Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

300 Spartans at the Gates of Fire, part 1

"Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie."

If you haven't seen 300, by all means do so. But think of it as a play rather than a movie. A kabuki or noh play. It is, as expected, getting extreme reviews. As with Gladiator, people love it or hate it, and they tend to line up on opposite sides depending on their politics.

The Spartan defenders of the pass of Thermopylae have been hailed as free men defending their homes and their civilization at the birth of the West - but they've also been admired by the Nazis and the Communists. Everyone sees the Spartans they want to see evidently. And this may be the most interesting thing about them, the questions they raise about what kind of civilization we want and how it is to be preserved.

300 is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, which was in turn inspired by the 1962 movie, 'The 300 Spartans'. More recently, Steven Pressfield published 'Gates of Fire' my personal nominee for best novel of the decade. And in anticipation of the movie's release, the History Channel made 'The Last Stand of the 300' which used CGI to dramatize the historical background provided by historical scholars.

300 is a highly stylized piece, filmed entirely against a blue screen background. Historical accuracy is sacrificed for dramatic effect in a number of ways. The swords are a slashing broad sabre rather than the short double-edged xiphos of the Spartans. (The Spartans were known for having an un-typically short sword compared to other Greeks forces. In the Sayings of the Spartan Women*, when a Spartan soldier complained about this, his mother replied, "Make it longer by one step forward.")

Rather than fighting in heavy bronze cuirasses or laminated leather and linen, the Spartans fight in helmet, shield and a leather jockstrap - a concession to modern mores. The classical Greeks often took the same artistic license and showed hoplites fighting in heroic nudity on their pottery and wall frescos.

Though the actors were physically very well prepared, the fighting is mostly a series of single combats with fantastic feats thrown in, great leaps with sword and shield, throwing a heavy pike as if it were a javelin etc, in the style of modern Kung Fu movies rather than the close-order press of hoplite warfare. This concession to drama is acknowledged in the movie when Leonidas explains to Ephialtes how each soldier must hold his shield high to protect the man on his right "neck to thigh" and is in turn protected by the shield of his comrade on his left.

This was the essence of hoplite battle. Herodotus reports that the exiled Spartan king Demaratus adivsed Xerxes, "One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all. For though they are free men, they are not entirely free. They accept Law as their master. And they respect this master more than your subjects respect you. Whatever he commands, they do. And his command never changes: It forbids them to flee in battle, whatever the number of their foes. He requires them to stand firm -- to conquer or die. O king, if I seem to speak foolishly, I am content from this time forward to remain silent. I only spoke now because you commanded me to. I do hope that everything turns out according to your wishes."**

The director is aware of the artistic license he is taking. Movie makers have known that real battle cannot be shown from a single vantage-point in a way that makes sense to the witness, since the days Pancho Villa allowed a Hollywood crew to film one of his.*** There may be a subtle visual clue in the metal surface of the shields and helmets. Rather than burnished bronze, a close look shows a pitted pewter surface like the kind on home decorations you buy in Hobby Lobby. Could be a Hollywood cheesy - but I suspect a deliberate effect. The movie also has fantastic elements, rhinos and elephants, grossly mutated warriors and disfigured concubines.

The director is obviously striving for a kind of magical realism, like a movie made from a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez might look. And I think this is entirely appropriate, the story of what the Spartans and their allies did at the pass of Thermopylae outlasted their civilization - and will certainly outlast ours. Men will be finding new ways to tell the old story as long as stories are told.

To be continued.

* Available in Plutarch on Sparta, Penguin Classics http://www.amazon.com/Plutarch-Sparta-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140444637/ref=sr_1_1/103-6832108-6507023?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1175347357&sr=8-1

** Herodotos vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)

*** Villa did however, graciously wait until the light was just right for them to film the post-battle executions.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Spring break

We just got back last night from a working vacation - in a rental car after our ancient Honda broke down outside of Aurora, Missouri.

I had a job interview in St. Louis and rather than have them send me a plane ticket, I suggested they cover my gas and I'd take my family on a road trip. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time...

We saw Branson, Missouri, home of a lot of entertainers I'd always wondered what happened to, such as Charo, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and Yakov Smirnov. Branson is a lovely town dedicated to entertainment, but without the Vegas vibe. We rode the Ozark Zephyr and on the way back we saw Meramec Cavern, which my wife thought was awesome. (Wait till she sees Carlsbad!)

Then the car quit on highway 60, just up and died. I'll hopefully be returning (five hour drive!) to pick it up on Monday.

There are a couple of things I'd like to note. One is that within 20 minutes about a half a dozen people stopped to see if we needed help. Thanks, people of Missouri. You've got my gratitude and admiration.

Second is that with a cell phone and our AAA membership we had a tow truck there within an hour. The driver took us to an AAA approved garage and then went out of his way to drop us off at a decent motel. Next day we had Enterprize rent-a-car deliver a new car to us, for a surprizingly low daily rate and no milage. It's going to add one hell of a bump to an already disturbingly high debt load - but without AAA, a cell phone and credit card we'd have been stuck in a rural area with a kid and a baby.

I can remember a time when this kind of emergency would have been major; in bad weather potentially fatal. In this day and age my boy didn't even miss his evening TV program. We were home a day late, but riding in style in a newer car than any we've ever driven before.

There is something to be said for civilization.

Monday, March 12, 2007

American national character: Rocky and Bullwinkle

"The Dogma of Otherness is a worldview that actually encourages an appetite for newness. A hunger for diversity. An eagerness for change. Tolerance, naturally, plays a major role in the legends spread by this culture. (Look at the underlying message contained in most episodes of situation comedies!) A second pervasive thread, seen in the vast majority of our films and novels, is suspicion of authority…"

To recap: I've been attempting to look at Western civilization in general, and American culture in particular, in the light of David Brin's concept of the Dogma of Otherness. In the second of this series I looked at MAD magazine as an example of how our culture indoctrinates its youth into the rebellion-as-conformity mindset.

