Saturday, February 21, 2015

America - Love It or Feel Complicated about It

If you were to ask me whether or not I love my country, I would have to say no.

But wait - rest assured that I am not a communist, nor have I decided to slip away to sign up with ISIS. What I mean is that I don't love abstractions that I can't physically embrace.

I grew up in a large family (six children) in which togetherness was a constant theme. And I loved all of the members of that family: grandparents, parents, and siblings. I still do love them all, as well as those who have been added to our expanding clan over the decades. But do I love my "family?" I don't think so. My family is an idea or an ideal, not a living, breathing, huggable being.

Same goes for America. Not huggable.

I am a patriot. However, I recognize that patriotism is largely delusional self-regard, a point well expressed by George Bernard Shaw when he said "Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it."

Yes, patriotism is a kind of egotism blown up to global proportions. So be it. But aren't we all egotists - those of us who enjoy at least a modicum of psychological health? In the same way that I accede to the demands of my individual sense of my own wonderfulness, I accede to a natural admiration and appreciation for my country and the ideals it is said to represent. But as I do so, I can't help but recognize that this is all bullshit. My devotion to America is bullshit, but it's my bullshit, and I'm sticking with it.

Which brings us to Rudy Giuliani and his bullshit. His insistence that President Obama does not love his country is, I suspect, a way to put Obama on the spot. Obama is a very smart guy and, though he is obviously a dedicated patriot, he may, like me, not feel entirely natural and comfortable talking about love in relation to the complex, ethically uneven, interlocking network of institutions and narratives that is America. If he were to talk honestly about his sentiments regarding his country, he might well be forced into the kind of analytic discussion that I have indulged in here. And this would be politically disastrous for him. Giuliani's goal, I believe, is to try to damage Obama by forcing him either to speak in a stilted and unnatural manner by clumsily declaring his love for America, or to avoid the topic and raise suspicions about his patriotism.

Now Giuliani, while sticking to his charge that Obama doesn't love his country, claims that he, Giuliani, certainly does not question Obama's patriotism.

The real issue here is not Obama's patriotism, which no sane person could possibly question, but Giuliani's slick double talk. He is clever, that guy, clever in a very creepy way. Imagine - he was once the front runner in the GOP presidential field. Yes, America (a country about which I feel...oh, never mind), we could have been blighted with a Giuliani presidency. A presidency so thoroughly shot through with underhanded thuggishness that this experience, I believe, would have reminded us all, more than anything, of a return of the spirit of Nixon.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

How Prototypically We Forget

Brian Williams is stepping down, at least temporarily, from his NBC anchor position. His sin was having misrepresented some of his experiences during the 2003 Iraq War. I don’t want to praise Williams or to bury him, but I'd like to suggest that his difficulties stem at least partly from an involuntary cognitive pattern I call “conflation to prototype.”

The prototype of any category (for my purposes here) is that member which best or most prominently represents its category. The prototypical 1960s band would be the Beatles, the prototypical dictator, Hitler, the prototypical 1950s sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

The “conflation to prototype” is a cognitive slip that occurs when an incident or thing or quality is misremembered or misperceived as the prototypical member of its category. Here’s an example from my family tree. My late Uncle John fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, one of the fiercest battles on the Western Front. The most prominent Allied leader in that battle was General George Patton whose fast and aggressive actions helped throw the Nazi forces back into Germany.

According to family lore, repeated almost every time the Battle of the Bulge came up in conversation, Uncle John was in General Patton’s army at that battle. But, it turned out on closer examination, that he was actually in the army of the somewhat less famous (and less prototypical) General Omar Bradley. Uncle John never lied about his action and rarely even spoke about it, but other family members, knowing that he fought at the Bulge, simply conflated his Bradley-led service with the actions of Patton’s famous army. And, by the way, hats off to Uncle John, who was wounded in the battle and received a decoration.

Awhile back, when I spoke to an old friend from Lakeland High School whom I had not seen in decades, I found out that I too had been subject to this kind of conflation. She told me that the word on me from my old LHS classmates was that I was a member of the Weather Underground. The WU was a famous, radical organization of the 1970s that used the bombing of public buildings as an anti-Vietnam War tactic. I was amazed at this news about myself and assured my former classmate that I was never part of a bomb-planting, leftist group.

