War On Whatever

The latest issue of The Christian Century arrived in my mailbox today. In it is an article that ties in nicely with my blog post from yesterday: “Are we really ‘at war’ with the coronavirus?” by Jason A. Mahn.

“War language is the language of power,” writes Mahn. I share Mahn’s misgivings about using war language to describe the current situation with COVID-19. As I mentioned yesterday, war rhetoric without a clear enemy is dangerous, because the passions ignited by such rhetoric can be too easily aimed in the wrong direction. When Trump calls COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” the target becomes not the disease but an entire body of people. Furthermore, by painting Chinese people as the enemy, Trump also inadvertently (or not?) lumps all Asians into the same boat, because many xenophobic Americans see all Asians as Chinese, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, etc. In other words, Trump’s racist portrayal of COVID-19 incites further racism and stereotyping.

Beyond the possibility of misdirected anger, war language can hurt us all by encouraging false bravado. After the Boston Marathon bombing on Patriots’ Day, April 15, 2013, the phrase “Boston strong!” rang out not just in Boston, but throughout the country. The slogan initially instilled a warm feeling of community solidarity but very quickly evolved into a cry for bloodthirsty revenge. I’m all for patriotism, but rallying around “My country can beat up your country” jingles is not always healthy.

What would be a better way of talking about COVID-19? Well, for starters, let’s not pin the blame on a nation or an ethnicity. Let’s focus on solutions and working together for the good of all. Let’s make sure the public is informed, not misled. Let’s stop playing war games.

Humans are resourceful and resilient. We can get through this, but let’s try to get there in one piece.

9/11 and Other Catchphrases

 

I mentioned 9/11 in yesterday’s post, so let’s continue with that. My wife and I were living in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time. Her boss at MIT was supposed to be on one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center (He had a change of plans, so missed the flight.) Just a couple weeks before the attack, we had gone to New York and seen the towers. I’d been there many times. It was my wife’s first and last time seeing them.

I was at home that morning, when she called to tell me a plane had run into the World Trade Center, and I should check out the news. I flipped on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit. That made it clear we were not dealing with a freak accident. I’m not a big TV watcher, but I was riveted by events as they unfolded. When an on the spot reporter at the Pentagon broke off suddenly, yelling something about being under attack, I called my wife back to fill her in on the latest. She came home, and we both just sat in front of the TV, stunned.

Early that afternoon, I went to my volunteer job at CCTV, the local cable access station. The mood was apprehensive. It still wasn’t entirely clear what had happened, or why, or what it might lead to. After my shift in the computer lab, I met up with my wife again and we had dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, a relaxing Tibetan place called Rangzen.

After supper, our neighbor Carl, from down the street gathered a few of us together for a quiet vigil. We sang a few songs, including “With a Little Help From My Friends,” then slowly drifted apart to head either back to our respective homes, or to go join other gatherings taking place across the city.

The wave of patriotism initially felt good. I was proud to live in the United States, happy to live in the land of the free, the home of the brave. But then the phrase “war on terror” started being batted around. That didn’t bode well. It was not only too militant; it was far too vague. I wanted revenge on whoever had done this too us too, but I didn’t want WWIII. I also didn’t want to fight an undefined enemy that could mean a hostile country, a terrorist cell within the US, a foreign visitor, suspicious citizen, or anyone the forces in charge found inconvenient.

Now a similarly nebulous war is being fought, but without provocation. This time the enemy is COVID-19. Or immigrants. Or anyone Donald Trump wants to finger for whatever personal vendetta he’s currently nursing. The tagline this time is Make America Great Again, which means even less than “War on Terror.” It behooves us to remember history, to guard the present, and to plan wisely for the future. A catchy slogan can hide a dangerous agenda.

 

Critiquing Myself

It’s very easy to criticize, to point the finger, to be the armchair quarterback. When I read an essay or article, there’s a little part of my brain that always wants to be an editor, finding fault with the author’s phrasing or choice of words, spotting typos, and suggesting improvements. Today I thought I’d do a bit of that with my own writing. One of my recent blog posts had a simple message: Don’t blindly follow whatever religion you are hand by your parents, society, or anybody else. I fleshed that out with 300+ words, and in the end, I wasn’t very happy with it. So let’s put on our editor hats!

These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.”

The first problem is that in an essay in which clarity of meaning is a theme, I don’t do a good job of distinguishing what I mean by “faith” and “religion.” Then I somewhat inappropriately drag Paul Tillich into it. To compound my error, I make a crack about Kim Kardashian that sounds clever but makes no sense.

Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? … What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

Too many rhetorical questions!

I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty.

I probably should have left politics out of the discussion. That’s just opening a can of worms that needn’t  be opened in this context.

We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed.

The repetition might work in a speech, but it flops in print.

Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

At the conclusion of my post, I wanted to add, “Make sure the ground of your being isn’t shifting sand.” I thought that line tied in neatly with the Tillich quote at the top. Wisely, I opted against doing so; it was a cute line, but only confused what I was trying to say. As Stephen King says in his excellent book, On Writing, “You must kill your babies.” If a sentence doesn’t fit, throw it out, even if it’s your favorite.

 

 

The Pressure’s On…Or Off

One of the hardest things for me when it comes to writing is just getting myself to sit down and do it. No. Wrong. It’s not “one of the hardest things”; it is far and away the hardest thing. But here’s the funny part (funny strange or funny ha-ha?): I love sitting down to write in my journal. In that situation there is no pressure; it’s just me writing for myself and my own enjoyment. As soon as I put an audience into the equation, it becomes a chore. I feel the pressure of performing.

There is an additional demotivating aspect to writing these blog posts. Ironically, it is the fear that no one will read them. Wait…WHAT?? I just said I enjoy writing in my journal because that writing is for me and no one else, but it’s demotivating to write blog posts because I fear no one will read them? Yes.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Journals are supposed to be private. (As an aside: What’s the difference between a journal and a diary?) If no one reads my journal, then all is as expected. But a blog is for public consumption. If no one reads my blog posts, it feels like I have failed. The journal has met expectations; the blog has not.

YouTube boasts that over 400 hours of video are uploaded to the site every minute. There are over 600 million blogs on the web. According to Forbes, “There are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating…” (Bernard Marr, May 21, 2018). It’s unreasonable for me to expect anyone to find and read my little blog posts, and yet a few people do. And some people are able to make a good living by vlogging and/or blogging.

So maybe that’s the problem—the ol’ comparing myself to other people mistake (and it’s almost always a mistake). I would love to reach a wider audience with my blog, but that won’t happen unless I write and post consistently, constantly improving my writing and posting skills. It’s okay to have a desire to be heard, and it’s okay to be aware of what others online are saying. It might also be healthy to bring some of the joy of journalling to the table, though.

Vlogging and Blogging

I’ve been doing VEDA (Video Every Day in April) this year. I was going to do it last year, but didn’t get around to it. I almost didn’t do it again this year, and in fact got a late start, so I changed my personal challenge from VEDA to 30VI30D: “30 Videos In 30 Days.” I know very little about VEDA’s origins (and frankly, I haven’t spent too much time researching it) other than a wee bit of info here. A Reddit from 5 years ago implies that even back then, VEDA might already have been passé. C’est la vie. I’m doing it anyway.

I’m mainly using it as a chance to practice recording myself talking into a camera, the camera in my case being an Android. Pretty low-tech, I admit, but it’s still an interesting learning experience. One thing I’m learning is that I say “um” and “uh” and “yeah” too much. I think my speech habits have declined in recent years and I’m not happy about it. I can do better. Seeing myself in in the short video clips I’ve been making is a humbling experience. In my head, I look fabulous and speak smoothly and mellifluously. Every word is a pearl of wisdom. In reality, I look old and overweight, I puff when I record myself while walking, I tend to babble (although not as incoherently as our so-called president); and then there are all those “ums” and “uhs” and “yeahs.”

Similarly, these blog posts are largely a chance for me to practice churning out small pieces of writing on a semi-regular basis. Reading back over them is another humbling experience, but every writer gives the same advice to would-be writers: “Write!” so I’m writing. I’m also practicing my typing, which is another skill where I feel I fall short. I prefer to write with a pencil and paper, but then there’s the problem of transferring what’s on paper to the computer. I suppose I could simply scan my notebook pages, but my handwriting, while perfectly legible to me, might be difficult for other people to decipher.

So there you have it—a brief note on why I vlog and blog. If anyone wants some helpful hints from a highly successful vlogger, check out these videos from Hank Green:

Standing Ovations and Undeserved Praise

I made my stage debut in The King and I as one of the Siamese children. (Yes, I am white, as were most of the other kids in our production. Yes, they literally dipped us head to toe in stage makeup to make faux Asians out of us. Yes, this would be unacceptable today. That’s a topic for another day.) I was in 6th grade. When we did the curtain call on opening night, the audience gave us a standing ovation. That was in the mid-1970s, when such an ovation still meant something. Now a standing ovation is practically obligatory at every show, regardless of the quality of the performance. The gesture has become meaningless as anything other than a polite matter of course.

But that first standing ovation felt awesome! All these years later, it still stands out as a great moment in my life. Aside from being the first time I experienced the thrill of the stage, it was meaningful because it was deserved. My role was a tiny one, but I knew that even though this was just a high school production, it was a very good one. I have been involved with shows since then that also received standing ovations, but ones which were in no way deserved. They felt phony.

