Moby Dick Reimagined with 20% More Recursion

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I have fond memories of Zeppelin, the dreaded version of course. Don’t worry I love the leaded version of zeppelin too, but there is something about an Elvis impersonator belting out Robert Plants lyrics to a slightly more rhythmic version of the standard Zep. tunes, …it was hilarious and beautiful at the same time. I’m talking about Dread Zeppelin of course. If you don’t know what I’m talking about the, not even Jah can save you.

I saw these guys at a New Year’s performance at Calamity Jane’s in Las Vegas many many years back. They put on a Hell of a show, and yes I still inflict their tunes on my friends whenever I get a chance. I always thought the most brilliant thing they ever did was this little gem  For those insufficiently familiar with the original Zeppelin canon (shame on you again!), the name of the tune is of course, Moby Dick.

…a fact that has had me laughing for about 2 decades now.

(Oh yeah, here’s the original)

An Uncommon Security Guard: Dave Eshelman, AKA ‘John Wayne’

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IMGYou’ve probably encountered the Stanford Prison Experiment in your psychology textbook, or perhaps heard about it in some other conversation. Ostensibly a study of the influence of power and authority on human behavior, the experiment (so the story goes) had to be closed down because it was all too successful. Dr. Philip Zimbardo set up a faux-prison in the psychology building at Stanford University and began recruiting test subjects. Having divided his subjects randomly into a pool of guards and another pool of prisoners, Zimbardo soon found the conflict between the guards and the prisoners had escalated beyond control. Zimbardo has spent his career describing the study as proof that good people will become monsters under the right circumstances.

Such circumstances would appear to include a badge and a uniform. …or perhaps a tenure-track professorship.

What fascinates me most about this story is the role of one guard, Dave Eshelman, played in setting the tone for the experiment. If the experiment was designed to illustrate the dehumanizing characteristics of power, Eshelman’s behavior took that message too 11. Aside from the possibility that his decisions may have thrown the whole study off, Eshelman’s personal experiments in cruelty are themselves worthy of serious scrutiny. Eshelman explained his approach to the project as follows:

I arrived independently at the conclusion that this experiment must have been put together to prove a point about prisons being a cruel and inhumane place. And therefore, I would do my part, you know, to, to help those results come about. I was a confrontational and arrogant, uh, 18-year old at the time, and uh, you know, I said, somebody ought to stir things up here.

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I made the decision that I would be as intimidating, as cold, as cruel as possible. …I had just watched a movie called Cool-Hand Luke, and uh, the mean intimidating uh, you know southern prison ward character in that film, really was my inspiration for the role that I had created for myself.

Fittingly, Eshelman adopted a southern accent for the experiment and engaged in a deliberate campaign of cruelty against the prisoners. It might be ironic that Eshelman’s emulation of Strother Martin earned him the nickname of John Wayne, or perhaps it’s just damned appropriate, but anyway, …that’s two movie references for the price of one villainous act.

Eshelman’s approach to the experiment is fascinating on many levels. He knows he is participating in an experiment, and he takes this as license (even incentive) to perform experiments on his own initiative. His personal experiment is theatrical in nature; Eshelman is enacting sadistic themes borrowed from a Hollywood film with the end result being a drama fit for a textbook.

But of course someone had to live through that drama, and I’m not talking about Eshelman.

What’s interesting here is the blurring of the lines between real cruelty and its occurrence in a theatrical performance. If Eshelman’s behavior was simply a performance, the scope of his audience isn’t entirely clear. Was it for Zimbardo? The prisoners? The Scientific community? Himself? Perhaps Eshelman’s performance was a kind of singularity, so to speak, an act that simply had to happen (in his view at any rate). Perhaps, his display of held meaning independent of any particular audience.

spe_eshelman_3But of course this was an interactive performance, and at least a big part of Eshelman’s audience would have to include the very people he subjected to cruelty in that performance. If Eshelman respected any boundaries, his cruelty certainly violated others (and yes this is one reason why we don’t do experiments like this anymore folks, …at least I hope not). The prisoners actually did feel the impact of Eshelman’s actions, and some (Clay Ramsay, prisoner 416 particular) clearly described his behavior as genuinely harmful. If Ramsay was part of the audience, and he most certainly was, then he certainly did not experience Eshelman’s cruelty as an artistic or intellectual matter. Ramsay clearly felt harmed by the experiment.

