifically for video game menus. Game Inventors have one of their own.

Do Republicans have their own Ten Commandments? Yes, but apparently they didn’t write it. Or this one. Liberals don’t seem to have written theirs either.  Elizabeth Warren once issued 11 Commandments for Progressives, cause apparently one of them is breaking the frame. Mostly, Republicans and Democrats argue about the Ten Commandments, but let’s not get into that.

…today anyway.

ac95140ca7e38d9210cf7a63357977b6I can only hope that I’ve broken at least three of them, but you can damned well bet that there is a Ten Commandments for bloggers. Actually, there seems to be two of them. No, Three. Make that four. Okay, five. Six? Okay, that’s really enough. No really, stop it! Seriously, stop it! I said STOP!

Someone here says that cats have a Ten Commandments, but they only follow it when they feel like it. Dogs have their own take on the Ten Commandments. I would look for a Ten Commandments of tropical fish, but I imagine it would just go like; “1) Gloop, 2) gloop, gloop.” Horses have a Ten Commandments. There is a Ten Commandments for pets in general.

Oh Hell, I haven’t even got to all the interesting or well known decalogues! This could take all day. …maybe even ten of them. But you get the idea. What’s fascinating about the proliferation of decalogetry, at least to me, is the seeming arbitraryness of the whole thing. Even within the Abrahamioc religions, the Ten Commandments have less to do with actual scripture than pop-Christianity. Compared to its source material, the Ten Commandments are simplified and trimmed of questionable content (one might even say that ‘politically correct’, but of course that phrase is only to be used in attacking liberals). Still, the notion caught on, and caught on so well it just keeps generating itself, time and again. Some of its children are meant to be taken more seriously than others, but an awful lot of people seem to fall quite easily into the notion that ethics begins with a list of ten principle to be declared into existence by someone (with or without the authority to do so).

imagestyIn fact, maybe I’ll have a go at it myself:

The Ten Commandments of Decalogue Building

1: The Number of Commandments Shall be Ten.

2. Ten shall be the number of the commandments.

3) Thou shalt not have 11 Commandments, nor 9, except that…

4 – No Monty Python References!

5 ~ Numbers 2 through 5 are bullshit. Start over!

2b -> …or not to be. That is the question.

3b, Okay, I’ll let you get by with that one.

4b That which is numbered shall be commandments. Simple oughts and issez shall not count in the counting except insofar as one reconstructs them into shalls and shall nots, or even to fuck offs.

5c = No, not fuck-offs, dammit. Do this right!

6 This is hard.

6.2 –You’re wasting time. Do that one over!

6.3 …Okay, …No matter the subject, all that is deemed worthy of the counting shall end in an exclamation mark

6.4 …

6.5 !

7)) All commandments are to be read in the voice of Charlton Heston. Of course!

8:: The decalogue will not be televised.

  • 9 You’re off topic again.

(10) I really can’t do this.

11 Cause my rules go to 11.

The Look of Silence, a Review

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MV5BOTMwMjI4MjQ3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjkwOTM2NTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_It’s easy to think of silence as the auditory equivalent to a blank page, a kind of nothing that fits in between the sounds where we actually expect to find meaning. At times, though, silence conveys more than we can hope to cram into the sounds we call words. Joshua Oppenheimer is one person who clearly understands this. His latest film, The Look of Silence explores this topic in one of its more sinister forms. This film is a companion piece to The Act of Killing. Both movies deal with a genocide carried out in 1965 after the government of Indonesia had been taken over by the nation’s military. In the aftermath of this coup anywhere from half a million to a million people were killed. Victims included communists, ethnic Chinese, and those openly critical of the new government. The Act of Killing explored these events through the narratives of killers themselves and the stories they tell about their own actions. In The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer explores the lives of those who survived the massacre, those who lost loved ones in the killings and have since then had to live their lives among those who carried out the killings.

Whatever else silence conveys in this film, it clearly conveys a strong sense of terror, both because the stories it relates are as terrifying as they are real, and because the film-makers exposed themselves to danger in order to get those very stories.

Time and again, we see the main protagonist of the film, Adi Rukun, staring in silence as he listens to the killers of 1965 describing in great detail the horrors they themselves perpetrated in 1965. Sometimes Adi watches the killers telling their stories in video clips. Sometimes, he interviews them himself. Adi’s older brother was one of those killed in 1965. The story of his brother’s killing is among those he learns about over the course of this film.

If there is a plot to The Look of Silence, it is generated from Adi’s own decision to confront the killers, to speak to them himself, to risk engagement on a subject about which he is expected to remain silent. Adi is an Optometrist, and his subjects are aging. An eye exam thus becomes the pretext for one interview after another, each one an opportunity to breach the subject of past horrors. The resulting story is filled with this tension between silence and speech. The possibility that events discussed in the narratives of the killers could well happen again haunts one throughout the film. More to the point, one cannot escape the sense that Adi’s efforts could well make subject him and his own family to such violence. Those he interviews remind him of this frequently over the course of the film. The hints are subtle, but they are real, and they are horrifying.

