Grey House

Poetry By August 6, 2016

Grey house,
Black gutters.

Stand on the brick path,
And enjoy the cooling
Shower of the leaky gutters.

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Fatal and Unmanly Slumbers

Life By July 9, 2016

I feel nothing but pity for the five police officers killed last night in Dallas and I feel nothing but contempt for their killer. I also pity Philando Castile, who was, by all accounts, an honorable young man. We don’t know all the facts in that case, of course, but his girlfriend’s account of his killing makes far more sense than the story we’re hearing from the police so far.

The shooting of Alton Sterling is much less clear. I’ve watched the video and can’t make much sense of it. The angle at which the video was shot and the low resolution of the video make it impossible to determine what happened, as far as I can tell. Was he shot unnecessarily? I don’t know. Do I understand why many people are jumping to the conclusion that he was? Absolutely.

It is high time for all of us to stop pretending that the problem of police brutality is simply a matter of a “few bad apples.” According to an anonymous survey of about 900 police officers from across the country conducted by the Department of Justice back in 2000, 84% of the officers surveyed admitted having witnessed a fellow officer using excessive force. I think we can all agree that 84% doesn’t represent a few “isolated incidents” or a “few bad apples.” And please note, this is not a number generated by Black Lives Matter or the ACLU. This number is from the police officers themselves.

Can civilians expect justice when these incidents occur? Not usually. Here again, let’s look at the data provided by the police officers themselves: 61% of the officers surveyed admitted that they “do not always report serious criminal violations that involve the abuse of authority by fellow officers.” Further, 67% believe that officers who report these incidents are given the “cold shoulder” by fellow officers. (Source: Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority: Findings From a National Study.)

I’m not going to post links to every incident of cover-up, corruption, or police misconduct, but they’re out there if you care to look. My friends who are pleading for everyone to “calm down” and look for “reasonable” ways to solve these problems would do well to make some specific, concrete suggestions for how this can be done. For decades now, citizens have been searching for justice, only to be shut down by police departments, district attorneys, and judges who all seem to be looking out for one another rather than doing the right thing.

The criminal justice system is the “calm” and “reasonable” channel for seeking justice, but what exactly do we expect people to do when that system fails them? Shut up and take it? Here’s a passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense that I think speaks to the present situation:

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

This is not inflaming or exaggerating matters, but trying them by those feelings and affections which nature justifies, and without which, we should be incapable of discharging the social duties of life, or enjoying the felicities of it. I mean not to exhibit horror for the purpose of provoking revenge, but to awaken us from fatal and unmanly slumbers…

Many passages from The Declaration of Independence could be cited here as well, to the same effect. As colonies of Great Britain, we suffered injustices at the hands of the mother country and all attempts to address these grievances through the proper channels were denied. As a result, we turned to violence. This is the predictable course of events when people are denied justice. Unless real changes are made, we can only expect more.

Here are a few real, concrete things we can do turn things around.

  1. Stop passing so many damn laws. Police officers aren’t called “law enforcement” for nothing. Their job is to enforce the laws that our legislatures pass. Every law is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. When a new law is proposed, ask yourself if its enforcement is worth the injury or death of a police officer or civilian. (I suspect that most police officers hate enforcing many of these petty laws as much, or more, than we hate submitting to them.) As a rule of thumb, reject the idea of a “crime” unless there is a clear, direct victim. Vote for legislators accordingly.
  2. Don’t expect people to rat on their friends. It is unreasonable to expect fairness when police departments investigate themselves. It is equally unreasonable to expect district attorneys who work closely with police officers to be completely objective when investigating the people they reasonably view as colleagues. This is not because they’re bad; it’s because they’re human. Police misconduct should be investigated by independent prosecutors and independent review boards. Always.
  3. Use body cameras. Every police officer should be required to wear a body camera, for their protection as well as our own. Body cameras ought to be activated the moment the siren turns on and there should be an automatic investigation by an independent review board every time a camera is “accidentally” deactivated. We are constantly admonished that if we aren’t breaking the law, we have nothing to worry about. The same standard should apply to the officers who enforce those laws: if they aren’t doing anything wrong, then they have nothing to fear from a video recording of their actions. (There have already been many instances of good cops being exonerated from any wrongdoing by simply looking at the tape.)

