Year: 2012

Living In Dystopia

I kind of have a thing for the end of the world.

That tweet from Lexicon Valley (one of my favorite podcasts, by the way) merely validated a feeling I’ve had for a while: that I’m a sucker for dystopian films.

I’m still not sure exactly what draws me to this kind of story. Maybe it’s because of the infinite re-viewings of the Back to the Future trilogy, specifically Part II, which focused on people seeing hellish versions of their past or future and fighting to fix them. Perhaps it’s because dystopian films often confirm the fatalism I occasionally feel about our country, culture, and world. In Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Children of Men, for example, the abject dreariness and totalitarianism that permeate the Great Britain police state of the future appear not only possible but increasingly inevitable given the seemingly hopeless state of political and economic current affairs.

Similarly, in the film adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, Great Britain (poor old England can’t catch a democratic break) has been taken over by draconian despotism à la Orwell’s Oceania in the preeminent dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, if robotic uprisings are your thing, the film version of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot tells the tale of formerly subservient anthropomorphic robots who become self-aware and start killing humans.

But the flip side to all this bleakness is the other key component to many dystopian films, the factor that draws me in: what happens at their end. Theo, the protagonist in Children of Men, fights his apathy and regains his spirit enough to save the last hope on Earth. In V for Vendetta, the formerly timid Evey conquers her fears and helps V complete his rebellious (if terroristic) acts in order to expose the regime’s villainy and inspire the oppressed proletariat to rise up against the corrupt government. I, Robot has Will Smith saving the day (as he is wont to do) by conquering the supercomputer VIKI with the help of a specially programmed, friendly robot.

In all of these dystopian worlds the worst things may happen, but these things are not unconquerable. In stories as it ultimately is in real life, freedom conquers slavery; good triumphs over evil; the will to live outlasts the will to suppress. These may be old-fashioned tropes, but they keep bringing me back even to the darkest of tales if only to see how the light arrives again.

Some dystopian films I’d recommend: Minority Report, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, I Robot, WALL-E, District 9, Looper, Dark City. Wikipedia also has a more extensive list.

Thurlow Weed

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy, for better or worse, was like the Karl Rove of his time. The sources differ on the details about his life, but we know that before he turned into the Turd Blossom of the mid-19th century Weed apprenticed as a printer and editor of various New York newspapers during the 1820s, which got him interested in politics. No fan of Andrew Jackson, Weed supported John Quincy Adams in 1824 and even won himself a seat in the New York State Assembly, where he met future bigwig William Seward.

It’s then when Weed latched on to the Anti-Masonic movement (largely due to Jackson being a Mason). The movement dissipated in the ’30s, but was eventually folded into the more mainstream Whig Party, which was bolstered by Weed’s Albany Evening Journal throughout the ’30s and ’40s. Between his journalistic and political endeavors, Weed made a lot of friends and a lot deals – so much so that his adversaries nicknamed him the “Lucifer of the Lobby” (a pretty killer nickname).

As the Whigs dissolved into the nascent Republican Party, so did Weed. When the 1860 election came around, Weed’s old buddy Seward was the frontrunner but may have been screwed by his relationship with Weed, who some Republican delegates that were former Democrats were in hate with. Of course, that scraggly, rangy lawyer from Springfield then swooped in, got the nod, became president, etc.

Being the pragmatic man he was, Weed jumped on the Abe Bandwagon and even served as a European envoy during the war – after which he returned to newspapering before slowly fading from the public view and dying in 1882.

Up next on CCWN, the querulous WILLIAM CLARKE QUANTRILL.

(sources: 1, 2) (image)

Colbert And The Constitution

I want to highlight this recent interview the real Stephen Colbert did with NPR’s Fresh Air, because he shows yet again how intelligent, empathetic, and savvy is the man behing the blowhard.

You should listen to the entire thing, but one part that stuck out to me was his take on churches who wish to abolish the law that prohibits religious institutions with a tax-exemption from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit. The real Colbert believes preachers should be allowed to talk politics, but also sees the problem with it:

I think they should be able to do it, but I also think that it’s a very dangerous thing to do — not just for our politics, but it’s also dangerous for the faith of people who are exercising that right. Because they seem to think that it’s a one-way membrane — that they’ll get religion into our politics. But they’re ignoring the fact that politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion…

…And if you actually have a political party that is this religion, or a political party that is that religion, I think that’s a short road to the kind of religious civil war — whether or not it’s actually an armed war — but religious civil war that we fled in Europe. America has avoided that. And I think our politics are so horrible these days. … Why anyone would want that horrible tar on something as fragile as faith is beyond me.”

