Saturday, August 30, 2014

Avatar and the Pandoran Paradigm of History

What is interesting about movies like Avatar is how they help condition viewers to accept the myth that good always triumphs over evil. Of course, it doesn't, but stories that lead people to believe that it does are not only easier to sell, they also serve to perpetuate the myth that history is an unfolding story of God's wisdom and divine providence. And as profitable as it can be to the victors to have people believe that it is, it isn't.

Such stories, told over and over again, produce a paradigm through which people then see themselves and their own history. If good always triumphs over evil, as the paradigm suggests, than victory itself becomes the strongest proof that "God is with us," as was engraved on the belt buckle of the German soldier in 1930. Even the firebombing of Tokyo and the dropping of two atomic bombs on cities full of innocent civilians during World War II could not dislodge the belief that America is always on the side of truth, justice, and morality. The sins of the United States, in other words, are always less evil than those we defeat in battle, like Germany and Japan.

Such a paradigm becomes a lens that colors both the present and the past. Despite the fact that Avatar is clearly based on the story of American expansion westward in pursuit of gold, and the Na'vi of Pandora clearly represent the native American Indians, the movie, by inverting history, converts it into a useful tool for teaching people to believe that the greedy never prosper and the meek shall inherit the earth.

 History tells a very different story, however, of how countless millions of native Americans were killed over the course of four centuries, and how the country that was responsible for that genocide used the brutal injustices of slavery to become the most powerful nation in the world.

 The key to remember in all of this, of course, is that Avatar is a fictional story that we long to believe while history is fact we want only to forget. And both are written to be please an audience.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Contemplating Suicide & Robin Williams

"To be or not to be, that is the question"

Life will be better when I'm dead. This thought has crossed my mind, from time to time. And I know I'm not alone. With the recent suicide of Robin Williams, which has left many in shock, sadness, and disbelief, a new light shines on that darkness that leads so many to implode. That darkness works by whipping our thoughts into a hurricane, and dropping us into the middle of it. It's like having a little homunculus inside your head that reminds you that only the worst awaits, and all attempts to escape it are futile. Indeed, for many who have stood on the edge of that abyss, the powerful allure of the gaping maw below can seem like the only cure. But it isn't. And the thoughts that whisper to us that it is, are a lie.

Depression is a cancer of the mind, and while the effects of both depression and cancer are the same for those they attack directly, people's reaction to each can be very different. Cancer can have the effect of drawing people closer together, for example, but depression, because it is so emotionally contagious, tends to drive people away. Indeed, the very act of talking about depression can be like blowing oxygen into a fire. Worse still is that, even when someone has not actually been abandoned by their friends and family, their depression often leads them to believe and feel like they have.

Also, although cancer can take a person's life quickly, depression steals the mind and leaves the body behind. Like the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it turns a person into a mere shell of their former self. The only way to stop the spread of this mind-snatching mental mold, the person then comes to conclude, is by trying to inoculate everyone around them with deception while immunizing them self from its affects with drugs, be they legal or illegal. In fact, combining the two helps to mask the pain that depression can inflict from even the simplest interactions. 

For the person suffering from depression, for example, interactions can grow increasingly painful  as they see the happiness of others as something they think they will never be able to obtain, leading them to sink only deeper into their despair. Other people's joy, in other words, may only remind them of what they want but feel they can never have. In reaction, they may start to self-isolate and avoid social environments altogether.  This includes avoiding Facebook and other social media, as such, because they can seem like digital torture chambers as the person's mind turns against itself and becomes a virtual cyber-bully operating within their own brain. 

In addition to its ability to vanquish even the closest of friends, a person who dares to speak about their depression often ends up being labeled. Such labeling is not limited to describing someone as simply "depressive," however, but more often than not, it comes in the form of the many symptoms that such depression can produce. Many people fail to realize that addictions of every sort - such as addictions to drugs, food, and even pornography - often grow in the damp, solitary darkness of depression. Many who end up in prison, in other words, may be just as much a victim to their depression as Williams was to his, yet we tend to think of one as a criminal and the other as a tragedy.

