26 December 2011

Language and Fact

I snidely defined post-modernism thusly on my blog once before:

A philosophy in which the self is the source, interpreter and purveyor of all and in which nothing can be weighed against anything else, for nothing is accorded weight.

But to be a little more fair and to put a broader stroke on it, I should explain that the main aspects of post-modernism have to do with social constructs and language; post-modernism, as a theory, emphasizes the notion that most things which we deem to be fact are, instead, mere walls that we construct around ourselves, which we then proceed to perpetuate. (Hence the obsession with deconstruction). Post-modernism is far more concerned with the idea of everything being merely ideational, rather than any concrete desire to explore why “society” advocates certain behaviors and derides others, and whether indeed there is more to it than construct.

Example? Well here’s a rough attempt. (ahem).

Gender as a construct: A Post-modernist Tale

Once upon a time was born a human being with certain anatomical parts denoting what is linguistically referred to as female. Language is a human invention therefore its applications are malleable. Due to having received these particular anatomical features via the vagaries of genetic science, this person grew up in an environment in which it was anticipated that they would dress and behave in ways societally acceptable for said features. One day, shortly after the time in which biological agents act upon the body in a sexually maturing manner, this human being decided to adhere to behaviors, mannerisms, and sexual activities associated with that which is linguistically referred to as male. Henceforth this person chose to use the pronoun “he” instead of “she”, thereby adjusting the language with which they preferred to be described. Despite having to undergo many advanced scientific procedures to modify the once-healthy body, and to take hormones modifying the inherent biological agents and the inability to perform any of the functions of that which is referred to as the “male”, the protagonist of this story followed feelings and preferences, and this is very natural. But “natural” is not a value judgment. No. That is not permitted. Value judgments are against the mandate of post-modernism.

Oh. And the person lived indistinctly ever after, manipulating language to suit the flux of thought, feeling and perceived morality.

Okay. Yes. I have a tendency to poke fun and/or attack post-modernism. This for the two following reasons:

1.       My own tendency towards moral ambiguity keeps me well and full aware of where post-modernism actually and logically leads. I know what sort of person I would be without objective truth and this keeps me on my toes about philosophies that would enable all the very worst in my blood to go giddily, viciously wild.

2.       Post-modernism irritates the ever-loving daylights out of me. It is self-eating. It cannot walk for it has swallowed its own legs. It is so fascinated with itself that it—while claiming to see through all the constructs—sees nothing but its own self. It is the quintessential self-centered, self-justifying creature and a well-spring of untrustworthy tautologies.

I found this cartoon (linked to the only source I could find) and I think it handles post-modernism pretty well:

Per usual, C.S. Lewis pointed this out some sixty years ago when what is now called ‘post-modernism’ had not yet lost its baby-teeth:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is of no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

And what does this all come to?

My sister Ronit, among other things. She is a linguist. I am also a linguist (sort of) but I’m what I call a street linguist and she’s a proper one who understands things like…grammar, syntax and structure. It is her job to understand that which is applicable across languages, not just within context.

At first blush my own approach to language would well suit a post-modernist palate. I always say that context is king. And it is. We all know that one word can have a dozen or even many dozens of meanings and only the context can inform us of which one is actually intended. The meaning of the word is influenced by the topic, by inflection, by the speaker and who knows how many other factors that we scarce know to take into account. That is why text-speak is so inane; it lacks a huge number of context-qualifiers. That is also why letter-writing is an art; it’s the ability to infuse the words with the appropriate nuance and sentiment, honing the meaning down to a fine point while not having access to all the traditional tools (voice, expression, gesture).

But while context may be king, post-modernism would have it be a tyrant. One ought not to let context run amok. Context is the medium of communication, not the communiqué itself! Moreover, the truer a thing is, the higher it rises above context.

I am no grammarian, so my sister can speak on the rules and regulations of language to a degree that I can barely understand. This knowledge of the inherent structures that make up languages, both broadly and specifically, is what enables her to do with language things that I—in my context-soaked methods—cannot do; she analyzes them and understands them in and out of contexts; she can approach the language whole, or dissect it into parts.

Language is not as wispy and elusive as some would have us think. It is not as inextricable from its locale as it often seems. If handled with wisdom and care, meaning can survive translation with a healthy heart-beat and live well.

If we make the mistake of chalking everything up to context, we might be astonished (though we really shouldn’t be) at the many horrors that it justifies for itself, and at the many semantic and linguistic games we’ll find ourselves caught up in so as to never have to adhere to something higher or greater than the old adage that ‘perception is reality’. Because, if that’s the case, then all is in the eye of the beholder, and if the eyes are bad, how dark the light within (Matthew 6:23).

18 December 2011

Patterns of Portrayal

The people of ancient Judea struggled with legalism in Jesus’ time, just as we struggle with it now...in our own, newer, flashier ways. They knew, and we know, that God’s laws are good, growing firmly out of his will and wisdom. But they lose their potency when we cut them off, take them into our own hands and make them into what is easiest for us. Sometimes we twist his words so badly to make them do as we wish, that we end up abandoning the mess we’ve made of them, tossing this and that word entirely out of our vernacular. We bounce back between legalism and relativism and never seem to hit the center-mark.

When Jesus admonished the Pharisees for giving a tenth of their mint and cumin, while neglecting their elders, he chastised them, not for obeying the law down to their very kitchen spices, but for doing so having cut the heart of God out of the law. They made the law their very own, and in so doing, ruined its purpose...like a child plucking out a flower who then wonders why it starts to wither from that moment on.

Some time ago, I inadvertently come across three television shows, each which had an overtly “Christian” character wherein celibacy is the primary indicator that they are Christian. Oh that and, of course, a small cross on thier neck. At first blush, I was foolish enough to think that this was a positive trend. I’m afraid I was mistaken.