It seems trite to suggest this, but the silent moments occurring in each interview are as interesting as the words themselves. We learn so much from the killers in this film. They tell us so many things about their past actions and their motivations, and yet each tries to withhold some part of their own stories from Adi and from us. Oppenheimer lets the camera linger in the awkward moments wherein they reconsider their stories and adjust their narratives to new questions and uncomfortable revelations. Always there is Audi, sitting there quietly, courageously choosing his words and listening to their responses. At times he is inscrutable. At others, one can almost feel the tears rising within him. …or the rage. Most often I cannot help thinking it is shame that I see in his face, a kind of deep-seated embarrassment for the murderers and for their inability to face the truth of their own actions.

If this is a story of silence, it isn’t merely the silence of Indonesians that unfolds in this story. American foreign policy is all over the events described in the movie, its long-term significance pervasive not merely in the lives of Indonesians themselves, but also in the consumer culture of Americans.

…in products we’ve all enjoyed in our own lives.

…without every knowing their cost.

Okay, ….the Full Lemmy Story!

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Imissmyhair

Me with less fat and more hair. (Apparently, someone had gotten a karaoke machine for Christmas that year.)

I an earlier post, I mentioned that the most famous person ever to speak to me was Lemmy from Motorhead. I didn’t explain the situation, cause I’m a bad man, but a few of you have asked. So, here it is.

The story takes place at an Alice Cooper concert in Vegas. This was my 3rd time seeing Cooper in concert, but this time it was from the 3rd row very near the center. Motorhead was one of two warm-up bands. I think the other was Faster Pussycat, but I can’t remember exactly. I do remember Motorhead. I wasn’t really a fan at the time, but I remember they came out and Lemmy says; “Good evening!”

…and the audience roars a bit. Lemmy wasn’t happy with this, so he says; “I said fucking good evening!”

…which kinda scared me.

This time the audience gave a respectable cheer. I always thought it was at least partially out of fear, cause that raspy voice and Lemmy’s demeanor suggested we all better say ‘good evening’ or he’d come out into the audience and teach us good manners one at a time. Anyway, he got his response and the band commenced rockitation.

…which was the first time I began to think I might like their music.

The other band was meh.

Along comes Cooper, and I love Alice Cooper. It had been a long time since Cooper had done an album I liked, but no matter! I love his early stuff enough to sit through a dozen Teenage Frankensteins if it means I get to hear just one Generation Landslide. So, I’m diggin’ it, and I’m especially diggin’ the good seats.

The thing is, I’m not real physically demonstrative, so I just stood there. I was loving it, but I just stood there, as did a friend of mine, also a big fan of Cooper. Now this is a problem because Alice likes to rally the fans and get them pumping their fists. He would come along with his cane and get everyone in the front seats cheering and pumping away. Then he’d move down a bit and do the same to the nearby seats. I’m pretty sure that he noticed my friend and I just standing there, and I could swear he spent a few extra moments in our area trying to get us to join the action. Nuthin doin’. We were enjoying the show. We just didn’t do the fist pumping thing.

No, I don’t dance either.

So anyway, as the Cooper show is ending he brings out two great big black balloons and floats them out over the audience. The audience grabs them and rips them apart. Confetti spills out all over everyone. I’m thinking I’ve seen him do this before, and sure enough, he does a second round of black balloons. These produce a kind of smoke effect when people tear them apart. Now, I know there is a third round of balloons coming, but I can’t remember what’s in the balloons this time. I’m still trying to remember it when Alice comes right to the edge of the stage just in front of my section. He shouts something; “who wants…” I couldn’t hear the last word, but no matter. I was quite surprised to find my stick-in-the-mud self shouting ‘yeah’ at the top of my lungs and lunging my fists forward with enthusiasm. I swear Cooper looked at me and I could practically hear him thinking; “I finally got that lazy fucker in the 3rd row to do something.” He looks right at me and floats the balloon straight to me. I grab it. People on every side of me grab it. And I’m still trying to remember what it was that was in the third round of balloons as everyone rips the damn thing apart.

As soon as the warm liquid splattered all over my face I remembered that it was blood, fake blood to be sure, but close enough to make me look good and frightful. I was thoroughly drenched in the stuff.

…and loved it!

I was still hanging out after the show when Lemmy walks by with a couple guys, looks at me and says; “covered in fucking blood eh?”

:)

***

The hardest part of the whole evening was sneaking into the house without giving my mother a heart attack.

 

Leo Gets Mauled By a Bear; My Readers Get Mauled By a Spoiler.

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220px-The_Revenant_2015_film_posterThe Revenant was cool. In fact it was damned cool!

By ‘damned cool’ I might mean ‘damned hard to watch,’ but then again damned hard to watch can be damned cool. Tastes vary, of course, but watching a CGI brown bear maul Leonardo DiCaprio was well worth the price of admission.

