Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

This was a production at The Empty Space, a local theater known for its intimate setting and high quality despite low budgets. 

The Glass Menagerie was Tennessee Williams’ first hit, and like most of his plays, draws on the dynamics of his own family. This one is perhaps his most autobiographical. I read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years back.

There are only four actors in the play, but, as the narrator - young Tom - explains in the prologue, there is a fifth character, that of the absent father. Tom lives with his mother, Amanda, a faded Southern Belle, and his sister Laura, who is painfully shy and awkward. The fourth character is Jim, one of Tom’s co-workers at the warehouse, who comes to dinner in the second act.

The family is patterned after Williams’ own. His alcoholic father abandoned the family, leaving Williams (also named Tom) to support his mother and older sister. In the play, each of the characters longs to escape their dreary life in an apartment in Saint Louis. Tom, naturally, wishes to get out and see the world - and to write for a living. Amanda dreams of her past glories, when she had so many beaus that they couldn’t fit in the house, and tries to live her life through her children. Laura withdraws into her hobby, a collection of glass animals, the centerpiece of which is a unicorn. 

Nancee Steiger as Laura
The Empty Space publicity photo

The amount of pressure put on the children by the mother is palpable. As far as she is concerned, Laura has two options: she can either marry, or she will have to learn a trade. When Laura quits secretarial school because the stress makes her vomit, Amanda determines that marriage will be her only option. But how to get a “gentleman caller” to the house, when Laura is so shy? Amanda also has failed to acknowledge that society has changed since her youth, and debutantes don’t just sit around waiting for gentlemen in urban Saint Louis. Laura feels even more pressure because Amanda’s one joy in life is to talk about how popular she was, and how great all the young men were that wanted her. Sadly, she picked a loser somehow, so her triumph always mixes with regret.

Tom, too, is under pressure. His mother is determined that he not be like his father, and is willing to guilt, shame, and browbeat him into submission. She even goes so far as to use Laura as a weapon. These are actions I have seen played out all too often in my divorce cases, and it generally doesn’t end well. Tom escapes by “going to the movies” every night to get out of the house. While movies are likely a part of Tom’s escape, he also has taken to drinking on his nights out.

The transformative event occurs midway through the play, when, at his mother’s urging, he asks his co-worker Jim to dinner. This leads to a flurry of activity. A gentleman caller! This will be Laura’s escape, Amanda is sure. Laura realizes that the young man is one she had a crush on in high school, and refuses to be sociable. Jim is charming and draws Laura out of her shell despite herself. However, things will not end well. (Unsurprising for a Williams play.) Jim turns out to be already engaged, although this comes out only after he has kissed Laura. Tom didn’t know, because Jim had not yet announced it at work, but Amanda reams Tom for this disappointment.

One of the interesting things about plays from this era is that there were quite a number of things one simply didn’t say outright. The 20th Century saw the Hays Code in motion pictures and a similar push in live theater which kept certain topics (including interracial relationships, for example) off limits. In many ways, Shakespeare could say more than American playwrights. Williams nibbles around sex in this play through symbolism. Unicorns in mythology are attracted to virgins. Laura shows her prize unicorn to Jim, who inadvertantly breaks it while dancing with Laura. Deprived of its horn, the horse is now just ordinary. On another level, as my wife pointed out, the unicorn is one example of the theme that each of the characters wants to be unique and special, but end up being ordinary. But the sexual connotation is unmistakeable as well. Laura gives Jim the unicorn as a memento with the hope that he treasures it as much as she did. I think Williams also utilizes a metaphor with Laura, who tells of gathering jonquils with her beaus. Her treasuring of her flowers was an important part of who she was, but once she settled on a particular man, the flowers were gone.

My wife also pointed out that there is a dichotomy between the male and female characters. Both females live in the past. Amanda in her days as a belle, Laura in the innocence of childhood joys, her glass menagerie and her phonograph. The men, in contrast, dream of the future. Tom lives for poetry and making a name for himself. Jim takes night courses in technology and public speaking, with the goal of rising above his menial job. In some ways, all are a dream, but there is hope that the future will be better. The past is just a dead end.