I was, however, an active participant in and organizer of anti-war demonstrations on my California campus in the 1970s. And I did sport the long hair and pointedly casual attire that went with being a student radical. So on this basis, apparently, my old high school friends transmogrified me into a Weatherman.

We do this kind of conflation all the time. Even our racialized skin color code reflects this. Black and white are basic color terms found in all of the world's languages. In this regard they are different from color terms like mauve, chartreuse, and burgundy. And, when we try to classify people by color, we wind up resorting to prototypical colors like black and white. Actually, if we were more precise in our human color categorization, we would describe black people as dark brown, coffee-colored, beige, and so on. Then we would describe white people as pinkish yellow, beige, dark tan, etc. But we don’t. We conflate our categories to such prototypical colors as black and white – and yellow and red and brown.

Same goes for hair color. If Lucille Ball’s hair color appeared on a paint chip, it would not be called red. It would probably be identified as “metallic sunrise” or some such.

I also had a great great grandfather who was said to have fought at Gettysburg, even though, as I found out through careful research, he never got closer to the Gettysburg battlefield than my house is to Disney World ®. Though I bet some of my out-of-state acquaintances actually picture me as living near Disney World.*

My point is that when we misremember or misconceive, we often simplify by collapsing our information into the most prominent version of a thing or event, the one that most easily comes to mind as representative of its type. I’m guessing that Brian Williams “remembered” having his helicopter downed by enemy fire because he arrived at a battle site in an aircraft shortly after another copter had been forced down by hostile fire. The two events “My copter landed in a site where a battle had recently taken place” and “A helicopter was hit by hostile fire and forced to land at a battle site” collapsed into a single prototypical category leading Mr. Williams to see himself as a war reporter who actually experienced the dangers of war in a prototypical fired-upon engagement with the enemy.

Of course, I won’t deny that ego also had something to do with Brian's faulty memory. Who doesn’t want to see himself or herself in the most favorable or impressive light? Such a longing, though, is perhaps more typical of media icons than it is of the rest of us mortals.

*For the exciting details of Great Great Grandfather Flynn at Gettysburg, click here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Je Suis Charlie (99.9%)

I have a new hero. It is Charb, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo, gunned down, along with several of his associates, by murderous thugs last week.

I regard good satire is a gift from the gods, and, though I was not even aware of Charlie Hebdo until the recent tragedy, I am now pleased and grateful to know of its existence.

But there is a rub, and that’s what accounts for my reluctance to go 100% in support of this brave little magazine. The rub is this: I would not post or publish pictures of the prophet Mohammad.

I am not concerned about terrorist attacks, since I am not big enough to be noticed by terrorists, but I am concerned about courtesy.

Muslims did not invent their prohibition on depictions of the prophet as a way to challenge non-believers, and they don’t maintain this prohibition as though it were a chip on their shoulder, one they dare anyone to knock off. It is a centuries-old part of the Muslim faith and it’s one I am willing to respect.

I have had heard ordinary, non-fanatic Muslims express discomfort over depictions of Mohammad. Their discomfort comes from their sense that an important religious taboo is being violated. I would guess that their feeling is similar to that felt by many Christians when Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ depicted Jesus being tempted by sexual fantasies.

So, though I certainly don’t want to see laws prohibiting Charlie Hebdo-type satire, I am unwilling to identify entirely with some of its more rude and disrespectful aspects.

To me, avoiding intentional insults to religious beliefs is similar to avoiding ethnic or racial slurs. I don’t believe in insulting or disparaging individuals by throwing around the infamous n-word, and I don’t feel my freedom is being drastically curtailed by my restraint on this point. To me it’s more a matter of common decency rather than overly timid political correctness.

Certain words embody an element of viciousness that comes from their reflection of real, non-verbal injuries. To verbally target someone whose people have been routinely and heavily victimized by discrimination is to blast them with society’s heavy artillery. Certain ethnic groups – Black, Hispanic, Italian, etc. – have been systematically injured for decades or even centuries, and what they have suffered is embodied in the terms (wop, beaner, and so on) that some mainstream Americans use to disparage them. When a white man calls a black man “nigger,” he dredges up the socially entrenched mentality that has injured African-Americans for centuries and essentially gloats over it. He is, in a sense, kicking someone who is down. These are the kinds of words that, like sticks and stones, do break deeply embedded psychological bones. Their poison will endure as long as the social inequality they celebrate endures.

