Wednesday, October 12, 2016

878. Lost American Tribes of the 21st Century

Over at Arlee Bird's Tossing It Out, there's some talk about Columbus Day and the modern efforts to downplay his accomplishments in the interests of establishing a replacement Indigenous Peoples Day.  As we all know, Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered the New World (it's erroneous, however, to believe people in 1492, much less Columbus himself, thought the world was flat or just plain ended somewhere).  Yeah, and sure, Viking and Chinese explorers got there first, but with far less publicity.  And the whole history of a continent changed forever.

The thing is, it's a bit strange for Americans to complain about what Columbus did.  It's strange, because if he, or someone else, hadn't done it, there wouldn't be any Americans to complain about it.  Everyone you know, unless you're reading this on a reservation (generally speaking), is directly descended from the efforts begun with Columbus.  That's just a fact of life.

I despise what white settlers did to tribes living on their own land, across the whole history of exploration into the Americas, not so much the settlers themselves, but everyone who made it so easy for them to take and take and take, and in the meantime make it seem like the people they were taking all this land from were the bad guys.  Because no, they weren't.  I despise that not only did we take and take and take, but we tried our very best to eradicate, or merely severely marginalize, these tribes, right up to the current day.  As I indicated in a previous post, no one argues Red Lives Matter, and that's because they don't live in the all-important cities where everything of note happens, at least as far as the media is concerned.  Shailene Woodley, the Divergent series actress, was recently arrested protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.  This is merely the most recent in a long series of cultural battles that have nothing to do with buzz topics like gun control or terrorism, but have nonetheless been at the forefront of American life for centuries.

And yet, none of it means anything, and still we have people who otherwise claim Columbus Day should be a thing of the past.  Listen, I think every sports team with a Native American theme should rename itself.  Lately I've been referring to the team that just beat the Red Sox in the playoffs as Francona's Cleveland because I don't want to call them anything else.  These were all teams that were named early in the last century, when we'd finally "won the war" against the tribes that had the nerve to exist and demand any modicum of rights and dignity.

It's really about American self-esteem, American self-loathing, our collective inability to face the ugly truths about our past, not to mention our present.  So we invent distractions and allow ourselves to be fooled by straw arguments, when any idiot who gave any of it more than a second's thought could see how ridiculous it all is.  We can't even have Thanksgiving without people saying it can't possibly represent even the suggestion that anyone could get along back then, much less now.  It makes me far more ashamed to be an America to think of this than how terrible this election season has been.  But it's all related; we've never tried to work it out, just bury it. 

Except, the past is prologue.  We always seem to forget that, don't we?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

877. I legitimately haven't made up my mind yet about the election

I don't really like either candidate.  This is not a unique position.  Plenty of people like me have chosen to support a third party.  But who are we kidding?  None of them has a chance to win.  The leading contender, Gary Johnson, keeps betraying deep international ignorance.  There's also Jill Stein, but then there's also your neighbor, who you could vote for as a write-in, if you were so inclined.  Or Mickey Mouse.  I mean, Disney is pretty popular these days, right?

Trump is the consummate businessman, Clinton the consummate politician.  That's really all you need to know about either of them.  Strip everything else away, the specifics about what they've said or done, whatever their triumphs might be and of course their gigantic mistakes, how they conducted themselves in the first debate, all of it.  I think anyone can agree with that assessment: this is a battle between the two ruling classes of this country, the business people and the politicians.

I think we can agree that the country needs some work.  Both of them do.  Of course they do.  The only thing that bothers me is the persistent media insistence that Clinton is the obvious choice.  The media exists to be objective.  Theoretically, anyway.  If Clinton were such an obvious choice, it wouldn't be so easy to disagree.  It's not just diehard partisans and conspiracy theorists who think she isn't so easy to root for.  This is the not the basis for an argument.  You can't just say the other side is a poopyhead.  That's grade school reasoning, and I'll thank you to raise the bar of your self-worth before addressing anything adults might be considering before addressing the topic.