It’s a common trope among Christian fundamentalists that religion ought to be inserted into their politics out of an obligation to “fight the good fight” or what have you. As someone with a faith background, I understand the impulse but find it completely wrong-headed and even portentous.

To illustrate: You show me a fundamentalist Christian who believes his religious dogma ought to purposefully influence his country’s political policies, and I’ll show you a radical Muslim who believes the same thing. I’ll bet you $1 million from Colbert’s SuperPAC that that Christian would likely have a problem with that. (Though most conservative Christians these days don’t seem to have a problem with Mormons.)

That Christians or any other faith-group would want to see the faith they profess to love so much dragged through the festering mud-swamp that is the American political process in order to prove a point is dismaying and downright depressing. It’s not just your faith you’re messing with; it’s mine and many others’ – the shared property of people who see the Constitutionally-sanctioned separation of church and state as protecting the church, not holding it back.

So by all means, vote as you please based on your religion, values, favorite color, whatever. But don’t come knocking at the gate wanting your religion to be let in, because I don’t want to know what could be on the other side.

Wild Strawberries And A Poem

I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s achingly doleful Wild Strawberries, and one particular part stood out: the poem read by Isak Borg, the lonely old professor, when asked to resolve a lunchtime debate over the existence of God. After some Internet research, I learned the poem is an 1819 Swedish hymn by Josef Olaf Wallin called “Where is the friend I seek everywhere?” – which a helpful blogger translated.

The full hymn is eight stanzas, but here is one English translation of four of them that captures the plaintive yet uplifting tone of the film:

Where is that friend, whom everywhere I seek?
When the day dawns, my longing only grows;
When the day flees, I still cannot find Him
Though my heart burns.

I see his traces, wherever power moves,
a flower blooms, or a leaf bends.
In the breath I draw, the air I breathe
His love is mixed.

I hear his voice, where summer winds whisper,
where groves sing and where rivers roar
I hear it best in my heart speaking,
and me keeping.

O! When so much beauty in every vein
of Creation and life fail,
How beautiful must the source be,
The eternally True!

This poem can’t resolve the debate over God’s existence, but it certainly favors one side. The film focuses on Borg’s struggle to grasp his life’s meaning and the consequences of his callousness more than questions of faith. But with this hymn on his mind, how can the remorseful professor, at the end of his life, not think about What It All Means?

Introverts Are Not Misanthropes

At least, they don’t have to be.

I read this slice from a John Heilemann interview in which he equates Obama’s introversion with a dislike of people in general. Compared to Bill Clinton (who I’m pretty sure can eschew food and water to survive on attention alone), he says, Obama doesn’t thrive off the glad-handing or schmoozing a “successful” politician must do. Instead, he leaves the legislative arm-twisting to more interested surrogates and stays within a small, close-knit group of advisors.

Here’s the key exchange:

JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.

KC: Obama doesn’t like people?

JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.

With respect to Heilemann, I disagree. Not with the notion that Obama probably doesn’t “like” people, but with his contention that his alleged misanthropy is intrinsically connected with his introversion. I’ve written before about my own journey of understanding introversion and how we’re a woefully misunderstood bunch; this newest bit about Obama simply reinforces the central fallacy about introversion, that we don’t like people.

I am an introvert and I love people—in small doses. There’s a huge difference between not liking people and merely wanting to be around groups of people in regulated exposures. Contrary to the popular yet wrong belief, introverts are not defined by their opinion of other people but by where they get their energy. Just because I need alone time does not mean I hate being around people; it means I need to “recharge my batteries” after a long day of being around (usually) higher-energy people.

The Bill Clintons of the world don’t get exhausted by socializing; they thrive on it, and probably can’t stand being alone. But Obama, like me, no doubt cherishes any time alone with his thoughts he can muster in his hyper-active and socialized job as chief executive of an entire nation.

I do, however, agree with Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones on Obama’s introversion in one regard: that Obama’s introversion is probably why I like the guy so much. I like that he’s more concerned with policy and getting stuff done than forcing a faux-folksy persona to get a few votes. “I get that schmoozing is part of the job,” Drum writes, “and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn’t pay sufficient attention to them.”