Now I'd like to mention another significant indoctrination agent; Rocket J. Squirrel and his accomplice Bullwinkle Moose.

Rocky and Bullwinkle debuted in 1959, ran for a few years under two different formats and made a brief comeback in a movie released in 2000. Keeping a low profile, they ran in syndication - everywhere. For years.

Rocky and Bullwinkle live in Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, which is somewhere near Veronica Lake. Though it is known that Bullwinkle isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, he did briefly play football for Wassamatta University (Wassamata U). Rocky's origins are not known, nor is anything about their history as pals and room mates.

Bullwinkle has some connection to the island of Moosylvania, a territory in dispute between the US and Canada. (Neither one wants it.)

Though maintaining cover as slightly eccentric citizens of a very rural town in the American midwest, the plucky pals are constantly targeted for assassination by Boris "Moose and Sqvurrel must die" Badenov and Natasha Fatale*, agents of the hostile power of Pottsylvania under orders from Fearless Leader (dressed in jodhpurs, vaguely Nazi-looking uniform, with monocle and Heidleberg scar) and the sinister Mister Big (who stood about knee-high).

OK now let's freeze-frame and remind ourselves that this was 1959 and the height of the Cold War. Communist-looking villains were portrayed not as sinister and dangerous - but as buffoons.

And how did the beloved institutions of America come off? Well, in one story arc Boris and Natasha are travelling around the country with a secret weapon of awsome power, the Goof Gas Gun. One spray of goof gas, and the victim is reduced to the mentality of a not-too-bright kindergartener. The tension builds as the best minds in science and industry are reduced to the level of children.

Then in a cliff-hanger ending to one episode, Boris says it time to head for Washington!

They creep into the gallery of Congress. Boris looks for a while at the goings-on below, then puts the gun away and says, "OK Natasha. Let's go."

"Boris, you not going to spray them with Goof Gas?" she asks astonished. "Natasha, what they make down there, that IS goof gas!"

On another occassion, the plucky pair and their friend, Captain Horatio "Wrong Way" Peachbuzz are in an airplane spiraling into the earth after the engines fail. Thinking quickly, Rocky hooks up a speaking tube to the engines and has Bullwinkle read into it - from the Congressional Record. The blast of hot air propells the plane through the sky at lightning speed!

And of course, by now you've noticed that this account contains a couple of puns and several alliterations. They did that all the time. Each cliffhanger ending had a "Don't miss our next exciting episode..." and an episode title that usually contained not one, but two puns. Another feature, Aesop and Son, always ended with a punning allusion to a well-know proverb, so each episode was an extended shaggy dog story.**

Other features included: Fractured Fairy Tales, parodies of the Fairy Story genre; Peabody's Improbable History, a genius dog and his boy travel through time and meet historical figures; and Dudly Do-Right of the Mounties, a parody of the movie serial genre complete with tinny piano background music.

The animation was crude, even by the standards set by the matte-background technique pioneered by Hanna-Barbera. It was actually farmed out to Mexico, maquiladora cartooning! But somehow, it fit and it's hard to imagine it any differently.

Rocky and Bullwinkle has been called "the first kids cartoon that the adults snuck into the room to see". It's also been said that the kids loved the cartoon stories while adults loved the word play and satire - but this misses the point. Kids love word play, all children start to play with language soon after they begin to acquire it. And it's not only the adults who appreciated the satire. The kids were absorbing a totally irreverent view of a world in which there are no sacred cows.

In future posts I'm going to explore this theme further with more examples. For homework, watch a couple of episodes of Jimmy Neutron and/or Sponge Bob Square Pants with this in mind.

Note: I bought a set of Rocky and Bullwinkle videotapes at a sale to introduce to my son - and his mother, she didn't grow up with them. My son fell in love with the story of the Pottsylvania Creeper and I can't get him to watch any of the others.

* Full disclosure, I always thought Natasha was kind of hot when I was a kid. Evidently others thought the same, since they chose Rene Russo to play her in the movie.

** I have done a fair amount of work in linguistic humor: puns, play on words, spoonerisms etc, and will have more to say about it in a future post.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

American national character: MAD Magazine

"This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can see where I am going with it -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!” [3] (The Matrix: Tomorrow Might Be Different, David Brin http://www.davidbrin.com/matrixarticle.html)

David Brin here points out something that an outside observer, the hypothetical "man from Mars", might consider both glaringly obvious and seriously weird.

Every society has rebels and cynics, but ours has institutionalized rebellion as normal. If you don't think so, try calling any American taken at random, a "conformist" and see how they react. I'm betting that the mildest response will be a vague discomfort, defensiveness and a feeling of having been insulted.

How do we do this? How do we socialize our children into the meme of Otherness/ tolerance/ suspicion of authority?

How many of you remember MAD magazine, before it was possessed by the Devil (a.k.a. AOL/ Time-Warner)? If you do, you know what I mean. If your memory is vague you might go to the Wikipedia entry on MAD. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MAD_magazine If your only knowledge of MAD is from the post-William M. Gaines era - you have my sympathy.

MAD was born from the death of EC horror comics, the sole survivor of a once-mighty empire of violence-porn William Gaines built on the religious comic book company he inherited from his father. Hounded by a congressional investigation, Gaines shut down the horror line and converted MAD (originally in comic format) into a magazine.