The trouble with this TV “Christian” is that it is simply a caricature that settles amongst the classic list of high-school style stereotypes: the jock, the rebel, the punk, the slut, the goth, the geek, etcetera. As with most caricatures, the depiction is exaggerated, lacks nuance…and by and large, it’s grotesque.

The first example I encountered was on the posthumously popular “Arrested Development”. It is a clever off-center comedy about a severely dysfunctional family which I can recommend for wit, but not for content. The Christian featured in this story is the young girlfriend of a teenage character. She is presented as a drab girl who goes about protesting morally questionable people and events, and is generally disliked (no, despised) by other characters on the show. How much they all hate her is, in fact, a running gag.

At some point during the series, she claims (at age fifteen) that she wants to get married so that she can have sex. She asks her boyfriend to whisk her away to the secular world. Her Christian mother makes a very similar statement of wanting to learn ‘secular ways’, as though she has been living in a nunnery.

The theory seems to be that these poor indoctrinated girls are sexually repressed and secretly wish to escape thier cloistered Christian world. The girl’s “protests on behalf of morality” are also depicted as a hobby, or an opportunity to exercise intense emotions otherwise forbidden to her, rather than as derived of any sort of conviction. She is not a main character...she's mostly there for laughs in this ensemble show:

The second example seems more moderate at first glance but, ultimately, is just as damaging. Strangely, this example does not seem as though it is intended to be negative. Yet it still manages to leave a bad taste in the mouth about what the world believes Christians to be and represent. It comes from the show “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” about a pregnant teen in high school. (I could not stomach more than a couple episodes of the show, but I looked up the events. Not my kinda show).

Theoretically the show’s objective is a good one; to teach teens the truths and consequences of sex. At least I’m guessing that’s what it is. It even seems to offer not having sex as a viable option. One character and her boyfriend are painted as strong Christians who speak loudly about abstinence. Yet the girl’s boyfriend grows increasingly desirous of sex and ultimately accepts a solicitation for oral sex from a girl he barely knows. He apologizes to his girlfriend for seeing someone else, but lies about the sexual nature of his behavior.

This does not scratch the surface of the unchecked hypocrisy enacted by the supposedly Christian characters in this show. The boyfriend pays someone to do his schoolwork for him. He lies and cheats and is a generally unsavory sort of boy. But of course he is a square-jawed, popular jock.

The girlfriend—initially quite genuine—is a blonde, peppy cheerleader who is very vocal about her Christianity. Later in the series, however, she gives in and has sex with her boyfriend, afterwards feeling shamed and recommitting herself to abstinence. This is a severely mixed message.

On the one hand, we all fall and we can all be redeemed. If that were the crux of the message, not only could I stomach it, but I could support it. But so far, the all-consuming factor for these Christians is sex: i.e. whether or not they’re having it. Purity is important, but what about all the other interacting facets of a God-centered life? Kindness? Justice? Honesty? What about the basic tenants of the faith? What about our Author and Creator? What about any other factors of what it means to be a person of faith?

I should point out that this show in particular was well-versed in ‘Christianese.’ The girl wore a purity ring, invited friends to church functions and her prayers made her sound like someone who had been to a youth-group meeting or two.

The third example is the most troubling by far. It comes in the form of the show “Glee,” about classic misfits finding a place and some joy in show choir. Interestingly enough, it’s about defying stereotypes, as it goes on supporting them every which way. It’s fun, musical and peppered with enjoyable quirks.

In this show, there is also a lovely, blonde cheerleader who wears a shiny silver cross. She is aggressively vocal about her virginity and that of others (dare I say “the Lady doth protest too much”...?) She is also rude, malicious and enjoys blatantly drawing her boyfriend to what she then makes clear he cannot have (and I mean very blatantly. The show was at pains to point this out, lest they be accused of 'blaming a girl for the guy's behavior'). The line “we’re about teasing not pleasing” is uttered in the second episode. This character is obsessed with appearances, reputation and is, of course, territorial with ‘her man’. She is meant to be despised and indeed she is despicable.

When this character was leading a school celibacy club (where the girls talk about the wonder of wearing sexy cheerleading skirts with which to tease their male counterparts), I rather sided with the secular teen who, watching the entire absurd display, proceeded to point out how skewed their motives and behaviors were. (Note: the show has veered far from this premise…this was only the launching point to serve the desired aim of pitting the Christian cheerleader character against the main female character)

It seems the secular world has reached the following simple conclusion; these Christian kids are really emphatic about abstinence, but they have no follow-through. Something must exist en force in order to be parodied, and this concept is being parodied left and right. A majority of the creative minds in television seem to have gleaned little more than: Christians are hypocrites and snobs, who either hold thier physical purity out like a vicious lure, or hold it close like a religious security blanket.

I can’t help but wonder if this perspective has its roots in the fact that today’s youth find it easier to claim obedience to a physical command, than submit to a spiritual lifestyle. I hope not, but if so, it is legalism and nothing more and its legs will eventually buckle out from underneath. Abstinence does not a godly person make. It’s supposed to be a strong indicator—an outflow, or by-product—of your life purpose, not the purpose of life itself.

Popular media has been producing its version of Christians for quite some time now, and some of their critiques are unfair. But some are fair. But stereotypes can almost always be distilled down from thier respective hyperbole into some grain of truth--or at the very least a point of origin--which must be examined.

It seems that, with the preponderance of purity conferences and bubble-gum style celebrities with “true love waits” rings, the concept is making its way into the very public sphere as a Christian criterion. The emphasis is perfectly understandable, since abstinence can be a hard ‘sell’ in a culture where the only stipulations for sex are that it be ‘safe and consensual.’ And, y’know, it helps if you kind of like the person too.