No, I don’t hate DiCaprio. Quite the contrary. It takes some skill to sell that kind of suffering, and he does it damned well.

This is the story of Hugh Glass, a mountain man most famous for surviving an attack by a bear, and (more impressive still) for surviving his subsequent predicament. Left for dead, the man somehow made it roughly 200 miles to safety (mostly by crawling, as I understand it). The real story of Glass is impressive enough as it is, which is one reason writers and movie-makers keep coming back to it. The Revenant weaves its own narratives around the tale of Glass and his trials.

This movie is every bit as bleak and terrible as you might have thought. Images of human suffering abound, and of course the central story here is one about perseverance in the face of tremendous adversity. By perseverance I of course mean suffering. I might even have to write ‘suffering’ in this review a few more times, just to make sure you get the point. There is a lot of suffering in this film. But what does all the suffering add up to?

Therein lies the nitpickery point!

It’s a vision of the frontier as a place filled with violence and pain. That frontier has very little in the way of love, stability, family, or community. The things that connect human beings to one another in meaningful ways have been all but removed from the world of this story. When such connections do appear in this film, they appear to be fragmenting …painfully. Glass, for example, has already lost his Indian wife as the story begins. He will lose his son midway through the story, and he will end the film quite alone.

It isn’t the bear that sets off all this tragedy. It is the leader of an Arikara party who keeps attacking Glass and his companions. This character, we learn, is actually seeking his own daughter, whom he believes to have been captured by Glass’ party. Glass’ doomed wife and son as well as the daughter of the Arikara leader are the only bonds of kinship that I recall from the film, and each is unraveling even as the film begins. We are left with a world in which love itself comes into focus only through the medium of pain.

It’s worth considering for a moment that this kind of world cannot exist over the long duration. There are no births in this world, nor are there the means of nurturing future generations. These are men operating on the fringes of their own communities and/or in the wilderness emerging between them. It comes close to a Hobbesian time of war, or perhaps more appropriately to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier as the meeting place between savagery and civilization. Even the Native Americans in this film seem unable to keep a family together. This is the myth of the west taken to 11. It’s a world that must pass, either to complete destruction or eventually into some semblance of social order. It is the latter of course to which this sort of frontier narrative points us, as the frontier anticipates the coming of civilization. For now, we are left to contemplate a world in which few (if any) are born and a good many die every third or fourth scene.

I can’t help but think many will imagine this is the world frontiersman found when they entered the American wilderness, though I’m more inclined to think of it as a world they made by that very entry.

If there is a truly objectionable feature to this narrative theme, it would be the role played by friendly Natives. Some readers may be familiar with the phrase ‘magic negro’, which is usually taken to refer to a stock character used in all-to-many Hollywood films. The magic negro is usually gifted with some mystical power, often a sort of impossible wisdom which he will use to aid the white protagonist in a given story. Just as often, the magic negro will die before the end of the narrative, leaving the great white protagonist to resolve matters using whatever gifts his friend left behind. Suffice to say the magic negro needn’t really be a negro, though it does seem rather commonly to be a minority of some kind. In The Revenant, Glass enjoys the help of not one, not two, but three magic minorities, all Native Americans.

The First (and oddly enough also the last) of these supernatural mentors would be Glass’ wife. Having been slain in a prior event, she continually returns in the form of visions which inspire Glass to continue. Whether these are meant to be real or simply features of his own imagination isn’t really very important. The bottom line is that she is long gone, but she continues to serve as an inspiration to him. She appears at the very end of the film as well, seeming to say goodbye.

The second of these characters would be Glass’ son who remains loyal to him even as his injuries appear to leave Glass without hope of recovery. This loyalty will cost Glass’ son his life, but that in turn will provide Glass with the motivation to survive, to avenge the death of his son.

The third of these magic Indians appears in the form of Pawnee who shares food with Glass, travels with him, and cures him when Glass is overcome with infections. Glass will awaken to find himself well on the road to recovery even as he discovers his Pawnee friend hanging from a tree, leaving him to face yet another terrible challenge quite alone.

Time and again, Glass benefits from Native characters even as they themselves pass away. The death of the magic minority is that much more fitting here insofar as it perpetuates the narratives of western conquest. Native characters may hamper the frontiersman as does the Arikara leader, or they may aid him, as do each of the magic Indians in this film, but it is simply no coincidence that the white protagonist finishes the story on his own.

Does this work? Yes. It’s a Hell of story, and I plan to watch it again. And perhaps it works partly because of the very tropes that have me griping about the story right now. Some may find them extraordinarily compelling even as I find them terribly disappointing. I can’t help but think more interesting stories await the film-maker who learns to take Native characters a bit more seriously.

 

The Man With No Game!