MAD specialized in even-handed satire of EVERYTHING. He assembled a wonderful team of artists and writers and let them run wild. He used to say, "They create the magazine, I create the atmosphere."

"The usual gang of idiots" were of all kinds of political persuasions. When I asked about them at the Journal of Madness http://www.collectmad.com/COLLECTIBLES/jomad.htm they told me that perhaps the only thing the original bunch had in common were that they were mostly WWII veterans who had in their youth, seen the world descend into madness.

Later they were joined by like-minded artists such as Antonio Prohias (creator of Spy vrs Spy), a prominent journalist in Cuba who fled to the US when Castro took over. He wandered into the MAD offices with samples one day, and never wandered out.

MAD has to rate as one of the most successful magazines of the 20th century. Consider that during Gaines' lifetime they never accepted advertising of any kind. They supported themselves solely on subscriptions, magazine stand sales and the very limited tie-ins that Gaines allowed.

The effect on us as kids is incalculable. We loved the puncturing of adult hypocrisy and the wordplay. To this day there are a huge number of tunes that evoke for many of us, not the composer's lyrics, but the MAD parody of them.*

MAD lampooned every sitting president without discrimination, virtually every top-rated movie and TV show, and every genre stereotype in both popular and highbrow culture. I believe they only got sued once, and eventually movie and TV stars didn't feel they had arrived until they'd been roasted in MAD. After which, the custom was to send them a picture of oneself with the MAD issue they appeared in for the letters column.

The satire was sharp and biting, but like Spielberg's Indiana Jones series (take-off on the pulp adventure genre), often a loving appreciation as well. You could enjoy the original story and love the parody too.

That's all gone now. Gaines and the original gang died or retired. AOL/ Time-Warner appointed an editor in the 90s who thought MAD should tap into urban hip-hop culture - and saw the circulation figures drop precipitously. It has never recovered, and now accepts advertising.

A few years ago I took this thesis to the American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus. I ran off numerous samples of covers and articles from my complete CD collected MAD (from the start to 1998). It was hard to explain out of the cultural context. (And interesting to note that foreign editions of MAD have done well in only a few other countries. The failures outnumber the successes.)

Anyhow, there were a few American academics there, including a distinguished poet/ professor and an Anthropologist teaching in Belarus for a year. When my presentation came up, they were in the audience and I thought, "Oh my God, these are real scholars. They're going to crucify me!"

Well what actually happened was, as I was passing around the samples, they were jumping up and down in their seats and going, "Tell them about Alfred E. Newman for President!"

* Since I am again living in Oklahoma, near our football stadium, I frequently have this going through my head on game days when the band is playing:

"Oh-h-h-h-h Oh-seven is the greatest spy there is today!
Though the Empire's gone, he keeps right on, so you'd better not get in his way!
Oh-h-h-h-h Oh-seven we adore his looks and manly build,
When the going's rough, he's got the stuff, and he never let's himself be killed!

We know in a fight he will win, 'cause he wins every fight he is in,
And that is why-y-y-y-y, when bullets start to fly-y-y-y-y
You'll hear us crying, you'll never die oh-oh-seven,
Oh oh-seven, our spy!"

Friday, March 09, 2007

Otherness and "cultural relativism"

In comments to the last post, 'David Brin's Otherness', Doug questions whether this "cultural relativism" has been significant for much more than the past 25 years. I myself don't think that Otherness is quite the same thing, though I have a hard time putting my finger on the difference. I think cultural relativism is a subset of, or perhaps Otherness in its more pathological aspect.

At any rate, I was reminded of this poem, 'We and They'.

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? --They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn't it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

Was there ever as witty an expression of tolerance and "cultural relativism"?

It was written around 1919 by Rudyard Kipling, darling of conservatives and libertarians. The man who also wrote:

My brother prays, so saith Kabir, to stone and brass in heathen-wise. But in my brother's voice I hear, mine own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fates assign, his prayer is all the world's - and mine.


There are nine-and-ninety ways, of constructing tribal lays - and every single one of them is right!

I put "cultural relativism" in scare quotes, because it really doesn't look like the same thing to me. What these express to me, is an appreciation for our differences - but a strong, self-confident attitude towards them as well.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

David Brin's Otherness

I encountered an idea that was to become one of the foundations of my world-view years ago in a short essay by science fiction author David Brin. Like Thomas Sowell's 'A Conflict of Visions', which I will post about anon, after reading it I was never the same again and have been digesting the implications ever since. I am not at all sure that Dr. Brin would like where I've taken this idea, but then if it is in fact a valid insight into reality, that kind of thing happens.

David Brin is a scientist and author with a Ph.D in astrophysics. As a scientist he has worked as a physics professor and a NASA consultant. As an author he is known mainly for his science-fiction novels one of which, The Postman, was made into a movie by Kevin Costner. A few years ago he published a non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, which attracted a lot of attention for its startlingly different approach to the problems of surveillance technology in a free society. In it he postulates that the extension of surveillance of public places and access to data banks by an ever-increasing number of people and institutions, need not be an Orwellian nightmare if there is a corresponding extension of accountability and transparency. This was neatly expressed by the title of one of his articles in Salon, We Will Watch the Watchers. (Which can be accessed from his website - highly recommended.)

Regarding his writing and speaking career, one cannot help but wonder if this is a new model for the career of a public intellectual in the Internet age.

Dr. Brin’s career as a public intellectual is interesting in that he seems to have done an end run around the traditional routes to pundit status. He has never been a journalist, social scientist nor served in government. He started by writing entertaining stories with provocative ideas. In collections of his short stories he included a few essays exploring interesting ideas and began publishing essays and articles in web and print publications[1]. He maintains a busy schedule of speaking engagements and interviews and a web site where his articles are posted and discussion forums provided. http://www.davidbrin.com/

His ideas are characterized by technological optimism, fierce anti-elitism and confidence in the ability of ordinary people to govern themselves. Politically he identifies himself as Libertarian, but is obviously of an atypical kind. He advocates political alliances with Democrats rather than Republicans and extols the self-described Moderate majority of the population as the most sensible.