Because as adults, we owe it to ourselves to make reasoned decisions.  I get that we have a two-party system, and that most people tend to side with one of them, and that as a result they despise the other one.  I'm registered as independent.  Always have been.  I despise partisan politics.  Always have.  This country's history is a tapestry of partisanship.  George Washington was referred to as King George.  I kid you not.  People got fed up with Virginian politicians and Boston brahmans.  So we ended up with Andrew Jackson, a man so thoroughly likable and also so thoroughly incompetent that he sent the nation into a financial quagmire for decades, and we thank him by putting him on the $20 bill.  That's the kind of people we are.  We're basically idiots.  We're a nation of idiots, and happily so.  We're incredibly passionate about everything, no matter how stupid our opinions are, just so long as there are other idiots supporting us.

That's how we got Trump and Clinton as candidates for president.  This would hardly be the first time we've had less than ideal options.  The list of presidents is littered with incompetents.  We also thought Lincoln was incompetent, by the way.  We voiced this opinion loudly throughout the Civil War, right here in the Union (where we technically all reside today, thanks to him).  The famous anecdote about the Gettysburg Address is that he wasn't even the keynote speaker, and Lincoln's future historic speech was little noted that day (heh).  It took his assassination, and a lot of follow-up incompetence in the White House, for us to realize what we had with him.

Because we hardly ever know what we have.  We're too busy shouting our idiot opinions to stop and think what they actually indicate, about ourselves, our times, and least of all what history might say about us.

History is a fickle bitch.  The play Hamilton is a noble and worthy artistic achievement, but it also plays fast and loose with Alexander Hamilton's legacy, who he was, how he found a place for himself, and what led to the fatal shootout with Aaron Burr.  You'd expect the man to have been destined to shape the country into something truly great, instead of what we actually got.  Listen, a lot of Founding Fathers went on to become president, and none of them were universally loved, even amongst themselves. 

The United States of America is a unique creation.  It's continually a work in progress.  We find ourselves in an election that seems destined to put it in a new direction.  But I say, as I've suggested in the past, neither of these candidates will be the cause for change.  Actually, they will be.  We don't like either one.  This is hardly likely to change once they're elected.  But it will force us to think more carefully about who we want to elect next time.  Because I don't think any of us wants a repeat of this campaign season, and it's somewhat safe to say whoever's elected this November, they're destined to be a one-term president (hopefully).

The thing is, this exact thing happens every campaign season.  We allow ourselves to be suckered into partisan politics because it's supposed to make things easier.  In reality, it just keeps things in a holding pattern.  That truly is the American way.

No, I haven't made up my mind yet.  Despite how despicable they are, in their separate ways, Trump and Clinton both offer things that could incrementally benefit the country.  A vote for Clinton is essentially a vote for Obama's vision of America.  If you think Obama was a pretty decent president, Clinton's your woman.  (The historic nature of a woman as president has its own unique appeal.)  If you think four more years would be enough to fix glaring oversights from the last administration, even, vote Clinton.  The checks and balance system worked pretty well the last time a Clinton was president.  If you think the last eight years have seen a lot of egregious mistakes, Trump is your man.  There's really not a simpler way to explain him.  That's how Obama was elected, plain and simple.  Again, the checks and balance system would curb Trump's worst impulses.  We know this.  Put rhetoric aside.  Stop letting the pessimists convince you.  I understand pessimism.  Most of the time, I'm a pretty pessimistic guy, but this isn't a time for pessimism.  If you think Trump's worse impulses are themselves not worth supporting, then by all means don't take him seriously.  If you think Clinton doesn't have a decent enough record, then by all means don't take her seriously.  But one of them is going to be president. 

You have to weigh a lot of things, and above all keep things in perspective.  Don't allow yourself to be convinced by rhetoric.  Presidencies don't succeed on rhetoric.  There's a reason history still doesn't think Kennedy was a great president, because the best of him was essentially rhetoric.  Presidencies are what happen once you're in office, not what you said on the campaign trail or in your best speeches.  Anyone who says differently is just trying to get elected.  ("Read my lips;" still one of the cheapest campaign tricks I ever saw, those ads.)  The realities of the office are very different from what you tell your supporters.  It suddenly becomes far less easy to tell what the right thing is.

Kind of like being a voter.  That's why we have these ridiculous campaign seasons to begin with, to try and come to a reasoned decision.  Anyone who decided last year, or four years ago, or twenty years ago, isn't taking their responsibility seriously.  There are too many distractions for anyone to make up their mind that easily.  If you're depending on what other people are saying to choose your candidate, then you're not doing it right.  If you're depending on what the candidates are saying about each other, then you're not doing it right. 

