How To Stay Oblivious, Become a Narcissist, and Never Grow Up in 8 Delusional Steps

25 Sep

narcissism

When I first saw this article,

How to Get Flat Abs, Have Amazing Sex and Rule the World in 8 Easy Steps,

by Kate Bartolotta getting shared around social media, I was surprised. It’s not often that you see an article with a title like that getting play, unless it’s in one of those “sponsored post” boxes. But I saw more and more people sharing it, and I decided to click. After reading it I couldn’t believe the positive reaction I’d seen it get on social media. I was even more flabbergasted when I read some of the comments about how “insightful” and “thought provoking” this article was. At present, it has over half a million likes and hundreds of thousands of shares. Clearly, it had struck a chord.

But why? I could not fathom how this was being hailed as a great piece of writing, or somehow introspective. As I thought further, the article, and more importantly, the ecstatic reception that met it, really shine a light on Western society, and the state of journalism. To be fair, I think the article was well intention-ed and positive in its own way, but its trite steps to self help rang hollow to me.

The article starts off with some threadbare complaints about how society has become superficial, yearning only for washboard abs and better sex. While a legitimate complaint, it’s one that’s so old and tired that it’s ceased to be compelling. After an opening like that, you can expect a call to some “higher level” understanding or experience, and of course, the article delivers in the next few paragraphs:

“If you can read this, your life is pretty awesome…

Life might bump and bruise us, it may not always go the way we plan and I know I get frustrated with mine, but here’s the thing: You are alive.

Because you are alive, everything is possible.”

After reading that, I knew that I could expect the tried and true positive psychology of nearly all vacuous self help programs. It starts with a sense of limitless possibility. Of course this is good, I can’t argue against this state of mind. But beginning with this premise gets the euphoric juices flowing. “Yay, I can do anything,” you say. “If only someone could just show me how!”  And of course the steps to changing yourself and living a wonderful happily ever after appear from the person that promises you the possible.

Step number one is called “Stop believing your bullshit.” It admonishes the reader:

“All that stuff you tell yourself about how you are a commitment phobe or a coward or lazy or not creative or unlucky? Stop it. It’s bullshit, and deep down you know it… somewhere along the line we tacked on those ideas about who we are that buried that essential brilliant, childlike sense of wonder.”

On the surface, it all seems so good. Who could not want to discover their child-like sense of wonder? That would be just mean! And therein lies the fallacious heart of this article. It’s about nothing more than unsupported good feelings. It’s like an enormous sugary drink for your ego. For a few minutes, it feels good, you get a rush. It all makes sense, yeah, I should feel good about myself! But the developed, inquisitive, human mind will always be left wanting from this egotistical nonsense. Because underneath it, there is nothing. Emptiness.

“Philosophies” like these are popular because they require nothing of the reader, or receiver of their wisdom. They tell us that we can be anything, but that we are nothing bad! But the truth is, some of us are commitment-phobes, or lazy, or even uncreative. Yes, it’s true, some of you are not creative. I know that doesn’t square with a worldview where everyone can be everything (unless it’s bad), but I can assure you it’s true. What’s more, we all have some of these vices from time to time. It doesn’t make us bad people per-se, but it would be oblivious to deny that we all have bad qualities, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s incredibly narcissistic and self-centered to think that we can just will ourselves into a better state of mind to fix ourselves. Later in the article, the author suggests: “Don’t take things personally. Most of the time, other people’s choices and attitudes have absolutely nothing to do with you. Unless you’ve been behaving like a jerk, in which case…” This is narcissistic gibberish at its worst. It suggests that negative feedback from others couldn’t have anything to do with you. You can be pretty sure though that a philosophy like the one espoused in the article would have you take all credit for positive feedback, because you’re so great! To be fair, she does add the cheeky addendum of “unless you’ve been behaving like a jerk,” but the flip way it’s presented tells the reader that his own poor behavior is unlikely to be the cause of negative feedback

I realized that advice like this resonates with a culture that really came into its own in Western society in only the past generation or so. It is the belief that everyone is special, and that everyone can be anything they want to be if they work hard and believe in themselves. While this is a nice belief, experience proves it to be utterly false. Not everyone is good at everything. Not everyone is as smart as everyone else. There is inequality in this world, but we deal with it in the wrong way. If your child comes home upset because he slapped together his project and lost the science fair to some kid whose dad works at a National Lab, how would you react? Should you tell your kid that he wasn’t lazy, even though he did his project in the last 3 hours before it was due? Maybe you should tell him he was at a disadvantage because the other kid had a leg up with the rocket scientist dad. Heck, maybe you should call the school and complain! That’s the kind of reaction this outlook on life invites. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to confront your kid on his laziness, find out why he waited? Perhaps he could even learn from the winner, or even tap his expertise for the next project. That would be proactive. That would be progress.

And that’s the real failing of vapid “wisdom” pieces like this. They exhort us to do nothing but love ourselves for who we are, and ignore our bad qualities, or deficiencies, because they don’t exist! It may feel good for a while, but deep down, you know you have shortcomings. And that’s ok. In fact it’s so much more respectable and emotionally developed to recognize and work to improve those shortcomings, than to retreat into that “childlike sense of wonder.”

Many of us are afflicted with a yearning for childhood. Our memories of those halcyon days are burnished by time into glowing bronze jewels of times long lost. It’s certainly enjoyable to look back on them and reminisce. I know I do it quite often. But there is a reason we are no longer children. Children are not self-aware. That’s why they need adults to make sure they don’t run into the street or use the toaster as a bath toy. We can’t all be children, all the time, as fun as that might sound. Articles like this are really saying it’s ok to be oblivious. Becoming self-aware is an amazing experience. You will realize your great potential, but you will also realize your shortcomings and faults. I think that’s an integral part of being human, and more importantly, being a better human. You might stay happy if you tell yourself that you can do anything, and that all these faults are just in your head. But you’ll stay a happy child. I for one would rather eat at the big kid’s table. Yes, it’ difficult at first to reckon with your faults, and you never truly finish, but that’s part of being human. This positive psychology rubbish robs you of the very essence of humanity: growing, changing, becoming better than you once were.

And that’s why articles and “self-help” programs like this are so popular: they’re easy. You can just keep chugging right along, doing what you’re doing, but just change your outlook, and everything will be fine! Wouldn’t you like a fitness program that was so easy? It’s no coincidence that some of the most popular diet programs remember to tell you that you can keep eating cake and other packaged detritus. However, experience tells another story. I’ve never met anyone with an amazing physique who didn’t work his ass off. I’ve never met a very learned person who didn’t work his ass off. And I’ve certainly never met an honorable, self-aware person who didn’t work his ass off. “By their fruits you will know them.” It takes work to attain things of value. There is no way around this. As a side note, I’ve known plenty of people who attained enormous amounts of wealth without lifting a finger. This should give you an idea of the true value of money alone. If happiness, as so many philosophers have said, is the summum bonum, the ultimate good, then it follows that it should be the most work to attain. Consequently, any philosophy that tells you it’s easy to be happy, should arouse suspicion.

Articles like this are actually guides on how to hamstring yourself and hold yourself back, while masquerading as the key to taking the next step and becoming whatever you want. It even butchers what should be good advice, to practice gratitude: “Gratitude is the most basic way to connect with that sense of being an integral part of the vastness of the universe; as I mentioned with looking up at the stars, it’s that sense of wonder and humility, contrasted with celebrating our connection to all of life.” That sentence says nothing. It is meaningless. In fact, it is a perfect summation of this broken philosophy. It is composed of parts that sound nice: “humility, wonder, universe,” but there is just nothing there. It saddens me to see an article like this attain the popularity it has, because it is so intellectually and morally bankrupt. Worse, it’s dishonest. Happiness is not simply a state of mind. Real happiness, is a lot of work. The Greeks called it eudaimonia, which translates as happiness, but also, and perhaps more correctly, as “human flourishing.” So if you tell yourself you’re great, and that everything is great, you might feel something you can slap the label of “happiness” on. You can chug the energy drink, and feel the little rush. But you won’t be flourishing. In fact you hamper your flourishing by thinking like that. Real happiness requires work. It requires introspection, and most of all honesty. Honesty about what’s good and what’s bad in you, and the world outside of you. Happiness is truth, and you’ll only find that by digging.

The Walk

14 Sep

walking

I was struck by a momentary fit of apprehension as I glanced out the window to see a sheen on the roof tiles of the house across the street. It had just begun to rain. I had no rain-coat, owing to the fact that I was in Europe and preferred to spend my money on fun things like travel, and beer, instead of what some might consider necessities. I decided to forge through with only my light athletic sweatshirt, as I could tell that it was raining only very lightly. When I finally shut the outer door to my apartment, which is always a tricky task, my theories were confirmed. My apartment door does not like me. I am a quite brutish man. I eat quickly, I drink quickly. I continually break things. Even as a child, I would always snap that one small plastic part that was absolutely imperative for the toy to function. Like for example, the laser cannon on an X-Wing. The door and I have a similar relationship. It refuses to be slammed. If I should slam it, just as I begin to walk away, confident it will obediently stay shut, it creeks open ever so slightly to reveal the cold tile of the vestibule. In a huff I turn back to ease it closed, as it likes to be. It nearly always gets its way.

Today, it was raining very lightly. Not a pitter patter, as is so often described, but perhaps a pitt, platt. A quarter note, with a half rest, followed by a half note. All of course, A and below, as I always thought that quarters and halves somewhat resembled raindrops, with their staffs pointed towards the sky, or at least,  to the upper limit of the musicians range. It was raining so slightly, that I could count the number of raindrops on my glasses at the end of my walk, 23, if you were interested.

The first part of my walk was boring. I scouted out the neighboring parking garage for a stairwell where I could potentially run stairs late at night, when I have the urge to run them. I found one that suited my purposes, though I worry about being thrown out by the authorities when I inevitably do go there to run.