One of his most provocative ideas is the concept of The Dogma of Otherness and its implications for the issue of unconscious journalistic and academic bias.

The Dogma of Otherness is part of Dr. Brin’s simplified cultural morphology which divides world cultures into five types, 1) feudalism, 2) machismo (characteristic of the Latin and Arabic cultures), 3) paranoia (Russia, with its heritage of on average two incredibly destructive invasions per century), 4) Eastern collectivism (stable and sane – at the cost of the complete unimportance of the individual) and 5) the culture that originated in the West and developed to the most extreme in the United States: Otherness.

In his article, The Dogma of Otherness Dr. Brin describes (in composite form) the genesis of the idea while on a speaking tour. Because he has written about dolphins, questions usually arise concerning dolphin intelligence. He replies that after initial optimism, he was convinced by the evidence that dolphins are not intelligent on anything like a human level. Objections arise, “You can’t know that!” “If we can’t communicate with them it must mean we’re not smart enough!” “But…but there may be other ways of dealing with the world intelligently than those we imagine!” “Those problems the dolphins had to solve were designed by human beings, and may miss the whole point of cetacean thought! In their environment they’re probably as smart as we are in ours!”

Dr. Brin repeats the reasons he became convinced, until he gives up in the face of the absolute refusal of the audience to concede the validity of the evidence. He points out that he gets this reception from every audience of non-scientists and thinks he has realized why, and that it has to do with the core cultural assumptions of American society. Every culture has them, they are socialized into the young of every culture and nation, some call them dogmas, some call the zeitgeists, and we have ours as well. “But I am coming to see that contemporary America is very, very strange in one respect. It just may be the first society in which it is a major reflexive dogma that there must be no dogmas!”

“Think about it, “There’s always another way of looking at things” is a basic assumption of a great many Americans.” Someone replies, “Well isn’t it true? There is always another way!” “Of course there is… or at least I tend to think so. I like to see other viewpoints. But you see, I was brought up in the same culture as you were, so it’s no surprise I share your dogma of otherness.”

He describes what follows in the discussion, he talks about how unique this orientation is in the history of the world. Someone accuses him of cultural chauvinism, “What’s so special about our culture?” “You’re doing it again!” he cries. He points out that there may indeed be something to be learned from other points of view, but then again that could just be a bias imposed by our cultural conditioning.

Further objections follow, “All right, so that’s just our way of looking at things. But you can’t say it’s actually better than any other way… Other peoples have their own cultural assumptions, of equal value.” Further discussion ensues leading to the core contradiction: Otherness holds that all points of view may be valid for the culture (or even the individual) that holds them, other cultures think that this belief is self-evidently insane and/or evil. They cannot both be true, one or the other must be and recognizing this involves making a judgment (at least implicitly) about which is better, more true or more worthy to prevail.

To elaborate further would involve quoting the entire (admirably succinct) essay – and by this time the academic reader is probably nodding his head in recognition. The attitude is most noticeable in the doctrine of cultural relativism in the social sciences: all cultures are equally valuable and worthy to survive and to suggest otherwise is bigotry and racism. [2]

Dr. Brin suggests that this attitude evolved in our culture of immigrants. America has become a mix of more peoples and cultures than probably any other in the history of the world – with none that had a strong claim to right of precedence, and that to get along peacefully we had to develop tolerance to a degree beyond any other previous civilization. He does not claim that everyone everywhere in America possesses this attitude in the same degree, or that it is possessed only in America, simply that it is characteristic of American culture to a degree beyond any other place at present.

“The Dogma of Otherness is a worldview that actually encourages an appetite for newness. A hunger for diversity. An eagerness for change. Tolerance, naturally, plays a major role in the legends spread by this culture. (Look at the underlying message contained in most episodes of situation comedies!) A second pervasive thread, seen in the vast majority of our films and novels, is suspicion of authority…

“What we can say, nevertheless, is that Otherness has become powerful in the official morality of most western societies. Look at the vocabulary used in most debates on issues concerning the public. So-called 'political correctness' can be seen in ironic light, as a rather pushy patriotism in favor of the tolerance meme! But even the other side often wraps itself in phrases like "freedom," or "color blindness," or "individual rights." ”Even more important, though, is the fact that millions accept the deeply utopian notion that our institutions must be improvable, and that active criticism is one of the best ways to elicit change.” (The Meme Wars http://www.davidbrin.com/newmemewar1.html)

The irony of this is that American culture socializes its members into an attitude that each of us and a few like-minded others are unique in possessing this attitude of tolerance and suspicion of authority.

“It is a smug cliché -- that you alone (or perhaps with a few friends) -- happen to see through the conditioning that has turned all the rest into passively obedient sheep. …

“Ah, but here is the ironic twist. Look around yourself. I'll bet you cannot name, offhand, a single popular film of the last forty years that actually preached homogeneity, submission, or repression of the individual spirit. ”That's a clue! In fact, the most persistent and inarguably incessant propaganda campaign, appearing in countless movies, novels, myths and TV shows, preaches quite the opposite! A singular and unswerving theme so persistent and ubiquitous that most people hardly notice or mention it. And yet, when I say it aloud, you will nod your heads in instant recognition. ”That theme is suspicion of authority -- often accompanied by its sidekick/partner: tolerance. ”Indeed, try to come up with even one example of a recent film you enjoyed in which the hero did not bond with the audience in the first ten minutes by resisting or sticking-it to some authority figure….