But if the virtue of waiting-till-marriage stands on its own to the world, without comprehension of meaning and without roots in a believer’s love for God, then that virtue will fall at earliest convenience. It should be noted that of all three referenced “Christian” characters, two had premarital sex, and one tried her hardest to do so.

The idea of abstinence is definitely on the secular radar screen, but the reason behind it clearly isn’t. Until the deeper motivation becomes clear from the inside out, then the whole thing will continue to be seen as some baseless, archaic idea, when viewed by a world that categorizes abortion under the term “reproductive rights” and says that following the blind-eyed demands of momentary desire is to be known as “sexual freedom.”

However, if our choices flow, not from moral checklists, but from seeking and abiding in the source, our Messiah, then the world will scratch its head in wonder when we refuse to fit into the confines of what we are imagined to be. Then the world will have a reason to search for the answer to such an anomaly, instead of simply labeling it with a cross and slapping on a purity ring…which they, not unreasonably, expect to fall off at any moment.

 POST SCRIPT (because I wrote this article a while ago):

Lo I did find a Christian character on TV that is neither coddled (as on Christian-made TV) nor demonized! Shirley on Community. (Awesome show, by the by). They deal in both stereotypes and complex facts. The show both criticizes her and adores her. She’s not perfect, but she strives to do right. She loves her non-Christian friends, but is often saddened by their choices and behaviors and can sometimes be harsh or judgmental towards them. It’s a rare show where a Christian is treated more as a person than as a concept. There are seventy-five thousand other reasons to like the show—it’s an ensemble cast—but her character is definitely one of them!

A little montage of Shirley clips which may or may not be appreciated if you haven’t seen the show:

15 November 2011

Not on One's Own Strength

A short word about an uncomfortable fact, introduced by Langston Hughes:

Gather up
In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
The desperate, the tired,
All the scum
Of our weary city
Gather up
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above

How often does God speak to us through each other when our ears are dulled to Him? And how often are we effective vessels? If I am lost and alone, vacillating between fury at God and denial of his existence, do you realize that you are his representative…his translator…the carrier of his words and love to those who don’t even believe in it?

From a Jon Foreman song based off of verses in Isaiah and Amos:

“Give love to the ones to the ones who can’t love at all
Give hope to the ones who have no hope at all
Stand up for the ones who can’t stand at all”

At first blush it’s a deeply intimidating, if thrilling, commission. I am not up to that task in and of myself. I get irritated nigh to the point of violence with the people who stand on the walking side of the escalator and with anyone who uses valley-girl speak…and I’m supposed be a representative of God’s love?

Thank goodness it isn’t my capacity to love and serve I'm dealing with here. I'd be done for. It’s God’s capacity we’re talking about. That changes it from an “assignment” or an impossible command into something different…not an outflow of some frantic humanistic flailing to ‘do the right thing’ (whatever that is on the given day or decade), but an outflow of God’s nature.

Can’t this:

“Gather up
In the arms of your love—
Those who expect
No love from above”

Somehow lead us to understand this: that it is God “who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:4)

It is precisely because of my (extremely) limited capacity to serve and love that know I must learn to lean on God’s. I know now more than ever that the only other option is eventual, complete hypocrisy…slowly wasting away and running dry, like a rank body of water without inlet or outflow.

Don’t want that to happen. So, as God offers in the book of Amos, let’s argue this out, so that we don't mistake the world's ideas of justice (or our own) for God's:

01 November 2011

Searching for the Right Things in All the Wrong Places

Below is my attempt to delve into the appeal of Paranormal literature. Though not so old, it is already becoming dated (Dystopias are the new thing, it seems). Trouble is, I don’t read Young Adult Paranormal literature. I like reading about it, because it produces interesting discussions…I just don’t enjoy reading paranormal romances. Not my thing. The real reason that I even had enough information to write this is because I have a book-review addiction, and an affinity for snark: YA (young adult) paranormal romances produce scads of both. So, having read more reviews and snark pieces on this style of novel that I care to admit, I was more or less able to pick up on the trends as an outsider, and form on opinion on the ‘why’ of the thing.

Bookstore shelves are stuffed to bursting with Young Adult paranormal novels these days. Not only that, but the contents of these novels, per most genre fiction, fit neatly into a comfortingly familiar plot structure; young girl meets mysterious, inexplicable boy who also inexplicably loves her despite her plain humanity. The boy will turn out to be one of the following; fallen angel, vampire, werewolf, faerie king or some such mystical being.

It is not a bad set-up and though the famous (or infamous?) Stephanie Meyer had a firm hand in popularizing the sub-genre, she was hardly the first person to put this fantasy to paper. The appeal is obvious; the tension of two different worlds, a heavily exaggerated version of a cultural or class conflict—a ‘higher’ being drawing a lower into some epic, earth-shattering romance. ‘Meant for each-other’ to the impossible extreme.

Catering largely to teenagers, but appealing to almost the entire age spectrum, the gist I get from my critical-book-review addiction is that most of these tales break down into a series of tension-fraught make-out scenes, with the paranormal conflict laced throughout so as to make all this hormone-charged behavior so much more epic than it would otherwise be.

Is it surprising that teen girls want romance? Hardly. Is it a shock that they find the exploration of sexuality in these books fascinating? Not at all. Is there more to this obsession with otherworldly romance, than meets the eye?

Absolutely. And the desires buried in the text go beyond the secularly obvious.

So let’s begin at the beginning (“and then, when we get to the end, let’s stop!”): Otherworldly. Something beyond our normal parameters. What is it that draws people to the “other” which can’t be defined, contained or at all transformed? It can’t be discarded. The lure is too strong. The mysterious “other” is what it is and it’s worth your time (Why? Because). Some people wonder and question. But she knows. That nameless girl who represents all the heroines in these stories knows. Therein lies the appeal. The very idea that there is no concrete explanation is half the draw.

