Saturday, August 25, 2012

Elihu Root

One hundred years ago Elihu Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He ended his plea, “Towards Making Peace Permanent,” with the following words:

“The hero-worshipper is gradually changing from the savage to the civilized conception of his divinities. Taken all in all, the clear and persistent tendencies of a slowly developing civilization justify cheerful hope.

“We may well turn from Tripoli and Mexico and the Balkans with the apocryphal exclamation of Galilei, ‘And still the world moves.’”

Mexico. Tripoli. The Balkans.

In the 1990s the Balkans were still being fought over – but a peace both incongruently tenuous and tenacious has persisted. Root, an American, must have been appreciated that Tripoli was the site of the fledgling nation’s first foreign war. And so a century later Tripoli has fallen from Qaddafi to rise up into liberal democracy. Mexico, on the other hand, is thwarted by a monstrous war, fuelled by drug lords. Around 40,000 have died in six years of ever-increasing violence.

From darkness and despair I return to these prizes, these individuals, to nourish and strengthen my resolve and purpose. Of the entries on this blog the one which I am most proud was from 2007, regarding September 11th. I focused initially on all the wonderful things, and then recognized all the horrid things that happened that day. The day is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but also of the inauguration of the World Parliament of Religion, a peaceful movement designed to further inter-religious dialogue.

There are those who speak of revolution. Yet they do not know of what they speak.

The word, ‘revolution’, the very meaning, connotes a cycle. Revolutions are sexy. Revolutions are inspiring. The American Revolution brought forth democracy upon a continent. But we must always recall that the following French Revolution brought forth subjugation, terror and a continental war. Revolution exists to ensure that someone new ends up on top. Even disregarding the many failed revolutions of history, the successes are not always so heartening. Lenin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mao all rose to the top.

Last year’s most intriguing Nobel laureate was Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni Arabic woman. Her speech ended with the following words:

“Finally, I ponder myself standing here before you, in this moment, which every man and woman aspires to reach because of the recognition and appreciation is contains. As I do so, I see the great number of Arab women, without whose hard struggles and quest to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men I wouldn’t be here. This supremacy has caused a lot of injustice to both men and women. To all those women, whom history and the severity of ruling systems have made unseen, to all women who made sacrifices for the sake of a healthy society with just relationships between women and men, to all those women who are still stumbling on the path of freedom in countries with no social justice or equal opportunities, to all of them I say: thank you ... this day wouldn’t have come true without you.”

The Arab Spring has been lauded for its potential to bring human rights to the region. The most notable of these rights, to many minds including my own, is the treatment of women. Saudi Arabia allowed women in the Olympics for the first time this summer. Three countries have held elections – Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – but Yemen is yet to be amongst them. Fighting in the Syrian civil war is a part of daily news.

It is our historical privilege to consider revolutions to be sexy. We have seen many succeed since WWII that bore out positive consequences. We do not concern ourselves, with enough frequency, with those that did not. We choose to look at Mandela, rather than the nearly fifty year still-ongoing Colombian Armed Conflict; the rise of Polish Solidarity instead of the coup that ousted Ghana’s great leader Nkrumah. How lucky we have been since Root’s day to see the number of democracies with full suffrage (then only three by a generous count) extend to the majority of the world’s countries. Yet the peace and rights that are commiserate with democratic principles are still being fought for, as Karman’s lecture reminds us.

Should revolution again reach our American shores we may not be so lucky as to get Adams, Washington, and Jefferson. This is why we must, all of us, commit to democratic principles at all costs. It is easy to look at the Arab Spring and be inspired by the march of rights. I understand and acknowledge the frustrations we have regarding the broken system. Washington is broken. Corporations have too much power. Thus it was in the 1890s, and then, too, was a spell of anarchistic violence and assassination. But from this wretchedness we emerged, the stronger, with Theodore Roosevelt and a new age of American prominence. The robber barons were stopped, the trusts busted, law and order restored. After the lawlessness of the Prohibition gangsters, economic misery of the Great Depression, and strain of two wars we emerged as a new superpower. Our trials make us stronger. It is easy to criticize the imperfections and moral failings, the internment camps and suspension of habeas corpus, the continued wiretapping and continued operation of Guantanamo Bay. But to simply criticize is to lose sight that after each of our great times of trial we have emerged stronger, if only for one reason: a commitment to democratic freedoms. It is not always exercised properly. And we must point out, as free citizens, when it lays abused and run-down. Yet the answer to these losses is not to forsake democratic ideals for revolution. The Civil War was a last resort, when all else had failed. From that, too, we emerged stronger, again owing to tenacity for democratic ideals. Still, over 600,000 of our own lay dead. We should not, then, lightly engage with such grave issues as revolution in America.