Perhaps the most interesting exchange in first the film clip above above comes at minute 25, when Eshelman and Ramsay (prisoner 416) talk to one another as part a debriefing process. The two of them do not appear to have shaken off their respective roles in that moment. Eshelman is still taking charge of the conversation. He still dominates his former prisoner, and he still has a lesson for that prisoner. If Eshelman’s behavior was an act, the act clearly wasn’t over in that debriefing session.

…and thus cruelty escaped it’s narrative.

***

The Stanford Alumni Magazine has an excellent retrospective piece on the subject, including statements from participants 40 years on. Eshelman’s own thoughts are definitely worth looking at. Both of Eshelman’s pictures featured above were taken from this article.

Atheists Attack! …Coming to a Theater Near You

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airbus-a400m-military-transport-cargo-plane-flares“Atheists attack…” I see this phrase a lot. I read it and I imagine Apache helicopters and seal teams dropping in on folks locked&loaded. …or perhaps a platoon of World War II era soldiers. …at least a gang of thugs with baseball bats and crowbars! Maybe a drone missile?

The reality is always so disappointing.

I’m told that my fellow non-believers have been attacking Mathew McConaughey of late, and certainly the twitterverse has come through with an exhibit or three of genuine uglitude. I’m not sure if any greater sources have opened up on Mr. McConaughey, but I suspect that he and his award are alive and well. Both of them, really. Mathew and his Oscar are alive and eating cold pizza while looking out of the sundeck somewhere. Both of them. The statue is saying to Mathew; “Mathew, can you believe what those impious assholes are saying about you and the speech you made when we first met?”

Mathew says; “Not at all, Oscar. Non-believers are like that you know, but when did you start talking?”

“Your Dad quickened me to get him a cold beer. It seems that the Duke drank all the Bud during at the viewing party on cloud 9 and Jesus only brings wine to parties. But seriously, can you believe those guys are upset over your speech?”

Mathew peers out the curtains, “It’s hard to believe, but you know those guys gotta attack someone. They’re just attacky people. Anyhow, I’m grateful for their attacks, Oscar, really I am.”

“Grateful? Are you out of your down-home slow-drawlin’ mind? How can you be grateful? They’re attacking you!”

“I know, I know, and truth be told I am a little worried about ninjas; I just figure gratitude is my best defense. After all, they will reciprocate.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s a scientific fact.”

They stare at each other a moment, and Oscar gets a kind of pained expression on his golden face. Mathew continues; “So, how do I send my dad a beer anyway?”

Oscar replies; “You know how things keep getting lost in the bottom-left corner of your refrigerator?”

“Yes.”

“Just put a six-pack there, and your dad will get it.”

Mathew thinks a bit and slowly nods his head, “…Alright, alright, alright.”

Anyway, I expect Mr. McCounaughey will survive the savaging of the godless. As I understand it Miley Cyrus came under great threat some time back, something about a terribly impious road. I think this attack may have struck home, really I do. Given her recent behavior, we can only conclude that Satan and his impious minions have talked Miley into doing something scandalous, …or at least the MTV version thereof.

Miley Cyrus twerks. Checkmate Jesus!

Yes I do realize that some criticisms are overboard, some are unwarranted, and some are just plain obnoxious. …and yes, some criticisms can be fairly described as ‘attacks’ (warranted or otherwise). Actually every argument can be described asn an attack; the argument-as-warfare theme is an oldie but a goodie, just ask Lakoff and Johnson. But folks don’t always seem to use the term with quite the same sense of urgency, which I find it fascinating to see just how easily the narrative seems to flow off some keyboards and out of some lips. If I am sometimes sympathetic to object of heathenous abuse, I am frequently frustrated at the effectiveness with which the ‘atheists attack’ meme seems to help people dodge the attack, so to speak. Many a point seems good and lost the minute one learns that it has been made by a mad angry atheist. …cause we’re mad angry people, it would seem, and full of angry power.

Sticks and Stones, Hell! Apparently bones should fear the words of a cynic! It’s tempting to think I and my fellow non-believers have stumbled into some ironic form of magical power. All we need do is disagree and a terrible pestilence will fall upon the land. The power is of course unevenly distributed; one sees it most in the prophets of critical doom.