The inevitable and increasing isolation that results from all of this only serves to compound the spiraling effects of the depression, making it all the more difficult to escape.  And it is in this isolation that the mind becomes a place where, as one rather morose poet once mused,

 The soul is but a phantom limb
and we the disembodied twin
of that emptiness we stare in

which swallows everything within
and makes a coffin of our skin
filled with all that might have been

Like Gethsemane without end
our thoughts kiss us like a friend, 
before they tear us limb from limb 

Like Ahab, depression sets us adrift on a tumultuous sea of reason that breaks the bow of every belief.It is a place where those beliefs become the broken branches reached for by a mind in a perpetual state of free fall, and where every thought mercilessly attacks its host. Indeed, it is where the mind caves in on itself and looses all ability to understand or be understood. In this respect, suicide is not intended to cause pain, but to end it. And the diffusion of pain that can spread like a supernova after a suicide, may be simply the ripple effect from the implosion caused by an increasing density of pain that one mind could no longer endure.

Of course, the nature of depression is as varied as all those who have it,  with the slightest cell anywhere in our anatomy of ideas being capable of spreading like a cancer across our whole mind. In fact, depressions can probably grow in our mind in as many different ways as cancer can develop in our body. Yet the similarity of all forms of depression may come from understanding that it is not always something that a person can escape, any more than a person can escape any of their infirmities, but something to recognize, understand, and try to overcome or adapt to.

Since depression may have as many physiological causes as psychological ones, rather than trying to escape it, we may need to learn how to weather it instead. Much like the Halloween Nor'easter of '91  that befell the Andrea Gale, depression is a maelstrom of thoughts and emotions that can swallow us like an elephant inhaling an insect. Finding the way out comes in part from understanding that, in many ways, it isn't real, but more importantly, it comes from knowing that we are not alone. And in those times when we feel like we are, having a friend can feel like a hug from the whole world. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Soccer: Kryptonite of the Conservative Pundit

I have a confession to make. My great (who knows how many) grandfather was not only born in America, he was also the son of a congressman and governor, and fought as a Lieutenant-General in the American Civil War. But contrary to the "promise" Ann Coulter made to America recently, I watch soccer. In fact, during the World Cup, I watch nothing else.

In her blog post on June 25th, Coulter claimed that “America's favorite national past time is hating soccer.” Coulter's favorite national past time, on the other hand, is blaming everything she hates on liberals. If she hates asparagus, for example, it’s because liberals have ruined the universe.  Soccer, which is clearly a sport Coulter is wholly unfamiliar with, is just her latest excuse for blaming the galaxy’s moral decline on liberals.  The reason, according to her, is because liberals enjoy a sport that lacks a sufficient level of violence to keep the material universe from unraveling.  For her, soccer is not only the sport of Satan, it may be the reason behind every genocide throughout history. It even broke up The Beatles and shot Kennedy.

Coulter has used the World Cup to turn herself into the Andy Kaufman of conservatism, throwing political tirades and feigning moral whiplash whenever she can, and laughing about it all the way to the bank. Of course, the joke is on the conservative audience who buys her books, since it’s their money she's pocketing.

When conservatives pundits like Coulter complain, it's usually about liberals, of course, but it's always about something they, personally, dislike.  When a liberal complains, it's usually about something that effects everyone, like when a corporation pollutes a local water supply, as the Hooker Chemical Company did with the Love Canal Disaster. Not only is the reason for the complaint obvious, but the solution is so clear it goes without saying - stop polluting the water supply. For Conservatives, on the other hand, complaints are mostly about what bothers them. They’ll complain about soccer, for example, but the only reason they do so is to attract attention to them self.  And the only unspoken solution they offer is that the world should adjust itself to accommodate for their own emotional discomforts, and start playing American football.

Of course, Coulter is not the only pundit shedding crocodile tears about soccer these days.  On June 11, Glen Beck added cheese to her wine by claiming that "those who like the World Cup ... (are) the most likely to riot." In contrast, he continued, "I haven't seen the baseball riots." He obviously forgot about the baseball riots of 1924 following the game between the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers.  And while not a “riot,” more recently, a father and son ran onto the field during a White Sox’s game in 2003, and attacked the base coaches of the visiting Kansas City Royals.  That was the second riot of that year, the first occurring after the favored Oakland Raiders were trounced in the Super Bowl by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 48-21.  