Try to be objective about it.  That's what I'm trying really hard to do right now.  I registered as an independent.  That's got to mean something.  I realize most people are registered to one of the two major parties, or are trying to get smaller ones off the ground.  Most of them have already made up their mind.  I can't do that.  I'd like to think more people are capable of reaching their own conclusions, too.  It's a messy process.  So's democracy.  Clearly.  This is exactly what it looks like.  It totally sucks.  But there you have it. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

We need to talk about slavery...

When you're able to paint people who are against illegal immigration as the bad guys, you know something's wrong.

And something is very, very wrong.  Democrats have been patting themselves on the back, believing they thoroughly occupy the high ground, every time they ridicule Donald Trump for his ideas about curbing illegal immigration.  But you've got to ask yourself, what are they really saying?  Nothing good, I'd say.

At its heart, you do have to admit it's evil to tell people desperately fleeing terrible situations that they can't find a new home, especially one that seems to be the polar opposite of what they're leaving behind.  America is a land of immigrants.  I get that.  (I also get that although we've kind of had a tepid show of solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux over the Dakota Access Pipeline, I think you'd have to stretch the truth considerably to find anyone to have argued Red Lives Matter quite as much as an actual slogan I'm sure you can name.)  The problem is, what they'll find here is only marginally better.  What they're really getting is the promise of a better future, and likely for the next generation. 

Listen, because of my own job history, I've actually worked alongside illegal immigrants.  I know the tenuousness of their situation.  I've even seen plenty of evidence that they struggle a lot more than we think.  (I worked in a shoe department where boxes were always ending up empty, or filled with highly inadequate replacements, so to say.)  You can't make a blanket statement like calling them hard-working and expect that to summarize them perfectly.  The bottom line is, for every illegal immigrant who will get to benefit from businesses willing to turn a blind eye to their status, there's another who will only get exploited in far less appealing ways.  These are the lowest-earning members of our society.  They round out the bottom line, a line that keeps shrinking because businesses are always eager to ship their bottom lines to another country, so they can pay even less to get the work done.

What Democrats are arguing is actually pretty hateful.  To put it in perspective, the Civil War happened because it would have been terrible for the Southern economy to lose its free black labor.  Which is to say, slavery was absolutely essential, from that mindset.  We tend to think bigotry came first.  No, it was money.  It's always money.  And that's what Democrats are rallying for.  Whether they admit it or not.

Anytime you have a situation that exploits the helpless in society, there's really no other way to describe it other than forced servitude.  Slavery. 

There are better ways to handle immigration.  For one thing, that's why legal immigration exists.  That's what documentation is about.  If we somehow don't have enough immigration agents, I would certainly be proposing that kind of immigration reform rather than loudly criticizing the other guy's ideas, personally.  Because the end result is the same: lessened illegal immigration. 

Immigration is always about desperation.  Someone doesn't decide to do something like that just on a lark, because they're bored.  They know it's going to be difficult.  They know they're risking their lives.  And they probably know what's waiting for them.  It may be a thousand times better than what they had before, but I kind of think we know better than they do what they're actually accepting.  We tend to have this absurd notion that it's the American way to claw your way to the top.  But I also think we all know not every American has to.  I think we know plenty of Americans who never had to struggle a day in their life.  Why would we possibly say that's the best of all possible worlds, one where such disparity exists?  Is that the American way?

Because it's convenient.  Like slavery.  Illegal immigration is nothing better than slavery.  It is slavery.  We know this.  It's the same as Black Lives Matter, the biggest hoodwink you'll find in the media, besides all the blind support for Hillary Clinton.  Listen, we all know black people have had it rough.  We know this.  The thing is, why does the media report the deaths of black people by police, when they ignore the conditions that lead to such tragedies?  This is the kind of moral outrage that is itself outrageous, and criminally misleading.  None of these victims have anything on Emmett Till.  Not to make light of any of their deaths, but none of them died as horribly as Emmett Till, and they've all died for very different reasons.  If you have no idea who Emmett Till is, and how he died, maybe you should have a look at history, and find some perspective.

We have absolutely no perspective today.  We lost perspective sometime, I think, in the '60s, when the counterculture began to bleed into the culture, become it, and suddenly all our moral rage was turned on permanently.  The fight for equality is a good thing.  It will always be a good thing.  But the lack of perspective is very, very bad.