As usual, a few things stood out to me as brilliant concepts and lines. First was Amanda’s inappropriate use of “selfishness” to describe Tom. Her son is free to leave, but only once Laura is married or otherwise provided for. Until then, he must dedicate his life to his mother and sister, and anything less than total devotion is “selfishness.” This is baloney, of course, but Amanda totally believes it. After all, she (in her own mind) lives only for her children. He should do the same. Both in the play and in real life, Tom is torn between this burden and his own dreams. After he finally leaves, he remains haunted by Laura, and she is invited to close the play by blowing out the candles. This wasn’t an appropriate burden for him to bear, of course, but he feels it nonetheless. In real life, this turned tragic in the extreme. His sister suffered from mental illness. Although retroactive diagnosis is difficult, she is believed to have suffered from schizophrenia. In the play, particularly as the actress portrayed her in this instance, she appears to have been on the autism spectrum. Whatever the case, she was eventually forced into a lobotomy, which went terribly and and reduced her to a vegetative state. Williams felt guilty, as he was close to her, but he had no choice if he wanted to have a life of his own. He left the bulk of his estate for her care.

Ironically, though Amanda lives in the past, and devotes her life to correcting her own mistakes, she has one of the best lines about the future.

[To Tom: ] “You are the only young man I know of who ignores the fact that the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!”

To an extent, she is right. The problem is that she is the main obstacle to Tom planning for his own future in order to avoid regret.

Earlier in the play, during their first catastrophic fight, Amanda accuses Tom of lying about going to the movies. His response is one that reveals pent up frustration as well as a sense that he has reached the breaking point, and from then on, it is only a matter of time until he leaves.

Tom: I’m going to the movies!

Amanda: I don’t believe that lie!

[Tom crouches toward her, overtowering her tiny figure. She backs away gasping.]

Tom: I’m going to opium dens! Yes, opium dens, dens of vice and criminals’ hangouts, Mother. I’ve joined the Hogan Gang, I’m a hired assassin, I carry a tommy gun in a violin case! I run a string of cat houses in the Valley! They call me Killer, Killer Wingfield, I’m leading a double-life, a simple honest warehouse worker by day, by night a dynamic czar of the underworld, Mother. I go to gambling casinos, I spin away fortunes on the roulette table! I wear a patch over one eye and a false moustache, sometimes I put on green whiskers. On those occasions they call me - El Diablo! Oh, I could tell you many things to make you sleepless! My enemies plan to dynamite this place. They’re going to blow us all sky-high some night! I’ll be glad, very happy, and so will you! You’ll go up, up on a broomstick, over Blue Mountain with seventeen gentlemen callers! You ugly - babbling old - witch…

This is both horrifying, and yet all too deserved. 

Mimi Gauthier as Amanda and Ryan Lee as Tom
The Empty Space publicity photo.

One final line was memorable to me. Amanda, trying to make Laura as “attractive” as possible, stuffs some...stuffing into Laura’s bra.

Laura: Mother, what are you doing?

Amanda: They call them “Gay Deceivers”!

Laura: I won’t wear them!

Amanda: You will!

Laura: Why should I?

Amanda: Because, to be painfully honest, your chest is flat.

Laura: You make it seem like we were setting up a trap.

Amanda: All pretty girls are a trap, a pretty trap, and men expect them to be.

Ouch. And then, the fact that Amanda comes out in her debutante dress, complete with tiara makes the whole thing even more awkward.

I wouldn’t say this is a pleasant play, not in the least. Nearly everything is painful, but Williams brings to light some oft-buried truths about dysfunctional family dynamics. While perhaps exaggerated for most of us - although perhaps not compared with Williams’ own family - the core of truth is still there, exposing the bitter root of pain that can be seen in so many families.

The Empty Space did a fantastic job with it, with excellent acting - particularly considering half the cast is still in college - combined with a minimalist set that focused the action well.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dragons At Crumbling Castle by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

This is a collection of short stories aimed at children. We have listened to and enjoyed a decent bit of Terry Pratchett over the last year. I picked this one because it was short enough to work as a second book for a trip in which I had already chosen Three Men In a Boat for the longer work. 

As usual, these were fun and entertaining, yet thoughtful. In other words, typical Pratchett. I would say that I am coming to the conclusion that my kids will probably learn more useful skills in ethical thinking from Terry Pratchett books than most other sources. All the most important ideas I would like to teach them are there. Empathy, selflessness, listening, alternatives to violence, the complexity of the real world, power and privilege. It’s all there, along with a wry critique of flawed institutions. And overlying it all, good humor and charity toward all.