In contrast, there is no epithet that an African-American or a Mexican can throw back at a white person in this country that carries the sting of entrenched social inequality. Words like gringo and cracker are all but harmless here.

The same can be said in male-female verbal relations. There is a long-entrenched social sensibility that says women should restrain themselves in their sexual behavior; if they don’t they can be injured with labels like slut or whore, labels that have no equally injurious male versions.

And then there is the nuclear option: cunt. Here is a term designed to injure females by reminding them of their vulnerability in the areas of both sexuality and assertiveness. To call a woman a cunt is to say, “You are female and the whole world says your (sexual and/or assertive) behavior sucks!”

There is no male equivalent because there is no equivalent socially entrenched value that undermines the sexual and assertive behavior of males.

Refraining from ethnic, racial or gender-based slurs, or from intentional religious insults, does not make me feel as though my free speech has been impaired. It just makes me feel respectful.

I know, of course, that not everyone shares my views. Certainly Charb did not. So, in that light let me conclude by agreeing to disagree with Charb on this point.

And - Vive Charlie Hebdo!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Give Us "The Interview" or Give Us Death!

I’m hopping mad. The FBI has just confirmed that North Korea tore into Sony the way lions sometimes tear into gazelles. NK’s bad behavior stems from the fact that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un hates Sony’s guts. Those guts, by the way, are now on display for all the world to appraise.

But that’s not what infuriates me. I’m mad because theaters won’t be showing Sony’s The Interview, the Seth Rogen movie that many believe is behind Kim Jong-un’s unseemly bile.

Li’l Kim* is mad because The Interview doesn’t treat him with the respect he feels he deserves. He believes he deserves to be revered as the world’s greatest leader, author, warrior, holy man, artist, basketball player and golfer. On this last point, Kim reports that he made eleven holes-in-one while shooting a score of 34 the first time he ever picked up a golf club. The Interview, on the other hand, treats him as a vile yet pompous megalomaniac who dies when his head explodes.

Nobody at Sony or in Pyongyang seems to have come up with a compromise that could bring the two sides together on this issue.

But the all-around chickening out on showing The Interview is bullshit, and that’s what has me steamed.

I admit that national leaders are usually treated with more respect than The Interview grants Kim. When Charlie Chaplin mocked Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), he created a phony character who was obviously a Hitler parody, but he didn’t identify the character as Hitler himself. And, he didn’t portray his head exploding.

                        Chaplin's Dictator, Adenoid Hynkel

Still, even granting that The Interview does not exhibit the best of taste, can we name anyone else on the planet that more richly deserves to be mocked than does Kim Jong-un? For a while Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe gave him a run for the money, and Syria’s Bashar Al Assad is still a contender, but I’d have to say that as of now, Kim Jong-un is front runner in the finals for The World’s Biggest Asshole award.

And that’s what galls me. Why should this humongous asshole keep Americans from seeing The Interview, no matter how cheesy it may be? George Clooney has tweeted that he wants us to all stand up to this bully and I agree. I also agree with Joe Scarborough, the right-wing host of “Morning Joe,” when he says Sony should show the premier in New York, as planned, and have the theater ringed with police. It’s unlikely the Democratic [sic] People’s [sic] Republic [sic] of Korea actually has the ability to carry out an act of violence there, and by backing down, Sony and the theaters are letting it get away with some pretty low cost terrorism

Kim Jong-un is the third leader of the Kim dynasty and his interest in Hollywood films comes to him legitimately. His father, the late Kim Jong-il, was said to have amassed a huge DVD collection and also showed a keen interest in upgrading North Korea’s movie-making capabilities, albeit through unorthodox methods. (Father Kim Jong-il, by the way, according to North Korean officials, was born on the slopes of Paektu San, Korea’s most sacred mountain, under a shining star and a double rainbow. Jesus, you may recall, only had a star.)

