I have nothing to add, really. These kids just make me smile.
Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.
I’ll bet you’ve heard it too.
But did you hear it from somebody with a face not 6 inches distant from the bared teeth of a large growling dog?
No, the dog wasn’t aggressive. You’d probably bare your teeth too if a perfect stranger picked you out of a crowd, strode up quickly, and proceeded to throw his arms around your neck without the slightest warning. Okay, maybe you would just shove the man away, but that is the privilege of hands. The dog didn’t have that option, and sitting on a short leash, it really couldn’t get away from the man either. No, the dog’s temperament seemed fine to me; it just didn’t know what else to do about the situation.
In fact this was a very patient dog; it had done its very best to tell the man to go away.
The man just wasn’t listening.
A minimally observant person would have noticed from the dog’s posture that it was already nervous, sitting there in a crowded pet store with dozens of people moving about. This was the first hour of an adoption event; we were still trying to get all the animals squared away and establish a routine for the day. Despite walking the animals before and after transporting them, we had already had our first accident in a cage. This fellow was sitting on a leash while someone tended to the mess and others (myself included) shuffled animals left and right into the portable kennels we had set up for the occasion. We tried to keep things calm, of course, but it was simply in the nature of such events. The room had a lot of stress to go around at that particular moment and this dog was definitely feeling it.
The man didn’t have a clue.
A minimally observant person would have noticed the dog’s tail, angled as it was a bit downward, almost tucked under him. He would have noticed the whites of the dog’s eyes, something you don’t see so often from a contented canine. A minimally thoughtful person would have realized these signs added up to a moment one ought to respect the poor animal’s boundaries. Of course, a person with minimal sense would have refrained from hugging an animal less than one minute after seeing it for the first time, let alone a dog that was clearly stressed. But of course there was no need to pay attention to such signs, or to observe normal protocols like a chance to sniff the hand, or at least to observe the man long enough to gauge his intent; our man just had a way with animals.
What could possibly have gone wrong?
At the onset of the hug, a few additional clues ought to have brought this man to his senses. Minimally effective ears would have detected the sound of the dog growling. Hell, I could hear the dog growling from across a row of cages and well past a number of talking people, but the man in question either didn’t notice this sound or chose to ignore it and all the other signs that his affection had proven anything but welcome. Either he didn’t see the dog baring its teeth or he lived in a world where that was a good sign. The man seemed perfectly oblivious to the final warnings he was getting even as he cooed nonsense at the dog, desperate as it was to get away from the assault of an idiot’s love.
That poor dog had been doing it’s best to tell this guy to leave him alone, but none of that message was getting through. There really wasn’t anything left for the poor animal to do but bite him.
Who the Hell could blame the poor creature?
Probably everyone, actually, at least in practice. See, that was the part that really disgusted me as I envisioned the horrible face wound that was surely about to open up in the middle of a Petsmart. It would be ugly. There would surely be stitches, and I wasn’t at all sure the man would come away with both eyes intact. But I also knew that the dog would not survive the long-term fall-out from this event. I could see myself in a room with a kennel tech, helping him to put down this poor creature guilty of nothing less than defending itself. Whatever injuries this guy’s own foolishness would earn him, they would likely mean the death of the dog.
I was in charge of this adoption event; all of this carnage would of course be my responsibility.
So, there I stood, with a dog-attached leash in one hand and cleaning materials in another, several cages directly between me and the unfolding disaster, and a small group of folks engrossed in conversation blocking the aisle. I had no quick way of getting to the dog or the human, and I thought surely the bite was coming at any moment. So, I chose what I hoped would prove the right volume and tone to get the oblivious man’s attention and asked him to please step back from the dog.
Completely oblivious to the dog’s teeth, the fellow turned and told me not to worry, he had a way with animals.
And the dog bared it’s teeth just a little more.
As I listened to the fool talk and struggled to find words that would actually work, one of my volunteers turned around to see what had me so alarmed. Upon catching a glimpse of my expression, she quickly followed my own line of sight to find the dog still baring its teeth mere inches from the smiling man. A moment later she pulled the animal back away in one smooth but firm motion. Her eyes met mine and we both gave a sigh of relief as she showed the dog into its newly cleaned cage. The animal-loving man moved on to pester another dog, one that didn’t seem to mind.
I still cringe when I think about that smiling face inches from the dog’s teeth. To this day, the man doesn’t know how lucky he was. How lucky I was.
How lucky the dog was.
The image comes from the Naperville Animal Hospital.
It is certainly a memorable scene. Vampires chasing down the residents of a small town on the frozen tundra. Its residents cannot leave, they cannot contact the outside world, and the sun will not return for 30 days. The town-folk are powerless against their assailants. And the vampires run rampant through the town, slaughtering the residents at will and completely without mercy.
Shot from above, the figures run this way and that across the blood splattered snow. Which is vampire and which is victim? You can just make it out in some instances, mostly when one of them dies. Horribly!