I followed the cobblestones, which had acquired the same freshly mopped floor sheen as the roof tiles I’d noticed before. They were not slippery. Cobble always seemed slightly insulting to automobiles. I can remember the distinctive rumble the first time I rode to apartment. It was jarring, not because of the feeling, but because of the noise. It was extremely hard to say anything with the decibel level. But perhaps it’s the cars that are insulting to the cobbles. They’ve been around longer, after all, and probably will be for much longer as well, in one form or another. As Drew and I pointed out, replacing cobblestone streets is one of the main industries in Europe.

As I took a few winding turns, a lone tram passed me, carrying almost no one. I did not realize they ran this late, and in fact, this must have been the last one. I had rarely seen them in this part of the city, and as it slithered of around a bend, into the twilight, it gave its tail a little wag as it drifted out of site, and somehow reminded me of a naughty dog, who believes hes just gotten away with an extra treat, a milkbone, or something like it.

Finally, as I turned down the path through the Puschkin park, my walk got interesting. The place was so verdant, so vibrant, so full, that I had to put on my glasses to take it all in. It was an onslaught of sensations as I turned the corner into the park. The amount of greenness was hard to imagine, and the trees were so full. They were bursting. They look like I feel after a big steak dinner, followed by dessert, and a coffee with cream that’s good, and cold, and thick. The air was pregnant with expectation. Not a foreboding, but a foretelling. A foretelling that rebirth was here, in the month of may. The smells surrounded my nostrils in a haze of odors, I could smell the grass, the trees, the flowers. All seemed to want something, attention, or recognition of their fullness. I could not help but see it as a sexual situation. The trees were having sex, with their pollen, I’m sure some birds were too. Im sure some kids were as well. It was truly a spring awakening. I turned down another path, and a verdant, almost Amazonian canopy enclosed me as I continued my walk. I passed a few benches, their dark brown wood tagged with the words “Ash” written twice, in cheap white spray paint. It struck me that this was the paradox of the city, and perhaps the world, beauty marred by stupidity. Such a beautiful park, marred by this graffiti. I saw more on a bridge spanning over another path. I suppose it engaged my inner conservatism, but it somehow offended by aesthetic senses, that my little journey would be marred by such tagging.

I began to think of quieting my mind, as I turned around, back down Pushkin street. I always found it curiously named, after the Russian author, one of my favorites. Apparently, the Russians had named it that when they had been here, all those years, though not very many, ago. And it stuck.  If it fits, it sticks, and somehow Puschkin seems a regal enough name for this street.

I was still struck by the verdant green, the expectation, but only on one side. For, directly opposite was the crumbling edifice of an old Soviet style apartment building. The rebirth and beauty of the other side of the street contrasted sharply with the pestilential appearance of the building opposing it. The windows were vomiting their sill bricks into the front yard, even as paint peeled off the front door in leprous chunks. The yard was not much better, overgrown, and strewn with rusty pieces of metal. Though somehow, the building stood proud, it’s square dimensions refusing to give an inch, much like the system it represented. A large Sold sing now hung over the entire edifice, promising the new shiny building that would come to replace this old gangrenous one. The spirit of capitalism would save all once again.

The next building could not have been more of a contrast. A neoclassical beauty. Cherub statuettes danced on the perfectly manicured lawn, while the virgin white house looked on approvingly, through the miniature Doric columns that held up the small balcony. It was like a model acropolis, wedged in between the Stalinist beast, and the next building. The gate was wrought iron, foreboding, but still a congruent piece of architecture. It afforded a view inside at least. It was the house I would have picked, had I been to move to the street.

The final house, was to me, a worse monstrosity than the crumbling one before. It was cold. Antiseptic windows appeared to give an open view of what was going on inside this house, which was really just stacked cubes. But they were all curtained, or sealed off with some advanced form of drapery I’m sure. It reminded me of the modern world. Supposedly open. The gate here was glass, or perhaps plastic, opaque. Somehow, it was more offensive than the iron. At least you knew where you stood with the iron. This one didn’t even afford a view into the courtyard, but only teased with shadows of what might be. Of course, each corner was watched over benevolently by a great lidless eye, a small white security camera.

As my walk drew to a close, I walked past the pagoda in the park. It was that point, on the knife edge between light and darkness, when almost all color has seeped out of the world. You can almost see the green of the trees flowing out, out into the inky sky, to blend with the rest of the night time, like a watercolor. Only the whites of the rhododendrons stood out, and soon, they too would be subsumed into the darkness. But it was not a negation of what was, but rather an addition, into what could be. Addition through subtraction, as they all swirled together into the warm spring night, an intoxicating cocktail of possibility and hope

War On Demand

10 Sep
Photo credit: Constantin Deaconescu

Photo credit: Constantin Deaconescu

I was born into a world delirious with a sense of hope and possibility. I was born on November 9th, 1989, the night that the Berlin Wall came down. It seems unlikely that my parents could have imagined a more hopeful world for their son, after decades of Cold War. Indeed, for most Americans, the wall came down unexpectedly, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet empire came as even more of a surprise. The twentieth century had been marked by war, both hot and cold, from its inception. The collapse of the Eastern bloc, and the largely peaceful revolutions that followed, gave many hope that the twenty first century might be one of peace.

The first President Bush proclaimed a New World Order. Francis Fukuyama famously quipped that we might be at the end of history. With no major geopolitical rival, it seemed that the U.S. was prepared to usher in a uni-polar world-system. If you were to have told my parents on November 9th, that our country would stay locked in a state of near constant war for most of my life, they would not have believed you. Who would we be fighting, and why?

But any hope that this new global age might be a peaceful one evaporated during the first Gulf War. Some of my earliest T.V. memories are of grainy footage showing tanks and soldiers in a far-off, somehow, abstract, desert. I didn’t register the American involvement in Somalia, but I was keenly aware of our part in Bosnia and Kosovo. By then I had developed a rabid, adolescent-boy interest in planes, tanks and anything that exploded. I watched with glee as I saw the little model planes scattered around my room come to life, streaking across lead-colored European skies in the soft concave glow of our primordial Mitsubishi tube TV. I saw F-15s, F-16s and even Stealth Fighters head out to bomb, who or what I didn’t know. I wasn’t really interested in why they were there. I liked the hardware. Though thousands of human beings died, I remember being particularly disturbed by only one news story. I had heard that the bad guys had somehow shot down an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. This, my nine year old self deemed impossible and absurd. I had put so much faith into America’s invincible machines, that to see one of the black titans fall was somehow more disturbing to my young mind than any number of bodies that flashed, mud-caked across screen.

9/11 seemed strangely, apart from all the war and violence I had already seen. It was unfair, a cheap shot, underhanded. Like all eleven-year olds, I was quite vengeful, so I was happy to hear that our army was striking back at the “terrorists” a new word, that invaded our national discourse and our psyches, around that time. I didn’t know what we were striking or where Afghanistan was exactly, but I was glad we were at least doing something. I didn’t know much about geopolitics, but I knew we couldn’t just take it lying down.

I was much more aware during the second Iraq war, and I followed it with intensity that surpassed my interest in Kosovo. I can remember poring over a special edition magazine called “21 Days to Baghdad,” with a friend, as if we were reading the latest edition of Sports Illustrated. And at that point in our lives, it really was just another form of entertainment for us. For adolescents raised on TV war, video game war, and war-games like paintball, and even cowboys and Indians, this was it. This was the show, the game after so many practices. We were going to get to see all the machines do what they’d been made to do. We marveled over that tiny figure and gloated. Just twenty one days to steamroll a country. They didn’t even put up a fight. We pored over charts and diagrams, troop movements and strategy. Little armchair generals that we were, we wondered about how it could have been done better, but eventually gave up to go play in the snow.

In a sort of cosmically ironic, and sad twist of fate, my generation, the one whose parents thought might know peace, has known little but war in our short lives so far. Every generation knows war and violence, and many of us have been insulated from our wars’ direct effects. We do not have shells screaming into our homes, or the staccato clack of gunfire to punctuate our sleep. But almost all of us at least know someone lost forever in all these wars. War for us has become normalized, because it has been pervasive. Our government may cloak them in the language of “police action” or “limited strike,” but they’ve all turned into wars. This disassociation, by language, and by great distance, has contributed to war becoming the status quo. Because we don’t always see the effects of our wars right away, they become even more normal. But the effects are there. War is poisonous to any society. Keeping those wars at a safe, antiseptic, televised, distance, only serves to delay, not stop, that poison. The economic drain that the wars have had has been detailed elsewhere. The toxic psychological aspects of a permanent war society have been less well documented. Consider that a twelve year old today has not known an America without war.

Up through the second Iraq War, I was a spectator. More than that, I was a fan of war. I invested in it the same type of interest that I did in watching the Patriots. I kept score, to see how we were doing, I stayed abreast of the new acquisitions. I was captivated by war. And there was no shortage of stuff to be captivated by. War was constantly on my TV screen, in the newspapers, and on the minds of adults. I even began to catch snippets on the screeching incarnation of the internet that was AOL. For the first Iraq War I can even remember a series of trading cards, just like the baseball cards I treasured.

I was totally entranced by the spectacle that was being beamed into my developing brain. The “Shock and Awe” campaign was not only meant to affect Iraqi morale. It had a deep and indelible impact on me, as well as the rest of the American people. It was hard not to be captivated by the sheer power of the spectacle before us. It should come as no surprise that the word “spectacle” itself comes from the Latin spectaculum, or show. These shows were frequently the circus portion of the famous bread and circuses meant to distract the Roman populace as the Empire crumbled.

Somewhere along the way, I shook free of the powerful spectacle set before me. Perhaps it was the inherent difficulty of sustaining a ten year spectacle, or glamorizing house to house fighting, and kids, both ours and theirs, blown apart by roadside bombs.

Perhaps I just grew up.