Introverts are not automatically misanthropes, just as extroverts are not automatically insufferable egotists. Since introverts don’t run the world (usually—in that way Obama is definitely a change I can believe in), we need an extra dose of understanding from our extroverted brethren.

Science Blows My Mind

Like many English majors, science and mathematics were two subjects that gave me trouble throughout my primary, secondary, and college education. I think it was geometry class sophomore year of high school where I hit a wall and everything after that was a blur. Ditto with chemistry that year (what in the name of Walter White is a mole anyway?). But that didn’t hinder me from being wholly fascinated with science and nature, and more particularly with the people who know way more about those things than I do.

I just finished reading Jennifer Ouellette’s Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales from the Annals of Physics, a collection of short essays on various topics within the world of physics. Ouellette, also a former English major and self-professed “physics phobe,” adapted the essays from her column in APS News, a monthly publication for members of the American Physical Society. She tackles scientific topics from the earliest and most fundamental – like DaVinci and the golden ratio, Galileo and the telescope – to more recent discoveries like X-rays, wireless radio, and thermodynamics.

True to her writing roots, Ouellette manages to take what can be very esoteric and labyrinthine scientific concepts and make them fascinating by linking them to things we regular people can understand: how Back to the Future explains Einstein’s theory of special relativity; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde representing the dual nature of light; induced nuclear fission as seen in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. These connections are lifesavers for right-brained humanities majors like me, who instead of seeing “SCIENCE” blaring on the cover and fleeing get to experience an “A-ha!” moment nearly every chapter.

But here’s the thing: I love science. I don’t love it like a scientist does, by learning theories and experimenting. I don’t love it because I understand it – Lord knows that’s not the case. Rather, I love it because of what it does. I am consistently flabbergasted by what have become quotidian occurrences in our 21th century lives. Telephone technology is so quaint these days, but the fact that I can pick up a small device, speak into it, and instantaneously be heard by someone thousands of miles away blows my mind. The fact that I can get inside a large container that will propel itself through the air and arrive at a destination relatively quickly blows my mind. The fact that we can send a small, man-made vehicle into outer space and have it land on another planet blows my freaking mind.

Science has improved our lives and advanced our knowledge of creation in a million ways. I’m simply grateful for the multitudes of geeks who have labored in that noble cause of discovery. Because of you, we have cell phones and airplanes and cameras and Velcro (did you know that term is a portmanteau of the French words velours [velvet] and crochet [hook]?) and Mars Curiosity and lasers (an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) and automobiles and Xerox machines and countless other inventions, many of them engineered by the men and women Ouellette spotlights in her book.

And that’s just physics. Think about what we know of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and every other sub-category of science. If my mind hadn’t already been blown away earlier, it would have exploded now just thinking about what we know about our Earth and the things that it contains, and also what we have yet to discover.

Though our country is in turmoil, the Curiosity roves a distant planet. Though we often disagree about basic scientific principles, we still seek to discover. As Carl Sagan said: “For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.” As a sci-curious liberal arts nerd, I can’t wait to see what else we can achieve.

Bringing Old Orthodoxies To A Boil

I just finished reading Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, a history of the Underground told through a series of vignettes. I enjoyed learning about the unheralded individuals of all stripes who served on the Railroad as “stationmasters” or support staff along the way. But one particular passage stood out for its relevance in today’s tempestuous times.

Some context: The Fugitive Slave Law, passed in 1850, was part of Congress’ infamous compromise of that year and was arguably the most controversial part of an already contentious piece of legislation. The Act imposed legal consequences upon those who aided in the escape of fugitive slaves to the North in order to support Southerners’ legal right to their slave property. But the Act’s draconian measures perturbed even non-abolitionists outside of the South, so much so that the law, according to Bordewich, “became a virtual dead letter” in the North.

This spirit of civil disobedience was not unique to the 1850s, as the book thoroughly illustrates; rather, it was who was being disobedient that was novel after the Act passed. Benoni Fuller, a county sheriff in Indiana—a nominally free state with a proslavery bent – had this reply for proslavery citizens who complained to him about the hundreds of fugitives coming through: “Let ’em!” What made Fuller’s response unique was that he wasn’t an abolitionist nor Underground Railroad stationmaster, but a Democrat, a member of the party of the South and of slavery. Bordewich’s conclusion: “Old orthodoxies were boiling away.”