As has been my practice with many of my short story collections, I want to say a bit about each one, in the order they appear. Mostly.

“Dragons at Crumbling Castle”

Well, what is a king like, say, King Arthur to do, if all his knights are out on quests or on vacation to the Riviera and there are dragons to be dealt with? The young page is the only one left, so he is sent out to do what he can. Along the way, he picks up a knight who tries to make up for his small size with giant armor, and a wizard who can’t quite seem to get the right spell when he wants one. And then, most puzzling of all, when they get there, the dragon says “good day.” And you can’t very well kill someone who just said “good day” to you, right?

This is a very typical Pratchett scenario, where expectations are turned on their heads, and those who listen and think have a better shot at solving a dilemma than those who rely on violence and bluster.

A really funny bit in this story is the idea of the town criers as the early form of newspaper. The crier would yell the headlines, while the pages (sorry, blame Pratchett, not me) would fill in the details. So, “Dragons at Crumbling Castle!! Listen to Page 9 for the details…”

“The Great Speck”

This one is a nod to Dr. Seuss’s classic The Butter Battle, except about the space race instead of the arms race. And, in typical Pratchett manner, the wizards...I mean scientists (just about the same thing, really, in good fiction) get stuck accidentally with the kings of their respective nations on their historic spaceflights to a nearby dust speck. Naturally, the kings get into a dispute about who has the better claim to the new speck, while the poor scientists are stuck figuring out how - and if - they can get back. 

Illustration by Mark Beech

“Hunt the Snorry”

This is the shortest story in the bunch, and is basically a joke setup. The great warriors and hunters set out to catch the elusive Snorry. Never mind that nobody knows what one looks like. I won’t spoil the ending.

“Tales of the Carpet People”

We actually had heard this one before. Pratchett wrote this very early on in his career - as a teen, actually. It grew into his first novel, The Carpet People, which was my kids’ introduction to Pratchett. At the end of that book, the original short story was included. The characters are far more fleshed out in the book, and the plot is more interesting. Nevertheless, the short is fun, and my kids were thrilled to hear it again.

“Another Tale of the Carpet People”

This one actually appeared several stories later in the book, but I put it here. Because reasons.

Anyway, this one was not one we had heard before, and my kids were happy to hear that there was one they had not heard yet. In this one, set after the great migration of the Mungrungs to the other side of the carpet, Snibril and Bane set off to “sail” across the great linoleum to the mythical land of Rug. As usual, the world is delightfully developed, and Pratchett foreshadows the use of everyday objects in the novel he would write later.

“Hercules the Tortoise”

This is another fairly short one, and probably the one I liked the least. Basically, a tortoise escapes his pen to the larger world. Not bad, but not as imaginative as the others.

“Dok the Caveman”

Pratchett often pokes fun at human development, and this is one of the more witty shorts for that reason. Back in the day, when cavemen were just trying to get by, Dok had his heads in the clouds, always coming up with inventions that would “revolutionize” some facet of existence. The wheel would revolutionize transportation, naturally, but fire would “revolutionize central heating” and other such peculiarities. I wish I had a hard copy of the book to look more of them up, but they were fun. The problem is that Dok as often as not fails to bring his inventions to the true level of development necessary to make them actually useful. And he is undoubtedly clumsy, which doesn’t help. Nevertheless, he makes progress which will prove necessary to the survival of his tribe.

Pratchett is on to something here. It is fashionable - and always has been - to make fun of scientists and inventors, particularly when the first attempt is less than spectacular. Transistors were once dismissed as a curiosity, but here I am typing this on a computer containing billions of them smaller than the human eye can detect.

“The Big Race”

A bit of a steampunk fantasy, where all the usual appliances ran on steam rather than electricity. This leads to a big race between the partisans of the various forms of energy storage. So, in addition to the usual steam and gasoline vehicles, you had ones that ran on clockwork, electricity, and rubber bands. A bit of a fun twist at the end too.

“The Great Egg Dancing Championship”

One of two stories featuring the fictional town of Blackbury (presumably named after Blackbury Camp, a British historical site from the 4th Century BCE.) Blackbury and a neighboring town compete in the ancient ritual of “egg dancing,” which is taken all too seriously. But then, the opposing champion falls in love with the daughter of the mayor of Blackbury and asks for her hand in marriage, complications ensue. Her father will only consent if he throws the match.