But, wait a minute…why is it always a girl being drawn “upward” into this mystical romance, and not the other way around? We could cite sexism or marketing strategy. The trope sells like hotcakes. But that’s an insufficient explanation. Why does the formula resonate?

Well first of all, from a strictly story-standpoint…it’s the most basic Cinderella tale: being rescued from the normal, from the mundane, from the unpleasantness of regular life.

But from a broader, spiritual stand-point, I think we can answer that question of resonation when we recall that the church is referred to as the ‘bride’; a woman, plucked from obscurity to become something far beyond her natural capabilities. The same metaphor is used in the Bible to describe God's relationship with Israel, most particularly through the prophet Hosea. She was meant for it, somehow...in spite of the circumstances, and in spite of herself, even.

It should also be noted that there is a male version of this trope and the sci-fi/fantasy world is positively saturated with it. The farm-boy/rogue/outcast who turns out to be the ‘destined-one’/king/savior-of-all-mankind. The parallel here is a bit more overt and accepted than in vampire “chick-lit”. ‘Messiah’ figures in literature are very common. But, for some reason, it’s the bride/Cinderella figure that is the current money-maker, cultivating avid fans who line up for book-number-whatever like it’s Harry Potter or something. (I definitely get the appeal of both tropes, but I like the more action-y fisticuff characters my own self…those are on the up-and-up in YA female-oriented literature as well, a la Hunger Games). It’s a dime novel that doesn’t look like a dime novel, essentially.

The trouble with both tropes is that these messiah-types and lover-hero types, however otherworldly, are inevitably filled with human flaws and selfish actions. Even the ostensibly ‘perfect’ ones come off as tin men and nobody likes them because there’s no such thing. We do not know how to make what we do not understand. We write human messiahs with supernatural powers, because that’s all we can manage. We turn them into the ideals of what we want to be, or how we wish we would be loved. We are trying to satisfy a desire we were created to have…and which can be fulfilled...but only by God.

Vicariousness isn’t gonna cut it…but it sure has oceans of market-appeal: Romance, Sci-fi, Fanstasy, Video Games, Role Playing, Chick-flicks, Super Hero movies etc.

Now what about the fact that, in many of these teen novels, the mysterious male lead often treats the smitten girl condescendingly...even unkindly? He’s a “bad boy.” He’s “dangerous.” What does this say about our society? Do women want to be pushed around without explanation? Do they want to be treated poorly? Must the man keep his epic secrets from them? Must he deal with her so strangely? Must he be so difficult to understand? Must the heroine feels like she’s kept in the dark?

(Frankly that would annoy the ever-loving daylights out of me in a guy character, but okay, it seems to be really popular)

Well, I’m not alone in my belief that women don’t want to be treated like this by any actual, human man (that’s a different discussion called “unhealthy relationships”) but only by a fantasy ideal whose otherwise inscrutable behavior is derived of irrefutably loving motives. They want to be loved and pursued in this very unique way by this incredibly unattainable person. So he gets invented on the page. These heroic figurines can’t live outside of the lines they’re typed in, yet they represent the notion of something powerful and all-knowing that we less-knowing humans long for.

To suss this out, I can only recall that the heroes of both the Old Testament and the New struggled with the genuine hardship of following God. He didn’t always make sense to them. He was not always easy to obey. His judgments could be devastating. His followers have been known to endure heartbreaking delays, persecution and periods of silence, loneliness and pain. Sometimes he permits horrible things to happen to those who love him, as in the cases of Job and Joseph.

But He was worth it to them. He is worth it to us. Also they were worth it to Him, which is the confusing bit. His thoughts are not our thoughts neither are our ways his ways. I’m tempted to say to this entire genre of paranormal romance, as if to a person, “close…so close, but no cigar.” The crucial facts are missing, so the passion is misdirected.

This is where the central problem is. No human is worth this particular breed of trust and devotion. No glittery hero either. So obsessions are created around these human impossibilities to compensate for this giant misdirection away from God towards Man. We should love and serve each other, not idolize each other. Are we setting young girls up to idolize and idealize the men they date/marry? Yes, I suspect so, and it’s easy to see how that will go awry.

It’s perhaps too simple for me to dismiss these teen fantasies as merely that. But in our modern world, in which ‘youth culture’ is dominant and worshiped, the vamp-and-werewolf literature of today probably bears a more accurate representation of people’s deepest desires than the Andy Hardy-and-Nancy Drew of yesteryear. Young adult literature is dubbed excellent if it is bilingual; speaking equally to its target audience and to the generation that raised them.

This is the tricky part; these sorts of books are the fluff of our day. These are the sugar-coating idealists. The wistful dreamers. The seekers of happily-ever-after, producing ‘spunkified’ versions of old-fashioned damsels-in-distress. The cynicism which surrounds these mouthfuls of cotton-candy can quickly melt their thin cry for something ‘other’—oh how much hilarious snark they have produced!—because it is so very thin. It hardly knows what it’s asking for. It’s caught in the mire of a life unperceptive of God.

As C.S. Lewis observed about ungodly or perverse affections, “Eros, turned upside-down, blackened, distorted and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.” So, are sewage weeds better than nothing growing at all? At the very least, they show a lack of resignation to the pervading philosophies in which all deep desire is dismissed as childish folly; love is a lie, faith is a fairytale and destiny is for dungeons & dragons.

So perhaps my respect for these pieces of literature is scant, but my empathy is substantial. This washed-out fantasy love can be seen for what it is beneath all the teen angst: yet another translation of a deep, unshakeable desire to know, love and be loved by Someone enigmatically “other”—the only One who stands so wonderfully beyond our natural selves—to be in the otherworld, with the One who created the world.