This isn't about how my life has turned out, or anyone else's.  The problem is that we fight for change without knowing what needs to change.  Illegal immigration needs to change.  Slavery needs to end.  In all its forms.  We can't keep supporting those who terrorize us in our own society, by our own rules, by our own implicit support. 

I don't care how much of an idiot Donald Trump is.  I don't care how many trumped up (heh) allusions you can make to Hitler.  The truth is, before Americans entered WWII, we weren't falling all over ourselves saying how terrible Hitler was.  It's not that we didn't see what he was doing.  In a lot of ways, we wholeheartedly supported his ideas.  Even refusing to enter the war for as long as we did, we supported him.  That's the bottom line.  Until we chose to fight, we were on Hitler's side.  Sins of omission are still sins.  They say Trump's nationalist, isolationist ideas are what amounts to his Hitler tendencies.  Well let me tell you something, Americans have been arguing for nationalism and isolationism from the very start.  If you don't know that, you don't know history at all.

In a lot of ways, supporting illegal immigration is a lot like supporting Hitler.  Hitler was all about the supremacy of pure Germans.  Democrats like to say the only people who will knowingly support Trump are white Americans.  Except we all know there's no such things as pure Americans, just as there was never such a thing as pure Germans.  It's a lunatic association.  Hitler wanted a strong Germany, one that was far better than the wreck that emerged from the disastrous policies that ended WWI.  Trump does want a strong America.  So does Clinton.  She believes it already exists.  Sure, and Ryan Lochte is still technically an Olympic champion.  They took away a legitimate Olympic hero's medals for far less stupid mistakes.  Just look up Jim Thorpe.  (He was Native American, naturally.)  Clinton's America is one that supports a global community, which in itself is a noble thing.  So were Wilson's negotiations to end WWI.  But those negotiations did create Hitler.  You can't destroy a car and expect to sell it new again.  That's about as clear as the economics here can be explained.

I would never call someone Hitler just to get a cheap pop from my audience.  Hitler was a legitimate maniac, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  He achieved nothing great (unlike past conquerors he can't even be called a military genius; he had people for that, which is kind of the mindset we've been using ever since, propping up one-trick ponies), and all his thoughts were hateful.  With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that now.  But Charles Lindberg, for instance, didn't.  (Philip Roth wrote a whole book of alternate history about that: The Plot Against America.)  Lindbergh continues to be celebrated as a great aviation hero.  It's always tricky to balance the achievements with the person behind them, but history seems to ignore the bad in favor of the good.  Wilson, by the way, loved the original Birth of a Nation.  You see how irony litters history? 

No, Trump isn't Hitler, and neither is Clinton.  But I'd much rather give my support to someone looking to find solutions to the moral abattoir we've created for ourselves than the other person who'd like us to pretend it doesn't exist, because one is inherently hateful and the other isn't.  I think you can tell which one I think is hateful. 

I'm not against illegal immigration.  But I'd certainly like for there to be a better outcome.  I think we can all agree on that, if we only stop to think about it.  Do you really want to be the person arguing for slavery in 2016?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is Star Trek best understood as midlife crisis?

This past Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek.  The episode NBC first aired was "The Man Trap," which actually focuses on "Bones" McCoy rather than Kirk or Spock.  McCoy was often pointed out as the oldest character in the original series, and his backstory frequently refers to what amounts to another lifetime, with his Starfleet career as a kind of second act.  You can find that right in "The Man Trap," too, the first time Star Trek features a character reconnecting with an old flame, from when he was already a young man of 25 or so.

This is significant because in the first pilot Gene Roddenberry submitted to NBC, "The Cage," the story was about Christopher Pike questioning whether he can still handle the burden of command.  We just saw that repeated in this summer's Star Trek Beyond, and it was a familiar element from previous movies, too.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan both featured Kirk ruminating on such things, not to mention his clearly advancing age.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard was presented as aging right from the start, an older captain whose last command had ended badly, and this whole series was his shot at redemption.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Sisko was after the same thing, if you'll remember, trying to pick up the wreckage of his shattered life.