There is a lot of humor in this story, but the best part is the description of the thieve, who drive a car carefully decorated - like a police car, but, well, like its opposite - to clearly broadcast who they are.

“The Blackbury Monster”

Another one I have taken out of order. The town of Blackbury again becomes the focus of a story in which the mayor decides that Blackbury needs a tourist attraction, and invents a “monster” along the lines of the Loch Ness Monster. Except that it has to live in the town pond. And it is made of tires dragged around by the town gardener. Blackbury reaps the whirlwind, however, as the character of the town is ruined by all the tourists. And then, a real monster shows up…

“Edwo the Boring Knight”

Another knight trope turned on its head. Edwo is the youngest prince, and is insufferable, because he likes to discourse endlessly on a variety of brainy topics, putting everyone to sleep. This turns out to come in handy at times, though, as he pursues the hand of a captive princess.

“The 59A Bus Goes Back In Time”

There actually is a route 59A. I suspect I miss a bit of the humor here, because I don’t have a place to associate with the story. However, it is still a fun concept. The bus finds itself time traveling, to Roman times, the days of Arthur, and a peculiar prehistoric time (which is an anachronism because it contains primates along with the dinosaurs.) Some things that were interesting to me: first, Pratchett utilizes a female bus driver, who has to repair a tire; and a trainee who is a Sikh, and who has to utilize his knowledge of Latin to communicate with the Romans. This is definitely a modern way of handling a story. Second would be the idea that when the bus (or other vehicle, as it turns out) runs out of fuel, the occupants end up stranded in that time and place. A bit disconcerting to those to whom it happens.

“The Abominable Snowman”

This one is thoroughly silly, but with some unusual twists. Pratchett sends up the explorer trope, the wealthy person who dabbles in adventure to escape boredom, the action movie genre, and selfies. (I think this was written before selfies became a thing, but he anticipates it. Although I suppose the practice of putting “devil’s horns” or, as we call them here, rabbit ears, on others in pictures is likely as old as the art of photography.

“Father Christmas Goes to Work At the Zoo”

Yep, the problems that arise with poor Santa trying to get a job in between Christmas seasons. The problem is, his instincts to give stuff away, make animals fly, and decorate everything for Christmas don’t work too well in the everyday world.

This is a fun collection of lighter stories. As I said, aimed at children, so thoroughly useful for the small fry. I love Pratchett’s ability to blend absurd humor, world building, and serious philosophical and moral themes into tales that go down easy and yet make one think.

The audiobook was read by Julian Rhind-Tutt, who was fine, but not particularly memorable. Nothing wrong with his reading, but I didn’t adore it like, say, Jonathan Cecil reading Wodehouse (link).


Previous Pratchett books we have read or listened to:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome

Source of book: I own this, but we listened to the audiobook read by the late Frederick Davidson

It is always an exciting moment when you can introduce your children to a beloved classic. I discovered Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) rather late in life, about 10 or so years ago, and knew that some day, it would be appreciated by my kids.

Three Men In A Boat was originally conceived as a serious travelogue giving the reader useful tips for planning a boat trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. Thus, the book contains interesting historical notes on the various towns, and Magna Carta Island (allegedly where King John signed the document) among other features. However, as the book was being written, Jerome seems to have realized that it was the humorous stories about trips taken by himself and his friends that were the best part of the book. Thus, these were expanded, and became the best part of the work. 

Magna Carta Island. Believe it or not, it was up for sale a couple of years ago.

At the outset, the author takes great pains to stress the absolute veracity of what he writes. Obviously, this isn’t entirely true, but there is a certain earthiness that reveals Jerome’s personal experiences at the heart of the tale. His companions represent real people. “George” was George Wingrave, who later became a senior manager of Barclay’s Bank. (Jerome describes George’s job as taking naps at the bank.) “Harris” was Carl Hentschel, who founded a printing business. And “J,” naturally, was Jerome himself. Montmorency, the dog, was the truly fictional character, although the author believed that there was a bit of the canine in all Englishmen.

From the very start of the book, the author makes it clear that he will be pretending to be objective while skewering his companions and himself mercilessly. The three are sitting around in a general malaise, discussing what is wrong with them. J is certain - having read a medical dictionary cover to cover - that the only known disease he lacks is “housemaid’s knee.” His doctor doesn’t agree, however, and recommends nutritious food and a pint of beer each evening. So, they eventually agree that it is all due to overwork, and decide on a two week vacation. After rejecting several options, including a sea voyage (Jerome’s descriptions of seasickness are hilarious), then decide to take a camping skiff up the Thames.