In any case, as we approach what could be our next war in Syria, I am no longer a spectator. First, we should be clear that so-called “limited strikes” would indeed be a war. Listen to Secretary Kerry’s closing statement in front of the House on September 4th. It would almost be comical to hear him play fast and loose with language the way he does, if the consequences weren’t so dire. He admits that military strikes might “technically” be acts of war. I can assure you, that missile strikes against Washington, or Westminster, or Moscow would be considered acts of war. Why would Damascus be any different? Syria may not have a democratically elected government, but they remain a sovereign nation. Just because the West deems Syria a pariah state, does not mean that its sovereignty evaporates in a puff of smoke. If we judiciously apply our own rules of engagement to our own actions (a core tenet of any morality) we can arrive at no other conclusion than that any military strike on a sovereign nation is an act of war.

Kerry’s defense is truly, mind-numbingly asinine. He claims:

“I don’t believe we’re going to war… I just don’t believe that.  Going to war is mobilizing a force, asking people to join up, fighting a long campaign, committing your troops on the ground, fighting to win and so forth… The president is asking for permission to carry out a limited, military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle, no boots will be on the ground, whereby we enforce a standard of behavior that is critical to our troops, critical to our country, critical to the world and most importantly, if you look at what the option is, if, if, if, you don’t want more extremism, you should vote for this.”

While it may be interesting that Secretary Kerry lets us know what he “believes” constitutes a war, his beliefs count for very little. Unfortunately for his argument, the UN Definition of Aggression, from 3314, Article 3, section b) states that aggression can be defined as: “Bombardment by the armed forces of a State against the territory of another State or the use of any weapons by a State against the territory of another State.” Kerry seeks to assuage the public’s fear of “boots on the ground” after nearly a decade of horrific fighting in Iraq. But even the “limited strikes” he advocates constitute acts of war. It is truly ironic that Kerry suggests that these strikes would “enforce a standard of behavior.” What standard of behavior do we enforce by committing acts of war and washing our hands of them by cloaking them in deceptive language?

I applaud Kerry for wanting to keep American boots off the ground and keep American soldiers out of danger. However, American soldiers are not the only actors at risk in wars. Our leaders seem to have the same blind faith in our weapons of war that I had in the stealth fighter as a young boy. They assume missile strikes against Assad would be surgical and precise. While our guided missile technology is impressive, there will be collateral damage, in terms of innocent Syrian lives. I understand that Syrians are already dying by the score, but the fact that Kerry does not even acknowledge the potential drawbacks of these surgical strikes is telling. It shows a major hole in his thinking, and indeed in the thinking of many U.S. military planners, as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of civilian dead in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, it is laughable to hear someone advocating for a war in the Middle East to suggest that we will see a reduction in extremism with a civil war blown wide open. Kerry is delusional if he cannot read the recent history. All of our police actions have lead to an upsurge of extremist activity, and even the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring have seen extremist parties come to power. To assume that an intensified civil war in Syria will reduce extremism, especially with a rebel coalition comprised of elements of Hezbollah and Al Qaeda is irrational and dangerous.

The Obama administration has maintained that the rationale behind a limited strike will be to send a message to the Assad regime. That message, should be that chemical weapons are not to be used. President Obama claimed that he wanted to make sure: “the norm against the use of chemical weapons is maintained.” While we certainly cannot hold President Obama responsible for the actions of his predecessors, the simple fact is that there is no norm against chemical weapons. At least, not when Western powers benefit from their use. The U.S. Air Force dropped thousands of tons of defoliant on Vietnam. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in both the Iran-Iraq War, and against his own Kurdish citizens, to relatively little Western backlash. The West clearly picks and chooses when it will enforce this “norm” and whatever Assad’s crimes may be, we should not delude ourselves into believing that we maintain a benevolent world order for the good of all. Ultimately, a strike by the U.S. and allies might encourage the Assad regime to use more chemical weapons, if they sense an existential threat with no other options.

The United States would do well to heed the warnings and cautionary advice of other nations. The EU has decided to wait for UN weapons inspectors to issue their reports. We know chemical agents were used, but not by whom. The Russians have argued for even more caution. It is easy to brush off Russian protests by suggesting that they “always” act as a geopolitical counterbalance to the U.S. It is also true that the Russians have their last non-Soviet foreign military base in Syria, and that Syria is a large customer of the Russian arms industry. But a failure to fully engage with Russian concerns over intervention in Syria, is actually a failure to fully engage with history. Russian foreign policy has been marked by ant-interventionism above all for almost a century now. After the Russian Revolution, the Allied powers sent expeditionary forces to fight on the White side of the Russian Civil War. Consequently, Soviet, and Russian foreign ministers may seem almost obsessively pre-occupied with foreign intervention. However, a close look at their national history shows a pattern of pernicious Western intervention and invasion. The Russians know, historically, exactly how horrible it is to have foreign powers intervene in a civil war. We would do well to at least heed their concerns. Though the Russians have their own interests in Syria, their opposition to a strike is just the latest manifestation of a nearly century long policy of historically rooted non-intervention.

I grew up with war. It has pervaded American society for most of my life. Just as the spectacle of war wore off on me as I matured, I believe it has also worn off on the American public. As I’ve called or written my Congresswomen to express my concern over another war, I’ve seen others do the same. Americans are engaged over this war. I only hope fatigue does not make us forget. If we steadfastly tell our representatives to do what is best for America, to wage peace not war, then we may yet recapture some of that jubilation, and sense of possibility, that was there the night the Wall came down. A hope for a new age, not locked in ideological conflict, and chopped up into cold iron blocs.

Buddhism and Losing Your iPhone

2 Jun

buddha statue

 

 

I slid my hands along my thigh, doing my usual self pat-down as I left a club late one evening in Berlin. The sun was just stretching its rosy fingers over the square buildings and I was feeling good. Until, I wasn’t feeling something. Something that should have been there. Namely, a little rectangular prism, designed by Apple in California. I had somehow managed to lose my iPhone. At first, the usual panic sets in, I try to explain to a bartender who could not care less about my existential plight. It’s like a death in the family really. First I tried denial, then bargaining, and by the train ride home later in the morning, I still wasn’t at acceptance. I was still at anger. Anger at myself, my pants, the oddly shaped chairs in the outdoor part of the club that forced you to recline just a little, which I’m sure caused that little has-been status symbol to slither out of my pocket.

I did the rounds within the next week, calling the club, trying to see if the phone company could find it. Of course I hadn’t registered find my phone, or synced my contacts in ages. I’d never lost a phone, so I reasoned I didn’t need to. By the next Friday, after turning up zero leads, I resigned myself to the fact that my phone was probably serving a new master, or had been cannibalized for parts to repair other phones. I was mostly concerned about money at this point. Back in the U.S. I have a backup phone circa 2006, but living in Germany, I’d have to invest in an entirely new phone at retail, as well as a new simcard that would be useless to me in two months. So out of no more noble motivation than cheapness, I decided to live without a phone for the rest of my time here.

The withdrawal symptoms were almost debilitating at first. I don’t consider myself one of the worst smartphone addicts out there, but I did have an almost physical reaction to being without it. I was a little twitchy, and those little moments of nothingness throughout the day, were once again, voids. For example, boiling water, or waiting for a train. I would invariably reach for my phone, send a text, check Facebook, or even check my WordPress comments. Now, I would pace around waiting, fidgeting. It really was a pathetic sight for a few days. I began to realize just how much the phone entered into my life. I don’t mean in a meaningful, or deep way, that it changed my life, the way an Apple commercial would have us believe. I’m referring here, to the sheer amount of times it chimed at me, demanded attention, or a reply. My mind was no longer buzzing with notifications, or tweets, but it buzzed with the fear that I was missing those same notifications or tweets, or likes.

But by the second week, I was noticing more than the void. My mind started to become quiet, tranquil even, but most importantly, less frenetic.  It was no longer time that demanded to be filled, but time that became a possibility. Those small spaces of waiting became pure potentiality. I started to carry a book with me almost everywhere, to soak up that time. Reading has always been one of my hobbies, but I’ve engaged in my reading more often, and on a deeper level, than I have for years. I’ve also been able to talk to people. Without my little white earplugs, zipping up my snug electronic cocoon, I’ve had to give people directions, answer questions, and help them buy train tickets. I know, what a hassle! But you know what? I’ve liked it. Because that’s real. Real life is out there, not inside the little brick I carried around like my firstborn. This is a trite observation to some, but it took losing my phone for me to realize how it was crippling me. It was crippling me socially. I was locked inside it’s warm embrace of music, positive feedback and “likes” I’d get on funny videos I’d post. These were crutches. I could disappear inside my phone, check out of real life at any time I wanted or felt uncomfortable. It was crippling me intellectually. My attention span was noticeably shrinking. I had become so used to reading five minute snippets of text, that reading something long and involved was becoming increasingly difficult. Of course all these distractions exist on my laptop as well, but the accessibility of the phone made it compulsive.

Most of all, the phone was an iron shield against a fearsome wraith that haunts our minds continually; awkwardness. We all fear it. We all tremble at the thought of being the awkward friend. This applies to social situations as well. We all turn to our phones when there are uncomfortable pauses, even in one on one interaction. This is crippling us too, for pauses say as much as words oftentimes. But perhaps worst of all, it’s a sign of weakness. Of stagnation. Bruce Lee famously said that stagnation is death. Discomfort is a sign, really the only sign, that we’re growing. If you work out, you know that one of the telltale signs that you’ve had a good workout, is muscle soreness the next day. This is because working out breaks down muscle. It causes tiny tears. But the body reacts. It rebuilds, and more importantly, it rebuilds you stronger than before. One of my favorite authors, Nassim Taleb often speaks about this idea of the Anti-fragile, or things that gain from disorder, and discomfort. Unsurprisingly, humans, indeed all biological systems, are of the anti-fragile variety. Within reason, discomfort forces us to grow. On a larger scale, life itself is like this. A shock, like a mass die off of certain species, for example, harms a part, but makes the whole system more fit as a result. I think socially, discomfort is the only way we grow. We have to have those moments where we just don’t know what to say, so the next time, maybe we will know. My phone was helping me cheat, providing a socially acceptable escapism, that stunted my social growth.