14 October 2011

History Repeats Itself

Preface: Three years ago there was a Hezbollah-Israel prisoner swap (of sorts) and, in my flurry of thoughts about the situation, I wrote an opinion article regarding it. It has since sat in my pile of thoughts and documents, growing increasingly out of date.

Now a new prisoner exchange is taking place. Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas militants for five years now, is finally being released…in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

It’s difficult to comment on this. On one hand, I want to rejoice along with Israelis that Shalit is finally being released. On the other, the inequality of the exchange speaks distressing volumes, and here is where the old article I wrote from 2008 will serve instead of any further commentary. And: warning. The commentary conveys strong feelings. It is not impartial. It is an opinion piece coming from someone with very strong opinions:

Dead for More Dead

I must write about an exchange.

Prisoners for Prisoners, bodies for bodies…these are natural exchanges between enemies.

Prisoners for bodies is something I cannot stomach.

This is a difficult subject to present. Not because of its controversial nature…to most, the morality of this subject, or lack thereof, is plain. And not because of its complexity. The facts are also plain. No, this is difficult to write because it is a subject about which it is nearly impossible to speak dispassionately. Hopefully the sources and translations will speak for themselves.

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers were returned to Israel, as Hizbullah received five live prisoners in exchange. The bodies of 199 militants were also promised as part of the exchange. The most prominent of the prisoners returned to Hizbullah is Samir Quntar. Quntar is the most infamous of those being released because he shot an Israeli man, Dani Haran, in front of his four-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by repeatedly striking her in the head. Haran’s wife apparently hid and their second child was killed as the mother tried to smother the child’s cries, so they could both remain hidden. I am trying to use the coldest language possible to describe this information, lest I be accused of “inciting emotions.”

Now, putting aside the “lop-sided exchange,” as it was stated in one paper, I want to focus on the reactions.

Al-Jazeera dutifully reported both sides of the story. (In this case that means both sides of the border):

In Lebanon there was celebration at the return of the five prisoners and a hero’s welcome for Quntar*.

In Israel there was mourning, as the families, and the nation, were finally able to bury their dead.

The Al-Jazeera article about Israel described the funeral and the national mourning, with half the article dedicated to reporting the medical examinations, which were conducted in order to prove who they were, and to determine how they died. The article states that “the examiners found difficulty in examining the bodies because they had not been preserved in freezers and they were in a progressed state of disintegration.”

My automatic reaction when I read any article is to go to the bottom and see what the reading public had to say. Al-Jazeera draws its viewers and its readership from all over the Arab world. Disappointingly, many of the reader’s comments were too hateful to warrant translation, but I will offer a few examples.

“With a quick look at the developments we see that the strategy which Hizbullah employed is sound and effective and simply requires patience and prior knowledge of what is needed. So it is a lesson to us Arabs in how to face against [the enemy]”.

Another says:

“God greet the heroes of Hizbullah who freed those men who are of the Arab people and the Islamic people.”

Some quotes are just religious rhetoric immediately followed by congratulations to Hizbullah and “the resistance” (generally referring to Hamas and such groups). 

Another reader directed his comments towards Israelis: “God willing all your days will be sad, and it brings me great joy when I see you all at a funeral.”*

Another simply says “Death to America and Israel” and describes the judgment that will be brought on them.

Out of nearly 30 commentaries that are currently posted for the article, I only saw one, which stood in sharp contrast to the rest.

“Look you Arabs how the leaders treat just one soldier. If it had been an Egyptian, or a Jordanian, or a Syrian or a Saudi soldier, would their country have launched a war for their sake? Or have conducted a funeral such as Israel did? When will the Arabs learn from their enemy the meaning of respect for a citizen…”

The President of the Republic of Lebanon, Mishal Sulayman was present to greet the released prisoners, as were other representatives of various official political factions in Lebanon. Perhaps this is one of the most troubling results of this situation and yet it will likely be viewed as peripheral information, if it is noticed at all.

Again, to make it very clear: The President of Lebanon was present to greet the return of the prisoners, one of whom killed a father in front of his daughter, and then brutally killed the girl. This criminal was treated honorably, warmly and as a hero. The attendance of President Mishal Sulayman is equivalent to Lebanese government support of this man’s actions.

The article about the celebration on the Lebanese side of the fence was followed by pages of congratulatory letters directed towards Nasrallah, (Leader of Hizbullah), and the “resistance”

Another stated “By God, Oh Arabs, what a victory…2 in exchange for more than 200…we congratulate you on this accomplishment, oh Arabs.”

One reader seemed suspicious of the absurdity of Israel’s concessions and speculated that there was some other strategy afoot.

Whether there is some grand plan or idea, I don’t know. But the whole thing boils down to this: One country gave up more than it perhaps ought to have in order to return the bodies of loved ones to their families and to show them that their country had not forgotten them. The other country received, in return, 199 bodies and five prisoners, at least one of whom was not imprisoned on any overlookable charge: killing a child. Not with a bomb, and she happened to be nearby...but in brutal close-hand fashion. This is a quote from Samir Quntar himself:

“I did not come to Lebanon except to return to Palestine.” He expresses that the greatest wish of all for himself, and Hizbullah and the “resistance” is to become a martyr and that he will go on fighting.

So will Israel put bullets in the hands of their enemies in order to do right by their own dead?

I think this was perhaps an honorable-minded concession, but likewise a horrible one. I’m torn. The newspapers and the commentary sections are burning up with passages about how this was a “fantastic victory” for Hizbullah. Those who would see Israel destroyed have now concluded that Israel will give up anything and everything in exchange for ‘nothing’. That is because, to those and sadly even to many non-militants, two men is nothing…nothing but cannon fodder and food for propaganda. To Israel, however, two men are indeed something. They are citizens, soldiers, brothers, husbands, sons…they are countrymen.