Roddenberry was already working on a second or third life of his own when he created Star Trek.  He'd been a pilot in wartime, and then a street cop.  By the time he reached Hollywood, Roddenberry's enthusiasm for the future might have seemed quaint to anyone looking at his biography.  Yet there it was, a kind of optimistic projection of post-WWII zeal in American exceptionalism into the far future, where the melting pot had gone all the way to the final frontier.  It's no wonder that later writers found so much rich material from the Cold War.  I mean, what else could you expect.  Star Trek was all about the country from which it came, which made the '60s allegories it explored all the more relevant to its emerging legacy.

And yet, if you're watching Kirk in "The Man Trap," you see someone who is more cynical observer than playboy adventurer, the Kirk who became famous as the prototypical hero type of his day, young and mindless of all danger, idealistic yet adaptable.  Who's behind the Kirk in "The Man Trap," but Roddenberry?  This was early Trek, the sixth episode ever produced.  (It gets fascinating: "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the second pilot and production debut of Kirk, aired third; "The Corbomite Maneuver," the debut of classic Kirk, was the third production but aired tenth; "Mudd's Women," fourth production, aired sixth; "The Enemy Within," which split Kirk into good and bad versions, was produced fifth and aired fifth.  Strangely, "Charlie X," which was the eighth production, aired second, while "The Naked Time," the first acknowledged Star Trek classic, was the seventh production, and aired fourth.  Anyway.)

So what does it all mean?  That Roddenberry didn't originally envision the Kirk we know.  Clearly.  He originally thought about the conflicted Pike.  When NBC is criticized for considering Roddenberry's Star Trek as too cerebral, you can begin to see what the network meant.  What Star Trek became isn't necessarily how it began.  You can see how much thought Roddenberry put into it.  It took a lot of time to develop the easy feel of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic everyone remembers.  No, what Roddenberry originally envisioned was the end result of the Space Race, where the whole thing has become a burden.  (Wouldn't we know it, 2016?)  It's the vision of a man who had lived a lot already, and who wasn't as optimistic about it as he could seem later.  What drove him was success in television.  What else would it be?

You can see how often later writers reflect on the lessons taught by "The Man Trap," and "The Cage."  They became the two most basic story templates of the whole franchise.  Forget everything else you know about Star Trek, and just trace the number of times you saw a misunderstood monster ("The Man Trap," later made most famous by "Devil in the Dark") or, as I've already pointed out, a career in crisis (all those other captains, like Decker in "The Doomsday Machine," if you want to find examples well before the movies). 

Everyone has a definition of what Star Trek means, but what it really boils down to is something few have realized, which is that Gene Roddenberry didn't come up with utopia.  He came up with allegory, plain and simple.  And the allegory was mostly about himself.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

15th anniversary of 9/11

Fifteen years ago, I was attending my second year at the University of Maine.  The old Student Union was still being used (it took forever to get the new one built).  I wound up there, later, watching along with scores of other students the unfolding events, but first there was breakfast.

I remember this so well: One of the dining hall workers came out and told us a plane had struck the World Trade Center.  I had no idea that this was going to become one of the defining moments of my life.  I figured, there had been an accident, and that was it.  They switched the radio to news.  They always played music.  I remember listening, on another morning, a stupid DJ explaining Uncle Cracker's hit song, and later realizing, after I'd seen the video, that they were just explaining what the video was.  That morning, though, the radio was tuned to something important.

Still, I reported to English class (Jennifer Moxley was always worth attending), but by the time French class came up, next, all I needed to know was that something definitely was happening, and I decided to skip the class (I never did figure out how to care about French class again), and head over to the Student Union, and there it was, the towers collapsing, New York City in chaos.

I went to my dorm room and wrote my parents an email.  Later, I realized how insensitive this was, because my mother had desperately wanted to hear from all her kids.  None of us knew what the scope of it was.  Later we'd know about the Pentagon and United 93.  The terrorists had actually flown through Maine.  My three oldest siblings were all out of state, and so was my youngest.  I was the only one still in Maine.  None of us were flying that day.  Still, anything could have become a target.

