Cultural Traps, Part IV

America is a funny place. And Americans are a funny bunch (when we can actually agree on what the hell being an American even means anymore, but I digress).

As time passes and more strangeness unfolds, I realize that the older I get, the more that criticisms of this country that would have rankled a younger me now see valid and very well-founded. It’s not that my love of this country has diminished with age. It’s that my uncritical, unthinking love of this country has diminished with age, as has my uncritical, unthinking love of ANYTHING.

Music, philosophy, politics . . . you name it. Things are different now, and assumptions have to be examined accordingly. That’s what my Cultural Traps series is all about. That said, let’s look at a few more of those supposedly unshakable American tendencies that either make no sense, or trap you in a harmful way of thinking that doesn’t let you fairly and accurately examine all sides of an issue.

Now, I know every culture on Earth has its own traps and foibles, but I’m an American, dammit. So I’m focusing on ‘MERICA!

Here we go.

Being Immune to History. I read an article the other day on The Federalist by a gentleman named Jesse Kelly–normally a pretty funny guyabout his preference that the United States peaceably split. A “divorce,” he calls it. It’s an interesting premise, and one has to rid oneself of the typical American tendency–discussed here–to have a hysterical, knee-jerk reaction to even the merest utterance of an idea in order to appreciate what Kelly says that’s deeper than “we should have an amicable split”:

Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history. If you don’t believe me, go try to book a plane ticket to Czechoslovakia, or look at a map of Europe from the year 1600, then look at one today. See any differences? Borders move. Countries split and change hands. They do this for a myriad of reasons.

A rebuttal on the same website, written by one Lyman Stone, calls this idea dangerous and impracticable, if you’re interested in reading the counterpoint. I’m not here to debate the merits of this idea. But I do think Kelly raises an interesting point when he says “Anyone who thinks this is a radical idea has an extremely narrow view of history.”

By and large, Americans have an extremely narrow view of history. We seem to believe that history began in either 1963, if you ask Mr. Larkin, or five minutes ago, if you ask anyone born between 1997 and 2000.

Get “woke.” Get on “the right side of history.”

Those who wish us harm have very long memories and even longer time-horizons and visions for the future. Remember, the Chinese still smart over their humiliation at the hands of Western powers some two-hundred years ago, and ISIS and al-Qaeda and their ilk are still mad about the Crusades . . .

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Meanwhile, we here in America are totally convinced that we can eliminate all crime by disarming the populace or something.

Worse, we’re absolutely convinced that everything will continue the way it has just because. Bad things never happen here, nor will they ever. Our way of life will continue in perpetuity, and America will always be the Top Dog because of some undifferentiated belief in “Freedom!” no matter how many stupid, short-sighted policies are shoved down our throats.

Concurrent with this trap is the inability to even conceive that something may at some point change, or that maybe the way we do things isn’t the best way to do things. Who knows? Maybe this country will split someday, or some of the bigger states will break up into smaller, more representative states. Or maybe some states will want to leave entirely. Or maybe the United States will not remain the world’s only hegemon, either militarily or economically.

Hey, it could happen. But no one wants to talk about it.

Stuff like this “sneaks up” on us because we are blind to its possibility. Nothing occurs “just because” or “for no reason whatsoever.” Effects have causes. By being blind to this, thinking that America is truly the peak of civilization obviates the need to improve and leaves you with stagnation and rot which will really bring the whole thing crumbling down.

This tendency, this false sense of security, might be the most tragic aspect of the whole American experience. Which brings me to the next cultural trap in this discussion. Continue reading “Cultural Traps, Part IV”

Institutionalized Entertainment

Institutionalized: “to make into an institution . . . give character of an institution to . . . to incorporate a structured and often highly formalized system . . .”

Presented without comment:

The Walt Disney Company is so huge that, absent a formalized structure, it wouldn’t be able to get anything done. But Disney is just an example of how this idea institutionalizing everything, including the content, is a firmly entrenched part of nearly every form of entertainment or escapism that you partake in. This idea of gatekeepers giving a patina of quality to something that has gone through some sort of rigorous, formalized process is pervasive in nearly every facet of life, and not just entertainment.