The disparity in the numbers of the exchange equals the disparity in mindset of the two sides of this exchange.

As Israelis mourn and finally have a chance to pay respects to their lost loved ones, Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser, Hizbullah, and any who look to them for their opinions, rejoice and swear on it as a victory on the battlefield.

*Quntar was later given an award by the Syrian President. I hope that most Lebanese and Syrians don’t actually concur with the honors accorded this man. I strongly hope that they do not. But those vocal on the Al-Jazeera Arabic commentary boards were in fierce support.

*I am aware that this is an exceedingly negative portrayal of the general Arab reaction. It bothers me too. Indeed, I am not trying to generalize. When I attended the commentary boards I expected a healthy debate and contradicting views. I must admit myself disheartened and surprised by the lack thereof.

Afterword: The points made here about a rather different situation still stand. I think the disparity in numbers is quite relevant. There are all manner of peripheral connotations which could be discussed (social pressure, symbolism, proper concessions, political machinations) but when we talk straight numbers we’re looking at a very unusual situation. I don’t know how to end this except to pose questions: Why are these exchanges so dramatically lop-sided? What does it say about how life is viewed and valued by both sides of the exchange? Why does this leave me feeling so disconcerted?

I speak Arabic and Hebrew and have worked with and enjoyed the camaraderie of Israelis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Iraqis, and I’m not convinced as to whether or not exchanges like this represent progress. Part of me want to praise it--the willingness to give up a lot for what seems like very little (but surely it isn't little)--but I am still troubled by what is signified in the huge numerical gaps. It bespeaks other, more troublesome gaps.

11 October 2011

Kipling Again

I’ve decided to take a second shot at Kipling’s “If” poem. I’m not actually trying to run through this thing line-by-line, but I sorta can’t help it—there’s just too much to be had in there.

Immediately after the lines I wrote about previously—about not letting dreams become your master, or thoughts your aim—comes this curious creature:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;”

When I first heard those bolded lines sung by Chuck E. Costa, (I link to him because I really, really want you to hear the song!) I found them very compelling, but I couldn’t say why. I mean, the idea of keeping a cool head throughout both triumph and disaster is very sensible and noble and all…but let’s be realistic. Does anyone actually think we’re supposed to treat those two imposters just the same? Why should triumph be an imposter? Don’t we strive for it, invite it, and incur it?

Well, sometimes. But sometimes it comes unexpected and unaided by our own skill or intent. Likewise disaster sometimes comes upon us wholly unexpected—and sometimes we invite it, or incur it.

That being said…I still narrowed my eyes at those lines so as to mull them over, for this is what I cannot help but picture:

You are at home, doing this that or the other, when someone steps through your front door—quite without asking—and it happens to be someone thrilling, charming and altogether enjoyable to be around. You welcome them with open arms. You have riveting conversation. He compliments you and your family, lifting your spirits, giving you trinket-y or not-so-trinket-y gifts. So long as triumph stays, sitting on your couch and sipping congenially whatever drink you offer him, you are flushed and in flight! When he leaves, you are rather down-hearted, but the memory of his visit still makes you smile.

Next comes a new visitor. He inevitably barges in at the most inconvenient time and does not wait for you to greet him before he begins to make himself at home. You don’t want to offer him a drink, but he takes whatever he wants anyway, getting drunk and rowdy and destructive in the process. You would love to kick him out, but he won’t leave. He insults you and your family, brings low their spirits, taking unoffered gifts from you left and right. So long as disaster stays, swallowing everything you never meant for him to have, you are uneasy and despondent. When he leaves, you lift up your head only to see the devastation he wrought, which now must be dealt with.

So I ask again…are we really to treat these two unexpected visitors the very same? It’s incredibly hard to imagine. On one hand, I don’t know that it is truly possible, or even always advisable; there’s something to be said for being able to genuinely relish a triumph, and no one expects you to put on a fake smile for disaster’s sporadic drop-ins.

But on the other: triumph can be coercive, sly and deadly. He can inflate your head and separate you from things—both trivial and vital—that gave you joy in simpler times before he came. And disaster, while cruel, can be an excellent teacher and can better expose the cracks in the veneer. Both can cause trouble, really. And both can bring about good. They just do so in such terribly, terribly different ways.

Until recently I would have left those lines mulling in the back of my mind, feeling that there was truth in them, but not understanding quite how. But a quote from Bonhoeffer brought it back to the fore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who in his life became well-acquainted with that which we might call disaster, but which he called suffering—stands on viable ground when he asserts that personal suffering is a “more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” That is not to say that disaster is desirable or somehow virtuous by its mere existence—that’s a false greeting as well—but it should nevertheless be met with dignity. And I suspect that’s precisely what Kipling meant. Meet both these imposters with both full dignity and humility.

As Bonhoeffer said: “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

...a kind of life that joys in the Lord through triumph and disaster and confidently takes and appreciates all that can rightly be acquired from both, without fear of succumbing to the very real dangers of either.

04 October 2011

A Story About an Un-World

The following is a short story that I wrote a number of years ago to no particular purpose except that it was very vivid and disconcerting. It has been sitting lonesome and unused among my word documents and I thought it might have a place here:

In the dream I was a man with hollow eyes. Everyone else in this psuedo-world carried on as if all was well, but my eyes were empty. Being that it was a dream, I could look at myself. I was dressed in the manner of the typical “anti-hero”. Dark, rough, dangerous. It was evident that I had a wretched history.