Losing my phone was more than just a step in regaining something I’d lost. It also solidified ideas that had been percolating in my mind about attachment. Buddhism holds as one of its core tenets, the second of the Four Noble Truths, that suffering is caused by craving, or attachment. To achieve happiness, or spiritual perfection, Nirvana, these cravings must cease.

You see, for the past eight months, I had been becoming progressively more and more detached from much of what once constituted the fabric of my life. I had moved to a new country. This separated me from my family, my friends, my dog. My lifestyle changed overnight, from university undergrad, to a responsible adult. All my little favorite places to eat, and hang out, were gone. Everything I owned was packed into two suitcases. My life had been stripped down. It’s true, you don’t realize just how much crap you’ve accumulated, until you move to a new house. It seems to multiply up there, in the attic, or in the corner of the cellar.

And it’s no accident that this happens of course. The consumptive impulse is ingrained in us from an early age. Our economy runs on consumer spending. I was young, but I still remember President Bush exhorting the public to go out and shop after 9/11, or else the terrorists would win! I understand trying to carry on with business as usual, but it says something about our society, when one of the Holy Grails, worthy of presidential protection after a tragedy, is consumer spending. I don’t think it’s entirely a moral failing on the part of the American people of today. If you do any traveling, indeed, especially in the developing world, you know that the will to consume is alive, and perhaps, even stronger in these ostensibly less decadent societies. The marketing machine is so powerful, that I think very few of us stand a chance to really break out of our consumer shackles. And they are shackles. We accumulate more stuff, so we need a bigger house, which requires a better job, or more hours. Then to make the hours of labor a little more palatable, were tempted to consume even more than before. A little retail therapy, a little strip mall Soma, to make it all better.

Many of us have more than we need. More than anyone needs. And it all just serves as a distraction, clutter, attachments that do nothing for us. Loves that do not, and cannot love us back. Here is a personal favorite movie scene from the film American Beauty that illustrates the point perfectly:

Lester, has a chance here to rekindle his dying relationship with his wife. And it’s thwarted by a couch. A couch! While ridiculous, what makes it funny is that it is not that far fetched. We’ve all seen meltdowns over meaningless material objects. It’s childish, but few of us totally outgrow our anger at those who break our toys, whether they be tangible, or otherwise.

Of course, our material attachments are merely the first layer of our problematic attachments. I was attached to my iPhone, sure. I was attached to it’s value, it’s physical being, and I was attached to the idea of getting a new one after this one. But I was also attached to what it brought me, the feelings it gave me, the information it provided me access to. We’re caught up in a world of pseudo-events, distraction, and delusion. Political theatre is pawned off on us as debate, celebrity gossip is substituted for news, and complex ideas are crucified on numbered lists on Buzzfeed. There’s an argument to be made that sites like that make difficult issues accessible, but are we really that illiterate? That we can only understand topics in spoon-fed morsels? That’s not enlightenment; that’s not knowledge. It’s noise.

Memes and meme-ification are the Newspeak Orwell warned us about. I get it, I laugh every so often at a cat picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But memification is just a symptom of a society that has forgotten how to create. It’s a society that can only-repost, re-tweet, tweak slightly, or leave a comment calling the original poster a racial or sexual epithet. The internet specializes in retreading something over and over until it loses all of its impact. The first time I saw a 90s nostalgia list, I was nostalgic. Now I feel nothing. And in a way, that’s kind of sad, that the repetition rendered that experience null. It’s like when you say a word over and over so many times it becomes meaningless. The end result is a bunch of noise, of nonsense. Gibberish about “doing you” superimposed over a picture, passed off as “inspiration.” That kind of thing. Losing my phone forced me to give up my attachment to the internet. That loss of attachment gave me perspective, on how much time I was wasting, on how little was really of value amidst the sea of vacuous background radiation. I’m not saying there’s nothing worthwhile on the internet. But becoming unattached, allowed me to sift through it better.

My experiment in detachment has not led me to adopt an ascetic lifestyle. As is obvious, I still have a computer. I still have a large book collection. But cutting down, trimming the fat from my life, enabled me to prioritize. I am not ready to forsake all my earthly attachments and join a monastery. I did learn which attachments are still important to me. I’m attached to the people in my life, my friends and family. These attachments become all the stronger when you cut the others loose. I picked up on my passions that I’d let sit idle for too long, like music, and writing, and even picked up a few new hobbies. I’ve started to realize the wisdom, the deep and abiding truth, of an unattached life. But it is a process. Not an all or nothing event, at least not for me. I don’t read much scripture, but I think now on something Jesus once said:

“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

It’s strikingly similar to the Buddhist truth, and indeed, many other religious and philosophical aphorisms, particularly the Stoics. This seems a very difficult morality. Who could do this? It’s a goal, an ultimate along a continuum. The completely unattached person may achieve spiritual perfection, but it is a goal, not easily attainable. I always pictured Christ saying this with a smirk, almost a challenge of “if you really want to be perfect.” And so I may have only shed a small attachment, that fateful night, but it was one that had meaning for me. At least for now though, I think I’ll stay attached to my laptop. I like writing this blog too much.

We Know: Authoritarianism and the Empire of Information.

23 Mar
Courtesy Henriette Hansen

Courtesy Henriette Hansen

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter of a book I’ll release in the coming year. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1: The Have and the Have Nots: Information Asymetry

Knowledge is power. A trite aphorism. But like all aphorisms, it endures because there is a grain of truth in it. Those who know have a certain advantage over those who do not know. More importantly, those who know things about those who don’t know, hold all the cards. The clash over who will have information has always been a clash over power. Who will know? Who won’t? Who will be enlightened? Who will languish in superstition and barbarism? The powerful have always manipulated information, and access to information, in order to fulfill their own aims. Throughout history the powerful have used information to make, and re-make the world in their own image; in short, the powerful have always wanted to play God. This should come as no surprise, when we delve in to the true meaning of power. It has its roots in Latin, with the word potere, meaning “possible,” or “able to.” Knowledge is power, and power is the ability to… what, exactly? Indeed, it just ability, any ability is enough. Power is pure potentiality. It is all that could be or that might be. Supreme power means supreme ability. Unfortunately, it also follows that an absence of power means an absence of ability. To the powerless, there are few options. There may be some potentiality in them, but they are never able  to do anything with it. There has been stratification of power and knowledge for thousands of years in human societies.

However, we stand on the precipice of an unprecedented differential in who knows, and who doesn’t know. Ignorance, and credulity are just as potent weapons of oppression as teargas and machine guns. However much we may seek to reassure ourselves with the comforting notion that there is “more information out there now than ever, thanks to the internet,” we often fail to grasp the difference between knowledge and information, between truth, and noise. What’s worse; increasingly massive portions of our own, private lives, are being gathered as information by powerful entities, both governmental, and private. The average citizen is fighting a losing battle over who controls knowledge. At the same time that we are bombarded with more and more pseudo-news, in the form of celebrity gossip, and political bickering, our civil liberties are eroded, and we come under closer and closer scrutiny from institutions claiming to help us. From Google collecting our browsing information in order to “help,” us consume more relevant unneeded products, to the United States government flying drones over the country for our “security,” the powerful uniformly couch their information gathering in the soft, fuzzy language of security, safety, and helpfulness to the people. This is not a new phenomenon. Even a cursory glance at recent history reveals the same story played out in authoritarian societies, again and again. Hitler’s fearsome SS was the SchutzstaffelSchutz meaning protection. The Soviet KGB stood for the Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti, or the Committee for state security. The list goes on and on, in every authoritarian regime. Safety, protection, security. These commodities are dear, especially in a dangerous and unpredictable world. But always, and without exception, anyone who offers these wonderful blessings, demands a price, in information, in power, and all too often, in blood.

The most cunning commanders throughout history have always recognized the paramount importance of knowledge. Sun Tzu famously wrote that: It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” Knowledge is paramount here, not only of one’s enemy, but of oneself. Sun Tzu was aware that most battles were won or lost, long before the fighting ever began. Rather, they were fought over who had better intelligence, and who knew the terrain more closely. One of history’s towering figures, a powerful man in any regard, Hannibal of Carthage, provides a trenchant example. Although he was fighting in Italy at the time, and as such, could have been at a disadvantage in knowledge of the terrain, Hannibal, Livy tells us: “rode round on his horse, minutely examining the terrain,” just before the Battle of Trebia In doing so, Hannibal finds a spot to conceal his cavalry, which he knew to be superior to the Romans’. Hannibal had also made sure to understand the character and tendencies of his opposing generals, by engaging in small skirmishes. He knew Sempronius, the Roman consul, to be a rash man, and Hannibal, fond of light cavalry, used his Numidian Horse to draw Sempronius and the poorly prepared Roman army across the Trebia at dawn. The result was one of three crushing defeats that almost brought Rome to her knees in the second Punic War. And it was all a result of Hannibal’s near perfect information. He knew the terrain, his opponent, and the strength and weaknesses of his own forces. I can think of few other examples in which knowledge translates so directly to power.

Of course Hannibal’s opponents could have quite easily acquired similar knowledge, had they thought more about their own weaknesses, and reconnoitered the land. We do not live in such a time. And thus we come to the asymmetry of knowledge in the modern world. Large organizations are infinitely more capable of gathering, storing and analyzing information, than an individual. Further, when these organizations paint themselves in the gloss of “protection,” or “helpfulness,” they acquire a certain unearned morality, a mandate to exist. They have more information, and we are willing to give them even more information, for our own good of course.