Interspersed with the details of the trip are a variety of anecdotes and digressions. Some, such as the sad tale of a single mother who committed suicide, read like Victorian purple prose, but others seem there solely for entertainment. The kids particularly liked the story of Uncle Podger and the chaos he caused in the hanging of a picture. Other bits include some stock jokes like the plaster trout and banjo jokes.

Probably the most popular bit was the description of the Irish Stew, which the boaters make using leftovers. My older four kids can cook in varying degrees - the oldest two can do everything themselves - so they listened to the ingredient list carefully. Leftover beef and lamb pies? Good. Various vegetables, even better. But when the leftover smoked salmon was added, there were some titters. This particular addition was, shall we say, not universally approved. But then, this followed:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

To the extent one can roll on the floor while seatbelted in, we did so.

Three Men In A Boat was not greeted with universal applause. The critics were mostly hostile, railing against the book for its “vulgar” use of slang, among other faults. As has been the habit of critics from time immemorial, they castigated the author for appealing to the tastes of the lower classes. The book sold, however, and sold well. Since its appearance in 1889, it has never been out of print.

For those who like to live their books, this one is a real gem. One can easily recreate the trip. In fact, the travelogue portion has stood up extremely well, as the inns and pubs named in the book are still open for business 125 years later. Hooray for British resistance to change, or something like that. For what it’s worth, the only bit of this book that I have personally experienced was a half hour of punting at Oxford back in my law school days. This does seem like the sort of thing I would have done, in another place and time. Should one wish to recreate this trip, you can indeed rent camping skiffs. Many date back to Jerome’s days. A truly authentic experience, at least if you can bring your own fox terrier. 

One caution about this book would be that it does reflect certain Victorian attitudes, such as a degree of condescension toward women - something not lost on my older daughters, who were eager to point out that they would have been perfectly competent to row or tow a skiff. I have no doubt that they are right. But these are ultimately a minor fault, and one common to much of the history of literature, alas. It made for a good discussion, however, of just how much things have changed. (This was aided by the true stories we learned during our exploration of California’s Gold Country on this trip.)

I can recommend this book as a classic of British Victorian humor, and one that children can enjoy as well. There are a number of well-regarded audiobooks of this work, including one by Hugh Laurie. Frederick Davidson did a fine job on this one, enhancing the experience.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

Source of book: I own this. A gorgeous hardback edition of Classics of Eastern Thought from Barnes and Noble I got for Christmas a couple of years ago. 

My brother had a copy of The Art of War in translation when we were teens. I read a bit here and there, but I recall that he was more into it at the time. This was natural because he was a serious war buff, and still can talk circles around me on history and strategy and so on. I also recall a computer game with the same name, with strategy and tactics based on the book. Likewise, technology was of the same era.

Anyway, I decided to go ahead and read through the entire book and see what I thought.

First, let me mention that the version I have was translated by Lionel Giles, assistant curator of the British Museum. This is the classic 1910 translation, so most of the phrases will be familiar even to those who are unaware of the original source. Giles also provided selected commentary on the book, bringing together the various Chinese commentators throughout history.

It is certainly interesting to read a book of this age about war. Some things have clearly changed. The development of various technologies from artillery to motor vehicles changed the nature of warfare - to say nothing of aircraft and true navies. Likewise, the modern political reality of modern states rather than tribal and regional chieftains has changed the nature of war. On the one hand, war can be horribly destructive in a short time. On the other, the costs of war and the unwillingness of populations to sustain absolute warfare for any extended period have made war both less frequent and more costly.

Still, much of this book fits the modern world better than one would imagine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the art of war and the art of politics have some overlap, and one can see a creative application of the principles that Sun Tzu set forth in modern negotiation tactics. Since Sun Tzu dedicates much of the work to the preparation for victory rather than the battle itself, the principle of winning the battle without fighting translates well to a variety of areas. I might mention in particular, the realm of law, in which I do battle.

The book itself dates from the 5th Century BCE. Whether Sun Tzu ever existed is a matter of debate, as the name can be interpreted simply to mean “The Fugitive Warrior.” On the other hand, there is some evidence of a person that may have been behind the book.