After all, a doctor who went to Harvard for medical school is clearly superior to one who went to, say, one who went to the Sanford School of Medicine at the University of South Dakota, right? I mean, just on paper, it’s axiomatic, isn’t it? Who cares about the doctor’s actual history of results, you know?

And so it goes with what you watch, read, and listen to. It’s all been filtered through a big machine in order to get a big, fat, institutional stamp of approval. And everything without that stamp is clearly inferior.

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Of course it’s not. As author Brian Niemeier is fond of pointing out, the gatekeeper-controlled model in publishing is a dying proposition:

The power of big New York publishers to hand out golden tickets capable of turning struggling authors into millionaires is an artifact of the 20th century. Now? As Moe Greene would say, they don’t even have that kind of muscle anymore.

If you were an aspiring author trying to break in prior to the 1980s, New York publishers were your best shot at the big time. Since 2006, indie has stolen tradpub’s thunder to the extent that you’re now four times more likely to make seven figures by going indie than by signing with a traditional publisher.

But old habits die hard, and industries that are still making money, without realizing that they’re surviving on legacies of past greatness, will continue to follow the old ways. Disney will keep churning out stuff with the Star Wars label slapped on it, year after year, heedless of the negative financial consequences due to viewer fatigue and failing product quality.

The music industry will keep reproducing the thing that’s selling records now ad infinitum for the next five minutes, until people get so sick of that cookie-cutter thing that they move on to the next cookie-cutter thing to fill the silence for the next five minutes.

The book industry, particularly in the science-fiction and fantasy realms, will continue pumping out massive doorstop-sized tomes of “epic” fantasy that will never be completed, as long as the stories are soaked in post-modernist thinking and contemporary political right-think.

As long as the wrong-thinkers get shut out. Because the stuff they make is bad. And it’s bad because it doesn’t have our seal of approval.

Continue reading “Institutionalized Entertainment”

The Curse of the Midwit

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one.

Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points:

  1. Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence,
  2. Who wants other people to think they are actually more intelligent than they are, so they,
  3. Ape positions and mannerisms they think intelligent people espouse, without,
  4. Doing their own research or,
  5. Amending their positions when provided with compelling contrary evidence, and most fatally,
  6. Don’t realize that they are not as smart as they think they are

Point six is the one that causes trouble. And here’s where I like to think I differ from most midwits: I always try to acknowledge when I don’t know something, which happens quite a bit.

I recently finished listening to a podcast where Dave Rubin spoke with Bret and Eric Weinstein. Now those guys are smart, on a level I could never hope to approach. One thing that struck me was not their encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of topics, but how they approached the world:

  • They fully admitted when they didn’t have enough expertise to make anything other than an educated assumption based upon what they did understand
  • They were fully aware of what they didn’t know or understand
  • They were able to articulate the opposite position of what they personally thought or believed
  • They very incredibly careful with their language
  • They thought conceptually
  • They saw the potential flaws in their own positions
  • They made connections between various disciplines, and had interests and intellectual pursuits outside of their stated, credentialed areas of expertise

Eric Weinstein said something that stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was essentially that the idea “jack of all trades, master of none,” is both incorrect and harmful. He they said “specialist in one trade, connector of none.”

Connector of none . . . 

Wow. Continue reading “The Curse of the Midwit”

The Spirit of 1821: Greek Independence Day and the Annunciation

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Zito! 

March 25th is Greek Independence Day, commemorating the beginning of the Greek rebellion in 1821 against their Ottoman oppressors after four-hundred years of subjugation. The revolution began, according to legend, when Bishiop Germanos raised the Greek flag at the Peloponnesian monastery of Agia Lavra.

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Badass.

Whatever the inciting incident, the revolution attracted the attention and aid of many European powers, particularly Great Britain, who felt a kinship with the Greeks for their thousand-year cultural legacy of philosophy, government, and all of the other gifts of Western Civilization.

Oh yeah. The United States got in on the act too. Our fifth president and Founding Father James Monroe stated to Congress that:

“A strong hope is entertained that these people will recover their independence and assume their equal statue among the nations of the earth.”