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Who could forget the man with no name? It’s easily the most memorable character in Clint Eastwood’s acting career. After generations of protagonists so apple-pie obvious in white hats and chaps, always doing the right thing, and always winning in the end, there was something especially compelling about this antihero. You never quite knew what he was going to do. He might save the town, or he might kill everyone. You didn’t really know until right about the same time you learned the outcome of the conflict itself. This vision of moral ambiguity was a wonderful contribution to film.

As a character in a role-playing game, he totally sucks!

To be a little more specific, he makes a terrible player character in an ongoing campaign. The Man With No Name has some potential as an Non Player Character, if the guy running the game uses him well, but in the hands of a player this sort of character can be a terrible buzzkill. That doesn’t stop players from creating characters with similar personae. Time and again players bring such characters to the game table only to they aren’t nearly as interesting as their cinematic counterparts. The difference illustrates a little about storytelling, I think. But of course the issue is larger than the man with no-name. It extends to any number of morally ambiguous characters, characters who inspire fear and hope in roughly equal amounts.

What makes such characters work is the extra tension they provide to the narrative. Instead of just wondering if the hero will beat the bad guys, a morally ambiguous protagonist leaves you wondering if he will even take up the right side of the fight. He might just as easily prove to be the biggest nightmare of the narrative. Done well, such personalities will leave you on the edge of your seat well into the third act, but of course resolution will come in the end. Sooner or later these characters do the right thing, even if reluctantly so, and perhaps with a trace of wrong mixed in with it for bad measure, but they will step up to the challenge and save the day.

The audience needn’t do anything but soak up the story.

And therein lies the difference. Role playing games (or at least the pen&paper variation thereof) is an inherently cooperative enterprise. The players must come to a series of agreements in order to make it work. At minimum this means coming to an understanding of the game rules, but it also requires some agreement on the essential features of the setting as well. Ultimately, the players will need to come to a shared understanding of the plot-line for a campaign as well. Failing that, an rpg can easily descend into an endless session of bickering over one detail after another. Were things going right, these very details would be the icing on the cake, the features of the story that make it so much more vivid. But when the players aren’t on the same page, such details instead provide fodder for a series of arguments about imaginary things, and being imaginary, those things don’t admit easily of resolution by rational argument. This is of course what makes the old Summoner Geeks parody so brilliant. Most of us who game have been there at one time or another. ….A story that isn’t quite happening, it’s every detail becoming an excruciating source of pointless conflict.

The morally ambivalent character is just one more variation on this problem. It poses the dilemma of a character who may or may not accept the central plot-lines of the story. More to the point, it poses the challenge of a player who may or may not accept the central challenge of the story. Unlike a movie viewer, the other players must then actively contend with the possibility that his ambiguous loyalties will undermine their own efforts to resolve the central story line. They have to worry if the dark and mysterious character will piss off the one great side character whose help they really need; if he will start a random fight in a bar where they hoped to meet an important contact; or if he might simply wander off when the big battle is about to go down. The possibilities are as countless as they are frustrating. It’s a bit like watching a side-plot to a movie take-over the entire narrative. …except that you’re not simply watching that happen. You are actively trying to resolve the main narrative and the player running the ambiguous character has just derailed the whole project!

Of course a player running a morally ambivalent character needn’t do this. He can do as the writer of a movie or a book might and choose to let his character do the right thing, so to speak, perhaps grumbling a bit in the process or adopting an ironic reason for doing so. That can be fun. It can actually work.

For about a game or two.

What makes such characters really frustrating is the prospect of dealing with their ambivalence three, four, even ten games into an ongoing campaign. It can actually be kind of fun to figure out a mysterious character in the early stages of a campaign when the story-line is just beginning to emerge. If you are still worried about his likely course of action well into the campaign, and long after the central challenge of the plot has taken shape, the whole act is going to get damned old. Ironically, such characters eventually lose their bad-ass quality and start to seem more like pampered children or special snowflakes.

It isn’t just that such characters are frustrating (though they are). The problem is that the sense of mystery -the dramatic tension that makes them tick – fails over time and they simply become tedious, just one more detail that cannot be settled. Part of what makes ambivalent characters interesting to begin with is a sense of anticipation. What will he do? It’s an interesting question, but this question must eventually be answered to provide a satisfactory theme in a story. If a player leaves his or her character sitting on the fence umpteen plot twists into a campaign, that in itself starts to become the answer to this very question. He’ll stay on that damned fence and make you beg him to help out every time something needs doing.

This can be a bit like watching unrequited love in a sit-com. It’s kinda fun for an episode or three, but it’s a bit old by the second season. By season three it’s a distraction from the cool parts of the series, and by season four it’s the reason you’ve decided to watch something else.

Ultimately, the mystery that makes such characters tick resides in a moment within a plot line, but that moment must eventually pass. A character who doesn’t know what side he’s on well into an ongoing plot becomes a source of irritation. When a player tries to make moral ambiguity a lasting feature of his character, he or she may well end up as a the buzz-kill that ended the campaign.

And the man with no name thus acquires one.