This is classic horror, is it not?
No. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons.
You see the real tragedy in this story is not the loss of human life. That story is so old it hardly merits mention. Yeah, yeah, there is a couple, an adorable grandma, a spunky teen, and even a weird uncle-like character who will do some good before he dies. We even get a token minority, and of course we wonder which will live and which won’t.
All been done before.
What makes this film truly original, what separates it from the rank and file horror-flicks, what makes this high art, is the fact that this movie explores the economic ramifications of a completely unique ecosystem. Sadly, the movie seems to suggest that vampires just don’t get it either. Immortal though they may be, they too are doomed to experience the miseries of a Malthusian nightmare. They too will outlast their food supply.
In this case, it is entirely unnecessary.
You see, the Barrow in Alaska of Thirty Days of Night is a vampire’s Utopian dream. Easily cut off from the outside world, and subject to 30 full days of darkness, what blood sucking undead would not regard it as the ultimate dinner banquet, just waiting for an RSVP? And with a little over a hundred and fifty people remaining in town for the winter, there should be plenty of food to go around.
Of course, if a vampire was paying attention, he would have noticed that Barrow actually has about 5,000 people and 2 months of night (or 40-something days of it, depending on what counts as a day without sun). So, Barrow is even more plentiful than the fellows in this movie could possibly have imagined.
So, you would THINK that a small hoard of vampires accustomed to long drawn-out plot lines just to get a single meal in before the second act would be able to make the most of this opportunity. Well perhaps if they had read their Garrett Hardin! …or if they had implemented a proper system of human resource management. If they had even auctioned the mortals off as private property, things might still have gone better. With proper incentives, each of the undead could have had food enough to last for the entire winter.
The greedy vampires regard the entire population of Barrow as common property and so each sets about slaughtering as many town-folk as he can, thus reaping the benefits of extra blood consumed individually while imposing the costs of a rapidly diminishing food supply on the entire vampire hoard. Even at the cost of diminishing returns, this approach grants to each rampaging vampire a greater share of the blood gushing from the necks of his victims than he would get by patiently consuming his fair share. And each does just this until there is nothing left for anyone to eat. That is simply what happens when property, even human property, is held in common, and without a mechanism for properly managing the finite resources of the town’s residents.
It doesn’t help that these wasteful buffoons leave large quantities of their meal to spill out over the frozen snow. But that really is beside the point. What matters most is that they never really did establish a viable means of managing the cornucopia that lay helpless before them. As a direct result, they run through their food supply very quickly and spend the rest of the movie working hard to track down the few remaining humans smart enough to make themselves central characters in the movie.
It really is a damned shame.
You can see the results toward the end of the film as a whole town full of vampires tries to make do with a single teen-aged girl. There really isn’t enough of her to go around. Oh they toy with her; they even say some scary things at her, but let’s face it, nobody is all that impressed when you play with your food. And all that sadistic pleasure taken in tormenting the poor girl doesn’t change the fact that, she was the last meal any one of the gluttonous night fiends was going to eat for a long while. This wasn’t scary; it was pathetic.
The hunger of the poor starving vampires leads to still worse events when some of the mortals manage to fight back. Don’t even try to tell me that would have happened if the vampire hoard had not gone hungry in the wake of their wasteful banquet. These guys were bad-ass at the beginning of the film. Bad-ass! In the end, well let’s just say that even the alpha-pire turns out to have a glass jaw. All of that could have been avoided if the vampires had simply instituted some mechanism by which individuals could be held accountable for using up the common resources of the community.
There really is no excuse for any of this. These guys could have ruled the longest night in movie-making history, released a satisfying belch and rode off into the moon-set.
If only they had had a plan.
We are just now entering into Polar Midnight here in Barrow, and as always, some of us are a little worried about the whole thing. I mean it’s just a movie, yeah, we all know. But all that darkness does get a little spooky, and I think I saw something out on the tundra last night. Or maybe it was this morning. Hard to tell.
CAUSE IT’S DARK!
Anyway, I have no idea if the vampires will actually come this time. But if they do, then I certainly hope my life and that of my friends and neighbors will not be wasted frivolously by some foolish fiend who doesn’t finish his plate.
Lycanthropic children are starving in Bulgaria!
We can breathe a little easier here in America, because you won’t find this filthy bastard on our shores. His name is Hans, and he was last seen haunting the frozen fjords of Norway. It’s a good thing too. Let the vikings have him! We don’t want that kind of trouble here.
Don’t be fooled by clever disguises. It ain’t bears this man is hunting (though that is what he would have us believe). No, it’s trolls. That’s, right. Hans hunts trolls.
Now you might have thought, as I did, that trolls don’t actually exist. And that is just what the documentary film crew that made this movie thought too. But they found out for themselves just how wrong they could be. These things actually do exist, and they live in the mountains and forests of Norway.
And this dirty son-of-a-bitch kills them.