That last line is what stuck out to me. Even then, before the Civil War had even been fought, the antebellum orthodoxy that said slavery had been and ought to remain a protected social and economic institution was beginning to crumble. While in many ways the orthodoxy continued for decades after slavery was constitutionally disallowed through Jim Crow laws and state-sanctioned discrimination, the idea that a Democratic sheriff who most likely disagreed with abolitionism in a state that was sympathetic to slaveowners would openly balk at implementing a proslavery law demonstrated that the culture was being changed, at least partially, by the Underground Railroad and its lofty ideals.

This is significant because culture changes very slowly. Perhaps it was the animus produced by the Civil War and the events that preceded it that accelerated the culture change, or perhaps it was the overarching sense of divine destiny promulgated by the Quakers and evangelicals who founded and propelled the abolition movement. Whatever it was, it all contributed to the heat that, as per Bordewich, was boiling away the old traditions.

Which got me thinking: what are the beliefs and conventions our culture holds today that are in the process of being “boiled away”? The attitude toward gay marriage is the first one that comes to mind; like the slavery proponents of old, opponents of gay marriage often cite Biblical precedence and the importance of tradition as reasons for keeping the status quo (as Fox News’ [!] Megyn Kelly recently pointed out). But old assumptions about gay people and marriage, especially in the last decade, have been slowly boiling away.

On the issue of slavery, things began to change when regular people, who were neither abolitionists nor slaveholders, started becoming exposed to the horrors and humiliations of slavery (often because of the fugitive slaves that came through their towns on the Underground Railroad). Similarly, opposing gay rights likely becomes more difficult when you merely know a gay person as a friend and can empathize with their struggle to win basic civil rights.

I wonder if the average slaveholding Southerner, knowing now in hindsight that the institution for which he fought and died would crumble and that he would be viewed dismissively as an enemy of what we now consider basic human rights, would still cling tooth and nail to his (at the time) legal right to own a slave. With this in mind, what are the chances our great-grandchildren will look back on this decade and cultural era and judge us harshly for clinging to unjust or flat-out wrong beliefs and dogmas for too long? What sort of blind spots can we see, without the benefit of hindsight, in our own lives?

Will we, for lack of a better phrase, be on the right side of history? For some, that won’t matter: They believe what they believe and that’s that. But for others, it’s an important question to keep in mind when pondering what you believe, why you believe it, and what societal good you do to support those beliefs.

If you consider all of these things yet are not satisfied with the answers, perhaps that which you hold dear—for better and for worse—will one day be boiled away.

To Binge Or Not To Binge?

There’s been some debate recently about whether binge-watching a TV show on DVD or online is good or bad. While I must confess I have gone on a few TV benders, usually with the intention of catching up on a series before its most recent season premiered, there’s something about watching a show live on TV, weekly wait and all, that is simultaneously frustrating and exciting.

For instance, watching the fifth season of Mad Men as it unfolded during this summer allowed me to engage in the speculative water cooler talk with my fellow Mad Hatters after each episode and during the following week that makes watching live television communal and fun. This approach fit conveniently with the series slow-burning style itself, so I didn’t feel like I needed to rush through it (even though that’s exactly what I did with seasons one through three on DVD two years ago).

Conversely, I plowed through all five seasons of The Wire in about three weeks on DVD – a common occurrence, I’d bet, given the series’ relative unpopularity during its run (and HBO’s prices). I couldn’t just watch one episode at a time, which is why watching TV on DVD can be so hazardous: find a gripping, well-written show like The Wire on DVD and then say goodbye to sleep, exercise, and any semblance of productivity. In high school the first two seasons of Lost consumed my nights so thoroughly it’s a wonder I passed classes that semester (good thing I was a second-semester senior).

So, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how I consume television as long as the show itself is good. James Poniewozik of Time magazine says as much in his pro-binge post:

[A good story is] resilient. It will take whatever viewing (or reading, or listening) conditions you throw at it. And if its effect depends on ‘maintaining a timeline,’ or waiting a year to find out how Jack and Kate go back, or even reading morning-after reviews by idiots like me—it was probably never worth bingeing on to begin with.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go rent Deadwood on DVD and then watch the season premiere of Breaking Bad on TV.