If you disagree with any of my suggestions, feel free to tell me where I’ve gone wrong. More importantly, please offer some specific concrete suggestions of your own. More memes and good feels aren’t going to solve anything.

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Halt

Poetry By June 19, 2016

A tree across the road, the
expected thing stops happening.

The volley evaporates them
into the forest like the mist or
the deer whose skins they wear.

The shrieking, from another world,
but the lead pierces the boundary.

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Who Would Have Thought It?

History By June 19, 2016 Tags: ,

Pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs, 16:18

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Four decades of service in His Majesty’s Coldstream Guards had given Edward Braddock courage, intelligence, and toughness, but it had failed to embed in his character the one virtue he needed most: humility.

Braddock was the first English general to set foot in the American colonies, and he had not been sent on a pleasure tour. His task was to drive the French from the contested Ohio Valley, and he intended to make a quick job of it.

As the Commander-in-Chief of North America, Braddock set the strategy for all British forces on the continent. He was not the sort of man to sit in a comfortable chair while other men fought, however, so he took personal command of a force of 2,100 British Regulars and colonial militia charged with capturing a series of French forts.

The first stop for this expedition was to be Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (present day Pittsburgh). Impatient with the slow progress of his army through the wilderness, Braddock  split his force in two. About a third of his men stayed behind in a supply camp so that the remaining 1,300 could move forward to Fort Duquesne more quickly.

Only a few miles from the Fort, Braddock’s men ran square into a force of about 800 enemy fighters. Braddock was not intimidated. He may have held a grudging professional respect for the 70 French Marines in the company, but he knew that the 150 Canadian militiamen and 600 Indian warriors before him had never seen anything like the highly-disciplined British Regulars at his disposal.

As he expected, the enemy broke after the first volley of British musketry. How could they not? That wall of fire and lead would have intimated even a well-trained European infantry force. It must have been absolutely devastating for a bunch of undisciplined colonial trash and their savage allies.

At this point, however, the expected thing stopped happening. The French and Indian force scattered, but it didn’t retreat. Instead, it spilled out into the woods on either side of Braddock’s force and picked off Braddock’s men from behind the trees with startling accuracy.

Braddock’s men had never experienced fighting like this, and they retreated in chaos, running headlong into Braddock, who was leading reinforcements up from the main body of men. The commander struggled to regain order, swearing and threatening, but it was too late. The panic spread from company to company with such incredible speed that the entire force was soon reduced to chaos.

In the three hours of bloody, confused slaughter that followed, over half the British force was killed or taken prisoner. As the survivors and camp followers–including women and children–crossed the Monongehela River in a desperate attempt to avoid certain death, Indian warriors picked them off from the shore. Some even swam into the river to scalp the recent victims. The injured, left behind by their panicked comrades, were unceremoniously killed by the victors. Some were taken as captives.

Braddock himself was shot in the lung and was evacuated by wagon from the field of battle. What went through Edward Braddock’s mind during his last five agonizing days of existence?

Perhaps he remembered the warning of a Pennsylvania politician named Benjamin Franklin, “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march is from ambuscades of Indians.”

At the time, Braddock’s response was dismissive, “The savages may indeed be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regulars and disciplined troops, Sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.”

Braddock no doubt thought better of his response. Perhaps he even revised his opinion of the “raw American militia.” One such, a young Virginian named George Washington who had served as his aide, offered to lead his men into the cover of the trees and direct them to fight like the enemy. His response to Washington at the time was, “I’ve a mind to run you through the body. We’ll sup today in Fort Duquesne or else in hell!”

Braddock’s prediction rang true. The five days that followed after Washington loaded him onto that wagon must have been hellish indeed. Perhaps he also used this time to reflect on his rejection of the advice of his own Indian advisors.

Looking back on the expedition later, his chief Indian advisor, Monacatootha,  remarked, “He looked upon us as dogs, and would never hear anything what was said to him. We often endeavored to advise him and to tell him of the danger he was in with his soldiers, but he never appeared pleased with us.”

Ignoring Monacatootha may have been Braddock’s most grievous error in judgement. Ben Franklin and George Washington, were, at the time, relatively inexperienced in military affairs after all. Monacatootha, on the other hand, had seen more battles than Braddock himself and could be expected to understand the enemy better than anyone in the expedition.

We can’t know what went through Braddock’s mind in those last days and hours, of course, but his final words give us a clue.