Now you would think a species so rare as to be regarded by most folks as mythical would be something you’d want to preserve and protect, but no, not this man, nor the Norwegian Troll Security Service (TSS). It seems the government of Norway hires him to slay any trolls that venture near civilization. Sometimes they even send him into troll territory where Hans engages in murder on a scale worthy of a war crimes trial.
All of this is top secret of course.
So, how do we know about it? Hans lured a team of college film students into joining him on his quest to commit cryptocidal atrocities. Oh he pretended that he didn’t want them to follow him at first, but at a critical moment Hans shouted the word ‘troll’ and ran away.He then let the poor innocent babes wheedle the truth out of him. It isn’t often that such violent men resort to passive aggressive manipulation, but apparently Hans knows no shame, not even that of a serial murderer.
As with so many violent criminals, it seems that Hans longs to share the guilt of his awful deeds. Like a master assassin teaching his tricks to apprentice killers, Hans shows the college kids how to track trolls, find them in their lairs, and even kill them. Hans even takes care to introduce them to a scientist who explains in excruciating detail just how painful the troll hunter’s murderous methods really can be. Everyone knows that light kills trolls. What they don’t know is just how much the troll suffers when it hits him. At least until this terrible man, Hans, shares the insight with his chosen band of accomplices.
Of course there is flaw in Hans’ plan.
The government of Norway doesn’t want anyone filming trolls, much less its hired thug doing their dirty work for them. What exactly happened to the film crew, no-one will ever know. You see the video tape of their documentary just showed up, but no-one really knows what happened to the college kids who made it.
Nor does anyone really know the current whereabouts of Hans.
Now some might say that this film bears a striking resemblance to the Blair Witch Project, and some might even say that film was fake. But then again some people serve mild salsa to dinner guests or sell crack to innocent children. Remember that when some pimply faced snot-fer-brained kid tries to wax skeptical on you about this film. Some folks don’t even think jackalopes are real. Try telling that to any small game hunter in Wyoming!
Anyway, the point is that this isn’t just any movie. It’s just the tip of the mixed metaphor, and the truth is staring us all right in the face. It’s out there somewhere dammit.
…armed with UV rays.
So, I take back what I wrote earlier; we are not really all that safe here in America. People everywhere should be afraid of this terrible bastard. Hans could be anywhere at this point, and who knows how many people he has with him now. I think everyone should watch this documentary and take good care to commit this man’s face to memory. Lean his tactics and his habits, and be on the look-out.
The fate of Chupacabra and the Jersey Devil may well depend on it.
Of all the Old Testament stories in my old Cartoon Bible, the one that made the greatest impression on me as a child was the story the Abraham and Isaac. It’s a pretty terrible thing for a 6 year old to contemplate, the specter of a loving father prepared to kill his own child. I was supposed to be impressed with the faith of Abraham and the mercy of the Lord. Instead I shuddered to think of a father willing to do such a thing and a God for whom that would count as a virtue. I had never been taught to fear the Lord, as they say, but I certainly began to wonder if I should fear Him upon reading that scripture. More to the point, I wondered if I should fear my own father?
Significantly, it was my own father that I turned to for questions about the meaning of that Bible. I don’t recall exactly what Dad had to say about that passage, though I want to think that he might have called into question its particular vision of God. There are of course plenty of wonderful messages to be found in (or read into) the story of Abraham, but there is at least one message that I could never reconcile with my own sense of right and wrong, with my own sense of what family should be to one another. It was never Abraham’s faith that impressed me. Rather, it was his faithlessness; his betrayal of his son.
Of course Abraham didn’t actually kill his son, an Angel of the Lord stayed his hand. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine looking into my own father’s eyes and knowing that he was prepared to do such a thing. How could anything be right in the world after a moment such as that?
And how could anything be right in a world where its creator could want such a moment? At 46, the moral universe of that lesson still terrifies me, all the more so, because there are people who reside within it, even if their God does not.
It doesn’t appear that I am alone in this. The late Christopher Hitchens raised this objection several times, most notably in his book, God is not Great. But of course Hitchens is hardly the first public figure to underscore the trace of terror in this narrative. The story of Abraham and Isaac has darkened more than a few moments of artistic expression.
The sinister vision of Abraham appears in Leonard Cohen’s Story of Isaac, and of course in the opening lines of Dylan’s Highway 61. The sculptor George Segal deemed it a fitting symbol for a memorial to the Kent State Shootings (though Kent state University rejected his work, which is why it now rests at Princeton University). I’m also reminded of a rather bad movie with an interesting twist. In The Rapture, Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a mother commanded by God to kill her own daughter in order to achieve Heaven. Having complied with His commands, she cannot bring herself to enter Heaven. Perhaps she too thought that nothing could ever be right again after crossing such a threshold.