Anyway, in 1978, Kim Jong-il, dissatisfied with the quality of North Korea’s film directors, decided to kidnap Shin Sang-ok, a South Korean director of proven ability. In order to pull off the caper, Kim had agents first kidnap actress Choi Eun-hee, the ex-wife of Shin, and a woman for whom he still had feelings. When Ms. Choi mysteriously disappeared from the streets of Hong Kong, Shin flew there to investigate, whereupon Kim’s agents nabbed him and spirited both him and Ms. Choi off to Pyongyang.

Kim had the couple remarry and then, after a prison term following a failed escape attempt by Shin, put them to work making movies for the DPRK. They played along until they were able to elude North Korea’s clutches while attending a film festival in Vienna. When they failed to return to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il promptly denounced the United States for kidnapping them.

Yes, the Kims are an interesting family. But dammit, I want my movie back. In line with George Clooney and Joe Scarborough’s recommendation, Culture World hereby declares its willingness to defy Supreme Leader Kim no matter what the consequences.

To do so, I offer the following pictures, the first of which is of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

 The second one is of a head exploding. Is it Kim Jong-un’s? Culture World can neither confirm nor deny.

Come on, guys. We're America. Bring back The Interview.

*The apostrophe in Li’l has traditionally followed the vowel “i” as in Li’l Abner. It stands for the glottal stop some people use to replace the “t” sound of “little” (the same sound that occurs in the middle of the English expression “Uh-oh!”). Recent versions of “Lil” have the apostrophe at the end of the word - for reasons beyond Culture World's understanding.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stop - You Guys Are Killing Us

In response to a New York Times article on whether or not those in the Bush administration responsible for torture should be pardoned, a commenter named Randy F. offered this suggestion:

“how about we give them medals for making hard decisions during a time of war – we were attacked, remember?”

What Randy F. may be forgetting is that we were attacked at Bunker Hill in 1775, at Fort Sumter in 1861, and Pearl Harbor in 1941. Yet neither General Washington nor President Lincoln nor Franklin Roosevelt suggested that we sanction torture because “we were attacked.”

In fact, our enemies, the British, burned Washington DC to the ground in 1814, and the Soviet Union threatened to annihilate us with nuclear weapons during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, yet none of these existential threats to our nation led us to play the “We were attacked, so let's authorize torture” card.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few Americans who agree with Randy F., claiming either that what our government did was not torture, or that torture under the circumstances was justified. Vice President Cheney, during a Fox News interview, argued that, “We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack,” adding, “We were successful on both parts.” He characterized the recently released report on CIA torture as “full of crap.”

Why are people like Cheney ready to throw out normal standards of decency in the face of threats far less ominous than many we have faced in the past? Is it unprecedented fear or self-serving arrogance that has brought about this new American attitude?

It is true that we were the only major power of World War II that did not suffer horrendous destruction from enemy bombing of civilian targets, so perhaps we have been singularly naïve in a way that has heightened our reactions. The shock of seeing thousands of civilians killed in terrorist attacks in the heart of two of our major cities made us suddenly mindful of our vulnerability. Perhaps Britons, Germans or Japanese would have been less shocked at such tragic losses, given their memories of World War II.

But would any American leaders have sanctioned torture in 2001, or is there something about people like Cheney that made them more likely to do so? It is true that the former Vice sometimes exhibits an attitude of,“If this doesn’t affect someone I know, then it’s not my problem.”

For example, though he is harshly conservative on almost every issue, he took a stand in favor of gay rights when faced with his daughter’s lesbianism. Republican Senator Rob Portman underwent an identical adjustment in attitude. In 2013 he suddenly declared his support for gay marriage, attributing this change to his son coming out as gay.

Similarly, John McCain, the one Republican forcefully speaking out against torture, is famous for having endured torture in Hanoi. Would he be more like Cheney and other fellow Republicans on this issue if he himself had not been brutalized during his captivity? In any case, I salute McCain for his outspoken and eloquent denunciation of torture on the Senate floor.

Whatever it was that made some of our leaders give thumbs up to torture, I hope the release of this report helps return us to our old way of thinking, the way of Washington, Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy. We were unquestionably a better country when our leaders considered it profoundly immoral to waterboard, to rectally hydrate, to torture to death through hypothermia, and so on.

And what to do about our shameful past on this issue? Honestly, I have no hope for Dick Cheney, but I would be mightily impressed if George W. Bush were to step forward, admit that we engaged in these grossly immoral acts, and apologize for them.