It just isn’t a good one.

R.I.P. Lemmy Kilmister, 1945-2015.

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Lemmy is probably the most famous person ever to speak to me. It was after a concert. The man walked by and said; “covered in fucking blood, eh?”

…and we’ll just leave the story at that.

The world is a more interesting place for the time he spent on it.

Of Trumps Walls and Wires!

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trumpcrop5One of the things I like most about street art is the way it interacts with the environment. Case in point, this wire in front of this mural in the Vegas Art District irritated me at first. Then I came to see it as a sort of design feature.

A good one.

Here’s the full panel.

trumpcrop3

Islam is not a Race! …Or an Apple, or a Hacksaw. It’s Not Even a Loud or a Sour.

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Trump's Friend

One of Donald Trump’s fans

Prejudice Paints in broad strokes, but its defense is typically written in fine print. So very often the same person who begins with broad generalizations will find all manner of fine-tuned distinctions to make in support of them. Hatred of Muslims gives us not just one but two of these games. In the first, people worry over whether or not Islamophobia is a word. In the second they reassure us that Islam is not a race.

By people, I suppose I mean Richard Dawkins.

I also mean a lot of other people too, but we’ll start with Dawkins. He just happens to have given us a couple of good examples of the sort of games people play on this subject. The first occurred in a discussion of Ahmed Mohamed (the Muslim boy who’s clock earned him national attention awhile back. Accused of Islamophobia in his comments on the subject, Dawkins dismissed this as a non-word. The second appears on his Twitter stream on December 8th:

DawkinsCropped

What both of these examples have in common is a flippant response to concerns about hatred and fear of Islam and/or Muslims. The issue is far from limited to Dawkins or his critics. Trump and his fans have provided countless examples of these games over the last few months. Let’s take each of these issues in turn.

***

Is Islamophobia a word? Yes, it is. Whether or not that word can be used to communicate something useful is a more serious question. We’ll pursue that one here.

I’ve spoken with some folks who oppose the use of the word to describe attacks on Muslims.They interpret the word as applying only to attacks on Islam itself which ought in their view to be fair game for reasonable criticism (as opposed to attacks on actual Muslims). It’s an interesting distinction to make, but there are at least 2 problems with it, no 3.

1) While it may be true (and I certainly think it is) that there are perfectly reasonable criticisms of Islam itself, it is also true that there are unreasonable and highly biased criticisms of Islam. So, restricting our concerns about unfair criticism to actual people doesn’t do much to ensure responsible dialogue.

2) Actual prejudice simply isn’t limited to such neat distinctions. Unreasonable and biased criticism of Islam itself is indeed one of the many ways that someone seeking to spread hatred of Muslims may communicate his or her prejudice.

3) There are serious questions about the social footing in which even a sound rational criticism of Islam will take place today. Sure, we can put a reasonable Muslim in a room with a reasonable critic and ask them to hold a reasonable debate, but in the present political climate, the comments flying back and forth across various media bleed far too much into other topics such as terrorism, war, and national policy. Whn issues such as misogyny and homophobia are used, as they often are to explain what is wrong with Islam, it becomes that much easier to justify military action against Islamic countries. But bombs fall on women and those of homosexual orientation, just as they do straight men. And the poetic injustice reaches its final flourish when women and children in flight from ISIS are denied refuge because so many in the west can imagine Islam only in context of its horrors. In this context, it’s at least a little difficult to take the notion of reasonable criticism at face value.

As another way of putting this last point, I would say that a reasonable criticism is not simply one rooted in sound reasoning; it is one made in a context wherein constructive dialogue may actually take place.  When that context is not present, many arguments that mihght at face value seem quite reasonable can often do more to spread hatred than to address real problems in a rational way.

This doesn’t resolve every question about Islamophobia, to be sure. The term may be directed at those with legitimate concerns about Islam or its adherents. Then again, words don’t come with guarantees about their own usage. Excessive and irresponsible criticisms of Islam and its adherents do happen, and concerns about such issues ought not to be dismissed with a quip about voicabulary.

***

For my own part, I shall continue to use the word, Islamophobia. I shall use it to describe what I take to be irrational prejudice against Islam, Muslims, or Muslim entities (Mosques, charitable organizations, states, etc.). I will distinguish it from criticisms that I do regard to be rational. I’m open to debate as to which is which, but I shall regard preemptive dismissal (such as that of Dawkins) as a sign of bad faith.

***

The notion that Islamophobia is a form of racism is itself interesting on a number of levels. To be sure, there are times when I am tempted to say that some other term might be more appropriate than ‘racism’, but when someone points out a prejudice, a discussion of whether or not that prejudice is about race, religion, nationality, or some other category can be pretty damned underwhelming. It’s well enough to dot your Is and cross your Ts, but that sort of quest shouldn’t be used to obscure the larger point that some form of prejudice is at stake in the issue.