Ricky Gervais tweets something snarky and temples fall. P.Z. Meyers says hello to a mother and puppies barf biscuits three states over. Hemant Mehta politely disagrees with a Priest and eight countries pledge troops in support of the Vatican. The spirit of Hitchens haunts every debate hall and devours the bees of the world. Sam Harris himself may yet cause California to fall into the sea, and of course all of this is in mere preparation for the appearance of he who must not be named. Resistance is futile believers. We will not stop until all feel the magical force of our negative naughtitude and all around general meanyositude.

- The unbeliever says ‘nay’ and flowers wilt.

- He demands evidence and bunnies cease to hop.

- He shakes his head and kittens everywhere become just a little less fluffy.

Such is the power of the skeptical word. None can escape it, not even on Sunday. Am I engaging in hyperbole? Yes, but in this case hyperbole is poetic justice.

Take that Jehova!

***

Postscript: I’m trying to be nice today, but if I ever have to write anything about Mathew McConaughey again, I swear by the Nullitude I’m gonna mispel his damned name. I know it’s cruel, but we atheists can be vicious like that.

An Uncommon Physics Lesson!

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I need some help waking up today, so I’m gonna turn to my favorite lyrical terrorist, M. C. Hawking. I hear he has a side-line as a theoretical physicist or something, which helps to explain the content of some of his tunes. You gotta love the Hawk-man! Seriously, you have to man. Cause he’ll fuck your shit up.

Yes, he will!

I Don’t Care What Dan Patrick Says; Straight Couples Have the Right to Marry

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DanPatrickSenateHow does Texas State Senator, Dan Patrick feel about a ruling by Orlando Garcia declaring a Texas ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional? He’s most upset! So upset, he has declared once and for all that marriage is between one man and another man. This would apparently rule out polygamy as well as both straight marriages and lesbian unions, which makes Patrick’s stance on marriage very unusual indeed.

…as least it would if he were serious about it.

This was of course a typo, or more like a thinko. …a brain fart? Okay, let’s call it a brain tweeto! But it was a glorious tweeto, just the same. No, I’m not talking about the simple irony of a pseudo-conservative Republican (or one of his staff members) tweeting something so unexpected. I mean to say, the mistake is actually quite revealing because Patrick’s tweeto could queer our whole sense of the politics at stake here (pun intended). All we have to do is take it seriously.

BhbR9QKCUAA4z8nIf only for a moment some folks could imagine a world in which the state of Texas (or any other such state) took it upon itself to legislate Homosexual unions, they might find themselves looking at the issue of gay marriage from a whole new perspective. The Christian right is frequently found howling in rage over the aggressive nature of the gay rights movement and (shudder) the gay agenda! What this ‘gay agenda’ means varies from one faith-filled narrative to the next, but moments like this one really do underscore the one-sidedness of the whole issue. The fact is, for all the controversial posturing on all sides, one thing we are NOT looking at here is a serious attempt to restrict marriage to gay unions. It seems imaginable only as a joke or a mistake of some kind.

But of course such a thing would be outrageous. Truly, it would! But what makes it outrageous to tell heterosexual couples they cannot get married when the Christian right constantly assures us that it is fair and reasonable to do this to those of homosexual persuasion?  How is it that people who would no more accept this kind of government intrusion into their personal lives can do this without thinking twice to others?

People like Senator Patrick take for granted the power their own numbers give them. They also take for granted changes in custom that effectively polygamy from people’s from the table without requiring them to square it with their own stated principles. Most importantly, they take for granted the knowledge that government regulation of marriage will not interfere with their own lives, and especially their own divorces.

…apparently, they also take for granted the ability to blame someone else for the mistake.

DanPatrick

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An Uncommon Love Song

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Roses are red, Violets are blue.

Love songs bore me, How about you?

…but I’ll make an exception when foreplay begins with dentures.

(Thanks to Maria Falvey for help with this epic poem.)

A Harrowing Tale of Muktuk and Madness! …Or At Least Righteous Indignation

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IMG00516-20101007-1633

Whole Lotta Muktuk goin on!

Sometimes moving to a new location can change your place in history as much as it does your place on the map. I first noticed this a day or two after arriving in Barrow as I watched a small child drive an ATV down the street. No-one seemed to notice, not that time or the next. I’m pretty sure that its as illegal here as it is most places I’ve lived, but law on the books and law in daily life aren’t always the same thing. So, I saw this for the first time, and the word ‘frontier’ came to mind.

…and I smiled.

