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Back in the 15th century an exiled German goldsmith radically altered society with his strange claptrap invention. Gutenberg’s movable-type screw-press vastly improved on all previous printing presses (to say nothing of hand-transcription of books) and began an information revolution which has continuously accelerated ever since then. The written word, once the domain of super wealthy elite (or of a monopolistic church with an exceedingly parochial interest in knowledge), became available to everyone. The printing press chased away the ghastly fog of religious obscurantism and paved the way for democracy, reform, intellectual collaboration, empiricism, exploration, emancipation, and liberalization. Humankind stepped forward towards the reformation, enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Except…

When printing technology first became widely available, the impact which it had on society was chaotic. Ordinary people of the time were not necessarily gifted at critical reasoning, and Europe was a powderkeg of antagonistic factions greedily angling for any advantage (speaking of which, gunpowder and artillery first came into widespread use in the 15th century, and their adaptation and improvement were hastened by publishing breakthroughs).

“Well…if it’s in a book, I guess it must be true.”

Suddenly society was awash in new ideas, incentives, and imperatives–all delivered with the magisterial force of the written word, once the sole domain of a cloistered master class. In this new world, you could show up at night and tack up a poster that said witches were a real & widespread malady which could only be defeated with fire. Suddenly gormless rubes would be running around burning everyone they had a problem with. After all, the anti-witch message was written down, and written things were known known to have the infallible weight of divine authority!

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Indeed this is a thing that actually happened! Historians estimate that between a quarter of a million and a half million non-sorcerous people were killed as part of the witch panics which swept Europe in the early modern era. Fraud, calumny, conspiracy theories, and wild dangerous political invective swept the European continent (and the increasingly wider world which was a part of European colonial enterprise).

I am bringing this up not because I am an anti-literate or anything, but because, obviously, global society is deep in the midst of a similar revolution–except today’s information revolution is compressed and amplified by the speed and scope of globalized tech culture.

When I was a child, if you saw something on a glowing screen, it had gone through a long and expensive process to get there (and had passed a lot of powerful gatekeepers). Nowadays, any self-proclaimed expert with access to Youtube (or, uh, WordPress) can instantly disseminate their ravings worldwide to a self-selecting audience.

There is no easy to answer to all of this..nor should there be. On balance, the new manifestations of super-abundant information are wonderful and liberating. However, after living through the malignant Trump era (and the Trump pandemic), it is obvious there is more of a red column to the ledger than we initially imagined. Wish-fulfilling mendacity flies through the ethernet even faster than it ever traveled by means of broadsheet. Whole new taxonomies of demagogues, conspiracy theorists, pseudoscientists, quacks, and frauds invent & broadcast “fake news” more swiftly than rational and conscientious folk can debunk such things. And who is an authority anyway, in a world where so many truly powerful authorities are authoritarian?

There are no answers to today’s plague of misinformation and filter bubbles other than classic enlightenment solutions of critical thinking, empiricism, and cross referencing (with maybe a dash of deconstructionism thrown in to burst the filter bubble of whiggish liberal WASPS like myself). Obviously we need to ensure that teaching such values is at the heart of universal free (mandatory) education for all young people.

P.S. Although, frankly, the young people I have met around the city have developed great sophistication at parsing new media and roll their eyes at Nigerian princes, Breitbarts, Qanons, and essential oils the way a philosophe would sneer at a witch poster.

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Today’s post starts out funny but quickly becomes troubling and: so maybe just read the first part?

As you might have guessed, we start with Jerry Falwell Jr.–not because his current scandal is hilarious (although it really is) but because his affairs illustrates some larger points which we would be wise to think about.  Falwell is a rich and powerful evangelical leader who is one of the most prominent  members of the “religious right,” an aggressive blend of Christian fundamentalism and far right politics.  He has long treated his father’s university as a private fiefdom–a political/moral training camp for creating followers and minting money.

Falwell Jr. has a long history of racist tirades, homophobic stunts, shady business dealings, Covid denialism, and preposterous conspiracy theories, but such things are not entirely unknown among America’s extreme right-wing churchmen.   For the last few weeks he has been under a cloud because of strange racy photographs of himself removing his trousers while undressing a lady companion. This week, however, his whole masquerade blew apart when it was incontrovertibly revealed that he liked to watch his wife sleep with other men, most notably a special live-in pool boy named Giancarlo Granda (who may or may not have been extorting the couple), but apparently other business partners and acquaintances as well. When the scandal became undeniable, Falwell Jr. threw his wife under the bus by claiming it was all her fault. He admitted no wrongdoing, pulled the cord of his golden parachute and pocketed 10 million dollars for quitting his job as head of an ultra-conservative Christian university.