My favorite use of the Abrahamic trope comes from Wilfred Owen who used it to comment on the horrors of World War I. His poem is called The Parable of the Old Man and the Young:
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
It would be a mistake to see in all these narratives the sort of polemics Hitchens had in mind, but they do speak to an element of meaning that cannot quite be reduced to the faith of Abraham or the mercy of God. There is something truly disconcerting about the command given to Abraham. Still more so his willingness to follow it. In the story of Abraham, if only for a moment, faith becomes a source of terror. I expect that for most believers the moment passes.
For some of us it never does.
Kurt Vonnegut may have struggled with that moment more than any of us. It haunts the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, though Vonnegut took his point of departure from a different passage. It was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that seemed to ask too much of Vonnegut.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
It shouldn’t take much imagination to understand why Vonnegut of all people would identify with Lot’s wife. …to see how he could find in her a fitting symbol of something human, something often lost by demands of faith and loyalty. It was typical of Vonnegut that he didn’t quite field a direct objection to the Biblical narrative. He doesn’t deny the moral order of God’s commands (or even those of the Allied Air Command in his own day). He doesn’t even say that she was right and God was wrong. He simply embraces the moment when Lot’s wife does look back, and in doing so Vonnegut reaffirms the value of all the lives buried in that Biblical tale, …and of course those consumed in the fires of Dresden.
Gods do what they will, so it seems. There is little that mortals can do about it, but the God Abraham has always demanded just a little more. He has always demanded that we love him for it, that we condemn his victims along with him, and that we think of his acts of terror as positive moral actions.
And sometimes that is just too much.
For me that line is crossed in at least one more sort of story, one which brings us full circle to the relationship between father and child.
The concern is illustrated wonderfully in is a scene from the movie Black Robe wherein a missionary (Father LaForge, played by Lothaire Bluteau) tries to convert an Algonquian-speaking native (Chomina, played by August Schellenberg) to the Christian faith just before the man dies. Desperate to save his companion’s soul, Laforge offers Chomina the promise of eternal life in Heaven. But of course LaForge must admit that none of the Chomina’s heathen relations will be with him in this eternal life. Neither Chomina’s wife, nor his parents, nor even his youngest child will be there to meet him in Heaven, because they died without accepting the faith.
It would be easy to under-estimate the power Chomina’s response to LaForge in that movie, but it has always seemed to me a very compelling argument. It works for me, not because of fictional characters with fictional relations, but because of real people in my own life. I am well aware that some (perhaps many) of those I have known and loved passed away without reconciling themselves to terms of sundry Christian teachings. What must be done of course varies from church to church, but in each case where the price of heaven is conversion, I know of specific people who failed to make that choice in terms described by one or all of these churches. Faced with the prospect of conversion and its benefits myself, I can honestly say that the choice strikes me as a betrayal.
Do I belong in this heaven, while my father does not? And will I enjoy paradise while others that I loved rot in graves, burn in eternal fires, or simply waste away in outer darkness?
If there is a God in heaven that would have this, then I will say ‘no’ to Him.
He is asking for too much.
I have very few classroom horror stories from my college days. Of course I remember a lot of petty behavior, some arguable decisions, and I witnessed at least one case of genuine abuse to a classmate, …okay two. But it was pretty rare that I personally felt any significant discomfort as a result of anything the teachers did in the classroom.
My statistics textbook took a Hell of a beating, but that’s a different issue. I liked that teacher. I just hated statistics.
But there was one really awful lecture that I remember in detail. Lucky you, dear reader, because I am going to share the misery.
It was my last semester in college and I was finishing up the credits for a second major, linguistics. In those days, the linguistics program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was interdisciplinary. So, I had taken plenty of classes in linguistic anthropology, sociolingistics, psycholinguistics, logic, philosophy of language, etc. …all really great stuff! I enjoyed every minute of it. But that did leave one really huge gap in the knowledge that a guy graduating with a degree in linguistics ought to have. I hadn’t yet taken a full course in grammar. I didn’t even need it to graduate, at least according to the degree requirements, but that didn’t sit right with me. How could I graduate with a degree in this subject without the benefit of a full course in grammar? I’d heard good things about the lady who taught grammar in the English Department, and so I signed up and prepared to get down and dirty in the realm of syntax.
I knew something was wrong when I found a middle-aged man standing at the head of the classroom on the first day. I do remember his name, but let’s just call him Mr. H. Mr. H. passed out index cards and asked all of us to fill in some personal information while he explained that the usual instructor was on sabbatical that semester. He would be teaching the grammar classes.
For the next few minutes everything seemed pretty standard. No red flags went up as Mr. H. reviewed the syllabus, and I felt pretty confident I was going to learn a lot in his class. I grew even more pleased when he explained that he would sometimes venture outside the narrow bounds of grammar to discuss other aspects of language use.
It was as though he had promised to have strippers pass candy out during class.
I couldn’t wait for some of those discussions. Luckily I didn’t have to, as Mr. H. proudly announced his first slightly-off-topic lecture for the semester. He wanted to talk about euphemisms.
I was a happy guy.