Of course, Monroe and his famous, eponymous doctrine (largely the creation of then-Secretary of State and later sixth president John Quincy Adams) committed the United States to not getting involved in European affairs (while resisting any European incursion into the Americas), but the rhetorical support remained, and indeed bolstered the spirit of the Greeks.

It’s a beautiful circle. The Greeks were inspired by the Americans, who were partially inspired by Greek philosophy and ideals as they revolted against England and created the United States system of government (and the architecture in Washington, D.C.).

I mean, listen to the slogan of the Greek revolutionaries: Eλευθερία ή θάνατος! Freedom or death! Sounds familiar, right?

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Being both Greek and American, it’s always exhilarating to think that, in my own small way, I’m heir to two strong and vital cultural legacies.

But the interesting thing is that March 25 is also the Annunciation, the celebration of the Archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to Christ. This is no coincidence.  Continue reading “The Spirit of 1821: Greek Independence Day and the Annunciation”

Yesterday’s Works, Today’s Eyes

I never liked the band Sublime.

For whatever reason, their 1996 self-titled third album became really popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was in high school and college. And even then it annoyed the hell out of me. To this day, I can’t hear “Santeria” or “What I Got” without getting a twitch in my eye. And remember, this was the era of nu-metal and rap-rock–Korn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and their ilk were everywhere. Even in this morass of awfulness, Sublime stood out to me as particularly wretched.

So what in the world makes me think of them now? I’ll tell you what brought Sublime to mind: I’m a musical masochist.

See, from time to time I like to pop over to Pitchfork and see what’s new in the world of indie hipster music. I know, I know: I get what I deserve. But I check the site more for laughs because nearly every single review has to go into politics, and oftentimes the reviews hinge more on the politics of the artist and how they’re embedded in the work and less on the actual notes involved. 

It’s almost as though Pitchfork’s stable of reviewers is more convinced on the influence some music can have than on the music. But nah, art doesn’t influence people, right?

I love rock musicLove it. But its current state is pretty sorry.

Anyway, a week or so ago, Pitchfork, for whatever reason, decided to review Sublime’s 1992 debut album 40oz. to Freedom. And this review typifies a phenomenon I loathe with nearly every ounce of my being: judging past works as being deficient for failing to live up to the current year’s moral and political standards.

This is how you get idiots screeching that the entire Western cannon of art, music, and literature is racist and unworthy of learning because “Muh dead white European males!”

It gets classic Mark Twain novels like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer–which carry a strong anti-racism, anti-slavery message–banned because they use the n-word.

Heart of Darkness. To Kill a Mockingbird. They’ve got to go.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the classic album by The Beatles, is blamed for making rock a “male” thing, as if (a) that’s necessarily a bad thing, and (b) is even true. So it has to be “reassessed.”

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis? Racist and bigoted because they’re too Christian. Out with them!

Even a video game like Kingdom Come: Deliverance, made by a Czech company that takes place in a historically accurate recreation of 15th century Bohemia, gets criticized by idiots for not having any black people in it.

This drives me crazy. Continue reading “Yesterday’s Works, Today’s Eyes”

Fun with Mental Illness

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One of the most-read posts I’ve written on this blog is called “The Pros and Cons of Suicide.” Every day, it tends to be my most-read article.

This makes me sad, because it means that so many people are looking up information about the pros and cons of suicide on the Internet, implying that they think there are actually pros to killing yourself.

I titled to be deliberately provocative and tongue-in-cheek, because there’s nothing good about killing yourself, or depression in general. And that post’s denouement was also a little acidic, basically stating that it’s good to keep yourself alive just to piss off the people who wish you’d kill yourself:

It’s admitting defeat. And here’s the biggest one, at least for me. While I would say that I love God more than anything, sometimes I hate the devil more than I love the Lord. I’m convinced a lot of this spiritual sickness, this acedia in the world, is the result of the devil. And killing yourself is just saying to the world, “You win. I give up.”

So don’t be a statistic.

Isn’t this horrible? I’m basically telling the Internet here that a large part of the reason I am still alive is out of spite.