The setting had a post-apocalyptic feel. One immediately knew that a cataclysmic event had changed the world. Even so, nothing looked different. The sky was blue, the grass was green, and I distinctly remember seeing a family picnicking at some sort of park. I don’t recall seeing cottages or skyscrapers, but they could well have graced the scene without being out of place. The thing that had changed the world was not a bomb, or a war…but whatever it was, it had left the air empty. It had left my eyes hollow.

I walked up to myself. My anti-hero self looked at me as if he expected me.

“What happened here?” I said.

The calm landscape flickered, like a weak television channel, and what showed beneath the flickering matched the empty, post-world feeling of the whole dream.

“They took God away,” I responded.

In the dream I felt nauseous. So did the anti-hero. In retrospect, any proper apologist of any belief, in the realm of theism or atheism, could have argued against that absurd statement. God was or he was not. If He wasn’t then no void should be left in His absence. If He was, then he could not simply be removed. But in this post-world, I did not question that God was. And they took Him away.

“So what happened?”

“Nothing,” I said.

I watched a woman approach. She was beautiful, but she had come to take me somewhere I didn’t want to go. I watched her with a hateful curiosity.

“Come. The world still holds much,” she said.

I shot her in the forehead. Don’t be shocked. I don’t think I was.

Before I pulled the trigger, I saw that her eyes were far emptier than mine. This was strange because when she first approached her eyes had been full of that certain Hollywood-girl allure. By the time I shot her, though, I saw that the allure in her dark eyes was on a reel…like a looped tape, rigged to emit the same flicker of charm over and over.

I don’t mean that she was inhuman in anyway. But the spark of life in her was an imitation. Recorded and repeated. Nothing new under the sun, right? But things are supposed to ripen, to grow fuller and sweeter in the sun. They have to be attached to a tree to do so. But here, in this place, instead of growing in the sun, everyone was drying up and getting smaller. They weren’t attached to anything. It was all just getting stale.

I was no longer independent of myself at this point in the dream. I shot her because the post-world had a special “people program” for those who had trouble adjusting to a world without God. They were always trying to draft me in to this program. I knew better. I think I was some sort of vigilante.

You see, I am not one of those people who have much natural moral compunction. If there was no God, I would have few, if any, scruples about…anything. I realized that since there was no God, there was no morality. Right and wrong were relative, and based merely on the state of society. Without the divine spark, what difference did it make if man lived or died? What difference did it make if I was the one who killed them? All this nonsense about preservation of a species…who gives a damn if a species survives? I sure didn’t. I killed people, apparently. If I wanted to. If I needed to. It’s hard to know. I just killed anyone who tried to draw me in. Anyone who tried to tell me that all was well. Anyone who messed with me.

Preserve society? How about not. In the dream, I was out to destroy it.

Then the nausea that pervaded the dream dissipated, and my insides didn’t feel like they’d been carved out anymore.

I woke up.

22 September 2011

The Case of the Opposition

When I was a child I made a horrifying and thrilling discovery: I could win arguments regardless of whether—on the grand scale—I was right or wrong. I could occasionally argue people older, wiser, more intelligent, more knowledgeable and more correct than me into the ground. Through what precise combination of word trickery, semantics, persistence and bull-doggedness I do this, I don’t quite know, but I had both discovered this and been informed of it by the aforementioned ‘older-wiser-more-intelligent’ ones.

It was thrilling because it made me feel clever and powerful, like the person with a gun or a heavy fist faced against a person who is weak and unarmed. Like I had a secret weapon. It was horrifying because it meant that I could easily get away with technically correct rhetoric unsupported by truth, reality or anything otherwise helpful.

This is by no means a singular talent/vice. Lots of people discover over time that they can do this. Some are better at it, some are worse. But honing this ‘skill’ is a dangerous and idiotic enterprise because one may end up actually believing the dreck the mouth spits out. Whenever I may have won arguments this way it is the functional equivalent of a lawyer getting a murderer off on a technicality: a win by which all lose.

Why explore this troublesome talent of mine, when it is in fact nothing but the first-cousin-once-removed of being able to lie well? Because I think that if I’m going to deride something, I should first acknowledge my own tendencies so as to show that I don’t criticize from any great distance, but rather from terrible proximity.

Something that galls me almost more than some mere bad argument is overstating the case of the opposition. It’s a brilliant, cheap tactic, really. It works most times out of many, and it’s got enough truth in it that it doesn’t feel like quite the cheat that it, in fact, is. I mean, the opposition is opposed to you, aren’t they? Does it matter that I make them seem more populous or more vitriolic than they actually are? Does it matter if I misquote them ever so gently so that to accuse me of misquoting just makes one sound so petty? Must context matter so much? How relevant is it that I inflate the flaws of their argument to highlight the merits of mine?

Note: inflating the flaws of the opposition is not the same thing as exposing them. It just isn’t. If the opposition is wrong—if their argument is dead on arrival---then honest debate will make that known without any enhancement. The healthier, more muscular argument will win.

What planted this frustration in my mind? Well. Anthropology, actually. Small wonder that the (wishfully objective) study of humans falls prey to this, I suppose. Anthropologists do this willy-nilly, and a certain series of academic studies were the particular instigators of this line of thought for me…but you know what? Everyone does this. It’s really hard not to. It’s instinctive. Doesn’t make it any less of a cheat. We slowly, carefully build the opposition into some fire-breathing dragon, so that when we destroy it we seem a sword-bearing knight on behalf of the truth (although, I should add that anthropology would tend to shy away from that last word).

Side note: Now I like anthropology (sometimes). There must be many a good anthropologist walking the wide globe just now. But the disease of ‘overstating-the-case-of-the-opposition’ plagues the discipline, as it plagues many others.