Inside a nondescript office building in Berlin were files taking up 125 miles of shelf space. These files contained information, gathered by agents, and informers, on nearly everyone in the former GDR or East Germany. This office building was the headquarters of Erich Mielke’s Stasi and is still open as a museum today, with the files available, should a former citizen be interested in what the government knew about him. Stasi is a contraction for the Ministerium fur Staatsicherheit, which means, unsurprisingly, the Ministry for State Security. The Stasi was an extremely effective secret police force for East Germany, and its agents and informers had infiltrated nearly every aspect of the people’s lives. Victor Sebestyen writes chillingly that: “At the height of the Third Reich, it is estimated that there was a Gestapo agent for every 2,000 citizens. In the mid-1980s there was a Stasi officer or regular informer for every sixty-three” (Sebestyen, Revolution 1989) One of the Stasi’s crucial weapons was the omnipresence of informers. Ordinary provided information to the state security apparatus by denouncing the friends, neighbors, and colleagues. They did so for many reasons, but the overwhelming climate of fear made sure that even if you weren’t being watched, you felt as if you were. The secret police attained an almost mythic status due to their ability to know, helped along, in no small part, by the people’s willingness to tell them things, in short, to inform upon one another. Of course, not everyone engaged in such cowardly behavior. As in all instances of fear and evil, some brave few help those they can, and provide no support to the controllers. But the overwhelming sense of being watched, that you do not know, what they know, is enough to break any man. Operating without information is like fumbling around in the dark, and setting oneself against an opponent who does have information, or at least appears to, is an extremely dangerous gambit.

The Communist bloc fell more than twenty years ago now, and with it the secret police forces that held millions under their bootheels. It is easy to think that we live at the end of history as Francis Fukuyama a bit prematurely stated, and that the days of oppression are firmly behind us. Oh, that it were true. We delude ourselves with the notion that open knowledge, the internet, and Wikileaks, will set us free. Childishly, almost religiously, we put have faith that technology will somehow level the playing field. While open knowledge is a good, and noble undertaking, technology has a disturbing dark side with respect to information gathering. As I opened the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, a supposedly enlightened and progressive publication, I was greeted by a full page advertisement for Boeing. A large drone stared it me with its massive camera-eye, quizzical, cold, calculating, with the words “Enduring Awareness,” emblazoned chillingly across it. The drone offers “Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance.” All of these features could indeed, be good things. I am aware that a less pessimistic reading of the advertisement would see all the good a drone could do in a combat zone, how many brave soldiers lives it could save. The drones could indeed protect us. However, when we look at the track records of state protection agencies, security ministries, and other organizations established for the “good of the people,” they are littered with illegal surveillance, abuse of power, torture, fear, and violence.

I wish we were merely in the province of the tinfoil hat-wearing, internet conspiracy crowd, when we discuss military drones overflying the United States of America. But again, in the guise of “intelligence gathering,” and the “prevention of domestic terror,” these silent stalkers have been pulled out of Orwellian fantasy. Eric Holder did not rule out the possibility of an armed drone strike on American citizens, on American soil. Of course, he including the usual language of the powerful when the populace has not yet-acclimatized itself to whatever new form of power projection has been thrust upon them. They will only be used in “extenuating circumstances,” or “National emergency.” Of course, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history knows how easily emergencies can be declared, and, how all too often, these “emergency measures,” are among the darkest parts in a nation’s history. From the Alien and Sedition Acts, to the internment of Japanese Americans, to the Reichstag fire that ushered in the worst of Nazi Germany, emergencies can be manufactured, and universally mean loss of freedom.

Drones attacking American citizens with guns, should be the least of our worries. We should fear their cameras much more. While the government could certainly manufacture an emergency, it is almost impossible to keep a population cowed with violence alone, although many have tried. Far more effective, as we have seen, is controlling information, and that means knowing everything, and everyone. Apologists for abuse of power, and violation of civil liberties, typically the abusers and violators themselves, often cite the fact that the innocent need have no fear of surveillance. But guilt or innocence have no place in this argument. The whole notion of probable cause is completely done away with in this line of reasoning. Citizens do not have the right to break the law. They do have the right to private lives, free of fear. As we saw with the Stasi, just the threat of surveillance, the possibility that they might know something, creates a climate of betrayal. Constant information gathering directly contradicts the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It replaces them with subservience, violence, and fear.

I do not mean to suggest that the government is inherently evil, or that it seeks to create a state in the mold of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. But institutions seek to perpetuate themselves, just as power seeks to refine itself. We are faced with a never before-seen amount of information in the hands of the government and large corporations. With that information comes tremendous amounts of power, over everyone, and indeed everything. Even more disturbing, at the same time that we give, willingly or not, more and more of our information over to these entities, we are systematically denied access to information about them. In the U.S. governments, and other powerful organizations, like the Fed, operate under a thick screen of opacity, impenetrable by the average citizen. This mis-match, is informational asymetry. Worse, we the people are increasingly unable to filter and use the information we do get, due to the across the board failings of our education system, and the descent of many  mainstream media outlets into hackneyed,  reTweeting, servants to “politically correct” public opinion and corporate sponsorship.

Is there a way out? Where do we go from here? I tentatively hope there is. The citizenry needs to become serious about information gathering itself, and more than information, it needs to concern itself with knowing the truth. Unfortunately, this is quite difficult, as so cluttered with white noise. Which is why we move next to how to distinguish between the two, in the next chapter “Pseudo-Everything: The Semi-Real and How It’s Destroying Our Minds and Bodies.”

24 Jan

jamesroom964x:

Getting a little love on Freshly Pressed is always nice. What’s better is having an insightful person analyze my work! Thanks Cheri!

Originally posted on The Daily Post:

Every day, a handful of WordPress.com bloggers are featured on Freshly Pressed. And every day, many more wonder, “What do I have to do to get Freshly Pressed?”

Here on The Daily Post, we take a close look at posts that have been Freshly Pressed and explore why they were Press-worthy. We hope this series provides insight into the process and offers tips and tools to make your blog the best it can be.

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As a child, I was always entranced by complexity.

Photo courtesy of Cheri Lucas

Photo courtesy of Cheri Lucas

The web is full of great reading, waiting to be discovered. But so much is out there, and if a post doesn’t grab my attention right from the beginning, I drift and click on something else. We’re lucky to read on the web in a time in which writers are crafting thoughtful, engaging longer reads each day. And I sensed, from James’…

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Into the Mist

21 Jan

mist in trees

Image Courtesy of:
Anzaar Nabi, check out the site at

http://www.mobilephotographer.blogspot.com/

Here is the start of a little story I’ve begun writing. I got the idea as I read the beginning of Heart of Darkness, when Marlowe describes the fear that the Romans must have felt as they came upon Britain the first time. I thought it would be a great start for an adventure story, and here’s the start of that start. Hope you like it.

When they’d set out from Rome, all those months ago, he had never expected this. All around them, the sea roared like vengeful spirits, the unyielding cries of the sacred dead, who had gone down here before. But who had gone before? No one; screeched the wind. It howled and whipped the rigging, threatened to tear the sails from the mast and leave them hopelessly stranded, beneath a sky the color of ash, and a sea the color of lead. They were the first. And perhaps the last, if they found nothing that the tax collectors or generals deemed worthy. But maybe, just maybe… He had cast his die on this expedition. While in Gaul, he’d received word that the drought had reached his olive orchards near Syracuse. The estate was in shambles, and the debt collectors knocked at the gates like snarling wolves circling a wounded stag. They could smell blood. His blood. And they were coming for him. So when he had heard of the crazed expedition to the north, chasing shades and ghosts into the mist shrouded, myth darkened Isles. he hadn’t hesitated. The Empire was offering plots of land to any legionnaire who would fight for one year with the expedition to the world’s end.

Even if the next year brought a bumper crop of olives, it wouldn’t matter. He had taken a loan to buy rights to all of the olive presses in the district the previous year, and because of the drought, he had been left with a huge debt, in addition to the losses from his own crop. No, there was nothing to go back to. If he were to go back, he might be able to hold out for a few months, borrowing more from friends and family, but the hole he had dug himself was already too deep to climb out of. So when the aid-de-camp came into the officers’ mess tent in Gaul, Flavius Maximus had no qualms in scratching his name down onto the rough parchment that promised his life to the Empire for another year. Strange, he thought, how a man jumps willingly from the kettle and into the fire. He’d narrowly escaped death during the Gaul campaigns, after taking an arrow to the side. Its malicious barb had buried itself deep in his flesh, and the doctors had come close to declaring it a lost cause. The pain as they removed it had been exquisite. When he looked down at the soft linen he lied on, he had been surprised that the human body even contained so much blood. The pure white had been stained a shade of red so dark it bordered on black, and the loss of so much quickly carried him into a state of semi consciousness.

In his dreams, he walked a snow covered landscape. As far as he could see in any direction, stood nothing. Pure, white, nothing. A dream of annihilation. He wandered. His boots went crump, crump, crump, in the snow. He could feel each step compact it beneath him, leaving his footprints behind. He turned around out of a nameless curiosity, and saw that his steps only extended behind him for a few feet. The winter winds, howled, and erased any record of his existence before his very eyes. In a few hours, it would erase him entirely, and bury him beneath the eternal ice. Still he trudged, drawn to some nameless warmth in the distance that seemed to make his breast hum with resonance. He trudged and trudged, mechanically, until his vision was completely filled with white, and even his own feet were erased from his vision. He woke up.

He drifted in and out of consciousness for over a week, as he overcame the blood loss and a subsequent fever. The wound healed, but his mind was still pierced by the recurring dreams of nothingness. He thought of the dream now, as he peered into the gloom. It seemed that only the colors had been swapped, blue and gray, the color of new steel, had replaced the smothering antiseptic white of the dream. It still threatened to swallow him whole. To erase him for all time. The mist hung low all around their galley, as at rolled and rocked with the violent surf. These boats had been built for the tranquil, nymph ruled waters of the Mediterranean. They should have been sailing the aquamarine waters between paradise islands, laden with wool from Egypt, nuts from Syria, and headed toward the great markets in Rome. Instead they followed legends, and chased chimeras. Whispers of a land beyond Gaul had reached them since the campaigns had begun. Murmurings of a place beyond beyond. Alba. A land infested with barbarians, and ruled by spirits. The light of the Empire was strong, but had yet to reach this mythical place. And as he stared into the mist, that looked as solid as a curtain of steel, he wondered, almost sacrilegiously, if even the light of civilization could penetrate into this gloom that seemed somehow, alive.