“We shall know better how to deal with them another time,” he said, adding, “Who would have thought it?

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The Messiness of Myths

History By May 26, 2016 Tags:

In 1947, historian Otto Eisenschiml referred to the Civil War as “The American Iliad.” He was on to something there.

This month’s issue of The Civil War Monitor features an article by another historian, Mark Grimsley, who observes, “…it is obvious that the Civil War routinely functions as a national myth, a way to understand ourselves as Americans. And like the classic mythologies of old, it contains timeless wisdom of what it means to be a human being. Homer’s Iliad tells us much about war, but it also tells us much about life. The American Iliad does the same thing.”

The political issues that caused and sustained the war are still very much with us. I have a hunch, however, that long after those concerns are past, Americans will continue to return to this national myth.

Myths are not powerful because they are lies, but because they are true. That is, they tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and they convey that truth in a way that mere history cannot.

For many, myself included, I think that what draws us to the war is the same thing that draws us to Shakespeare or Jane Austen: a fascination with the human condition. In the Civil War, we find a cast of characters who possess the full spectrum of human virtue and vice, and they manifest their characters on a grand scale.

But, here’s where it gets very, very tricky. Austen drew on her careful observation of real life to create the characters and events in her novels, but they are not histories. Mister Darcy may or may not have been based on John Parker, but no one in their right mind would suggest that we ought to revise Pride and Prejudice in light of new historical information about Parker. Likewise, though Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was based on the life of a real person, scholars don’t insist on rewriting his dialogue to fit the historical facts.

Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, are a different matter. They are, at once, both myths and historical figures of great scholarly interest–and those two roles are constantly in tension.

If we found that Austen’s impressions of John Parker were greatly in error, it would change nothing of substance in Pride and Prejudice. The great value we see in that work of art would not be touched.

If we discover, on the other hand, that Robert E. Lee’s motives during the Gettysburg campaign were different than we assumed, however, our cherished myth loses some of its potency.

When people dig in over the issue of the Confederate Flag, it may not just be an issue of disagreeing over historical facts. They are defending a myth that is meaningful to them. That myth, and the understandable desire to cherish it, may, in turn, influence how they interpret the historical facts.

No one seriously argues with a Roman historian based on the power of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but people can and do argue with historians of the American Civil War based on their longstanding understanding of figures like Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln and the meaning those stories have in their own lives.

It is, I think, possible to hold on to the value of the myth while acknowledging the historical reality, but I believe that’s a damn tough thing to do.

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It’s a Wonderful Wife

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags:

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t just a great Christmas movie, it’s a great movie, period. I’ve written quite a few posts about it already, and I was planning a new one for this holiday season. I had a great idea and was all ready to write it up. As it turns out, however, my great idea was mostly wrong. I was so in love with my precious idea that I had cranked my confirmation bias up to 11: I magnified the points that supported my argument while unfairly dismissing those that didn’t.

I know all this because I talked it over with my wife. She kindly and patiently pointed out where my thinking had jumped the rails. Like George Bailey, I was lost in my own dreams and fantasies and blind to the people around me. George’s wife, Mary Bailey (née Hatch), played brilliantly by Donna Reed, didn’t get as much screen time as George. What we do see of Mary, however, paints a very appealing picture.

When George stubbornly clings to his failed dream of world adventure and refuses to court Mary–a woman that he clearly loves–Mary doesn’t let her own pride get in the way of their happiness. Faced with the kind of angry rejection that Mary experiences, a less virtuous person would have dished out some rejection of her own. Instead, Mary patiently guides George toward the happiness that was available for both of them.

When the Building and Loan was in danger of being destroyed due to insolvency, Mary selflessly gives up the money they had been saving for their honeymoon to save the day. Although she had clearly been looking forward to their time together, she hands over the money with good cheer because it was the right thing to do.

While George is seeing how the world would have been different without him, Mary recruits Uncle Billy to search for him. And, although it’s easy to overlook it in all the excitement of the “miracle” at the end of the movie, there’s no doubt who is responsible for this miracle:

Uncle Billy: Mary did it, George! Mary did it! She told a few people you were in trouble and they scattered all over town collecting money.

George’s war hero brother, Harry, also leaves a banquet in his honor to lend a hand. Why?

Harry: Oh, I left right in the middle of it as soon as I got Mary’s telegram.