“This theme is so prevalent, and so obvious, that even though you can see where I am going with it -- and hate the inevitable conclusion -- you aren't going to dispute the core fact. You have to sit there and accept one of the most galling things that a bunch of dedicated individualists can ever realize -- that you were trained to be individualists by the most relentless campaign of public indoctrination in history, suckling your love of rebellion and eccentricity from a society that -- evidently, at some level -- wants you to be that way!” [3] (The Matrix: Tomorrow Might Be Different, David Brin http://www.davidbrin.com/matrixarticle.html)

I believe that Dr. Brin is on to something here. The idea is hard to grasp for some, but once grasped anyone can test it for themselves by observing the culture around them, for example by trying that experiment with movies, TV shows and popular literature. This may be one of the most important insights into understanding our own culture in recent years.

It is obviously going to be unsettling to some. It supports the idea of American, and Western exceptionalism – which contradicts the basic vision of Otherness itself! This kind of condition is of course, the primary causative factor in Cognitive Dissonance theory.

There is no doubt about whose side Dr. Brin is on. He holds with a society where progress is achieved through openness and constant criticism. In The Postman he has the main character tell a story about the Americans, who used to accuse themselves of all kinds of terrible crimes – but that this was only their way of making themselves better.

I believe that Dr. Brin’s model is well worth considering, with some caveats.

Our core cultural assumptions, as everyone’s do, lead us to look at the world from a certain perspective, but also have their own unique blind spots, which we must make a serious effort to see around.

At present, America is attempting to do something that has never been achieved before – with no historical examples to indicate whether or not it will continue to succeed in the long run. We have a republican form of government with a population of heterogeneous origins now at 300 million and continually growing through immigration and a birthrate far healthier than Europe's. Prior to the US Constitution, political philosophers such as Montesque believed that a republican government must necessarily be on a small scale. Surely we are going to need the feedback of constant self-criticism if we are to chart a course into an unknown and uncertain future.

There is indeed a lot of self-criticism in our society, but much of it is neither legitimate nor productive of any real self-examination. Dr. Brin has not to my knowledge dealt with what might be called xenophilia, the hallmark of many radicals who hold that the good society is found elsewhere. Usually in some truly awful tyranny, which they strangely never seem to immigrate to, or even bother to visit in most cases. Xenophilia is not respect for other ways, but a positive loathing of one’s own, and is manifestly quite common among the very classes which have most benefited from American society. Obviously our culture is productive of some discontents that affect its most privileged members that we only dimly understand.

(See my posts on 'Western Civilization and its Discontents' and 'Aeyrheads'.)

At an extreme, the respect-for-all-cultures vision that Otherness promotes leads to a reluctance to evaluate others for fear of seeming “judgmental” (a capital offence in the social sciences). The problems with this attitude include:

1) One cannot avoid making judgments, it’s part of our basic cognitive processes. If one tries then the judgments made will be unconscious and thus difficult to deal with rationally.

2) If we are unwilling to consider that our culture has achieved something uniquely valuable, we will be unable to examine rationally exactly what it is we are doing right, how it might apply to others and how it might be improved further.

3) Contrariwise, if we are unwilling to honestly criticize the failures and shortcomings of others, how will we learn from them?

These extremes of the Dogma of Otherness do not necessarily represent fatal flaws in the concept. But it does seem possible that most people may not have the insight necessary to appreciate the difference between being objective but evaluative, and being judgmental and biased – and this is rather an elitist point of view, which is of course contradictory to the Dogma of Otherness itself.

Dr. Brin makes an excellent case for the Dogma of Otherness being among the core assumptions of American, and increasingly Western Civilization and shows how unique this is among other civilizations both contemporary and historical. This worldview is undoubtedly being spread throughout our culture by our academic establishment, our news and entertainment media and throughout Western culture by American media hegemony.

The above caveats and reservations about Otherness lead to one important question. Though the assumptions of Otherness may be necessary to maintaining a society as large and as heterogeneous as our own, might this not also lead to something analogous to a breakdown of our society’s immune system - something like a case of cultural AIDS? If we do not consider our own society as in some way unique, worthy and better than any alternative, from where will come the will to defend it against those that would attack and destroy it from within or without?

Whether the contradictions in our core cultural assumptions will ultimately tear apart our culture remains to be seen. This has happened to many other cultures throughout history and perhaps we are not so special after all.

Note: the essays containing the elaboration of the idea of The Dogma of Otherness can be found in:

Otherness, David Brin, 1994 Bantam Spectra Books,
The Dogma of Otherness
The Commonwealth of Wonder

And on David Brin’s website, as cited above.

[1] Sometimes for free just to have a forum to address a specific audience. I have published in one of the same magazines as Dr. Brin and can testify that they do not pay and sometimes edit at their whim.

[2] If this characterization seems extreme, I'd note that during my studies in Anthropology on more than one occasion I brought up the question of Thugee. Thugee (origin of the English word thug) was a Hindu cult that worshipped the goddess Kali. Their religious devotion took the form of joining parties of travelers on the road, making friends with them and at a given signal, strangling them with silk scarves and robbing their corpses. These were not simple brigands but a fully developed culture with customs, rituals, rites of passage for their children and an elaborate taboo structure. When the British discovered their existence in the 19th century an estimated 40,000 people were disappearing on the roads in India.

In the name of objectivity and being non-judgmental , more than one Anthropology professor defended their right to practice their culture unmolested by British imperialism. None considered the possibility that this attitude was inherently racist, holding the lives of Indians as insignificant compared to upholding the right of a predatory culture to exist. I have repeated the experiment many times and found that Western social scientists will almost always either frantically avoid making a judgment or come down on the side of defending a moral obscenity.