As to the specific notion that critics of Islamophobia think Islam is a race, well it’s tough to decide whether or not that ‘s a straw man or a red herring. Perhaps it’s a straw herring.

I imagine someone out there may well think that Islam is a race, though I have yet to encounter the fellow. The vast majority of those asserting that Islamophobia is a form of racism are not, however, asserting any such thing. The notion that Islamophobia is a form of racism can be argued in a variety of ways:

1) In some cases the argument is essentially analogical reasoning. Islamophobia shares enough of the traits of racism that some feel justified in using the term on that basis alone. Some may not find this particularly convincing, but even so the denial just leaves us in search of a different word for the prejudice, and in no case does it involve mythical ideas of a Muslim race.

Trump&Friends

Trump’s milkshake brings all the White Supremacists to the yard!

2) Others emphasize the role of racial motivation in support for attacks against Islam. White Supremacists can and do criticize Islam as a way of attacking other ethnic groups. Because Islam is associated with specific demographic populations, criticism of Islam is an effective way of criticizing those groups. You can see this for example in the white racist memes often posted as replies in support of Trump these days. You can also see this in the number of crimes and attacks on others such as Sikhs commonly mistaken for Muslim, or in criticisms that oddly take practices from one Islamic region as arguments against people from another one (see my last post). When folks describe Syrian refugees in mass as terrorists, then no, this is not a criticism of any religion, and no, specific security concerns about the possibility that terrorists COULD come into the country as refugees do nothing to justify the sweeping generalizations often made against these refugees. In these and countless other ways, the religious nature of Islam is confounded with issues of ethnic identity and nationality.

…which is incidentally just what one would normally expect from racists.

Simply put, the question here is not whether those serving as the object of purportedly racist attacks really constitute a race (as if ‘race’ were real to begin with); it’s whether or not racism plays a role in the motivations of those launching the attacks.

3) Perhaps the most substantial argument in favor of the notion that Islamophobia is a form of aracism lies in the notion that attacks on Islam actually serve to re-enforce some of the same institutional inequalities once promoted through racism. Where previous generations may have justified colonialism and discrimination in the name of the ‘white man’s burden’, we now bomb Islamic nations with disturbing regularity and debate whether or not to take in their refugees through reference to Islam and Islamism. In effect, one might suggest that Islam is just the latest label used to perpetuate regional aggression as well as individual acts of discrimination. The vocabulary of racism may have changed, but it’s not terribly precise to begin with, and its effects remain largely the same.

***

Whatever the basis for describing Islamophobia as a form of racism, the notion that Islam is literally a race simply isn’t among them. That is little more than a flippant excuse for dismissing serious concerns. That’s definitely not helpful.

 

The Mating Calls of Violent Men!

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CUPDyz-UkAEwa14

Please accept my apologies for posting this piece of filth

So this morning I’m surfing the hashtags on Twitter, cause I have plenty better to do of course, but anyway…

…and I come across the image to your left. It’s just one of many memes produced every day by the right wing hate machine. This one in particular happens to have been retweeted by professional bigot Ann Coulter.

I look at this image and I can’t help but think of the words ‘nits make lice.’ the saying is popularly attributed to Colonel John Chivington, another of history’s great war-mongers who didn’t care to distinguish children from enemies. Ostensibly charged with protecting the people of Colorado from Cheyenne and Arapaho, Chivington wasn’t much good at fighting real warriors, but he sure knew how to kill women and children, and on November 29th, 1864, he knew exactly where to find a band of Cheyenne who weren’t going anywhere. They weren’t going anywhere, because they’d already been placed under the protection of the army at Fort Lyon. Chivington didn’t care.

Neither do people who produce images like this.

Sadly such folk are not such a fringe group in America, or in other parts of the western world. Today the net is also abuzz with talk of plans from Narcissa Trump to force Muslims to register all across the nation so we can keep track of them. We’re still hearing the echoes of a Jeb Bush plan to admit only Christian refugees to America. And of course calls abound to reject all Syrian refugees out of some generalized fears about terrorism. Some are concerned about the possibility of terrorists inserting themselves into the refugee population. Many more simply refuse to think of any Muslims, or those coming from Muslim regions, as anything but terrorists.

CUCnndDWsAEIM4z

Because of course what some Afghans do is the best argument against helping Syrians in distress

I find myself waxing nostalgic for the days after 9-11 when President Bush carefully made it clear that our nation is not at war with Islam. I’ve never been a fan of Bush, but in this regard he at least held the rising tide of right wing malice to within certain degrees of sanity. In the intervening years, pseudo-conservative culture warriors have been working damned hard to overcome that limitation, and they have made great progress. They want a general war between the west (and Christendom) and Islam itself. Sometimes folks will qualify this by saying we are at war with ‘radical Islam’ as if ‘radical’ were ever enough to clarify the difference. These people want desperately for America to commit to general war against proponents of Islam all over the world.