He was cold. In fact, he could tell that they all were. His friend, the cavalry commander, Justinus, gripped the railing and shivered beneath his oiled cloak, as water beaded, and dripped back off it into the sea from whence it came. Flavius walked over and clapped him on the back, and felt the otherwise unflappable soldier flinch, just a fraction of an inch.

“Feeling, alright my friend? I must tell you, you don’t look the part of the legendary man who pacified all of Gaul.”

“Ah Flavius! Were it so. I could only wish to take all the credit, and be on my way back to sunny Rome to receive my laurels. There can be no rest for the men who would do the Emperor’s will it seems.”

He heaved a sigh and replied:

“Men do what they can with what they’ve been given, Justinus. We make our world, but we do not make it just as we see fit I’m afraid. I’m sure that most of the men would never have crossed the Alps had it been up to them and them alone. The forces outside our selves drive us to break with our everyday, our comfortable lives. Look around us. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we as men, are quite small.”

“Flavius, it is quite like you to wax philosophical in the face of misery,” laughed Justinus. “I only wish I could have your resignation to such turns of fate as this.”

“It’s not resignation so much as, well… I’m not quite sure, a certain willingness to do my duty. Not just to the Empire. But to reach something. To see absolute end of the world.

“I only hope that the rest of the men can feel such things my friend. It’s disturbing to me that we just don’t know what we’ll find there. No one does. What do we have to go on, a few stories of tin traders coming down to the northern shores of Gaul? What do we hope to find there? More barbarians? More slaughter? It seems strange to keep going, after we’ve already gone so far.”

“Asking the unanswerable again, eh Justinus? A dog digs, a horse gallops, the Empire expands. Order is the natural order of things. We draw maps, we divide into provinces, we collect taxes. This is the fate of the world, to be divided up, and conquered, classified and catalogued.”

“Perhaps,” breathed Justinus. “but even the Empire seems small out here. Just as you said we ourselves seem small before.”

And indeed, they did seem small. The whole ship did. The bright red sail with legion number, XVI emblazoned on it stood alone against the gloom, like a small fire burning on a foggy heath. The shadows and grayness threatened to enclose it, to extinguish it forever, like a foggy thumb and forefinger, clamping down on a candlewick. Off in the distance, to their left, and right, they could see other red sails, feebly held aloft against the tide of darkness and ignonimity. They stood out there, other candles holding on tenuously, like paper lanterns set afloat in in a fast moving stream. All anyone could wonder was, how long would they last, and how many would make it? They had set out in the morning yesterday, the last feeble stretches of sunshine left behind on the rocky coasts of Gaul. Men stumbled with their heavy loads down to the ships, the rocks and pebbles betraying their footsteps, as if to warn them that to go would be a dangerous leap into the jaws of the unknown. Safer to stay, boots safely on dry land, even in the province of Gaul, that still, on occasion, refused to remain subdued. Man was not meant for the sea, the rocks seemed to say. Maybe the small ponds, the Mediterranean, or the Caspian, but nothing like this. These waters were truly otherworldly, and hostile, overtly hostile to their intentions, it seemed.

There had been no one to see them off, like in the stories of old. No fair maidens to hang necklaces of flowers on their shoulders, or to give them tokens to remember them by. Of course the Consuls and bureaucrats had pontificated about the usual glory of the Empire, bringing light into dark places, and spreading the glories of civilizations to the barbarians beyond the seas. They left, workmanlike, as if they were carpenters, or masons off to build one more house, or temple. In a way they were, the workmen of the Empire. The unthanked, unthought of grunts, who fit the individual stones of the wild provinces into the massive stonework that made up the impregnable fortress that was the Empire. Somehow it had rung hollow for Flavius this time. Having already seen all the “civilizing,” done by the Legions in Gaul, he was more than a little skeptical about what sort of civilization they would be bringing to the savages of this new land, if indeed, they or it even existed. That was a main part of the anxiety, not knowing. He had always been a great planner. He kept detailed records of every harvest in his orchards, laid out each expenditure, and never borrowed for frivolous things, like excess wine or women. But somehow, he hadn’t seen the drought coming, couldn’t have seen it coming, no matter how many records he kept, or pored over in the local state archives. And here he was again, on the threshold of another journey that was impossible to plan for, to foresee, and yet hoping that it would somehow help him make up for the last time fate had gotten the better of him. Doubling down on a lame horse, he supposed.

He stared over the galley, his eyes boring into the abyss. What might be down there, lurking, waiting in the bowels of the earth? Man would never know, he supposed, one of those impenetrable mysteries, like the night sky, or women. He imagined the ruins of ancient cities, buried deep beneath the waves, on the floor of the bottomless sea. He wondered if such a fate could ever come to the Empire. Of course it couldn’t though, he reminded himself. The Empire stretched throughout all of the known world, and as he well knew, it was growing, thanks to him and the rest of the Legions.

Suddenly, off the starboard bow, a jet of white brine shot up high into the charcoal sky. Flavius’ stood transfixed for a moment, his mouth agape. It seemed as if his imaginings had somehow called this sea monster up from the depths. Somehow, they had intruded on the sacred world of the abyss, and it seemed as if this guardian of the deep was here to protect a realm in which the Legions had no business. They all stood silent for a time,  struck dumb by myth treading into reality. The barrier between the two realms seemed to be collapsing, the further they sailed into the unknown.

Finally, someone forward of Flavius shouted

“Starboard bow, we have… kraken!”

“Archers! Up on deck!

It’s All in the Details

17 Jan

details

As a child, I was always entranced by complexity. Detailed images had the ability to capture my imagination, for hours on end. I can remember staring at the intricate blue patterns offset against the bone white China of my favorite restaurant as my meal grew cold. I would trace the scroll work on a dollar bill, and puzzle over the strange Latin phrases it carried for me. The richness and texture of these designs sunk their hooks deep into my imagination. Something about having a lot of information streaming at my brain was rewarding to me, and having to pick apart the details and see the patterns was like a puzzle in reverse for my young mind.

What I had stumbled upon was the human mind’s predilection for details, minutiae, in short, data. The pleasure I derived from looking at complex images, and decoding them, was really the pleasure of constructing a narrative to the details of the image. Our brains seem naturally wired to first, want large amounts of data and details, and second, to construct some type of narrative framework to organize those details. For the most part, we humans are planners. We prefer more information to less, because planning has long constituted a major element of survival for us. The individuals who were best able to plan, were best able to adapt, and in a harsh environment, adaption is key. Of course, most changes, are unpredictable, and we will get to that point later, but the fact remains that human beings like information, be it visual cues, like in the paintings and designs I loved as a youth, or weather reports and stock prices.

Think about this. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

Details were important to me then, not because of the raw information itself, but because of the plan, the narrative, I was able to construct for myself because of them. I could plan out my sledding adventures now, and start calling friends. Our minds want details and information in order to help us build a more certain, predictable world, a world we can make sense out of. A narrative world. For in my adolescent snowday scheming, I was really writing stories of the near future. I envisioned them in my mind, and the divine blessing of the T.V. gave me the information to make them possible.

For details, to a large extent, constitute the fabric, the texture, of our lives. The little anecdotes we tell, the nervous ticks we have, or the tells when we lie, they all seem to combine together to make us who we are. Great writers are able to capture the world, even a fictional world, in all its details, and bring the reader to that world through those details. What makes a series like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings, so compelling, is the richness and fullness of the worlds they create for us. We have  enough data and details to make predictions about the worlds the characters move through. We can reliably and realistically say “A Gondorian would never do that,” because we have enough enough information, and details about their character, their political affiliation, and past actions to make that predictions. We like surprises in our stories, even unforeseeable ones, but we like, and even need consistent worlds and characters. And that’s the importance of details in fiction. J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for his contention that he felt like he was constructing, or reporting the history of a fictional time and place. This is important, because, it makes the author more accountable. If the Battle of the Last Alliance is seen by the author as a legitimate historical event, then he must control all the details, make it consistent with the rest of the story, and perhaps most of all, not forget that it happened. Events have to have real consequences in these rich and detailed worlds, or else the worlds break down under the weight of their own complexity. This is where we can really appreciate the burden of a fiction writer, in constructing his worlds.

James Joyce was probably the most exacting of all authors when it came to details. He famously asserted that he wished for a reader to be able to reconstruct Dublin, brick by brick from his descriptions in Ulysses. While he lived in France, he frequently wrote back to relatives living in Dublin, demanding the exact time it took to walk between different locations in the city, taking specific routes. The world seems real, because Joyce has put in so much effort to construct it. He uses all the senses, the sights the smells, the tastes of the city. They are filtered of course, through the consciousnesses of the characters, but still, the level of detail, and texture is almost staggering. Joyce was able to do this because he intimately knew the city. He was able to make it come alive, because to him, it was alive.

We only grasp the details when we experience them. Writing well, and more importantly, living well, has a lot to do with being attentive to the details around us. Have you ever met a really bad storyteller? Chances are, the problem with their stories is that they are vague. They went somewhere, they did something, and came back. That’s the typical plot of most stories, and there is nothing wrong with it. The problem is that most people don’t know how to color in their stories. They leave us with a gray unpredictable world, with nothing to follow, no bread crumb trail to lead out of the woods. Think of a T.V. show or novel that has engrossed you. You probably spent, or spend an inordinate amount of time wondering the simple question, “what happens next?” Will they survive? Who will she marry? What will this world inside the story look like at the end. It’s the temptation to read the last page, or the frustration at the guy who drives by and tells everyone waiting in line for Harry Potter that Snape kills Dumbledore. We want to know what happens, but we also want to give ourselves the chance to predict, and that’s why we need details. Without them, the world is bland, and we can’t predict. The story becomes bland, because the author can seemingly do anything, and it would make sense. It takes the fun out of the guesswork, or internet forums where we try to figure out what will happen in the next episode of our favorite drama.