He began by telling the story of his first job, working in a mom&pop grocery store somewhere in Texas. Mr. H. talked about the time some yankee had come in and asked for some jalapenos, (pronouncing the ‘j’ about like you would ‘jam’). His reply, as Mr. H. explained it was; “Sir I believe the Spanish call them jalapenos (pronouncing the ‘j’ like the ‘h’ in ham).” He then proceeded to explain that this was a terrible thing to do and that no-one should ever make fun of the way anyone else speaks, ever.
I wasn’t entirely sure that he had described an act of mockery, but that was a detail I could easily overlook. On the main point, the man was preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned. I was really glad I had signed up for the class.
And that’s when things took a bad turn.
Within just a couple minutes of announcing this principle that one shouldn’t make fun of other people’s speech, Mr. H. began to tell us all about the decline of the English language as a result of recent trends. Mr. H. was quite concerned that folks had begun to water the English language down with a variety of euphemisms. It was a terrible situation as our great medium of communication had been harmed a great deal by this trend.
Mr. H. had quite a few examples, but the first one that I can remember was the term ‘African-American’. Mind you, this was 1990 and the battles over political correctness were picking up steam fast. This topic had not yet run its full course in the public sphere; it hadn’t yet bored everyone to tears. My classmates sat on the edge of their seats while Mr. H. proceeded to explain that he had nothing but love for all God’s people, but he didn’t believe in calling people by the wrong word. You had to call people what they were, not what they weren’t. I sat back just a little disappointed and waited for Mr. H. to explain that ‘black’ was the proper name for the people in question.
Instead he proceeded to tell the class that ‘negro’ was what ‘they’ were and that was what folks ought to call them. I sat back up. He had at least surprised me. I had to give him that, but did I hear the man right?
Had I heard correctly. Was he actually skipping right past the common usage to rescue a sordid vocabulary choice out of a distant era? I listened on as Mr. H. insisted that he meant no disrespect by this term and that it had no insulting implications. ‘Negro” was the right word and nothing else would do. Those using the term ‘African-American’ were engaged in a full-scale assault on the English language, and she suffered terribly at their abusive treatment.
The rest of the class ate this message up. I mean they loved it! For my own part, I dropped right out of that choir he was preaching to.
My concern wasn’t entirely with the politics at hand. I was never fully on board with the PC approach to vocabulary, and I could think of reasonable concerns about a lot of the verbal practices at hand. But Mr. H. wasn’t producing reasonable arguments. In fact, he was demonstrating a level naïveté that I didn’t expect from someone who was about to teach a class in descriptive linguistics. Objections were crowding their way into my thoughts in such numbers I feared my mind might burst if I listened anymore.
- Mr. H’s assertion that there was a right word for this or any other topic and that anything else was poor use stood out like a sore thumb. By ‘sore thumb, I mean a completely unsupported premise. Worse than that; this assumption flew in the face of pretty much everything lexicographers had to say about the subject. Words had multiple meanings, and topics could be referred to in a variety of different ways. You could argue pros and cons of different word choices, but Mr. H. just insisted there was a right word and the public wasn’t using it anymore. This was a bit like discovering your geography teacher was a flat earther.
- ‘Negro’? Seriously, ‘Negro’?
- Details aside, declensionist narratives about the state of a given language are tired and damned lame. Untold prophets have warned about the decline of English, each with a different sin on their minds, and each cherry-picking the evidence with all the shame of a child stealing fruit from a neighbors tree. In this case, there was the additional absurdity that Mr. H. wanted us to feel for the abuse of the English language even as he minimized concerns about the abuse of actual people. This was personification with an agenda, and that agenda had little room for concerns about folks who really could feel the effects of abuse.
- I really couldn’t square the entire theme of the lecture with the lesson Mr. H. had drawn from his first example. Were we not making fun of the way some folks talked? I suppose he was suggestijng that advocates of politically correct speech were making fun of others, but he had gone well past correcting that and right into the realm of mocking their own vocabulary preferences.
- A bit depends on the presentation, but the notion that words like ‘African American’ are euphemisms contains at least one really ugly implication. If a euphemism is a word that makes something ugly sound better than it is, and that did seem to be the way Mr. H. defined it, then what did that say about his thoughts about the people this term was applied to? Was he not suggesting that the right word really did convey something bad. He denied this of course, but that really seemed to be the station to which his particular train of thought had been headed.
All of these thoughts and others crowded into my head and screamed for me to let them out. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this crap from a guy who studied language for a living.
I looked around and I saw over 20 students falling in love with this man.
It’s okay, I thought. I’m here for the lessons on grammar. This doesn’t have to matter. Who knows. Maybe, Mr. H. will respond well to challenging opinions. Should I say something now and see how he responds? But where to start? I thought about whether or not to field an objection as I just sat there and took in the horror show.
The straw that broke this camels back came when Mr. H. took up the use of the term ‘gay’.
Yep. He was against it.
