POEM: Free

 

What are you free to do or be?

Can you set out across an endless sea?

What deserts can your mind go roam

from which your fears won’t send you home?

Epictetus asked, “Are you free?”

Can you stand, while others flee?

Can you escape the default mode

that’s locked into your mental code?

Can truth change your way of seeing?

Are you sectless in the art of disagreeing?

POEM: Dancer’s Defection

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

[after hours, the circus of the mind]
twisted puppets of an unworldly kind
marionettes have danced into a heap
but for one dancer who takes her leap

 

beyond the stage, off the ledge
freed of strings by midnight’s edge
bounding over a haunting chasm
the beating heart locked in a spasm

 

from backstage toy soldiers pour
but ballerina ‘s caught, slipped to floor
while her pursuers smash into shards
sliding wide as a fallen house of cards

 

and thus ends the dancer’s defection
exiting stage right without detection
viewed by empty seats, row-on-row
and who caught her, and where’d she go?
those are facts we’ll never know

The Most Intense Blockbuster You’ll Never See

REV_Kirkpatrick-designAmong the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday was a book entitled Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick. It was well-timed to a news story about a Korean War Veteran, Merrill Newman, whose video statement as a prisoner of the DPRK was released the same day. Anyway, I bought the book and I’m hooked. The stories it contains are a mix of chilling and thrilling.

As I began reading, I wondered why no one had made a major Hollywood blockbuster based on an escape from North Korea. It’s a journey fraught with peril. There’s so much to go wrong from being shot in the back crossing the Tumen River to being repatriated to being double-crossed by smugglers to falling into the hands of traffickers or other predators. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most North Koreans are severely undernourished, and each is on his or her own for the first part of the trip–getting across the border. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for North Koreans to stick out physically because they’re unusually small and, as pointed out by one of Kirkpatrick’s sources, prone to bad hair and split ends.

I know these are words that writers despise but the screenplay practically writes itself.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, this will never be a movie because China’s government would be one of the villains, and Hollywood isn’t in the business of making films that PO the Chinese any more. Why is China the villain? Well, it’s not the main villain. That distinction, of course, goes to the Kim dynasty, presently personified by Kim Jong Un–who has been the biggest bastard yet when it comes to escapees. China’s policy is one of repatriation. It would be kinder for China to just execute the North Koreans themselves. One of the stories early in the book is about an entire family that was to be sent back who–having eaten their first decent meal in a long time–decided to die full and committed suicide while in Chinese custody. Lest one think that this is a Communist thing, Kirkpatrick points to Vietnam as one of the countries that quietly helps North Korean escapees get to safety. Like the democracies that do so, Vietnam keeps this on the down-low to avoid cheesing off the Chinese, but at least they do it.

Why would such a movie be good? Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, and movies are the surest injection point into the public consciousness. There have been books and documentaries about this for years, but I don’t think most people realize how bad it is.

I should point out that there have been films on the subject. The Crossing, made in South Korea, is probably the most well-known feature film on the subject. It’s about a father who crosses the border to get medication for a wife, but ends up stuck on the other side of the border during which time his wife dies and his boy becomes–for all intents and purposes–an orphan. This film is apparently based on a true story.

And there have been a number of documentaries on the subject. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is one of the best.

This is the book trailer for the Kirkpatrick book.

TODAY’S RANT: Emerson Haters

Ralph_Waldo_Emerson_ca1857_retouchedI began reading the Best American Essays of 2012 and was disappointed by the first  essay entitled, The Foul Reign of Self-Reliance by Benjamin Anastas.

Self-Reliance: In or out of the canon?:

Anastas rails against the essay Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The only nice thing he has to say about Emerson (as a parenthetical insert) was that the philosopher spoke out against slavery and the poor treatment of American Indians.  Anastas suggests Emerson’s essay should be eliminated from the  canon of required reading. This desire to censor ideas that he (or his collective) find objectionable is a telling indicator of why he finds Emerson so vile. In my ideal world, students would read Emerson and Marx and Jefferson and Socrates and Confucius and eventually even the likes of Hitler and they’d make up their own minds about what ideas were sound and which were suspect. I’m  confident that on the whole that a free-thinking people will overwhelming reject the poorest and most vile of ideas. Obviously, not all will draw the same conclusions as I about which ideas are best, but I prefer the company of such people to those who completely agree with me but have turned their thinking caps off. Anastas seems to favor control of the flow of ideas to those society or teachers or some collective finds agreeable.

An undeniably powerful idea:

About all that Anastas and I agree on is that the thesis of Emerson’s Self-Reliance is powerful. By a powerful idea, I mean one that has the ability to grab a reader by the collar and demand his or her attention –whether they like it or not. Where Anastas sees Emerson’s ideas as perniciously powerful, I see them as sagely powerful. While we seem to be in near complete disagreement, I don’t want to go into a point by point refutation. I want to focus on what I believe is Anastas’s central point, that our current political dysfunction is the fault of Emersonian thinking. On this I think Anastas is shows perfection in his wrongheadedness.