Gouverneur Kemble Warren

Part of the Cool Civil War Names series.

This guy had what you could call a complicated relationship with the Civil War. Before that, though, he graduated from West Point (duh) in 1850, second in his class, and joined the Corps of Topographical Engineers as a brevet 2nd lieutenant. As part of the transcontinental railroad surveys, Warren helped create one of the first comprehensive maps of the western United States, which led him through a big chunk of the unsettled Nebraska Territory before the war.

But at the outset of aforementioned war, Warren was back at West Point as a mathematics instructor when he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 5th New York Infantry. (Sidenote: can you imagine your college math professor leading a infantry regiment into battle?). Promoted to colonel in due haste, Warren and his warriors saw action at the Siege of Yorktown, the Seven Days Battles (where Warren was shot in the knee), the Second Bull Run, and Antietam.

A statue of Warren that sits atop Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.

But it was Gettysburg that put a feather in his cap: “realizing the importance” of the Union’s exposed flank at Little Round Top, Warren earned acclaim and a promotion for his part in the defense of that hill on the second day of battle (today being its 149th anniversary). The rest of the war, however, wasn’t as nice to ol’ Gouv. General Philip Sheridan, notoriously fiery and impetuous, removed Warren from command after his regiment didn’t move as quickly as he wanted. Because Sheridan was BFFs with General (and soon-to-be President) Grant, Warren couldn’t do anything but resign his commission after the war and wait until Grant died to get official exoneration from wrongdoing.

As a final insult, Warren died, at 52, before the final report was published.

Up next on CCWN, the thickly political THURLOW WEED.

(sources: 1, 2) (images: 1, 2)

History Crush: Theodore Roosevelt

I recently stumbled upon the National Archives’ “History Crush” series, wherein archivists confess their undying love for certain historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Charles Sumner, and Alexander Hamilton. This got me thinking about who mine would be. As a certified history nerd, I have many. But with a gun to my head, I’d probably have to say Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt with preservationist John Muir at Yosemite in 1906.

Edmund Morris’ three-volume trilogy (comprising The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt) about the 26th president of the United States is teeming with surreal stories and facts about TR, like how he wrote a best-selling book The Naval War of 1812 during college and became a New York assemblyman at 23; or how in Dakota he single-handedly chased down and captured three outlaws who stole his riverboat and escorted them back overland in a forty-hour marathon with no sleep while finishing a Tolstoy book; or how as NYC police commissioner he patrolled the city at night to shape up the city’s cops and along the way met poor people who would later partly inspire his progressivism; or how he bonded with John Muir at Yosemite and later single-handedly created the national parks system; or how he was shot in the chest while giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee but finished the speech anyway; or how he blazed down the Amazon River, acquiring a deadly amount of abscesses, dysentery, and malaria along the way and lived to write about it.

Of course, so much of the pomp surrounding TR’s legacy was partially created by TR himself – he had an insanely swollen ego that would have gotten him in a lot more in trouble had he not been beloved for most of his life. But I would argue that he earned the acclaim he craved for many reasons, not the least of which being he was brilliant, a voracious reader (a book a day (!) on average—sometimes I can barely muster the energy to read a chapter a night), and renowned historian who wrote constantly and could talk to any dignitary, scholar, or layman about literally any subject.

But the most interesting thing about TR, to me, is he was a walking contradiction. He was a sickly boy with chronic health problems, but basically said Screw it and let his unbounded energy drive himself to a full live but an untimely death. He was a wealthy Harvard aristocrat yet happily fraternized with the poor people whom his buddy Jacob Riis called “the other half” of society. He was an ardent environmentalist before there was such a thing, but had an insatiable lust for battle and killing—yet even when he went on a safari and slaughtered hundreds of wild animals, he donated a lot of them to museums for scientific study. Or he just dissected them himself, having acquired biology and ornithology as hobbies at a very young age. He distrusted and helped break up the big-business monopolies that had close ties to his very own Republican Party. He remade a paltry navy into a world-class fleet, but avoided war during his presidency and even won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Both Democrats and Republicans try to claim TR as their own, but he defies a label. In spite of his weaknesses and failures, he was his own man who made an indelible mark on the presidency and the country. For that, Theodore Roosevelt is one of my history crushes.