Mr. H. told us that he would never use that word. He went on to explain that he would never condemn a man for being what God made him, but he believed in calling people what they really were. I thought surely that he was going to tell us the proper term was ‘homosexuals’.
What these people were, Mr. H. informed us was ‘faggots’.
No other word would do.
And Mr. H.’s fan club fell over themselves to show their appreciation for this point. It was quite the surreal experience for me, watching my classmates nod and stare lovingly at this performance. I thought surely I would soon be sick.
At this point, I felt like Mr. H. had enough rope. If I couldn’t hang him with it, I should at least be able to reign in the message a bit. And anyway, I really needed to see how he would respond to disagreement. So, up went my hand. Mr. H. called on me. And I proceeded to ask him if he didn’t think it more appropriate to consider ‘faggot’ a dysphemism (in retrospect, I should have just said ‘insult’). I went on to ask if he didn’t think the English language was growing new insults at about the same pace that it was growing euphemisms, or if he had specific reasons for thinking the one trend was outpacing the other. I think I managed to keep a respectful tone, but I definitely expressed my disagreement.
And the class grew silent.
The man literally scowled at me. In falling tones, Mr. H. asked me for my name. He then proceeded to dig the pile of index cards from the beginning of class out of his shirt pocket and slowly flip through the until he found mine. He then studied my card for a minute or two, all of this in utter silence. No-one said anything.
With a heavy sigh, Mr. H. finally placed the cards back in his pocket and looked back at me. “What I am truing to say is…” He then proceeded to restate his general thesis that English had been watered down through excessive euphemisms. He did this without responding to any of my points at all. It was amazing. There was no reference to anything I had just said, no answers whatsoever to my questions. No counterarguments. Nothing!
Mr. H. then asked me if that message was okay with me.
After a brief pause, I said ‘yes’.
By ‘yes’ I meant that I would be graduating without the benefit of a full course in grammar.
It gets more difficult to tell the difference when a value becomes central to one’s own life, or if it has become a commonplace theme in the community around her. Failure to follow a given value can become so unthinkable that dissonance reduction strategies simply overtake the effort to apply it to the miscellaneous judgement calls of daily life.
At the extreme end of caring about something, defense mechanisms become so strong that the rhetoric of rationalization simply eclipses the discourse needed to plan effective action. Thus, love becomes a foreign notion to much of Christianity, Reason and Logic brand-names jealously guarded by unbelievers, and self-reliance the hallmark of Americans themselves as dependent on others as any people ever were. In like manner, racism becomes unthinkable to liberals, notwithstanding the prominence of racial categories in our policies, and patriotism goes without saying to conservatives, even when they attack their own nation (literally or metaphorically). It is easy enough to see that talking-up a value doesn’t always mean living up to it; but things are worse than that. Talking up a value can sometimes chase any meaningful effort to put it into practice right out of the building.
I used to think about this a lot when I worked in Navajo country. Out there the value term with the most weight to it was hózhǫ́. This is usually translated as something like ‘balance’ or ‘harmony,’ and for many this is enough to tie the notion to themes better suited to American pop-Buddhism and New Age thought. In contrast to bilagáanas, diné (Navajos) were non-confrontational, at least according to common folk-wisdom on the subject.But it wasn’t merely outsiders that approached the concept in these terms; Navajos themselves sometimes use this approach to explain themselves to others.
This theme always troubled me, because it sure as Hell didn’t describe the people I knew and worked with. Sure I had seen plenty of situations in which I had seen diné show notable restraint or reluctance to engage in confrontation. But I had seen some spectacular confrontations in my days out there. More to the point, it had always seemed to me that conflict rested just under the surface of pretty much every item of business occurring in that area. The question it seems to me is not whether Navajos engage in conflict more or less than the average Bilagáana (white person); but rather under what circumstances will each do so and for what purposes. I think the answer to this question is different for Navajo than it is for Anglos, but I also think this requires a lot more subtlety than the oppositional stereotypes generally allow.
I had a boss out there who used to tell me that the sort of balance implied in the concept of hózhǫ́ actually entailed a trace of conflict. Conflict too had its value in this ideal, he seemed to be telling me, and so it too had its place in the balance people strove to attain. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a layer of conflict in the workings of folks who embraced this value. But sometimes I am a damned slow student. Years after I had moved on from that job, I think I finally got this lesson. I got the point while reading up on Henry Kissenger. Thinking of hózhǫ́ as a kind of Realpolitik is of course little more than replacing one metaphor for another, but I continue to think it is a helpful correction to the cosmic muffin concepts that saturated so much of the public discussion of hózhǫ́, at least when the rest of the conversation occurred in English. Even still, the distance between this value and the practices of those who hold it dear is vast, so vast that it seems often to escape the ability of folks to conceptualize the matter.
Which I suppose puts diné on par with the rest of us.