[3] I used this theme at a presentation at the 11th American Studies Conference in Minsk, Belarus with the example of MAD magazine as one of the means of acculturating American youth into an attitude of tolerance and suspicion of authority through even-handed satire.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a woman who was kidnapped and gang-raped by five men has been sentenced to 90 lashes for being in the company of men not related to her. Her sentence is being appealed to the King.

The rapists are in custody, but given the standard of proof demanded by Sharia law it's not likely they'll be convicted.

I hope that those lashes are given in installments, with time to recover. 90 all at once would likely be fatal.


A town in California, after turning a Christmas tree into a "Holiday tree", has rechristened (um, perhaps I'd better chose another verb) the Easter Bunny - the Spring Bunny.

Never mind that the bunny, the eggs, even the name itself are not the least bit Christian. (Easter comes from the name of the goddess Eoster.) So are the neo-pagans going to get mad and protest?

My wife laughed uproariously. I'm beginning to suspect that she thinks America has arranged this gigantic comedic spectacle for her personal amusement.


March 4-7 there was a conference of Muslim dissidents in St. Petersburg, Florida, featuring among others, speakiers such as Ibn Warraq, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darweesh. I don't recall seeing anything about it on the TV news. What gives? This was a gathering of some of the bravest intellectuals in the country today, discussing matters that will determine the shape of things to come for this century at least.

Each of these people lives in constant danger of violent death - and nobody seems to think it worth noticing when they get together to talk. I'd of been happy to attend as the proverbial fly on the wall - but then I didn't even know it was happening until it was over.

Did anybody go to observe and report on what was said and done? Or is perhaps the existence of intellectuals who actually put their lives on the line for their convictions a reproach to those who like to posture as heroes from their ivory towers?


Hillary was recorded on camera trying to talk Black. Not a good idea, she's got a tin ear but the audience seemed tolerant. Commenters on the Right accused her of being patronizing, but if her audience didn't think so I suppose you can't run with that charge. So now is it OK to tell Black jokes again?

A while ago Senator Diane Feinstein got away scot-free after questioning nominee Samuel Alito about conflicts between his Catholicism and his duties on the Supream Court. What would have been the reaction if someone had questioned Senator Feinstein about conflicts between her loyalty to American interests and her Judaism?

And recently questions have been raised about Mitt Romney, and whether some of his Mormon ancestors were practicing polygynists.

Of course I was outraged at the religious bigotry, double standard and all - but then I remembered the Mormon doctrine about baptising your ancestors, and I couldn't help but wonder if you could register them to vote while you were at it? (As we say in Oklahoma; I know it's wrong - but I'm weak.)

Hell, it's been done in Chicago for years.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What happened to our political discourse?

When I came back to America after a thirteen-year absence, a friend told me that political arguments had gotten "mean" in America during the time I'd been away. Everything I've seen in the three years I've been back has pretty much confirmed that.

"Mean" is not new in American politics. Whenever we have issues people get passionate about, there's bound to be a lot of name-calling. I think there's something different about this phase we're going through, though I can't quite put my finger on what it is.

Before I brought my wife to this country, I tried to explain the political lineup in America and how it differs from Europe. A few salient points:

-The European Right, starts at our left-of-center.

-Leftism in America has essentially absorbed liberalism. That makes no sense in Europe at all, where they are traditional enemies. "Liberal" in Europe means something far closer to conservative or libertarian in America. In America, "liberal" has come to mean something like "moderate socialist". That's why Americans who are closer to the old conservatism of Barry Goldwater tend to call themselves "Classical Liberals".

-America is the only place where "conservative" means "defender of traditional liberties" (whether you agree or not that that is in fact what conservatists these days are all about). In Europe, "conservative" often means "royalist".

-Leftist ideologues do in fact dominate the social sciences and humanities in academia. This is something that visiting academics from Eastern Europe notice immediately. In response, conservatives and libertarians have created a political/academic sphere of think tanks to develop and support their positions.

-The profession of journalism is also heavily oriented to the Left, though unlike academia there is a very lively opposition.

-Though what there is of a political consensus in this country is probably moderate-slightly-inclining-to-conservative, the issues are framed by the extremes of both Left and Right. This means that discussion of issues on which most folks would rather compromise is dominated by the most extreme positions. Two characteristic examples of this are abortion and gun control.

So where am I on the political map?

Well, I love the market economy, which moves me along the conservative-libertarian axis. I also love this easygoing hedonistic civilization of ours, favor legal drugs and have gay friends. That moves me towards the liberal-libertarian quadrant. I'm also big on the Second Amendment, consider myself an ardent patriot and believe strongly in "peace through superior firepower" - conservative. Pornography I neither consume* nor wish to see banned - liberal. I'm pretty absolutist about freedom of speech and the press - except that I think some issues framed as "free speech" and "free press" are nothing of the kind.* I like democratic systems in general - populist, but think that voting rights have been extended to too many people - elitist!

I call myself a "small-l" libertarian (that is, a sane one), or sometimes a Classical Liberal. Conservatives I often admire, I just don't happen to be one. I am though increasingly sympathetic, now that they seem to have lost a lot of ugly baggage.

I remember an occassion in Warsaw when my wife (pregnant with our firstborn at the time) and I were touring with a couple of friends, who are prominent in the international libertarian movement. One mentioned that he thought conservative libertarians were a "disease" of the movement. I replied, "Hey, watch it there! I'm about to become a father, that could be me you're talking about in a few years." I can only look back and chuckle now.