I started identifying myself as a poet, in the days and years after 9/11.  For a while, every year on the anniversary, I would write a new piece to commemorate it.  I took a poetry class in one of my final semesters, and already the gulf between what Americans think about 9/11 and the rest of the world, and I'm not talking about wars here, but the basic perception of the tragedy itself, was becoming evident.  There was a visiting poet from Chile who dared talk about the Pinochet years, and the other students in the class ridiculed the thought that her tragedy could even compare to ours.  I was outraged.  This is the sort of thing we don't talk about, and it's terrifying.  In a lot of ways, 9/11 made the United States horribly egocentric.  None of us wanted to get defensive, but that's what everyone did.  Since it was so self-contained, in some respects, 9/11 was easy to sweep under the rug.  We went back to work, and promptly started isolating ourselves as never before, or at least, not since the days of westward expansion.

We entered the age of social media.  This is ironic, coming from a blogger who started in 2002.  In those innocent days, I never cared whether someone else would read what I wrote.  Now the blogging community is obsessed with getting as many people to like it as possible.  It sells books, right?  But we're so busy promoting ourselves, our friends, we forget any kind of perspective.  Perspective is what died on 9/11.  In the days immediately following it, we were one big country, but then we splintered, and we've never looked back.  I just don't get it.

This is not about patriotism, but about perspective.  I'd heard about the Taliban, smashing Buddhist statues, before 9/11, and as someone who still mourns the long-ago destruction of the Library of Alexandria, it's because culture is very important to me.  I don't get these terrorists, as they've continued to exist over the years.  I think they're reactionaries.  I think they're scared that the world's passed them by, and hate the fact that anyone else can define culture.  I thought we might've gotten past that sort of thinking.  Wasn't that called the Middle Ages?  You know, the Dark Ages?  But I guess not.  But really, we're not much better.  Everyone has an agenda now.  We took what the '60s tried really hard to accomplish, and we've blown it up to ridiculous proportions.  Everyone's shouting for equal attention, and no one's paying attention anymore.  We chat about inane things, we argue politics, but we have no perspective. 

Sitting in that dining hall, fifteen years ago, I had no perspective.  I had no idea what was going on.  Then, like everyone else, I had no choice.  Then people started to choose otherwise.  I really wish we could get back to a place where we care about things again, and quit hiding.  Because you know what hiding does?  It makes you crazy enough to think up something like 9/11. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

873. In hopes for a better world...

Things have been worse.  With so many alarming topics to talk about today, there are people who have chosen to believe we have somehow ended up in the worst of all possible worlds.  We haven't, but if we're not careful, we might.  Isn't that the way it always is?  This is not a perfect world.  If it were, everything would be different.  But it isn't, and so it is what it is, and as always, we have a choice, to let our fears get the best of us, or to somehow master them, because our first thoughts are always exaggerated ones, ones if we rethought would reveal themselves for what they really are.  I think the problem is, with so many options to talk about our thoughts, we have somehow diminished the need to think about our thoughts, and all we do is react.  Reaction is good.  It's how we know what we feel.  But this is not a world where feeling alone defines reality.  Humans are uniquely capable of setting aside feelings (it can be difficult, I know), and giving our reactions a proper consideration.  Somehow, I think we've forgotten that.  We've forgotten that we have the ability to analyze things.  By that, I don't mean to compartmentalize, fit into a predetermined set of conclusions.  We've unfortunately allowed ourselves to fall into the mindset where phrases like "survival of the fittest" and "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it," meaningful and yet unproductive concepts that when put to the test don't mean what they seem to, define how we think.  "Survival of the fittest" is intended to explain why nature works the way it does.  And yet humans don't fit that model, and any attempt to explain otherwise ignores what we would otherwise understand, if we gave it half the thought it deserves: The phrase, in human context, would read, "Survival of advantage." 

Everyone has advantages, which is to say skills.  The problem is that some skills are easier to identify, and easier for others to understand, easier to exploit in whatever model the person in question is attempting to enter.  Skills alone don't determine worth.  Skills are rarely even the qualification we use to make decisions.  More often than not, we make decisions based on social conclusions.  "Survival of social skills," maybe.

History is a funny thing.  It's easy to see parallels in history, and it takes a clever person to see them, admittedly, but no two situations are ever exactly alike, and it takes an even more clever person to see that.  "Those who don't see the distinctions history makes are doomed to continue making mistakes," perhaps.  But that seems too clumsy, so it's probably easier to default to the original statement, no matter how flawed.  How about, "Those who make mistakes make history."  Well, that's just obvious.  Because history is really a history of mistakes, no matter how much we like to claim otherwise.  Still, it's not very inspiring, is it?  "Those who strive for success make history."  Good, but not enough of a moral.  "Those who understand they're fallible will make the best history."  Too pat.  "Those who don't learn history are doomed for limited perspectives."  I kinda like that one.