It used to drive me to tears, back during my brief stint as a moderator on the Internet Infidels message boards, when I would see some fellow heathen lecturing a Christian on the virtues of reason and rationality. Okay, this didn’t always bother me, but it drove me nuts those specific moments when the Christian was doing a damned good job of reasoning about the particular issue and the unbeliever not so much
Yes, that does happen.
I wouldn’t count myself an Atheist if I didn’t think that ultimately the most reasonable thing to do about gods is to just say ‘no’ to them. But the backing of reason needs to be earned in the details of a discussion, and which side will earn it is back on the table every time you decide to take up the subject. Like it or not, in some conversations about religious matters, it is in fact the believer that is doing a better job of reasoning. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone whose sense of human nature hasn’t been completely overdetermined by their sense of the battle lines in question. Yet in such moments, when the compelling argument just isn’t coming, leave it to the rotten-hearted to simply claim the cultural capital of a free thinking rational person and remind the believer that she isn’t in the club, so to speak.
That is the sort of hypocrisy I suppose I should expect in any camp, including my own, but it doesn’t make seeing it any easier. Take any given value, and you will always see a sort of tension between its motivating characteristics, the oughtness it urges on us, and its currency for those with some claim to that value. Ideally, one could expect those claiming the virtue of reason to be those who actually live up to it, but ideological movements and philosophical orientations also generate a degree of association with a given virtue. And for some, that is enough. They are more rationale by virtue of their allegiances; and little else need be said about the matter.
Likewise I will never accept the excuses that conservative Christians make for opposition to homosexuality. It is common enough to hear from folks that their stance on the topic is taken out of love, that they have gay friends, and that they are merely following the word of the Lord on this. (I’ll skip the example of the lady who re-assured me that she had nothing personal against gay people, because she loved Will & Grace. …okay, I didn’t quite skip it, but, well, …I can’t help myself sometimes.) Conservative Christians often cry foul when their position is described as hateful, insisting that we take their own motivations into account.
In my book, you measure goodwill by the way people treat others; and efforts to deprive gay lesbian folks of the right to marry, to adopt, or to security in the workplace make for a straight forward case of malice. Even without these concrete harms, the high suicide rates for those of homosexual orientation speak to the high costs that some folks pay for unwarranted stigma placed on certain sexual preferences. Against all this and more, the oft-repeated claims that one can oppose homosexuality while keeping to the admonition to love others starts to ring a bit hollow. The approach taken by conservative Christians against homosexuality makes of ‘love’ a mere footnote, an intellectual exercise in resolving an apparent inconsistency. It falls well short of living up to a virtue which could well be the shining light of Christian faith.
What has me thinking about this is a recent encounter with one of the ways this sort of problem is commonly expressed in ordinary language. I can’t think of any other way to put it, so I will just call it ‘vacuous Idealization’. What I mean to get at by coining this monstrous bit if vocabulary is a variety of rhetoric that cancels a value in practice by elevating it to a level of abstraction which is utterly meaningless.
Take for example ‘true love,’ which we are often assured isn’t selfish at all. But that’s not all that true love isn’t. It also isn’t carnal, and it isn’t fleeting. It really isn’t harmful to the one who is loved, and it most certainly isn’t conditional. True love doesn’t keep track of the time, and it doesn’t care how much money you have or how tall you are. True love is timeless, and true love is, …blech! I can’t go on.
By the time we get done with all the things true love isn’t, I can’t help wondering if anything is left in the category at all. And that I suspect is the point of ‘true love’; it is actually an empty set, with no concrete members no associated concepts to define it. Instead we get the illusion that true love has been defined by taking ordinary instances of perfectly human (and rather flawed) love and negating each of the flaws. We are left to believe that we still know what we are talking about when all of the frailties of human relationships have been tossed in the trash of love that is merely real, as opposed to that which is
true, …pardon me True.
I call Shenanigans!
Real love looks nothing like this True love that people talk about. You notice when she gets in bed without brushing her teeth. And yes Real Love hopes that her relatives will take care of her when she needs them. Real love may not care how tall you are, but she’s damned glad you don’t have any really ugly birthmarks. And if real love hasn’t made a point of principle out of your race, your nationality, your political party or your religion, then she certainly does have a way of finding people most when they travel in the same circles she does. Real love comes and goes (dammit anyhow) sometimes without warning and without leaving behind any explanation for her visit, or her departure. And sad to say, real love does have her contingencies, much as we might wish otherwise. Real love always comes with the blemishes, and the do matter, and they don’t go away.
True love is little other than the hope of some ineffable residue left when we’ve taken out all the things that come with Real love in our actual lives. But that is a hope hung on an imaginary hook. If you take away enough of the things that come with real love, you end up with nothing at all. Sadly, I am inclined to think that may be the point of this kind of rhetoric. By stripping out the foibles of real human relationships and the attitudes that go with them, one ends up with a value that is whatever you will make of it. It is something that will never happen, a virtue no-one will ever realize, nor will they ever have to.
And being thus emptied of its meaning, True Love is the perfect predicate for an imaginary subject, to wit, “God is love!”