Point being? We shouldn’t do this. Moreover we don’t need to. So. To all (anthropologists and the rest of us): take note that when you try to distort the fury or size of your opposition to make your own argument seem stronger than it may truly be, one can’t help but suspect that your argument isn’t strong at all!! Take it from someone who truly understands the inclination toward the tactic—it leads to shoddy victory.

Let the argument stand unaided. If it can…it will.

20 September 2011

Means and Ends

A musician by the name of Chuck E. Costa once decided to put a handful of Rudyard Kipling’s poems to music. For this I am deeply grateful because I have now memorized three-quarters of Kipling’s poem “If” although I’d probably have to sing it instead of say it if asked to recite.

“If” is a poem about virtues and honor in general, but in particular it’s about swearing to your own hurt. It’s about the hard virtues. The ones that don’t feel good. The ones that go against our grain. The ones that are almost impossible to remember in the moment of anger, betrayal or frustration. Or hard to remember in moments of triumph and superiority.

I had intended to post a video containing the Chuck E. Costa song, which is a slightly trucated version of the original, because it is beautiful the way he sings it. But I was unable to find it on youtube, so I simply advise it to you if your interested (the album is called "Never Seen a Jaguar" and the song simply "If")

Anyhow, here is the original:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!
There is so much to talk about and delve into in this poem—not to mention one or two bits that might be points of contention for some—that I have chosen only two lines to expound upon—those highlighted in bold: dream and not make dreams your master; think and not make thoughts your aim.

Those two lines are more of a knife through the modern psyche than anything else. We would all most likely agree that it is wise to not become too proud, and noble to push yourself to spite laziness and fear, and virtuous to refrain from lying no matter that others are doing so about you. But in current thought processes dreams are a sort of master, and thoughts surely are the aim, are they not?

These lines hit me hardest because I do have the horrifying tendency to let dreams become my master—to drive my thoughts and feelings, thence to drive my anger and disappointment. The dreams are not wrong, but their preeminence is. If the loss or failure of them ruins someone—sunders them and puts them to the ground—then that someone held those dreams too high aloft. They gave them too much weight. They made them god and master.

A fairly predominate theme in so many inspirational movies these days is “chase your dreams.” And that’s not wholly bad. If someone is afraid of taking risks, afraid of stepping outside and making things happen, then they probably do need to be encouraged in that manner. But underneath that benign theme lies the potential to make dreams a master that rules you ruthlessly for your entire life. It’s strange how something so sunny on the surface can be shudder-inducing after the sheen’s rubbed off.

However, even more pertinent to face against post-modern thinking is the line “to think and not make thoughts your aim.” Such a subtle, elementary idea and yet it flies in the face of much of modern western academia and of youth culture. Sitting around in the coffee-shop and producing “thoughts” and things to “think about” and mulling over the “exchange of ideas” is often—rather than the means to an end—a goal in and of itself. It becomes a game of throwing thoughts out on the table like cards to see who has the best hand.

Thinking without purpose, thinking without aim—thinking without desiring or intending any true conclusion. Thinking, perhaps, without believing there can ever be any conclusion. That's post-modernism 'to a T'; it is more than happy to run on a treadmill, dutifully moving its legs, going nowhere—exercising the mind often without knowing how to use it in real contexts to reach real solutions…or find real answers.

It just so happened that while I had already decided to write about the “If” poem I happened upon this verse in Acts:
“All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas”

And a few of the Athenians actually listened, discussed and thought until they reached a conclusion but only a few, it seems. And we are a very Athenian culture these days—in ways both good and bad. It’s wonderful to be willing to hear, engage, argue and indeed “exchange ideas”—it’s deadly not to put all that to use in making concrete choices that follow from good thought.

Point being, I don’t want to be as some high-minded cook that will go on forever adding spices and ingredients without ever feeling a need to pause and taste what it is I have been concocting. That’s what thoughts being the aim is; cooking without tasting or eating; theory without application; experiment without viewing the results; or, simply, fear. Thought in and of itself is not going to sustain you when times get rough. Thoughts, however rich and good and enjoyable, are a means to an even better end.

I know I left the last post with a lengthy C.S. Lewis quote, but he keeps managing to have pertinent things to say, so here is a section from “The Great Divorce” in which a ghost from gray purgatory-like “hell” goes up to visit an old academic friend in Heaven and decide whether or not he might stay up there. One is referred to as the ghost (and occasionally the Episcopal ghost) and the heaven-living one is real or ‘the other one’.

(the real one)
“I have nothing to do with generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your own soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes”
(The conversation regarding this carries on, with the ghost saying things like “ah yes, that is a point of view. Certainly it’s a point of view,” until the real person invites the ghost into heaven)
“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
(and the ghost says)
“’Well, that is a plan. I am perfectly ready to consider it. Of course I should require some assurances…I should want a guarantee that you are taking me to a place where I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness—and scope for the talents God has given me—and an atmosphere of free inquiry—in short, all that one means by civilization and—er—the spiritual life’
‘No,’ said the other. ‘I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.’
(the ghost): ‘Ah but we must interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.’
(the real one): ‘If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.’
(the ghost): ‘But you must feel yourself that there is something stifling about the idea of finality? Stagnation, my dear boy, what is more soul-destroying than stagnation?’
(the real one): ‘You think that,  because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.’
(and finally, later, the heaven-living one says): ‘Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now…Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth”

‘Think and not make thoughts your aim,’ lest we grow afraid of finding answers. When the ghost fears stagnation, what he does not realize is that inquiry for the sake of inquiry is the stagnant and cyclical thing, NOT the finding of answers and the standing on solid ground. The first is the house on sand, the latter the house on rock. One washes in and out with the tides, the other holds strong and provides shelter. Our thirst will be quenched.