George’s moral transformation is, of course, the center of the movie. We don’t need to spend as much time with Mary, however, perhaps because she is already what George needs to become. She’s loving, kind, patient, and virtuous in every other way. She is, in short, a hero. When the bell rings at the end of the movie, signaling that Clarence has earned his wings, there is another angel onscreen–and she’s been there the whole time.

She is the character in all of fiction that reminds me most of my Elizabeth.

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George Bailey, Phil Connors, and The Dude

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

Some movies become classics because they speak to something universal about the human condition. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is a good example: just about everyone can relate to Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal of George Bailey. No, you don’t run a savings and loan in upstate New York in the 1940s and no, you probably have never been visited by an intellectually-disabled angel. But yes, you have stood on that bridge, looking down at the water, thinking about how badly things have gone for so long, what a mess you’ve made of everything, and just how damned hard life is.

George-Bailey-praying

So that’s one kind of classic. Let’s call it the everyman type. (Apologies for the sexism, but “everyperson” is too ugly a word.) However unusual the specifics of the narrative are, the main character(s) have an experience that just about everyone in the audience can relate to. You and your buddies probably never went on a hiking trip looking for a body, but at some point in your childhood, you got your first real taste of independence and the danger that comes with it. The bittersweet aftertaste of that experience is probably why you never turn off Stand By Me if you catch it showing on TV.

There’s another type of classic, though, that manages to convince specific groups of people that the movie is speaking especially to them, or that it’s expressing themes or ideas that are particular to their group. I’ve written about Groundhog Day before: Buddhists, Hindus, Existentialists, Aristotelians, and Christians of every stripe have felt a special connection to the film. They have felt that this movie tells a story that is uniquely theirs.

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I’m going to call this kind of movie the secret code type. Secret code movies manage to convince groups of people that they’re speaking directly to them without coming out and spoiling the secret for everyone else. These are entertaining movies for everyone who watches them, but if you’re in the club, and you have the Little Orphan Annie Secret Society Decoder Ring, then you get to see the deeper meaning of the film.

I think The Big Lebowski falls into this category. Zen Buddhists (or just “Zen practitioners” if you’re one of those folks who believes that Zen is not a form of Buddhism) jumped on this one early. The film’s star, Jeff Bridges, apparently endorses this view, seeing as he’s co-authored a book on this topic with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman entitled The Dude and the Zen Master.

Existentialists also claim The Dude, however. So do Taoists. I recently came across a group of Stoics discussing Lebowski, too. A whole new religion has even formed around the teachings of Lebowski: The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which claims to have 120,000 ordained “Dudeist priests.”

They’re all right because they’re all wrong. They’re right in the sense that The Dude expresses ideas that show up in Buddhism, Taoism, Existentialism, etc. They’re wrong, however, in believing that he belongs especially to them. The Dude, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, expresses these ideas because they’re common ideas for much of humanity.

In other words, the deepest secret of the secret code movie is that it’s actually an everyman movie. The reason The Big Lebowski and Groundhog Day speak to you is the same reason It’s a Wonderful Life does: because you’re a human being. Existentialism, Taoism, and Zen are all ways of trying to make sense of the kinds of universal issues that all humans face.

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On Knowing Stuff

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon-2-trailer-0

I am grateful to have a device in my pocket that connects me with the world’s knowledge. Still, I think there’s value in knowing stuff. Really knowing it, not just knowing how to look it up.

When I first watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for example, I knew almost nothing about Chinese culture. Back then, I liked the movie a lot. It was visually beautiful, had a great soundtrack, and the acting performances were moving.

Watching it again with a little more knowledge under my belt, however, was an entirely different experience. Knowing a bit about Daoism and Ruism (Confucianism) opened the characters and their motivations up to me in a way that I missed entirely on my first viewing.

There is a short scene about three-quarters of the way through the film, for example, in which Yu Shu Lien, one of the main female protagonists lights two sticks of incense in front of a tablet thingy with Chinese characters on it. The scene lasts less than a minute. It passed right through my consciousness without leaving a trace the first time I saw it. I didn’t even recall it.

I now understand, however, the “tablet thingy” is an ancestral tablet resting on a home altar. She was venerating her ancestors and the look of pain and regret on her face makes perfect sense: she is grieving her lost opportunity to have a family of her own.