These are tiny examples.  This is what considering things beyond the most basic level looks like.  Most of the time, you'll hear people argue for trying to see it from a variety of perspectives, but in doing so you run the risk of losing perspective.  At a certain point, judgment comes into the equation.  You have to decide where you stand.  What people so often forget is that you don't have to choose between extremes.  You really can fall somewhere in the middle.  Somehow, this became a thought crime.  In school, the students who are merely average don't count for anything, and somehow this mindset is taken to generalize that you must be at an extreme to matter.  This is absurd. 

Yet this is a polarized world, at the moment.  That's exactly how people are thinking.  Each side is so convinced they're right, they're not even willing to give the other side any credit.  That's lazy and clumsy thinking.  It's about picking sides, and nothing else.  Hey, picking sides like that leads to worse things, not better.  Is that what we really want?  I hope not.  I like to believe people really aren't that bad.  But they can be misled. 

So I guess what I'm saying is, if you're feeling as if we've somehow entered a doomsday scenario, remember that you have a choice.  You can choose to look beyond the rhetoric, on whatever alarming topic you've chosen to fixate, and look for a better way.  Because there's always a better one, and things really have been worse.  We have a chance to make things better.  But it starts by acknowledging our complicity in making things look worse, at least at the moment.  In this uniquely hypersocial environment, in this unique moment in history, we can do better.  We just have to try.

Friday, July 08, 2016

872. Excalibur, and its surprisingly enduring legacy

I finally got around to rewatching 1981's Excalibur, what was for at least one generation the definitive retelling of the Arthurian legend.

Now, this is one of those things I have a complicated history with, which is to say there have been times I've actively dismissed it as terrible filmmaking.  When it showed up on a marquee in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice earlier this year, as the movie (previously, The Mark of Zorro) the Waynes saw on that fateful day in the updated timeline, when Batman became an orphan, I started thinking I should give it another shot.

Clearly, I'd argue, Excalibur was made because of the Star Wars effect.  Everyone was scrambling to contextualize this new phenomenon.  Dune became a movie (it can be argued that Star Wars owes a debt to Frank Herbert's saga) for the first time.  Star Trek reached the big screen.  And King Arthur rode back into popular culture.  Now, this is a guy who helped define, over the centuries, what pop culture is all about.  Along with Robin Hood, it's hard to find any fictional character who's had more enduring appeal in the West.  Where Robin Hood embodies the triumph of will over state, King Arthur is the myth to end all myths about how states become great.  It's the updated version of the founding of Rome, where the figure at last supplants the foundation.  You might argue about how Greek myths came about, but there's no longer any clear lineage about where all those gods came from.  You could also argue, Jesus Christ, and indeed, Arthurian lore is steeped in Christian symbolism.

Putting that aside, I have to admit, even now I find Excalibur to be unwieldy.  It's hugely overwrought, to be sure, even as it contains the secret origins of Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, and Ciaran Hinds (he's the only one I couldn't spot this time around), all of whom later became hugely successful actors, and so you spend half the film just seeing how much of their later selves is on display, and by that have a worthy distraction when other things aren't working for you.  If you're not particularly hip to the legend, the proceedings are probably impenetrable.

Sound familiar?  The same can be said for Batman v Superman, which obviously chose to give a nod to Excalibur because it depicts the founding of the Knights of the Round Table, where Dawn of Justice is all about laying the foundations for the later Justice League.  That, and Batman is Lancelot to Superman's King Arthur.  Tellingly, Excalibur is all about King Arthur's twisted history and fate, all tied up in a single thread, just as Dawn of Justice focuses on how Superman's alien origins define how people view him, either as threat or savior, and the monster that kills him being a relic of those origins.  Where Excalibur crams everything into one movie, Batman v Superman's greatest sin is expecting people to not only have already seen Man of Steel, but invest in the future Justice League movies, too.