At any rate, my wife took it all in and came up with one of her straight-to-the-heart summaries of the situation. "So what it amounts to is that if you're a libertarian, you're dismissed as a nut. But being a conservative is dangerous, because they're really hated."

In future posts I will explore:

What happened to Liberalism?
What happened to Conservatism?
What happened to Libertarianism?
Nothing happened to Leftism - it's still the same.
Three cheers for the mushy middle!
Tinkering with democracy.
You do not live in a #$%&ing police state!

*Acually I like pictures of beautiful naked and semi-clothed (much hotter if done right) women. You know, the classic Playboy kind. Hard-core porn doesn't much interest me. I figure that either I'm getting some, in which case I don't need porn, or I'm not. In which case, it's no favor to eat steak in front of a starving man. And when I'm looking at a beautiful woman, I want to imagine that I'm making love to her - not watch someone else.

**A very perceptive feminist for example, once pointed out that child pornography is not a case of "freedom of expression" but the record of a crime. And about sedition during wartime; if you're in a streetfight and someone yells "I'm on HIS side!" - I don't know about you but I'd donate a punch in his direction. "Thanks for making that clear buddy."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Go tell the Spartans...

In a few days 300 will open, and my wife and I are trying to work out the logistics of how we're going to arrange for her to see it while I take care of the seven-month-old. Our apartment in Warsaw is directly above the entrance to a movie theater, so when we were there she could feed our firstborn, put him to bed, and run down to see a movie with a pager in her pocket just in case. Here it's not so easy, but she doesn't want to wait for it to come out on DVD.

300, is of course the new movie about the battle at the "Hot Gates" - Thermopylae. It is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel, which was itself said to be inspired by the old B movie, The Three Hundred Spartans.

Classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson says it's pretty good, which augers well in my book. He loved Gladiator, as we did, and loathed Alexander - 'nuff said.

I'll be reviewing the movie, and the original 300 Spartans, and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield - a threefer. The Spartans at Thermopylae and their legacy raise a lot of interesting, and disturbing questions about the origin of the West and the nature of free societies, which should make for some interesting discussion.

If I asked what comes to mind when I said "Thermopylae", you'd likely quote the epitaph of the Spartans by Simonides, a contemporary poet.

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

There are several ways to render this in English. Translating poetry is often a trade-off between strict accuracy and capturing the effect of the original, but the best in my opinion goes:

Go tell the Spartans, oh stranger passing by
That here, obedient to their laws we lie.

I cannot read or recite that without my eyes watering.

This epigram was engraved on a stone and placed on the hill where the Spartans and the allies that stood with them made their last stand. The original has been lost, but a new stone was placed there in modern times. Near it is another, engraved with the words of King Leonidas to the envoy of the Great King when he demanded that they surrender their arms:

Μολών λαβέ (Molon labe) "Come and take them!"

Simonides epigram has inspired some pretty good knock-offs. The Battle of Kohima in WWII, credited with saving India from a Japanese invasion, has this memorial:

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today

This is attributed to one John Etty-Leal and said to be "inspired" by a WWI epigram by John Maxwell Edmonds. (Inspired my ass. It's a direct rip off, different only in minor details in the second line "For your to-morrows these gave their to-day.")

The master of epitaph writing in modern English was undoubtedly Rudyard Kipling. I highly recommend Epitaphs of the War, which is a whole series of them on different themes. Some examples:

Two Canadian Memorials

We giving all, gained all
Neither lament us nor praise.
But only in all things recall
It is fear, not death that slays.

From little towns in a far land we came
To save out honor, and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep
And trust that world we won for you to keep.

A Manservant

We were together since the war began.
He was my servant - and the better man.

Hindu Sepoy, Died in France

This man in his own country prayed, we know not to what Powers
We pray them to reward him for his bravery in ours.

And this one, dear to the hearts of all libertarians. A Politician:

I could not dig, I dared not rob
Wherefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

Any man would be happy to be remembered for a great epitaph. Trouble is, you can't be around to enjoy them - unless you write your own ahead of time.

Jonathan Swift wrote his own epitaph, in Latin no less. His epitaph goes:

Hic depositum est corpus
Huyus Ecclesiae Cathedralis
Ubi saeva indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem

William Butler Yeats translated it and cast it into English verse, thusly:

SWIFT has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-besotted traveller; he
Served human liberty.

It rhymes, but I prefer the prose translation:

He is gone, where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart. Go traveller, imitate him if you can. He served Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson boasted of his proudest achievements in his epitaph:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia

Notice, not one word about having been president twice!

Westminster Abbey is no doubt a great place to look for fine epitaphs among the kings and notables buried there. But in the abbey is also the British Unknown Soldier:

They buried him among the kings Because he Had done good toward God and Toward His house

Lawrence Binyon wrote For the Fallen, for the dead of WWI, from which is often taken this part to be read at remembrance services:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Shelley reminds us of the futility of vanity, (a lesson he might have taken more to heart). An enscription found on a statue of Rameses II contained a line that was translated something like: "If you would know who I am and where I am buried, surpass me in some of my deeds."

Shelley rendered it:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings!
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Am I a Neanderthal?

Wonderful news! My pet crackpot theory may be viable after all.

Some time ago in my post "Can you think?" http://rantsand.blogspot.com/2006/10/can-you-think.html I posed this question:

"How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e. reached a conclusion that you did not like?"

Once after posing this question, someone asked me, "So what was a conclusion that really disturbed you?"

"Neanderthals" I said.

"Huh? What's disturbing about Neanderthals? They've all been dead for about 24 thousand years."

Exactly. They're dead, all of them.