Too often, we’re very adept at paying attention to details in last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, than in our own lives. I don’t mean the kind of detail where you use three different lint rollers on your suit before you leave the house. Or the kind where you color coordinate your Tupperware. I mean the kind of very personal details that make our lives stories worth telling. We increasingly wander through our days in a daze, head down, engrossed in our phones, coffee in hand. This social phenomenon has been derided enough, so I don’t need to beat the dead horse, but our society suffers from a terribly short attention span. It’s evident when you speak with people, most of them can remember few or any of the details you hit them with. They can probably parrot back generalities about where you work or where you went to college, for the most part, we are very unattentive to the characters in our real lives. I know many people who could give me more information about their favorite character in Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, than they could about many of their friends. To be sure, these are fictional shows, and we are granted entree to every recess of these characters’ lives, something we should not have and probably wouldn’t want, into the lives of real people. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.

Of course, this is understandable. The regular, run of the mill, unexamined life, is boring. T.V. shows, and movies and books are idealized, hyperactive versions of normal life. This is why we escape to them, and why they are fun. I love all of these detailed narratives, but I’m afraid we don’t bring that same attention to detail back with us to the real world. In the end, those worlds are merely a poor reflection of the richness and complexity of our real one. The real world though, requires us to dig a bit deeper though, for those complexities. Life, real life, is the best written of all works. It’s pacing may be a little slow at times, but the wealth, breadth, and depth of experience and description is second to none. Furthermore, it’s not heavy handed in its symbolism or foreshadowing. In most stories, if there is a gun on the mantle in the first scene, it will be used in the last scene. Obviously that doesn’t apply in real life. If you check in to a rugged mountain cottage with a gun on the mantle, the murderer could use a knife, the gun, or there may not even be one at all. Though the details are still there, waiting for those who live an examined life, they don’t determine anything.

Details make up our whole world, but they don’t make our world whole. One of my favorite scenes in all of fiction comes at the end of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Spoilers, the main character dies at the end, and the last scene sees his mother and his best friend going through his room:

He left everything just as it was," Bonamy marvelled. 
" Nothing arranged. All his letters strewn about for any 
one to read. What did he expect ? Did he think he would 
come back ? " he mused, standing in the middle of Jacob's 
room.
Bonamy took up a bill for a hunting-crop. 

*' That seems to be paid," he said. 

There were Sandra's letters. 

Mrs. Durrant was taking a party to Greenwich.

To us, the reader, these objects don’t add up to much. The junk one might find in any room. But to those who were close to Jacob, each item becomes almost a relic of who he once was. Bonamy knows he bought that riding crop, and even though it seems frivolous to think about paying the bill, he knows Jacob well enough to attach some significance to it. Our lives are filled with details. To a large extent, they are just clutter. If someone were to comb through your room tomorrow while you were at work, what would they know about you? Can you know anything about someone through the details they choose to exhibit in their outward lives? The answer, I would think, is an emphatic no. Those details are meaningless, unless someone pays attention to them, and not in the look at me, attention-obsessed “tag me on facebook doing something cool” kind of way. Details are only valuable insofar as we have others in our lives willing to connect them, to stack them up and weigh them, in order to find some approximation of that elusive chimera of who we really are.

Authentic Travel

28 Dec

adjust Dieppe

Like so many things in our world, travel has become just another contest.

Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling, and I frequently do it, but it’s hard to weed through the forest of travel blogs, travel sites, and travel forums, without succumbing to the notion that to many, travel isn’t necessarily about where we’ve been, and what we learned there. It has increasingly become about documenting every last detail of our adventures and posting immediately and simultaneously to Facebook, Twitter, and our blog, so everyone can see just how much fun we’re having. Granted, many of these posts are well intentioned, and a blessed few are even insightful and thought provoking, but for the most part, even exotic travel has become as banal as the rest of the internet, and why? Well, because it seems like everyone does it now.

Once upon a time, it was a unique experience to travel Europe, never mind Asia. You’d be sure to at least have people ask you all about a Euro trip, even twenty years ago. Now most people will probably tell you that the restaurant you loved was “touristy,” and that you payed too much for your plane tickets. So what happened? For one, more people are traveling, and spending time abroad. Comparatively cheap airfare has made getting to other continents at least feasible for many. In addition, study abroad programs have enjoyed a massive increase in popularity among American universities. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t spend at least a summer, or a few weeks “experiencing the culture,” in another country. This all has the net effect of making travel seem less special than it once did, and it certainly contributes to the air of elitism surrounding “experienced,” travelers.

I put experienced in quotes, because all travelers, will tell you they’re experienced. It feels good to pass on information about a place like we know it like the back of our hand. At parties or get togethers, it feels nice to say “oh I’ve been there, the food’s horrible, except for this one nice little cafe operated by Fabrizio, tell him I sent you,” or “oh man make sure you validate your metro ticket, one time, I forgot to and…” On and on it goes, but if you ever bring up travel in a group of self-perceived globetrotters, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a ridiculous amount of one-upsmanship, and arrogance in these exchanges, and it all revolves around a single idea; the idea of authenticity.

Authenticity seems to be the Holy Grail of travelers across the income spectrum. High end travel agencies have increasingly been promoting “authentic experiences.” For example, a $11,795 Signature Kenya and Tanzania trip from luxury travel agency Abercrombie and Kent, offers a chance to: “Make your stay more meaningful by stopping at a local school and interacting with the children.” Now I won’t be so presumptive as to assume that wealthy people can’t be compassionate and caring, and for all I know, this is an entirely sincere effort to engage with the locals. But what’s interesting, is that this option exists at all. It means that even people on fairly expensive vacations are at least interested in an “authentic experience,” observing the locals. These excursions become more morally opaque when we look at things like slum tourism. This is where I see the desire for authenticity lose all sense of morality, where looking at people living in horrible conditions becomes just another stop on a trip that includes elephant rides and temple visits. The travel companies and apologists can couch the experience in the terms of “immersion,” and “poverty awareness,” but it’s really nothing more than just another voyeuristic grab at the elusive chimera that is authenticity.

You don’t have to be rich to be an authenticity hound though. Plenty of poor backpackers will pull the “I’m not a tourist,” card on you, if you stay in enough hostels. For the record, I’ve backpacked, and 90% of backpackers are great, but hang around a hostel lounge and you’ll eventually meet someone who just has to prove that he’s seen more places than everyone else, and not only that, he’s had more authentic experiences. Sure, Vienna must have been great, but he got to experience the “Real Slovakia,” while helping a farmer birth a baby goat in a small village outside of Bratislava. These people often consider themselves drifters, or globetrotters, untied down by worldly concerns like money. They’d surely look down at the banker who impresses people by flaunting his money. But the travel braggart is no better, and to me, even worse than the banker. He shows off his “wealth of experience,” rather than monetary wealth, but what makes him worse is that he looks down on the banker, blissfully unaware of his own hypocrisy.

When someone tells you that your favorite part of a city is “too touristy,” or tut-tuts when you grab a burger at the McDonald’s in front of the Pantheon, what they’re really complaining about is a lack of authenticity. I can understand not wanting to waste an experience abroad eating American fast food, but why should that be a waste? I think the answer for most, is that while you’re in Italy, you should eat Italian food, and that McDonald’s is not real Italian food. It’s not authentic. Beyond that, they’ll say, you shouldn’t really eat pizza there, because that’s not authentic enough either. Some of this is understandable. It’s important to try new things when away from home, but frequently, the quest for authenticity while abroad turns in to an obsession. So many of us become obsessed with “not looking like a tourist,” or “not doing touristy things,” on our trips. The Ugly American stereotype has become so revolting that we cling to our phrasebooks and city guidebooks on the plane ride, then surreptitiously hide them in our bags lest the locals find out our secret.

Here’s the thing; it’s not a secret. Everyone knows you’re a tourist. We all might like to think of ourselves as trans-continental chameleons, able to blend in to any culture seamlessly, but that just isn’t how it works. There are  a select few who manage this, but for one, your language skills probably aren’t up to the task. It’s very, very hard to reach native fluency, unless you actually live speaking the target language. Sooner or later, your accent will probably show. I get trying to fit in and respect other cultures. That’s great. But there’s a lot of arrogance in the “non-touristy tourist,” that I find almost as ugly as the Ugly American. Further, the touristy stuff is touristy for a reason. It’s usually the best, or most important stuff in the city. The Vatican is touristy. The Eiffel Tower is touristy. But they’re touristy because they demand to be seen. They’re cultural landmarks that require our attention. You don’t have to wear a floral shirt with an enormous camera strapped around your neck like the millstone representing your marriage, but if you’re in these cities, you’ll go to these landmarks. And you’ll be a tourist. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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The reason we feel a little conflicted, or hollow after visiting these sights, is that we have the gnawing notion that we haven’t yet experienced the authentic, the true France, or Italy or any other country. On some level, this search for authenticity is admirable. It’s a truly worthwhile endeavor to get to know another culture, and understand it, below its surface representations and tendencies. But there’s a shadow side of this as well. Often lying underneath a stated desire to “experience the authentic culture,” is the desire to say “I saw the real (wherever) and you didn’t.” In the age of iEverything and have it your way, it’s unsurprising that everyone wants “unique” experience. We want to feel like we’re better than the crowded masses waiting for the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. I’ve know people who have skipped seeing the Mona Lisa because they didn’t feel like fighting the crowd. Seriously? This is the ultimate in what I call tourist-hipsterism. It’s the idea that anything that has mass appeal is somehow less worthy of consideration, that because everyone’s doing it, it’s beneath such worldly and experienced travelers. Maybe I’m a conformist sheep, but there are certain non-negotiables for me when I travel. I don’t care how touristy these destinations are, I feel obligated to see them. Are there more authentic experiences out there? I’m sure there are, but even if they’ve been “done to death,” I find these cultural icons worthy of respect. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but when I enter a cathedral, or even a local parish, I keep my voice down, and cross myself. It’s a ritual, and maybe an empty one for some, but I still find value in it, if for no other reason than to show some respect. My generation, the Millenials has become so arrogant and narcissistic, that it rejects anything “mainstream,” out of hand. The pompous “non-tourist,” is but one symptom of this disease. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a tourist trap, because I’m just so darn special.”