And in this respect, they want very much the same thing that terrorists want. It’s as fascinating as it is disturbing to the dance of dangerous men and their couch-bound cheerleaders. Nothing brings the bigots out from under the rocks that hide them in America quite like events such as Paris. They find in terrorist acts a real source of empowerment, and they use that empowerment as much to attack moderates here in the west as any radicals abroad.

What is the worst thing about Isis? To so many right wingers, that would be Obama.

…or liberals in general.

What these war-mongers want doesn’t have much to do with ending terrorism or defeating actual terrorists, but they will make life miserable for those who happen to live near terrorists, who happen to look like terrorists, or (in the case of Syrian refugees) who happen to have already been hurt themselves by such terrorists. They would have been right at home with Chivington and the Colorado 3rd.

Each act of terrorism is an opportunity for right wingers to push aside the rest of us, to finally defeat their own domestic enemies and set the nation and the world at large on a violent course. They see in Paris and every act by the terrorists proof positive that their own violent worldview is the correct one, and that our nations must ever more place warfare at the center of public policy. That our own war efforts may have similar effects in far regions of the world could hardly be an objection to such a mind-set. It is synergy in action, the benefits of an ever escalating rhetoric of violence. As much as these people hate each other, they hate the rest of us more.

Its tough not to see a measure of alliance between terrorists and those who would reduce of American policy to a war against them, and against all of Islam. In some cases, this connection would be concrete, because you can bet the KKK and everyone at Storm Front are among the voices flooding social media this last week. In other cases the connection takes more thought. But each act of violence brings both forth cries for more of the same. These messages come ostensibly from enemies, and yet they coalesce into an odd sort of harmony.

The mating calls of violent men!

These violent men only have eyes for each other. And if they have their way, the world at large will soon be nothing but a battle ground between such people.

It will also be a dance hall for the morbidly obsessed.

Son of a Bullet Point Mind: Cold Reading the Textbook

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20151104_095016[1]It was a few years back. I had a couple students I had agreed to help with a reading. Since I didn’t think they were reading at all, I thought I would begin the session by simply giving them time to read. We would discuss the article after they had had a chance to read part way through it, or at least that was my plan. But there I was, not a full minute into the reading session and one of the students had already commented on the point of the article. He finished with rising tone, as if inviting me to confirm or deny the validity of his point. His overall demeanor seemed to suggest that he was ready to begin the discussion.

I asked this student to just read for a little while, explaining that we would discuss the article afterwards. If he had specific questions about the meaning of words in the text, I would be happy to answer those, but I wanted to save the general discussion until he had had a chance to read the material.

It wasn’t another minute before he asked me a question about the point of the article. And another before he made another point about a random line on the page. Each time, he seem to be trying to kick of the full discussion. I decided to compromise and agreed to discuss the matter after he’d finished one page.

He never made it throiugh that one page.

I should point out that this was a college student, and a rather bright one at that. But it was very clear to me that he didn’t read. I wouldn’t say that he couldn’t read, because I’m pretty sure that he could parse any reasonable sentence you threw at him, but perhaps the effort to concentrate on a full reading was too much. Anyway, the specific reasons for not reading in this case are beside the point. What interests me most about this example is what the student was doing INSTEAD of reading. He was working me, lifting a word or a phrase off the page and inviting me to elaborate on his own contributions. Whether phrased as a question or a comment, his every utterance was an effort to put the ball back in my court and get me started explaining the material. The one thing that was never going to happen that semester was him reading a text, but if he could pull it off, I would never realize he hadn’t done the reading at all. After all, he had so many thoughts about the reading.

…the reading he didn’t do.

On some level, this is simply a bluff. We’ve all done it, partly because we’ve all been caught with our pants down so to speak. At some point in our education, we’ve all been asked a question about readings we didn’t do. You can admit you didn’t do the reading or you can say something in an effort to sound like you know a thing or two about what you were supposed to have read. Most of us have probably tried the bluff a time or three. It’s not that unusual, at least not as a single instance. But what was unusual, or at least very striking to me in this case was the realization that this was standard operational procedure for the student in question.  Near as I could tell, this was how he handled all his teachers and all his readings. And why not? It worked.

Most of the time anyway.

What made that particular circumstance unusual, and awkward, was my own determination to get this student to read something on that day, even if it was just a single page. Had we not been meeting outside the classroom, and had I not made it a point to ask him to read then and there, the painful impossibility of my expectation that he actually read something might never have given us both cause to regret each others’ company that evening. I might have come away suspicious, but in this case it had become unusually clear that this student didn’t read, and that at least one of the reasons he didn’t read was that he never needed to. All he had to do was field an observation or two and let the imagination of his instructors fill in the gaps for him. It’s how he learned what was in all of his books.