Then there are all those riots after college sporting events that Beck conveniently forgot about. In 2013, for example, "after Ohio State's victory over Michigan, 30 fires were set, (and) after another game, one college athletics chief said she had feared for her life.”[i] And in Pennsylvania, students from Penn State University overturned a television broadcast van as they rioted over the firing of their football coach Joe Paterno. Maybe Beck overlooked these examples because he spends most of his time watching Fox News.

While Coulter feels that soccer isn't violent enough (“everyone gets a ribbon and a juice box after the game"), the Media Research Center's, Dan Gainor, feels it’s too violent ("generally football games in this country don't devolve into riots or wars"). Agreeing wit Gainor is G. Gordon Liddy, who denounced soccer for being a "game ...that originated with the South American Indians and instead of a ball, they used to use the head, the decapitated head, of an enemy warrior."

Gainor’s conclusion from all of this is that soccer "is being sold" as necessary due to the "browning of America.”  Whether this was in reference to the art of barbequing or a Freudian slip revealing a latent disdain for minorities, is as yet unclear. He later said of soccer, "I hate it so much, probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat." The irony of the World Cup, then, is that every country in the world loves it out of love for their country while Americans, according to Gainor and the clan, are supposed to hate it out of love for their country.  Of course, hating soccer simply because the rest of the world loves it is like refusing to search for the Higgs Boson simply because the rest of the world is curious about it.

Gainor complained further on the G. Gordon Liddy Show, that "the problem here is, soccer is designed as a poor man or poor woman's sport."  When paired with Coulter's claims that sports are basically “sublimated warfare,” he has a point, since it is always the “poor man or poor woman” fighting in the wars “designed” to support the interests of the rich.  He went on to say that "the left is pushing it in schools across the country." Soccer apparently isn’t just a game for Gainer, in other words, it’s just the cleverest trick ever devised by the Left to indoctrinate the youth about all things liberal. For him, the World Cup amounts to socialism in a soccer jersey.

Then there’s Rush Limbaugh. On the June 11 edition of his show, guest host Mark Belling chimed in with his own rendition of "cry me a river": "What I really want to do is make fun of the World Cup, but I'm not going to make fun of the World Cup because when you insult soccer you get the same reaction from soccer fans that you get when you insult an aging Democratic senator's hair, they go nuts and blow it up all out of proportion." Of course, his latter comment, about how “they're force-feeding [the World Cup] down our throats," along with Coulter's comment that any interest in soccer “is a clear sign of a nation's moral decay,” in no way blows the World Cup "all out of proportion"

What Coulter seems to miss in her rant about the world's most popular international sporting event, however, is that comparing football to World Cup soccer is like comparing a bus boy in a truck stop diner to Baryshnikov performing in the Russian Ballet. It’s the difference between watching men engaged in an organized mugging and watching a man play the violin, with his feet, while being mugged for 90 minutes. Of course, the great irony of how the conservative fun bunch feels about soccer is that rest of the world feels the same way about the military and economic intervention that America ‘continually tries to jam down their throats.'

Yet the real reason conservatives like Coulter and the crew hate soccer is because it challenges the idea that it’s all about them. In fact, the thought of the world coming together like a community to play a single sport is kryptonite to the conservative pundit whose job it is to divide the world into allies and enemies.  Indeed, if there’s one sport that holds all of humanity together like the Higgs Boson, even in the face of a World War, it's soccer. Conservative pundits hate this, of course, because if people aren’t at each others throats about something, they can’t draw attention to them self by telling us all who to hate, and why.

In all of this, one thing is clear: “what sets man apart from the lesser beasts, besides a soul,” is not simply “opposable thumbs,” but the fact that our technological developments allow an entire species to participate in a single worldwide event, instead of simply complaining about it like a bunch of cackling hens. 


Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.