But part of me has to feel bad for, or at least sympathize with those searching for an authentic experience abroad. Whether it’s searching for “old world charm,” in Europe or “a simpler life,” in Asia, Africa, or South America, Americans go abroad to find the authentic, because they clearly aren’t getting it at home. Implicit in our desire to get abroad, is the nagging feeling that we’re missing something at home. At some level, I think the desire to get abroad is the desire to escape from an existence that is perceived as banal and vacuous. Many of us have had our fill of iPads, overpriced cars, houses, and educations we can’t afford but financed anyway. We’ve consumed these things, and been left wanting, so, like locusts, we’ve moved on to consuming other cultures. At a very deep level, I think getting to the “authentic” other culture is about saying, “I did that country. I understand it. I have consumed that culture and now it is mine to show off at parties like my trophy wife, or my Rolex.” We’re looking out on the final frontier of our consumptive impulse: experiences. Everything is advertised as an experience now. Your Apple experience. Your Toyota experience. Of course, your College Experience. Your Abroad Experience. We’re consuming so much more than products now.

That said, I believe there are still travelers who are genuinely interested in other cultures, not as objects of consumption, but purely out of human curiosity. If we’ve been duped into consuming everything we can get our hands or minds on, we’re still hardwired to wonder. If you reflect deeply, you know why you’re doing something. You know when you share an experience to one-up all the others int he room, or to impress them with your worldliness and global knowledge. I’d just suggest to refrain from that impulse. It’s admirable to try to get to the “real,” culture of a place, but do it for the right reasons. Because you’re truly curious, or just because you want to know more about the infinite world around you. We should also jettison the arrogant attitude that says we can ever truly, completely understand a culture. I had a student ask me “How do you find the German character?” As I struggled for an answer, I realized, that I couldn’t even characterize the American character. Cultures are just too big, and too complex to really consume. We can never truly own them, not even our own. And perhaps therein lies the hope that try as we might, they’ll resist becoming commodities, just one more thing to buy and sell in our travels.

War, 140 Characters at a Time

18 Nov

The Israeli Defense Force (@IDFSpokesperson) and Hamas (@Alqassam Brigades) have been engaging each other, not just with surface to surface missiles in Gaza, but with Tweets. The two Twitter accounts have traded barbs over the past couple of days, an an effort to win the war for hearts and minds in the global media. The Israelis and the Palestinians have long fought to present themselves as peaceful, restrained actors in a hostile environment, and to paint the other side as a group of ruthless killers in the international media. What’s interesting about the Twitter campaign though, is that the two belligerents are now able to circumvent the media altogether. Sure, many large news outlets still provide coverage, and even cover the Twitter campaign, but the IDF and Hamas are able to use Twitter to bring their message directly to disparate publics in far flung corners of the world. There is no longer any need to convince the international media of one’s moral fortitude. These two belligerents can now tap directly into our iPhones, our tablets and our laptops, and spoon feed us propaganda 140 characters at a time.

The IDF has run a glossy campaign of infographics and information. Their Twitter seems aimed at educating, the masses about their aims, and detailing the steps they take to target only terrorist cells in Gaza. One infographic titled “Where Does Hamas Hide It’s Rockets?” shows a satellite image of a missile launch site nestled between factories, a mosque and a playground. The underlying message being that the IDF must be extremely precise with its strikes, and that Hamas hides its launch sites in places that endanger civilians. But the Israelis must do more than just appeal to minds, they have to win over hearts. For example, here’s one of their most recent Tweets:
“Thanks to our followers worldwide for sharing our infographics. Let’s see how many RTs you can get for this one… pic.twitter.com/s50rb1fI

From there, they link to a Twitpic of a bombed out Israeli car in an otherwise idyllic suburban neighborhood. I understand that new media is here to stay, and that Twitter is a mainstay of that new media, but somehow, a retweet of such destruction seems crass and inadequate. The small format of a Tweet allows for quick updates, but it doesn’t allow for reflection and deep thought. Each new Tweet comes so quickly on the heels of the one before it, that we really don’t have time to process the image, and understand each death and bit of destruction for the tragedy it really is. Even by the time I hit the back button to return to the IDF’s feed just now, that tweet was already buried under fifteen new Tweets and comments on Tweets, Twit pics, and retweets.

@alqassambrigade tweeted today:

“In response on massacre committed by #Israeli occupation, led to killing 10 civilians, Al Qassam Brigades shelling Israeli sites and bases.”

The Hamas Twitter account seems focused on framing its rocket attacks as retaliation for Israeli strikes. Each side is able to present itself as pure good against pure, reprehensible evil in its Tweets. An interesting hiccup in all this propaganda though, is that each side’s Twitter feed includes criticisms. People who disagree with the IDF or Hamas say so, and tag the corresponding groups. These criticisms are displayed directly next to the organizations’ posts, providing at least some dissenting opinion, even at the nexus of biased reporting of facts.

There’s just so much noise in new media, that it’s hard to sift out what’s important, what’s real, and what we should believe. Most images and pieces of text, infographics and sound bites will get pounded down the feed by the sheer volume of new data incoming. Soon, they sink into the silent netherworld of irrelevance that is most of the internet, a sad Purgatory of half-seen, ill-considered images, bits of text and thoughts. Of course, there is the other possibility, that an image, a story, or a bit of information goes viral. It rips through the internet like wildfire, with shares on Buzzfeed, Digg and the Huffington Post. But I wonder, is that really better? Is a war, a death, a rocket that goes astray and hits a family home, any better understood; more properly mourned, because it gets one million likes on Facebook? Once we see it so many times, don’t we get a bit desensitized to the story?

One of the images that has floated to the top of the jetsam pile of tragedy in this round of violence, is that of BBC journalist Jihad Masharawi cradling his dead infant son after an Israeli rocket strike. I’ve come across this image dozens of times now on the internet, from blogs, to Twitter to Facebook. It’s a gut wrenching and visceral sight, to see a grown man in tears, cradling a child who was one hundred percent innocent of the violence around him. As I looked at his anguished face for the first time, I felt as if I were staring at a modern day Job. Here was a man being asked by God or Fate to endure unimaginable suffering, for no readily apparent reason. It was the face of human helplessness, and confusion at a cruel and dangerous world. That image haunted me. However, I began to see it pop up more and more, all over the internet. People were sharing it, and somehow, it had become a symbol, of something as old as bed humanity itself; suffering in the face of unimaginable pain. But the more I saw it, the more I questioned whether the internet, and new media in particular were really the right places for an image like this. It was powerful, of course, and it made me think. But, how many of the reshares I saw really considered the image, and the humanity behind it. How many, as crass as it sounds, were just cash- ins on a horrific scene for the sake of clicks? And how many more shared just to share, because everyone was doing it? At some point, through all the reshares, retweets, and reblogs, content gets diluted. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy; the original might still be there, but new media has the tendency to cheapen emotional experience and involvement by mass re-producing content.

I realize, the selfsame criticism could easily be leveled at this blog and writer. And the sad, and inadequate response I have to that is; maybe you’re right. For all my arrogance in thinking that I was different, that I gave that image thoughtful consideration, here I am linking to it. And indeed, I first saw it on a website. In the end, I think it has a lot to do with one’s personal experience with an image, a news story, or even a Tweet. Even a Tweet, at only 140 characters, can be thought provoking. It can the springboard for informed dialogue. Or it can spark a flame war, where mindless retweets fill the feed, and any substantive conversation becomes drowned out by pure noise and troll-like arguments. The internet, and new media let everyone jump in on the conversation; allow individuals to share and be hear. But there’s a shadow side to all that, that substitutes breadth for depth, quantity for quality, and speaking and typing, for thinking. As images, and causes pick up and go viral, how much authenticity is there anymore? Probably the best example of this was Kony from last year. It’s so easy to retweet, or reblog something, and feel like an activist, even feel informed. It’s a little ego massage, and a way to feel involved. If I retweet an IDF update with a snarky little comment, maybe I’ll feel relevant, the most important word on the internet. How many of those retweets are considered? How many of those comments are anything other than another pile of words on the digital band wagon?

It’s simultaneously the length and the amount of content streaming at us through snippets like Tweets that’s worrisome. The staccato fire of gruesome images, propagandized posts, and self-serving irony on the internet threaten to pound us into oblivion. There’s just too much to keep up with, and even when we try, so little of what’s out there is even worth reading. What’s worse, is that even meaningful words and images get drowned out in the noise, and in the repetition of seeing them, hearing them, so many times. There’s something inherently unsettling about war at 140 characters a time. We hear that war never changes, but I’m not sure that’s true anymore, at least for the vast majority of us observers (or voyeurs). The experience of war, has been chopped up into bite sized portions, as yet another thing for us to consume. But we risk missing the forest through the trees in doing this. There’s something undeniably grotesque about retweets of mangled bodies, shorthand and hashtags for murder, slaughter and death. And this grotesqueness comes from the fact that these events are trivialized, and made less real when they’re chopped up, cut down, and splattered all over Twitter and Facebook, in a cruel mockery of the real chopped up, cut down bodies splattered all over the streets.

140 characters is not enough. But is any amount enough? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts below.

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