True, there may come a time when all other means of change are exhausted. “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies” Obama said in his Nobel lecture. “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Indeed it is. While I concur that ‘revolution’ implies a cycle, I hope, if it does come, I will be remembered as one of those who fought for as long as possible against it happening here. Root hit upon the idea a century ago: revolutionaries are only heroes when the winners share our high-minded ideals – otherwise they are monsters.

To wind down consider the ever-prescient exchange, from ‘A Man for All Seasons’:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that! 
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake! 

That is why trials following rule of law, not bombs, will always be the answer. Why, if I had a chance to pull the trigger on a war criminal in their home I’d be no better than James Earl Ray (who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.) or Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated President McKinley). Do not let your passions lead you astray. When darkness and despair come, when cynicism blinds us to all but the most seemingly stark and brutal choices to make, consider the work of those who strive always for the ideal, and consider whether you wish to walk in their footsteps, or march, voices raised high, with the mob.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


There are four songs I compulsively listen to on repeat:

Rasputin by Boney M
Turn on the News by Hüsker Dü
Alice by Pogo
For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield

Notably these are all 'one-hit wonders' in my music collection. I own no other songs by any of them. So I checked out their chords. Rasputin, a disco track, goes B A G F#. Turn on the News, a punk/alternative track, goes F# A E B. For What It's Worth, a classic rock track, alternates simply between E and A.

Hard to say what Alice's chords are. I wish there was a phone app that could identify chords from listening to a recording.

Messing around on the virtual keyboard with the above I found the chords deeply satisfying. Apparently, however, there are only a few 'universal' earworms (catchy songs), according to research. Perhaps surprisingly another common factor to getting a song stuck in your head is stress. This may be is why rather innocuous repetition can so tick us off.

The strong neural connections of our earworms may then serve as a way to try and clear the slate when stressed. Repetitive behavior, in a variety of animals, tends to correlate with stress management. Compulsion, in general, is a way of avoidance. When I'm bored in a very long meeting I'll start writing out the countries of the world, or drawing a map. Some doodle. These help keep us focused when our brain isn't in the game. 

Stress, distraction, compulsive, repetitive behavior. I'd not be at all surprised if they're neurologically linked. Taken together they're the basis of the frustration from being 'in a rut'. Being in a rut: boredom and fear joining forces to frustrate us. Boredom of rote and fear of change. The frustration of repetition and the stress of contemplating changing course.

I wish I could say something bland and comforting like "We all get into ruts sometime" but its not true. I know people who don't. I envy them. Generally they are tremendously active types, always with full calendars. They don't tell interesting stories, because it doesn't occur to them that their recent trip to the Bahamas is worth recounting - it only comes up accidentally, incidentally. And if this sounds like I'm talking about 'The Most Interesting Man in the World' for Dos Equis it's because I sort of am. Interest, after all, is what gets us out of a rut.

This Fall I'm teaching two new courses, one on Philosophy, the other on Art History. While I'm knowledgeable in each, the experience will be a first for each. It's one of the steps I've taken, along with a change in State, to keep teaching interesting and engaging. Unlike English, where you can change which books to read, World History is pretty much the same course over and over. Trench warfare is as bad an idea in 2012 as it was in 2011, and 2010, all the way back to 1914.

Likewise, as the Loser Generation posts suggest, I have a critical interest in politics. Whether I can maintain it as just a hobby or interest is increasingly uncertain. This may be my last year of teaching. But what qualifications do I have to work on a campaign?

Stress from contemplating change, frustration from repeated activity: if you don't look out you too will be stuck listening to Hüsker Dü .

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Mary Blair's Masterpiece

Mary Blair, unfortunately, is not well-known. Despite Google's best efforts to publicize her image

she is still, I think, rather obscure. Her most identifiable work would be the idiosyncratic design of Disneyland's It's a Small World.

Marred by the unfortunate musical accompaniment, nevertheless the ride may be the closest we can get to being inside Mary Blair's mind. Or it would be, if it weren't for the over-looked gem, and my personal favorite Disney film, The Three Caballeros.

Blair worked on other films, more popular and more conventional, such as Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. For Three Caballeros Blair served as art director, and her distinct style permeates the peculiar piece. What's incredible is the sheer range of styles:

...and more, all in 70 minutes. (The last example, above, is typical Blair.)

Noteworthy too is the range of narrative styles. It begins as a frame story: Donald has received a series of films for his birthday. These short animated sequences have nothing to do with one another, beyond being loosely tied to South and Latin America. From here the frame story segment ends, and new characters and plot are introduced. This section has Donald, joined by cohorts, visiting Brazil's Bahia and Mexico's top tourist destinations. It's notable, too, that this section features some of the first mixed live action and animation for a feature length film. Overwhelmed by the beauty of Latin ladies Donald then enters a surreal reverie, with no dialogue for the last ten minutes or so of the movie.