But if that’s all you’ve got, then run with it.

No matter who you are, no matter your beliefs, do not let yourself be defeated by the world. If your continued existence is nothing more than a walking middle finger to a world that wants you gone, so be it.

So live for spite if you must. I do many days, but you don’t have to be miserable about it. Life is pretty simple: be good to each other, help the next generation on there one way trip through life, and try to laugh and have fun.

My overarching message, then and now, is this: Don’t ever kill yourself, there’s always a way out, and God loves you, even if you don’t believe in Him.

You can cue the corny violins all you want, but I firmly believe this and stand by that statement. And I’m speaking as someone who’s struggled with this for much of my life as, I’m sure, have millions of other Americans. Over six-million, in fact. Life expectancy is down in this country, and opioid use is up. Forty million Americans are purported to have anxiety disorders. Forty million!

There’s a huge wave of despair going on in this country, a wave that many lay at the feet of modern life, atomization, automation of formerly physical or low-skill labor, and a growing urban/rural divide, among other things.

depression

But there’s also this weird thing we do where we almost romanticize mental illness or other difficulties, linking things like depressionbi-polar disorderautisim, or Asperger’s with creativity. And everyone loves creativity! Who doesn’t want to be creative? And so we end up with the popular idea that medicating or otherwise treating certain mental illnesses kills creativity, even though the data suggests that the opposite is true.

Trust me: I’ve been through this. It’s terrible! There’s nothing creative whatsoever about lying in bed, refusing to wake up because you wish you were never born. The creative juices don’t get flowing when you pray to God that a tractor-trailer would just absolutely cream you on your drive back from work, or thinking, “What if I just revved my car up to 120 miles per hour and crashed into that tree over there?” Depression doesn’t make one want to be creative, or do much of anything except die.

Yes, depression and other feelings caused by depression and its friends can give good grist for the creative mill, as it is quite cathartic to get those feelings out somehow, whether it be by putting pen to paper, fingers to keys, paint to canvas, or whatever you choose to do. But it’s even more cathartic to not want to kill yourself, or wish you had never been born every second of the day. And remember that plenty of fantastic art has been made by people who aren’t struggling with one form of mental illness or another.

There is nothing fun or mystical about suicidal thoughts. I don’t care what the popular myths about Beethoven and Van Gogh or Kurt Cobain are. Talk to someone. Get help. Get your life back. Continue reading “Fun with Mental Illness”

Peak Virtue

What does it mean to be virtuous? What does the end-game look like?

It’s a weird question, sure. But it seems to be a question not too many speak about.

Here’s what I mean: If you’re a Christian, “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-40, Luke 6:28-30) has probably been said to you by people who hate Christianity–and likely other Christians!–to discourage you from fighting back against anything, ever.

But this is silly, right? That’s not what God wants, to let us be patsies and doormats and get rolled by any evildoer whoever happens to come along with ill-intent towards us.

After all, what’s more virtuous: To stand up and fight against those would world enslave or exterminate you, or keep you from proper worship of God? Or to refuse to fight until your enemy runs the world, and you and your children and grandchildren are in abject misery but at least you can say “Man, I turned the other cheek like a goddamn champ!

See what I mean?

This isn’t going to be a verse-slinging post, or a theological one. But I think this example makes a good point out of pinning down what is virtue and how does one practice virtue?

I’ve presented a little bit of an unfair binary question here, but let’s play it out for a bit. Virtue is either:

  1. Standing by your principles, even if it means you and your loved ones die; or
  2. Occasionally violating a principle or principles now in order to prevent ruin and damnation for future generations.

I think it’s pretty clear that this is a difficult choice to make, one that will make the principled feel “icky” (a technical term). But it might be the most difficult choice a man faced in his life.

What would a deontologist do? If you “always do what is right,” do you aid the wounded man you know for certain was about to rape and murder your wife because “it’s the right thing to do” (give aid to the wounded) even though that man will resume trying to rape and murder your wife, or do you let the attempted rapist/murderer die?

Which is objectively better? Which is right? Which is virtuous? Continue reading “Peak Virtue”