This is exactly what psychics do, or at least one variety of them, the ones who do cold reading. Ostensibly ‘picking up a vibration’, or ‘getting an impression’, a psychic may ask you if there is someone important in your life, someone having trouble, and since of course all of us have someone like that in our lives, we will happily fill in the details and confirm that they are right. Soon we will be talking with the psychic about cousin Ernest and his heart problems. And if we’re not very careful, we may just think it an amazing thing that this psychic somehow knew about cousin Ernest without us ever telling her about him. We’ll come away from the experience thinking it’s amazing, and amazing of course is exactly what the psychic wants us to think about the whole experience.

Perhaps she wants to think that way about it herself.

Not the cold reading student though. The cold reading student doesn’t want their powers of divination to be noticed at all. He wants you to think his contributions to classroom discussion are perfectly normal, his errors understandable, and his proper calls exactly what one would expect of an individual working his way through the material. He may be hit or miss on tests and other assignments, but as long as he is talking about the classroom materials, he has an angle, and that angle is the imagination of the instructor. If he can land a comment in the ballpark, so to speak, he can rely on the instructor to pick that ball up and carry the game forward.

…perhaps without ever realizing that the student hasn’t a clue.

This is why some students specialize in so many one word answers. You can give them an essay by an abolitionist and ask them what the authors main point is in that essay and they will tell you it was ‘slavery’? What they are expecting you to do at that point is say something like; “yes, he is talking about slavery and what he has to say about…” If instead you insist on asking the student to explain what the author actually says about slavery, then the whole thing is just going to get very unpleasant. Since no-one wants to experience an unpleasant conversation, and since most instructors are dying to get to the interesting details of whatever they happen to teach, odds are quite good that the instructor isn’t going to be that fussy. So, students can just toss a word out and watch what happens, a bit like giving a broken machine a kick in the hopes it will restart.

***

I once had a one-on-one session with a student who had been asked to read an essay by John Stuart Mill. This was admittedly pushing the envelope for this student’s reading abilities, but it was actually one of the more user-friendly readings in the textbook my college (in its infinite wisdom) made me use that semester, so I figured I’d do my best and ask the students to do the same. So anyway…

I thought I would work through the first paragraph of the essay with her and see how things went. She looked at the first sentence and found the words ‘freedom’ and ‘will’ in there. She then looked up and thought about it a moment before explaining that we have freedom of the will. That’s what she thought Mill was saying. She had pulled two words off the page and thought her way to the connection between them. What she hadn’t done was to read the actual sentence in front of her.

We repeated this process for an hour, and she approached every sentence the exact same way, pulling a few keywords off the text, looking up, and imagining the connection between them. This approach yielded an interpretation nearly the polar opposite of the one Mill had been trying to convey. I carefully explained Mill’s actual position, watching her eyes widen as I did, and upon completing that lesson, I risked a comment on her reading strategies. I asked her to read each sentence in turn, each full sentence, and to do that for the full article. She looked at me like I was insane. That’s not how reading was done! She proved even more surprised to learn that this is what I wanted whenever I handed out readings in any of my classes.

And at last, I understood why she never got anything out of the other textbooks.

I can just imagine the number of readers now thinking of this or that tool or technqiue to help this student learn the necessary skills, or to motivate them to learn, and I myself wish the college where this occurred had more in the way of persistence and retention facilities, but all of that misses the problem. The problem in this instance is that this isn’t a problem, at least not to the student. It’s a problem to me, and to anyone who thinks reading is an important skill, and it would be easy to think that since this was a college class and I was the instructor that value ought to have controlled the situation, but that just isn’t the case. What this student was doing worked!

…at least as far as she was concerned.

This was not a young girl with a few Freshman skills to learn. This was a middle-aged woman with a white-collar job and a family, and this was how she read. Most importantly, her reading was NOT simply a function of her own inability; it was also an adaption of sorts, and one which she had been using successfully throughout her adult life. I reckon it suited her purposes for any number of tasks wherein a reader might be expected to have thoughts similar to those of an author. Her knowledge of the written documents in her life had thus been cobbled together from words and phrases off the texts and the verbal exchanges occurring around her.

Where this woman fell flat was in the encounter with an alternative point of view, one which happened to use a vocabulary familiar enough to suggest all the wrong things to her imagination. Did she care about such things? I doubt it. Today, she probably tells the story of her asshole teacher and that insane book that said all the wrong things about something important. Hell, her approach probably even handled quite a number of errors. If she misread a document, someone would correct her, perhaps without ever thinking twice about. Most of the time, I expect she was just fine.

But I do wonder what disasters might have followed when she wasn’t.

My point isn’t that these are mistakes. They are not. They are coping strategies, and they can be damned effective, at least insofar as these approaches can get a student through a discussion and perhaps even an essay. Students employing these strategies as a way of life may well accept that they will take a hit on exams and assignments, but when it comes to conversation, they will often be just fine. All they need is an instructor willing to fill in the details for them, to imagine that one word answers are the tip of a thoughtful iceberg, and to give a student the benefit of the doubt on ever so many moments of silence.

It really does work.

But of course the real question isn’t how this works in education. It’s how it works everywhere else?

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