But enough about superheroes.  Excalibur's legacy goes further than that.  It ranked 18th in box office earnings the year it was released, grossing $34 million.  Another Grail seeker, Indiana Jones (admittedly looking for something different this particular movie), was the year's top hit, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  The follow-up to another Star Wars response, Superman II, was a big hit that year.  This was still a time when Hollywood was trying to definitively crack the Star Wars code, though.  Non-genre hits like On Golden Pond, Arthur, Stripes, The Cannonball Run, Chariots of Fire, and The Four Seasons (this starred Alan Alda and Carol Burnett; it's the only film from the 1981 top ten that's been lost to history) were other big hits.  There was also the James Bond flick For Your Eyes Only and Terry Gilliam's breakout hit Time Bandits.  Ahead of Excalibur, too, was Clash of the Titans, and a Tarzan movie. 

No, Excalibur picked up steam in later years.  It was a cult hit.  I discovered it in college, likely a place for a movie like Excalibur because it has a couple of nude scenes, and where else but college are you going to be watching stuff like that for the first time (assuming that like me, you were previously pretty innocent about such movies)?  This was a movie that reeked of mythic proportions, something ideal to watch in those formative years of your life, if you were already well-versed in stuff like Star Wars. 

Finally, Peter Jackson made his Lord of the Rings movies, which were responsible for blowing open the doors for movie sagas that could finally compete with Star Wars.  And clearly, Tolkien had a lot of King Arthur on the brain, and so did Jackson.  The first one, Fellowship of the Ring, has always been, for me, the most successful creatively of them, because it follows such a clear narrative line, straight to the Lancelot of Boromir dying in redemption in front of Aragorn's King Arthur (complete with his own legendary sword needing to be reforged). 

Another movie I think has a strong Excalibur connection is Star Trek Nemesis, which Star Trek fans have always confused with a rip-off of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  And yet, the central conflict of Picard's feud with his clone Shinzon has less Khan to it than King Arthur's ultimate rival in Mordred, who happens to be both his sister's son, and his.  Strange liaisons indeed.  It's the kind of logic that sent Star Trek fans livid, because for them, this was a franchise that was about sending social messages, not eating its own tail, which is kind of funny, because no one cared for its predecessor, Star Trek: Insurrection, even though it was a clear parallel to the continuing plight of Native Americans (it bothers me a great deal that out of all the social causes out there today, no one cares about the most screwed-over population in the whole country).

That's what Excalibur got wrong, I think, trying to immerse its logic too deeply within itself, and I guess, what Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did, too.  You can't have Picard engaged in a direct feud.  That's why Star Trek: First Contact worked so well, and was such a big success, because it mixed up the revenge story with one of hope for the future, which is what Star Trek is all about.  What is King Arthur about?  He's the story of hope, too, that times won't always be so bad, because there weren't always terrible leaders and there will be good leaders again.  That's the sword analogy right there.  What do Batman and Superman say in their movie?  That we can put aside our differences, if we try.  King Arthur's story is full of intrigue, and conflicting motivations, and things forbidden, and the ability to overcome our worst impulses, even if we've already made the fatal mistake.

To find that message in Excalibur, you have to be able to navigate a lot of barriers.  The dialogue is spoken almost exclusively as if the recording equipment was the least reliable to be found, and actors were given the simple command, "Just try and make a forceful delivery."  It's like bad Shakespeare, but it's so overblown, it's impossible to forget, no matter how hard you try.  Mordred's ridiculous gold armor and his even worse helmet, even harder.  This is what it looks like when you try too hard.  The more time Peter Jackson spent in Middle-Earth, the more he leaned in this direction, too.  That's what people have been saying about Batman v Superman, that it's impenetrable, merely an excuse to try and grab some cheap money from gullible movie-goers.  Me, I never saw it that way, but then, I guess I was just in the right place at the right time, to get it. 

But that's what happens when you're chasing something big, something like Star Wars.  Not only did Hollywood never see it coming, but everyone else sought to understand what it was all about, too.  That's why someone made the connection to King Arthur.  And why, once everyone had become accustomed to lavish productions, they became easier to accept as big hits, a whole series of blockbuster sagas.  Only now, we're circling back again.  We never did stop to figure it out, and eventually even Star Wars started looking overblown, with the prequels.  What can you do?

Except, keep giving the results another chance.  I mean, plenty of people saw potential in Excalibur.  It just took some time.  In the end, the important thing is, these are stories vital to the culture.  They're being told because someone thought it was important.  Sometimes, it may be enough to just try and figure out why, because inevitably, someone will try telling it again.  That's what it's all about.

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