There is no doubt that this work has been influential. The history of Eastern warfare, particularly that of ancient China and Japan is filled with examples of strategy taken from The Art of War. In more modern times, Douglas MacArthur was a fan, while the Viet Cong used many principles from the book. One might even say that the failure of the Western forces to understand the principles led to the involvement in Vietnam in the first place.

There are a few aphorisms that stood out to me as applicable to our modern questions of war.

First is this: Sun Tzu lists as his first consideration in determining the conditions who has the backing of the Moral Law? In Sun Tzu’s time, this was important, but in our own time, it has become of paramount importance, thanks to the concept of the “Just War.” Fighting for economic advantage is no longer considered a viable reason for war, at least for most of the democratic nations. Thus, to gain the support of the populace, a leader must convince that the moral high ground lies with his side.

Another one, not as well observed as of late, is this:

II (2) When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped…

(3) Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.
(6) There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

Another section that made a lot of sense was the one on stratagem rather than brute force.  

III (1): Sun Tzu said: in the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them.

(2) Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

One can see this both in the case of war, where there seems to be a whole segment of the political spectrum (here in the US) that is more interested in “making the sand glow” than in winning battles without destroying everything. (For all the failures of the George W. Bush administration, he seems to have at least intended to capture intact and co-opt the populations to our side. The latest group seems more intent on killing as many as fast as possible.) In my own law practice, I have found that resolving divorce cases in particular is easier where my client is willing to allow the other side to keep dignity and self image intact. (As I say often, let him/her feel like they won something, and they won’t need to fight you on everything.)

Another one stood out, not so much for war-related reasons as for musical ones is this:

V (7) There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

Sun Tzu also lists five colors and five flavors. But it is the musical one that is particularly interesting.

We here in the West tend to think either in diatonic terms (7 notes, A-F) or in chromatic terms (meaning a total of 12 distinct pitches.) For the ancient East, however, there were five, which we refer to as the pentatonic scale. (For those non-musicians, C-D-E-G-A.) Actually, the pentatonic scale is heard all over the world, and has become the basis of much of rock and blues in our own pop tradition. I will specifically mention the hymn Amazing Grace as a use of the pentatonic scale, but that is just an easy example. The use of the minor pentatonic, C-D-Eb-G-A, over a major chord structure is the basis of too many rock solos to count, and the addition of “blue” notes forms the basis of, well, the blues. It is fun, in any case, to see a line between my own experience in improvisation back 2500 years to the other side of the world.

Perhaps one of the most famous lines in the work is this: “All warfare is based on deception.”

This is certainly true in war itself, but often too in negotiation. It can be a successful strategy to hide one’s real aims for a time, allowing the enemy other side to burn their fervor out on a side issue, while subtly winning the main issue.

There is another application, however, that really leapt off the page:

IX (24): Humble words and increased preparations are signs that the enemy is about to advance. Violent language and driving forward as if to the attack are signs that he will retreat.

This holds true in law, I can assure you. But it also is true in other areas. I think particularly right now of both politics and religion. As one can see in the popularity of The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named and in the increasingly belligerent and aggressive rhetoric the fundamentalist wing of American Christianity, both White Nationalism and Fundamentalism are in panicked retreat in our society, but both have resorted to increasingly violent language and actions. I would consider both a more credible long-term threat if they used humble words. Just saying.

I’ll end with perhaps the most famous of all of Sun Tzu’s aphorisms.

VIII (18) Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Truer words were never spoken.

The Art of War is a fascinating book. I originally sought out this collection for this work alone, but I am interested in continuing through the other works. (The Tao Te Ching, The Works of Confucius, and The Works of Mencius.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Polarization and Parroting - How We Got There

I have mentioned before that I loathe politics - particularly current politics. I decided to dive back in, however, not to write about a particular candidate (such as The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named), but to examine a troubling trend and how I think it originated.

To set the stage, let me related a recurring conversation that I have had with a few intelligent and thoughtful friends.

“Have you noticed that most people agree with their political party, not just a majority of things, but on every single thing?”