Of course, the notion of a ‘frontier’ (with all its ideological baggage) would seem to place Barrow on the cutting edge of history. That notion comes up from time to time, especially in the context of oil exploration and drilling, but also with scientific research, and other topics that people like to project onto a scheme of ‘progress’.

At other times, the logic of history places us behind the curve, so to speak. By “behind the curve” I mean that we fall behind someone else’s idea of the direction history is supposed to be going. It might seem more reasonable to think of the issue in terms of straight-forward disagreement, people do things that others don’t approve of, but the point is that people sometimes filter such disagreements through ideas about the general arc of history. It may be a history they urge on the public, or it may be a history they take for granted, but people often plot their values on some sense of an historical timeline. It’s not real history that I’m talking about; it’s an ideological projection of the way history ought to proceed.

I was reminded of this quite clearly the other day when a student of mine recently shared the video below. It starts with some beautiful outdoor shots of Barrow, AK, but (readers be warned) it continues to show the butchering of a Bowhead whale. The video might seem a jarring journey to some, but for most of us (I believe) here on the North Slope, the transition seems quite natural. A whale harvest is a joyous event as it means food for a lot of people. Much as the serene images at the start of the video, a whale harvest is prone to make us want to smile.

I asked what kind of comments, the video had gotten. A moment of scrolling later, I received my answer. The images of whaling had drawn criticism both on the video and on my student’s Facebook account. On the video itself one individual had written; “It’s really strucked up about how cruel people are to animals. It would be great for all animals and humans to go vegan and to respect each other.” I smiled and laughed as I recalled the first time I posted images of a whale harvest to my own Facebook account. I’ve since learned to post warnings and what-not.

Whaling videopdfcroppedagainThis is one of the many ways that life in Barrow (and much of Alaska) differs markedly from that of the lower 48; hunting is a way of life for many people up here. It simply isn’t for the majority of people down there, and at least some of those people imagine all of history moving towards their way of life. The many artifacts of subsistence hunting are bound to rub such folks the wrong way. A friend once commented about the necessity to remove one’s furs before hitting the Seattle airport, and we both laughed. Surrounded by folks in all-manner of furs, I could only imagine the reception some of the day-to-day outfits of the North Slope would get in other places.

I remember once trying to find a gift for a friend who likes Native American art. A vegetarian with significant interest in animal welfare, she would not have appreciated the ivory earrings or baleen etchings locals produced, nor the many varieties of fur. Most of the native artwork here involves dead animals of one form or another, and that really should come as no surprise in a community where hunting is for many people a fundamental part of their way of life.

The issue isn’t simply a question of whether or not to support or oppose hunting, fur, whaling, and so on.; it’s also a question of how you frame the issues. There is a big difference between the commercial fur industry and the hand-made clothes of locals who’ve eaten the meat previously kept warm by that same fur. Likewise, there is a big difference between a whale taken for commercial purposes and those whose blubber will be shared out to the community. Whether or not that settles the issue is another question, but quite often I think people simply fail to notice the difference.

Which brings us back to whaling!

There is a world of difference between the significance of whaling up here and the meaning given to it in other places. This problem was all over a New York Times article on Spring Whaling published a few years back. Its author framed the whole issue in terms of ‘tradition’, then proceeded to worry over the use of technological innovation in pursuit of that tradition. I also recall a discussion of the Makah whale hunt on a random website (I can’t find it now). Participants simply dismissed the idea that native whaling could be anything but a token gesture, a practice akin to preserving a museum exhibit. A similar view can be found in one of the comments to this post, Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Ice-scapes at the blog, Cutterlight. In response to this post, a woman named Kirsten Massebeau wrote:

There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.

Don’t get me wrong, I think this woman (as with others) raises some legitimate concerns in her comment, but I also think there are legitimate answers to those concerns, and I think the whole thing thrown askew by a certain refusal to take the Native Alaskan population seriously.

What all of these examples have in common is a refusal to allow or even to imagine the practice of whaling in the modern world. They cannot even fathom the possibility that such a thing could occur in the present world. To many of these folks, whaling (or at least the indigenous version of it) is by definition a thing of the past, a mere tradition, and one gathers an empty one at that. This seems to be a common perception of whaling on the North Slope, and that perception injects a great deal of prejudice into any subsequent discussion. It is a prejudice shaped and defined by people’s ideological views about history as much as anything else.