If you scroll down to "Racism, some questions" you'll see that I mentioned a position on race held by some Anthropologists; that the only subdivision of humanity with characteristics different enough to be called a "race", were the Neanderthals.* These people classify them as Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis, and contend that after the end of the last Ice Age, they rebred into the main human line and the most extreme characteristics largely disappeared.

The counter theory is that Neanderthals were a separate species that became extinct and contributed little or nothing to the modern human gene pool. This theory classifies them as Homo Neanderthalensis.

The weight of evidence has see-sawed back and forth on this one. The early image of Neanderthals as shuffling primitives was revised when it was determined that they really didn't look all that different from us. (Apparently the first complete skeleton discovered was that of an individual with ricketts and arthritis, and taken as typical.)

The problem is (as my Osteology professor put it) that bone is very plastic and reshapes in response to environmental conditions. This makes it a very poor repository of genetic information. (In the American southwest, archeologists were puzzled for years that the Basketmaker culture showed a strong continuity of material culture after skull shapes changed abruptly. Some were playing with theories of an invading people who wiped out the locals, and took over their material culture whole, until somebody finally noticed that around this time they had changed cradleboards from a soft to hard design - thus changing the skull shapes of their children.)

Almost nothing is known about soft tissue characteristics of Neanderthals, only differences in bone structure: shin bones more round in cross section than modern humans, no real chin to speak of, heavy brow ridges and a pronounced sloping forehead. That and a brain case on average 300-500 CCs larger than the modern average - and everybody is still wondering what the heck that might mean.

Nothing is known about skin, hair or eye color, though popular depictions in the past have tended to show them as dark, compared to the lighter Cro-magnon of many popular depictions.

It is a popular sport in some circles to find evidence of unconscious racism everywhere, but this looks like the real thing. Neanderthals lived in Europe, Anatolia and the Middle East during the last Ice Age. White skin is a cold climate adaptation. It is far more likely that the Neanderthals were light-pigmented and the early Cro-magnons darker.

That was the genesis of my pet theory. I thought Neanderthals might be us - I mean white Europeans. If they rebred into the main human line, perhaps the surviving characteristics in modern populations might be white skin and light-colored eyes. (That and some of the heavy skull bones you see in Germans and Scandinavians.)**

Then along came fossil DNA analysis, and the conclusion was that they were indeed a separate species who died out.

This is profoundly disturbing. Neanderthals made tools and interred their dead with grave goods, there was even something that looks a lot like a bone flute discovered in one site.

Let that possibility sink in for a moment. An intelligent species, who modified their environment and cared for their dead like us died out and left nothing behind but bones and tools, and the knowledge that a people who lived, loved, and wondered about the universe are gone forever. What does that mean about us? Could we wind up on the list of extinct species someday? Except that unless there is a successor species, there won't be any lists kept.

Opponents of this theory countered that there have been skeletons found that appear to be transitional types, or hybrids. Swedish paleontologist Bjorn Kurten advanced a theory that would explain this. According to his theory, Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred - but muled out and produced sterile offspring. (He popularized this in a novel, Dance of the Tiger http://www.amazon.com/Dance-Tiger-Novel-Ice-Age/dp/0520202775/sr=8-1/qid=1172767738/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/103-2995162-4924614?ie=UTF8&s=books and a sequel.)

However, now the evidence has swung the other way and the question declared resolved - again. Neanderthal were human and the variation in DNA is attributed to the claim that we are a species with an unusually narrow range of genetic differences.

So we're off the hook then? Intelligent species don't commonly become extinct after all?

Maybe not. One reason advanced for why we have such a narrow genetic range as a species is that at one time the whole ancestral human population declined to as few as 10,000 individuals, perhaps due to a super-volcano disaster. (Which by the way, was not due to the industrial West destroying the ecology.)

Any way you look at it and whatever we may discover about the history of the human species, we are reminded that a planet that can support life in all the rich diversity we find on earth - is a catastrophe planet.

Neanderthal early on became a metaphor for "A crude, boorish, or slow-witted person" (American Heritage Dictionary online) or an aggressive, violent person. Once on a libertarian website I read a comment wherein someone stated, "Do not aggress against others, and you will not be aggressed against." (What an incredibly tortured construction!) I had to comment to the effect, "With respect, what planet are you living on? Unprovoked aggression is one of the constants of human history." To which the individual replied, "Neanderthal! Think like a Neanderthal and go the way of the Neanderthals."

This was wonderfully ironic, because there is nothing in the archelolgical record that suggests that Neanderthals were more aggresive and warlike than their successors. If anything, it is more likely that they lacked the degree of social organization that permitted war-making capabilities and thus were not able to resist their food sources being encroached upon by the new neighbors. (There is no evidence that they were wiped out by violence, but some speculation that they were simply out-competed by a people more efficient at exploiting the food resources.)

* OK, I don't think I can get into too much trouble for this. My opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is semantic hair splitting. Consider two extremes: species such as cheetahs or Everglades cougars, which have so little genetic variation that it's members are virtually clones, and species such as the dog tribe in which the variation is bewildering. (All breeds of domestic dogs, wolves and coyotes are members of the same species by the primary definition - they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.) From this perspective, "race" is a phenomenon that occurs very weakly in humanity, very strongly in the canine species.

** One Michael Bradley has a theory he advanced in his book, The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man's Racism, Sexism and Aggression.

He claims that white people are uniquely racist, sexist and aggressive due to what he calls their "Neanderthal-Caucasoid" ancestry. On reading this my first impulse was to list all of the white nations that have historically displayed high levels of aggression, racism and sexism: the white Mongols, the white Zulus, the white Japanese, the white Sioux Indians...

My second was to say, "Inherently more agressive? Then get the #$%& out of the way wimp!"