And it really is true. Not just about the predictable things either. For example, if you have a friend who is part of the Religious Right, you would not be surprised that they have certain opinions on abortion or gay marriage. But think about this: you can guarantee that about 99% of them will also have these opinions:

Opposition to any form of gun control
Opposition to immigration (at least by Muslims or Latinos)
Belief that universal health care is of the devil
Climate Change is a conspiracy
Belief that police brutality is a media invention
Belief that society is made up of “producers” and “consumers” and that the “consumers” are at fault for all our problems. (This is classic Ayn Rand, in case it wasn’t obvious.)
Opposition to most government programs (except for Social Security and Medicare)

And there are a myriad of smaller issues, and people will almost entirely say the exact same things about each and every one of those issues.

It’s not as if any of the above are core Christian doctrines, either. (And, if I am honest with myself, the teachings of Christ do not generally tend to align well with the political commitments of the Right at this moment in history.)

This pattern holds to a certain degree on the Left as well. I am less qualified to discuss that side - I grew up in the Religious Right, live in a conservative city -  so I am going to speak more of what I know than speculate about the “other side.”

Now add another factor into the list. I have quite a few friends from the Religious Right, so I see what they post and say and think quite a bit. Just in the last month, I had a series of things show up that fit a pattern. A friend would post a ludicrous and clearly alarmist article claiming someone in the other party was doing something horrid - and usually unbelievably stupid in the bargain. I would step in and point out the actual facts of the case (with links to actual data, for example), and the poop would hit the fan. Even in those cases where the other party had to admit I was right (such as the case where the “news” was from a spoof site), they would still cling to “but he/she’s so evil that this seemed credible.”)

For what it’s worth, one post was claiming that President Obama just issued an executive order limiting everyone to three guns. (That one was from the spoof site. And really, Obama isn’t stupid. And his actual record on gun control is moderate at worst. But none of that mattered, because the person had already “decided” that Obama is out for our guns.) The other was a claim that the Health Secretary had advocated for mandatory abortions. (Also false. Here is the Politifact breakdown. Let me also note that this came from conspiracy-monger extraordinaire Glenn Beck, so that should have been enough to raise a red flag…) 

Third would be the person who jumped into another thread to claim that The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named was a fantastic person, good in every way, blah, blah, blah. The proof? Another politician she liked had endorsed him. When I cited his racist rhetoric and bullying temperament - both of which are public record - she accused me of being “not teachable.”

The thread that ties these together is this: the actual facts do not matter. What really matters is what side a person is on. Our side: good. Their side: unspeakably evil.

I usually leave links until the end, but I think these two really are part of this discussion.

First is this one, by my friend Joe Holman. Joe is generally conservative, and serves as a missionary to Bolivia. He puts his money and his efforts where his mouth is, actively working to make life better for others. This post is so good, I saved it in my links list.

IMHO You Should Stop Saying IMHO!

Joe points out that most of what we claim is “our opinion” isn’t an opinion, let alone an informed opinion. It’s just parroting of the talking points from someone else who we believe is on the “good” side.

The other is this column from David Brooks, and was posted by a thoroughly conservative relative. I don’t always agree with Brooks, but I think he is on to something here.

A key portion:

Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. You follow a set of rules, enshrined in a constitution or in custom, to help you reach these compromises in a way everybody considers legitimate.

The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. Politics is a muddled activity in which people have to recognize restraints and settle for less than they want. Disappointment is normal.


Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics...Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.


Trump’s supporters aren’t looking for a political process to address their needs. They are looking for a superhero. As the political scientist Matthew MacWilliams found, the one trait that best predicts whether you’re a Trump supporter is how high you score on tests that measure authoritarianism.

I believe that these two tendencies - the parroting of all the positions of “your” tribe, and the
Rejection of compromise and the legitimacy of other interests and opinions - are related.

They come from a belief that the “other side” isn’t made up of people with different  - or even merely wrong - opinions, but enemies that are actively malevolent and evil to the core.

It all stems from this. Once you dehumanize the other side to this degree, the rest follows.

Why do people follow every single minor detail of their party’s platform? Well, if the other side is evil and malevolent, then any position they take is by definition suspect. Even on issues that seem to be naturally a balancing of interests and compromise between priorities, such as, say, alternative energy subsidies.

Likewise, of course you believe the other side would do something politically suicidal. Obama doesn’t just disagree with you, he’s an evil demon out to intentionally wreck America. Muahahaha! A post says he eats puppies? Of course it’s true!

And the third one is true too. If you believe that you are faced with, not a competing set of interests, not difference of opinion, but the very forces of evil, of course you want a superhero, not a politician.

And those people who have different opinions and different interests? They don’t matter. They are not to be compromised with, but destroyed.