No other film I've ever encountered is so unique, so visually stunning, daring in narrative, and able to push the  boundaries without falling into art house pretension. It is a high-water mark of Disney's most artistically daring time, starting with Dumbo and continuing to the end of the package films of the 1940s. Only Fantasia can be considered to be more experimental.

Still, Blair's design legacy lives on. Consider the following illustration for Cinderella

compared to the UPA animation style that followed a decade later:

Or Pixar's Sanjay Patel's recent 'Little Book of Hindu Deities', which seems like it could easily have been a Blair creation:

Compared to an actual Blair:

Not mentioning her many non-Disney contributions, helping to extend her influence even further:

Pall Mall – Mary Blair - (1958)

and many more. Her visual style and design sense have become part of the shared visual culture, albeit subtly, nearly forgotten. For those who wish to get to know her work better, I strongly recommend taking some time to immerse yourself in the dazzling, peculiar, eye-popping Three Caballeros. It certainly beats getting the tune from It's a Small World stuck in your head.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Thoughts on a Wedding Dream

Last night I dreamed the bride and I had to get an onion from the attic for a dorm activity and avoid a ghost that haunted people until they committed suicide by repeating "I lived until I was 33."

Let me explain.

Yesterday I went to my dear friend's wedding. She and I have been close for about five years now. The wedding was on a beach, but on the way, crossing the street, she was nearly hit and killed. The car came within six feet.

During the ceremony a reading from Coelho's 'The Alchemist', a book I taught one summer, discussed omens. The bride takes such things seriously. The reading underscored the near-miss. On what was already a particularly thoughtful day it also jogged my mind to such things.

There was a time when I was engrossed in dream analysis and symbolism. Since certain dreams are universal (flying, naked in public, teeth falling out) it's not surprising to assume there's a language of dreams. Usually they reflect our concerns, comprised of recent events and experiences. I certainly was dreaming about the bride because it was the day of her wedding. But what of the other symbols?

Last week I saw 'Peeping Tom', a British Hitchcock-style thriller about a man who murders people with a camera. Likewise I saw 'Alphaville' earlier this week, where intelligent people end up committing suicide since they can't fit into the fascist technocracy. These, I think, combined to form the ghost's menace.

As for the peculiar phrasing of the ghost, the wedding was set to begin at 4:48, a rather specific time, and I learned, a particularly meaningful bit of numerology. The number 4 is important to both the husband and wife, and so 4+4=8 became 4:48. Another explanation for why my mind was working symbolically on overdrive last night.

In the dream there was an explanation, rather complex, about the ghost dying at 33. It tied to it's parents immortality (I think they had to kill a child every palindromic age or something). The other night, too, a friend I was spending time with had 'Ghost Hunters' on television in the background as we hung out. So far, then, the ghostly elements of the dream are explained.

One of my least favorite places is the attic of my mother's house, mainly because I'm concerned the rickety ladder leading up to it is going to give way each time I use it. The attic itself is fine, but the process of getting into it is very unpleasant. Recently I've been noting that many things I want or need here in CT are stored up in that attic in MA.

As for the onion it would be easy to dismiss in Dickensian fashion. "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato." Indeed, I had eaten onions on pizza at the wedding reception, and a patty melt for lunch. But I had also spent the previous evening chopping a yellow onion, like the one in the dream, in the staff lounge, preparing for this evening's dorm activity (making burritos). So it is we encounter the dorm activity element of the dream.

We have addressed the main constituent parts - the fragments of what on the surface create a crazy dream. There were still others, architectural elements for example. The buildings were clearly, maybe even explicitly, Frank Lloyd Wright, and crumbling. At the reception I had discussed how my favorite architect was a better visionary than engineer. (That's typical conversation fodder for weddings, right?) Beyond the parts though, let's examine the whole, the narrative structure.

Basically the plot was this: Someone close to me joins me in braving a monster on an arduous journey to a place that seems dangerous but is actually safe, get the treasure, and leave to complete the task assigned to me for the good of my people. 

Nothing too difficult about that, is there?

Really it's perfectly Campbell. A standard hero's journey, starring your's truly. Many decades and centuries from now I wonder if advanced peoples will look upon such an activity - dream analysis - as being quaint as phrenology or palm-reading. Whether or not it's accurate, it is certainly telling of how humans of our time make sense of our world and understand our minds. That, for me, is sufficiently valuable to requisite posting.