On a side note, and I will just throw it out there, I do think this is one the reasons those who emphasize the divinity of Jesus most seem least likely to emulate his actions and teachings. If he is a human, with real human foibles, then the stories told about him offer a real example of how one ought to live. If he is a God, though, well then who could hope to live up to that example?
Yes, I get that this is generally thought to be a paradox in that Jesus is commonly supposed to be both. And yet it is the nature of such enigma that one can only meaningfully speak of, or think about, one of its axes at any given moment. You can say of a paradox that it is both x and y, but you cannot grasp both at the same time. And of course believers do typically come with a marked preference.
In like manner, I think people often approach issues of objectivity in the most self-defeating manner. It is common enough to speak of a knowing subject and known object when framing different questions about how knowledge works. There is nothing particularly wrong with this, providing one understands the two as part of a relationship of sorts. Once folks start talking about the possibility that a claim could belong entirely to one or the other, the whole model gets rather misleading.
To put it another way, I think we can speak meaningfully about objective features in knowledge, or even of greater or lesser degrees of objectivity, but if objectivity is defined as the total absence of subjective input, well then that is epistemological failure on the horizon. Bringing this a little closer to actual contexts of reasoning, I often hear (or read) commentary in which people compare reasoning with emotion or logic with rhetoric, etc., the implication being that one must choose one over the other. In the popular imagination good reasoning does not appeal to emotion, and rhetoric is always a bad.
But of course the point of much good reasoning is rhetorical; it is an attempt to convince someone of something. Far from requiring an absence of emotion, this kind of project is often enhanced by a display of emotion. If you want people to care about something, then you ought to show them that you do too. Fail to do that and watch them doodle as you talk.
The bottom line here is that the quest for objectivity becomes mysticism when it is conceived in terms of purity. If the practice of careful judgement requires an absence of subjectivity, emotion, or conscious efforts at persuasion, then careful judgement resides in a world we have never been and never will be. In fact, we don’t have the faintest idea how to get there, because the very notion is simply nonsense.
On a related note, let us consider the notion of Truth with a capital T. I’ve long since lost track of the number of times I have been told that truth is unattainable, or heard questions such as ‘what is truth’ framed as though it were something ‘out there’, so to speak. Not surprisingly, this approach has the effect of rendering meaningless the mundane truths of daily life. Against the promise of this cosmic Truth, no mere fact could possibly hope to hold our attention. And so the quest for Truth so often becomes an escape from truths.
Countless sophomoric essays have been written about the unattainability of this grand
truth …Truth. It sits like the Kantian thing-in-itself well beyond our mere mortal efforts to find it. Many are the ways people have found to explain our failure to find this elusive entity, hiding somewhere in the mountains of philosophical goodness. But the details are un-necessary, because the failure of this quest begins with the framing of the question.
We use the concept of truth (or falsehood) on a daily basis to help us distinguish between claims we agree with and those we don’t. There is a lot of room for disagreement over the nature of that process, and it’s a damned interesting question, but if any theory of truth doesn’t address that sort of process then it is already headed down the wrong path from the outset.
Ultimately, questions about truth are less a matter of discovering a fact in the myriad lands of facts about the world around us, than it is a question of figuring out what means to say that something is true (and how that possibility relates its alternatives). Questions of truth value often involve great concepts and momentous philosophical questions, but they also occur in the context of topics of little importance, some of them being outright dull. I know that I consider it true that the Dr. Pepper I am drinking is too warm and false that the weather is nice outside. (I live in the arctic; what did you expect?) Any theory about the nature of truth that separates it entirely from such mundane matters is less a theory about truth than a hijacking of the notion for some other purpose.
What is Truth?
If you really must go on a quest to discover the answer to this question, then don’t let that quest
On a related note, and because it fits the pattern, could someone please tell the boys from Chicago what time it is. It is a good song, but seriously, does anyone really know what time it is?
We know what time it is, because time is not a thing to be known independent of human reckoning. If the conventions of human discourse say it is 5:30pm, Alaskan Standard Time, then it is 5:30pm, Alaskan Standard Time.
To make the question more complicated than that is not a quest for something profound; it is a dramatic self-indulgence.
Yes, I’m a lot of fun at parties too.
And with that the rant is nearing its end. If you are still reading this, then you have more patience than I do, and I apologize for tramping through matters both sacred and profane as well as a good many points in between. But of course that is my point, so to speak, that in effect the two extremes may at times prove to be one in the same. When a value becomes too important, even to conceive the possibility of transgressing against it, then people remove it from conscious thought in ways that parallel the treatment of things they abhor. Such sacred values can cease to be an effective means of motivating people, precisely because they mean too much to allow for the full range of human possibilities. Worse yet, people sometimes seem to take a value down this road for the very purpose of cancelling its bearing on daily life. Either way my point is that you should be careful about just how much you care about such things, because somewhere past “a lot” lies “Fuhgetaboutit!