Whaling here on the North Slope is first and foremost a native matter, but it affects us all. The effort to bring in a bowhead is not limited to the crew of a single boat. Extended families and friends all work together to outfit and support a given crew, and the entire community of the North slope accommodates the needs of those involved. Time off from work is granted without question when it’s time to cut a trail through the ice. Homework deadlines are extended when it’s time to butcher and cook the blubber. Blubber and meat are shared throughout the community following a successful whale harvest. Whaling is no quaint tradition on the North Slope; it is one of the most important economic activities taking place up here.

Seeing the importance of whaling to an entire community, the condescension of some of these random comments can be quite maddening. Of course these are merely random comments on social media, but they provide a telling glimpse into the way that the larger public closes itself to local realities. Folks just can’t seem to find room in their view of the present for activities such as whaling and subsistence hunting. Presented with evidence to the contrary, it seems a common response to construe such things in terms of a museum exhibit.

…even when that exhibit is real people going about their daily lives, very much in the present day.

***

Epilogue: The disconnect between people’s perceptions of whaling works both ways. I recently received a charming example of this when a student of mine who teaches in one of the local villages passed information about the New England whaling fleet of the 19th century onto her own native students. They wanted to know how the meat and blubber would be shared.

Ruben Salvadori Breaks an All-Too-Common Frame

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5__MG_0788Photojournalist Ruben Salvadori started out with the intention of filming riots in East Jerusalem. In time, he came to shift the focus of his own camera to include the photographers around him. The resulting shift in perspective can be quite startling. It’s an ongoing project for Salvadori, and one that certainly seems quite promising.

It isn’t entirely clear to me how Salvadori’s own intervention will play out in the Palestinian crisis. He seems to be suggesting a layer of collusion between the Palestinian protesters and the photographers who cover them, but it isn’t clear that Salvadori means to limit his critique to such a partisan angle. One can as easily address the questions he raises to photojournalists embedded in conventional forces.

The simple inclusion of photographers in the field of vision provides a stark reminder that the images of world conflict do not come to from on high, or even out-of-bounds, but from people who are very much a part of the events they are filming. The stories told in these images are in some sense reflexive, they are also part of the violence itself, but realization of this fact seems to require a little extra work, an effort to shift our attention to this fact. Joshua Oppenheimer’s film, The Act of Killing, helps to reveal that. Salvadori’s project does this as well.

troops 120992/JPEGWe get a glimpse into the role that media plays on the scene of a conflict every once in awhile. I remember Gerald Vizenor‘s comments about the American Indian Movement helped to break the fourth wall in stories about Wounded Knee and similar events, at least for those who read his works. For many Americans, I suspect the most unexpected (and apparently unwelcome) peek behind the journalistic lens came with the landing of U.S. marines in Mogadishu. The image of combat-ready marines surrounded by photographers caused quite a stir back in the day. I recall quite a few folks lashed out at the photographers for endangering the landing forces with their presence. Few seemed to question the process by which a marine force had come to storm a beach guarded by scores of photographers in the first place.

It’s been some time since that shocking moment when Mogadishu queered the whole subject of war, and it’s good to see someone else tugging at the curtains again. The short clip Salvadori has presently made available (see below) raises more questions than it answers. It will be interesting to see where his project goes.

Hey Geezer, What Rhymes With Masses?

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“Hey Geezer, what rhymes with masses?”

My friend, Mike, likes to make fun of the lyrics. I laugh, because It’s a fair cop. That doesn’t stop me from loving this song. It’s crude, and it’s angry, and frankly, I think that suits its subject rather well. When one thinks of war protest songs, Heavy Metal isn’t normally the genre that comes to mind, but perhaps this is one well-earned exception. Hell, I even like the cheated rhyme!

In fact this song has four places on my favorites play-list rather than one, because there are a few non-Sabbath versions of War Pigs that are well worth a listen. The Suck doesn’t add too much to the composition, but this apartheid era rock band seems so out-of-place in South Africa, they get triple credit for simply thinking of recording the song. Hayseed Dixie is of course funny as Hell, but I think they are as sincere about it’s message as anybody. Check out their remake of  Holiday to hear these rednecks take sarcasm and bitterness right to 11. The most creative reworking of War Pigs may come from the Dresden Dolls. Theirs may also be the most earnest. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ever recorded it in a studio; one has only a few live bootlegs to choose from. The version below is the best I can find.

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