A scene that meant nothing to me 16 years ago now carries an almost unbearable poignancy because I know something now that I didn’t know then.

Even if I had a smartphone in 2000, what good would it have been? Would I have done a Google search for “tablet thingy?” Not only would I not know how to find what I was looking for, it never would have occurred to me to conduct the search to begin with. The scene was unremarkable to my mind at the time.

Life as a whole is a lot like watching a movie in that sense. Knowing things–really knowing them, not just where to find them–helps you see things that you didn’t see before, to make connections you didn’t know were there.

When my daughter watches birds, she sees things I don’t see. When my wife reads poetry, she experiences things I don’t experience. When my son opens a box of Lego blocks, he sees possibilities that are lost on me.

Knowing things makes life a richer, more satisfying experience.

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The Flourishing of Phil Connors

Life By May 26, 2016 Tags: ,

groundhog-day

At the beginning of Groundhog Day, Phil Connors isn’t a villain. He’s an asshole.

He’s not harnessing the powers of the Dark Side to control the universe like Darth Vader or killing people and eating them like Hannibal Lecter. Instead, he’s the ordinary kind of “bad guy” we encounter in our everyday lives. He’s selfish, mean, and conceited. You probably know someone like Phil. You might even see a little Phil when you look in the mirror. I know I do.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that all human activity is aimed at some end and that most of these ends are aimed at some other end. So we go to college to get a degree; we get a degree so that we can get a good job; we get a good job so that we can earn a salary; we use the salary to buy a house. . .you get the idea. Aristotle argues that what we’re really aiming for with all this activity is happiness. We don’t use happiness as the means toward getting something better. Happiness is the one thing we want for its own sake.

We get ourselves into trouble in two big ways. First, we mistake one of the lower good as the highest good. Secondly, we use other people as a means to achieving our ends, rather than viewing them as people in their own right.

At the beginning of the movie, Phil is caught in a mistake that many of us make repeatedly. He wants a better job and he believes that getting it will make him happy. He’ll be free of his dumpy job in a crappy third-rate city and then everything will be okay. People will finally recognize his talent and he’ll get the respect and rewards he deserves. He’s mistaking a lower good (getting a job) with the highest good (happiness).

He’s also using people as a means to an end. In the beginning, it’s just about his professional life. He’s not interested in getting to know the people he works with. Instead, he just manipulates them to advance his career. Later in the movie, he uses women for sex, and this is clearly all he has in mind for Rita at first.

So if Aristotle doesn’t think getting laid and getting a good job is happiness, what is? Well, it’s the activity of the rational soul in accordance with virtue. Phew. Glad he cleared that up, huh?

To understand what the hell he’s talking about, you have to appreciate what he means by virtue. These days, when we say that someone is virtuous, we usually mean that he’s a person who doesn’t break the rules of morality. For the ancients, though, virtue was about much more. It was living the “good life,” that is, a life of excellence.

As the film progresses, Phil becomes more virtuous in the full sense of that word. He doesn’t just stop having one night stands and lying to people. He also reads every book in the library. He learns to play the piano. He develops his skills in practical things like auto repair and medicine so that he can actively help others. He’s not just refraining from doing evil, he is living a good life.

And here’s where it gets really interesting. When Phil went through his evil phase at the beginning of the movie, he could act with impunity because there was “no tomorrow.” He could steal money from the bank and never have to serve time. He could sleep with women and they’d never remember it the next day. He could eat like a pig and never gain weight. But this lack of consequences also applies to him when he “breaks good.” When he changes a flat tire or saves a life or plays a great song, none of these things “stick.” Life for Phil is like the ice sculpture he creates for Rita. It melts away.

The next day he wakes up and its as if none of those things ever happened. . .except within Phil himself.

Through these repeated acts of virtue, Phil becomes a better man. It’s not ultimately about what he does. It’s about who he is. By doing brave, wise, kind, and humble acts, Phil becomes a brave, wise, kind, and humble man. The happy ending for Phil happens before Rita falls in love with him and his long day finally gives way to tomorrow. Rita falls in love with him because of the kind of man he has become. Phil the Asshole has become Phil the Virtuous Man. And he hasn’t become some boring, milquetoast “nice guy,” he is still recognizably Phil. The best possible Phil.

According to Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis, Phil had about 10,000 years to figure this out. You and I have considerably less time.

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