When I was a kid, my parents praised me to the skies, even when I didn’t deserve it. I was a pretty good young musician, but not the best in school, and certainly not the best on a statewide or even citywide level. If I lost a battle for first chair in the band, or didn’t get top score on a solo, my parents acted as if I had been cheated. I wasn’t cheated; I simply wasn’t as good as the competition, and I knew it. To be told otherwise felt like a lie, even if it was well-intentioned. The praise my parents offered was meant as support, but again, it felt phony.

There is a big difference between “You ARE the best!” and “You can BECOME the best.” The latter is helpful; the former is not. When a student (in music, sports, or anything else) hears “You are the best,” the message is “You needn’t bother trying harder; the world has to come around to you.” This is unfair to the student and also casts a negative shadow over the world for not recognizing talent. It would have been much healthier for me to hear a lot more of “You can become the best” while growing up. There the message is, “You are not the best yet, as you are well aware, but the potential is there if you work at it.”

Being told I was the best when objectively and obviously I was not led to a distrust of compliments. It also implied that I was already as good as I could ever hope to be, and since I knew others were better, it led to a feeling of hopeless inferiority. I don’t mean to bash my parents, and I also don’t claim that this is always the case. I just wish I had figured all this out a lot sooner.

Religion: Who Cares?

3 religious books - YouTube thumbnail

In my last blog post, I talked about how little thought people actually put into their religion, even as those same people claim religion is the most important thing in their lives. A recent article in The Christian Century confirms this problem in a longitudinal study of emerging adults and their beliefs. (Seven Spiritual Beliefs of Young Adults) What emerges from the study is that those studied have the sense that they can trust their own instincts about religion, morality, and spirituality without giving the matter any real thought.

I can’t help but see this same trust in personal instinct in the way Mr. Trump approaches…well, everything. He believes his own gut feelings have more validity than the word of experts in any given field. We see this clearly in his daily COVID-19 briefings. The current tendency to dismiss expert advice is not limited to Trump. Is this prioritizing of one’s own inner sense over evidence and expert testimony a symptom of our culture’s longtime conviction of American exceptionalism? Or is it a recent phenomenon?

With regard to emerging adults and their relation to religion, the fact that they trust their own instinct to form a personal belief system may be a sign of the fading importance of religion. As the article states, “[A]ttaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort.” If people are unwilling to put in that effort, the result is an uninformed belief system. In a country that consistently gives privileged status to religion, we either need to take the time to formulate intelligent decisions about religion, or acknowledge that religion isn’t that important after all and take away its position of privilege.

Choosing My Religion

“Above all else, a god needs compassion.” – James T. Kirk

There are a lot of people pounding their Bibles, using it to justify whatever pet cause they have in mind, claiming they have the right to do whatever it is they want to do in the name of their Freedom of Religion. These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.” Most of these people put more thought into what color socks to wear than they do into their religion.

Stop and think for a moment: Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? Go further: What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all of these questions in one short blog post. In fact, I’m not really able to answer them at all, because they are for you to answer. Too often, we—all of us—don’t want to do the heavy thinking. It’s hard. When someone, or some system, comes along that promises to do the thinking for us, it’s tempting to jump at the offer. I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty. Absolutely we need to listen to experts. We need to learn from the words of the wise people who have come before us. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed. Then we need to think.

This applies to politics, to our jobs, to how we manage our daily lives, and to our choice of religion. Because it is a choice. Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

On Typing

“You either live life—bruises, skinned knees and all—or you turn your back on it and start dying.” – Captain Christopher Pike

This line, from the pilot episode of Star Trek, pops up again in Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The line has some resonance for me, especially as I get older. It is tempting to tell myself I’m too old to learn new skills, but that’s not true. One skill I plan on honing: typing. A recent text chat with a longtime friend brought up the topic of typing, and since we were using text as a way of communicating, the message that came through loud and clear was that I suck at typing.

I never took typing in high school because there was never time for it in my schedule. Half of my school day was taken up with music classes (concert choir, jazz band, wind ensemble, etc.); I had to take both summer school and night school just to squeeze in my required history courses. Typing seemed like a class for students with no higher aspirations than secretarial work. How wrong I was!

These days, we spend a lot of time typing on computers and smartphones, and I wish I were better at it. The need for solid typing skills has never been made more apparent than in these past few weeks, when most communication cannot be done face-to-face, and we must rely on the written word more than ever.

Some time ago, I gave some advice on how to succeed in college. I would like to add to that list: Learn to type! It is a skill that will serve you well! I am taking this advice myself. There are plenty of online sites that will teach you to type, many of them free. I am currently using typing.com. I’m sure your local library also has books and tools to help you learn to type, so once they are open again you can take advantage of that resource.

Yes, even an old dog like me can learn new tricks!

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” – Andy Dufresne and “Red” Redding