How did we get here?

This is pretty much the most accurate vision of 21st Century American politics.

Well, I won’t be so naive as to say we haven’t been here before. Nineteenth Century politics were often brutal. And we did have that whole Civil War thing that killed a half a million people. (If we had the same death rate, that would be 6.2 million deaths.) The rhetoric was similarly heated, with both sides believing they were on the side of God himself. Which obviously couldn’t be equally true for both parties. So there is unfortunate precedent for this.

I think the modern polarization, though, can be traced to its origin, at least on the Right. (Again, I am more center right these days, and was raised on the far right. Thus, I cannot really speak to the development of the left.)

For the right, I believe that the polarization began in earnest when the coalition that became what is now the Religious Right adopted abortion as its cause. (I need to blog on that one.) On a related note, the original glue for the coalition was an opposition to the Civil Rights movement. (Don't forget that prior to her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, Phyllis Schlafly's first foray into political involvement was pro-Segregation. And that's just one of the many connections.) Thus, one could combine the fear and hatred that drove the coalition emotionally (but now baptized by the teachings of Ayn Rand) with an easy “black and white” issue. Once the “other side” was dehumanized as depraved baby killers, the polarization was inevitable. Nothing the Democrats advocated for could be trusted. They were evil, and must be destroyed. This belief gained even greater traction during the 1990s, with the rise of talk radio, which further served to whip up the fear and hatred for the other side that the James Dobsons of the world had been stoking for so long.

That this came with a whole bunch of baggage from the Civil Rights era wasn’t a bug, but an intended feature. Now that the left/right polarization was based on a perception of good versus evil, then a host of really poisonous ideas could be accepted. It did take a while for this to truly develop, of course. Ayn Rand wasn’t always accepted as the new prophet of Christianity like she is now. (That needs to be a separate post.) But this election has brought out what what always lurking under the surface: a view of politics as a jihad against the forces of evil, rather than the compromising and balancing of competing interests and viewpoints.

And that’s why, for a great many on the right, the idea of voting for a narcissist running on a platform of racism will eventually start to look appealing. When the other side is the devil incarnate…

I think that there is a cure for this, but it is one many will not want to hear. First, we need to grant the basic humanity of the other side. With the exceptions of a few loud and obnoxious people on both sides, people are people, not evil caricatures. Perhaps if people spent time around those they disagree with and just listened, rather than argued, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

Second, we need a lot more humility. As Joe Holman pointed out (seriously, read it!), most of what we think is our opinion isn’t even our opinion. It’s just parroting. So if we don’t even have an informed opinion, based on actual research and documentation, why do we think we can declare it is absolute truth? The other side may well have some valid points. And other people may indeed have interests which compete with ours. True community doesn’t come from destroying people who threaten your own privilege, after all, but from finding common ground.

Third, as a Christian, I believe that I am called to love my neighbor as myself. This means that I need to do my best to place myself in the shoes of others, before I declare their viewpoints wrong - or worse, evil. This means that I believe I must evaluate the policies I call for through the eyes of the others the policy affects. Not just me and my tribe, but the “other” as well.

At that point, one can start to envision the uncomfortable compromises that must be made for people to live together in peace. Sure, nobody will be 100% happy. “Get used to disappointment.” But compromise is infinitely better than “winning” through the destruction of others.

As a final point, let me rewind to a time from my childhood. Before George H. W. Bush was Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, the two vied for the GOP nomination. It’s pretty clear that neither would be remotely welcome in today’s GOP. I still cannot get over the fact that Bush is actually concerned that immigrant children would feel stigmatized. It’s like basic human decency - something nearly impossible to find in politics right now.

One more link that is excellent is this one:

I would add that it isn’t just the Republican Party which has attracted authoritarians. We have seen the same trend in American Evangelicalism. We have had our Trumps for decades. From Bill Gothard to Mark Driscoll, the promise of halting of social change has had a powerful appeal, and has led us to embrace evil ideas and authoritarian teachings. Maybe I should blog about that some time.


Just one bit that occurred to me later. The amount of vitriol that President Obama has taken during his two terms seems to me to rather unprecedented. Particularly the way that substantial portions of the Right still seem to believe he is a foreign-born Muslim, despite all evidence to the contrary. I have finally had to conclude that, for most of these people, this accusation is a socially acceptable projection of their real objection, which is that there is a black man in the White House.