The reason I don’t bother arguing point by point is because  much of my difference of opinion with Anastas comes down to being on radically different places on the Borg-Anarchist continuum. Reasonable people may disagree. I have a set of beliefs that inform my position on the Borg-Anarchist continuum that range from my opinion on free will to ideas about the value of optimizing (minimizing) what I would call “social friction” (others have used that term in another way.) That’s neither here nor there, Anastas may have his own justification for his views, though he doesn’t lay them out. For example, he uses the phrase, “excessive love of individual liberty” without indicating what he believes would be the appropriate amount to love liberty, let alone how he drew his conclusion. It may be that he doesn’t have a rationale, but rather has suborned his views to some collective that he believes is representative of society (that would be the true anti-Emersonian approach.)

The Borg-Anarchist continuum:

I should explain what I call the “Borg-Anarchist continuum” for those who are neither Star Trek fans nor wonky. Humans are inescapably both individualistic and social creatures. We know that people get morbidly depressed when they feel they aren’t valued as individuals (Tom Hanks at the beginning of Joe Versus the Volcano), but it’s also true that people go nuts when they are completely isolated from others (Tom Hanks in Castaway.) [Please, don’t draw conclusions about which is “better” on the relative merit of those two movies.] This leads to one of our most fundamental dilemmas. Where our individuality bumps up a social unit, how does one reconcile theses conflicts?

We can imagine a continuum where at one end are the Borg and at the other end are Anarchists. Borg were a powerful enemy in the Star Trek universe. The Borg were a collective in which any given individual was inconsequential and all gave themselves fully to the objective of the collective (i.e. universal domination.) Anarchists are those who feel there should be no authority over the individual. Virtually no one fits into the extreme camps because they’re both blatantly flawed. No one would have any incentive to do anything in Borg world, and an anarchy will inevitably devolve into chaos. No one would invite the Borg or Anarchists to their cocktail party. In practice, one might think of a Communist-Libertarian continuum. Communists believe the state owns the means of production and should be able to regulate ideas as intimately personal as religion, but they don’t attempt to completely stamp out all vestiges of individuality (e.g. people still have names instead of the Borg’s “4 of 7.”) Libertarians believe that authority over the individual should be minimal, but that there’s a role for governance in punishing the illegitimate use of force or the use of fraud.

Yes, I realize that in being one-dimensional, a Republican and a Democrat could occupy the exact same space on the continuum (i.e. wanting the same amount of governance, just not in the exact same domain.)

Is political dysfunction a product of Emersonian thought?:

So, let’s go back to the issue of blaming political dysfunction on Emersonian ideals. It’s my belief that we have political dysfunction because politicians aren’t following Emerson’s advice, rather than that too many are doing so. Let’s consider Anastas’s argument.

“’A man is to carry himself in the presence of all opposition,’ Emerson advises, ‘as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.’ If this isn’t the official motto of the 112th Congress of the United States, well, it should be.”

Anastas is saying that the idea that one shouldn’t bend to the ideas of other men, as suggested by Emerson, is the cause of the problem. However, this requires us to believe that politicians engaged in free thinking consistently come down in the perfectly bifurcated set of positions required for grid-lock to take hold on a wide range of issues.  This is dubious. I find it much more probable that politicians do not think freely, but rather they subordinate their opinion to their party and to what the people of their district think. That, my friends, is the source of the problem. Politicians are doing exactly what Anastas wants, which is subordinating their opinion to the majority in their districts. The two-part problem is that: a.) districts are drawn to have clear winners. b.) our society has abandoned the Emersonian idea and taken party and sect as a substitute for thinking. We’ve created a two-party grid-lock machine, and we’re surprised that it works.

Yes, Emerson tells us to be obstinate in holding to ones own beliefs in the face of other people. If every politician did this, our political field would be much richer with many sets of opinions and not just the two captured by the party platforms of the two ruling parties. (At least it wouldn’t hold sway always on anything important.)  What Emerson does not ask of us is to be obstinate in the face of new or better information. Anastas’s own selection of quotes says as much.

“Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

In other words, Emerson is suggesting that one should be able to change one’s mind (one just shouldn’t do this in deference to the views of other people.) One should changes one’s mind when one has new or better information or one’s thinking about the subject is clearer. Changing one’s mind has a bad rap in our political system. There’s a kind of changing of one’s mind that should leave us with a bad taste in our mouths, and that’s pandering. However, not all mind-changing is pandering. If we ask a politician why he changed his mind and he says, “Because I learned X, and that new information made me conclude Y,” then that person should be applauded. The ideas of people of party and sect don’t change regardless of new information. This stagnancy is part of the problem as well. An individual can change his or her mind rapidly but an ideological organization is never swift. When people subordinate their thinking to their sect, this is when we end up unable to get out-of-the-way of slow-moving freight train problems like many that we face today.

The animus that characterizes our political domain is not a function of Emersonian thinking. While Emerson may not address it because it isn’t part of what he’s trying to get across in this essay, it stands to reason that if everyone thinks for themselves people will draw different conclusions. The Maytag repairman is not the loneliest person; the loneliest person in the world is a free-thinker who can’t get along with people who don’t share his exact slate of thinking across a range of  subjects. Thinking for oneself is not only consistent with tolerance, it breeds it. It’s only when one conforms one’s thinking to that of a collective that one can afford to act like people who think differently from one are pure evil.

Other thoughts on the subject:

For another post of mine about Emerson’s Self-Reliance see here.

Also, Emerson was not the only one in the 19th century who was dismayed by the trend toward subordinating political views to party, Mark Twain had a lighter essay on the subject called Corn Pone Opinions.