As a New York City libertine (albeit a celibate one) I believe that what married couples do in their bedroom with handsome young poolboys, business partners, sundry others, and who knows what sort of costumes, devices, onlookers, animals, religious paraphernalia, super drugs, etc. is entirely their own affair. Yet the outrageous hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s public persona (and the extent to which he has leveraged said public persona for political influence and money) make his discomfiture particularly risible.  We probably shouldn’t be so amused: Jerry Falwell Jr. is now ten million dollars richer (ten million dollars which had already been taken from starry-eyed devout kids in exchange for a worthless education and a bunch of lectures about the necessities of abstinence and supporting Trump). Indeed, based on recent evidence, this huge freak is probably turned on by the worldwide derision directed at his private life.

Beyond Falwell himself, this excellent article in Slate, highlights the true significance of this sort of scandal.   Jeffrey Guhin (whose ideas I have liberally borrowed here) writes:

In the old theological meaning of the word, scandal isn’t really about what happens to the person who does something wrong. It’s about what happens to everybody else, those left in the scandal’s wake, wondering if there’s anything left to believe. In that sense, Falwell’s scandals are of a piece with Trump’s. Falwell makes people wonder if religion is actually just jerks reciting pieties and making money; Trump makes people wonder the same thing about democracy.

Here is the real problem, acts like Falwell’s diminish our collective faith in other people.  That faith is the bedrock of religion (ask the Pontifex Maximus what happened to worship of Jupiter after a few centuries of Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and Elagabalus).  When devout Christians attack liberal professors, Hollywood movie stars, and atheist bloggers for destroying Christianity they are looking at the wrong villains.  The emperors of Pagan Rome had their unstoppable legions burn Christians to death in front of vast crowds and it only made Christianity stronger and more popular.  Christians who love the power of cruel smug bullies and the promised wealth of the idolatrous prosperity gospel are the real reason Christianity is declining in America.  Don’t take it from me, take it from peer-reviewed sociologists who carefully studied people who walked away from the house of Christ.

But even if you are not religious, faith in other people’s actions and motivations is also the basis of education, of government, and of the economy (Guhin correctly notes that money is just paper and computer numbers unless we believe in it).  Faith in other people is even necessary for evidence-based disciplines like science and medicine (we have seen how much modern medicine helps people if everyone regards doctors as the highly paid stooges of crooked insurance corporations).  Tobacco companies realized they could defang earnest anti-smoking studies by pointing to unrelated scientists whose research was funded by corporations and then just saying “everyone is equally bad”! Faith in other people is the bedrock of everything unless you are a lone hunter gatherer (in which case how are you reading this?).

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Day after day, I go to Facebook and look with bemused sadness at the posts of relatives and friends who are Trump supporters.  Far from feeling that this most un-Christian president’s ostentatious support of Christian values is a grotesque affront, they regard him as someone who “keeps it real”.  Trump’s penchant for doing illegal things and then insouciantly shrugging and say “everyone does it” is part of the way he gets away with it. Scandal and disillusion has left smart and caring people as cynics who believe that all politicians are crooked fraudsters.  Disillusionment prevents them from discerning which politicians are actually criminals.  It is another dark example of the cynical anti-government death spiral Republican leaders seem to be caught in (the enormous danger of turning citizens against the government was also the real thesis of my oh-so-long-ago 2016 endorsement). In the mean time our government (which needs to be doing lots of very complicated things to help our fellow citizens, ensure the nation’s defense, protect the world ecosystem, and secure a worthwhile future ) is left in the hands of ghoulish kleptocrats.

Anyway, all of this talk of outrageous hypocrites who pretend to be supremely holy when they are actually depraved, power-hungry leeches is wearing me out. Let’s tune into the Republican convention and see what Mike Pence has to say.

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Commencement at Liberty

The recent post about Orvieto’s gorgeous Gothic cathedral gave plenty of attention to the outside of the building, but I failed to illustrate the wonders which are housed within.  Today therefore, we venture into the splendid Christian church in order to look at a magnificent fresco of…the Antichrist?

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Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist (Luca Signorelli, 100-1503) Ffresco

Here is Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, a large fresco by Luca Signorelli, the fifteenth-century Tuscan master of foreshortening.  In fact Signorelli (and his school of apprentices, assistants, and students) painted a whole series of large frescoes about the apocalypse and the end of earthly existence within the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio (a fifteenth century addition to Orvieto Cathedral).  The disquieting series of eschatological paintings is considered to be Signorelli’s greatest achievement–his magnum opus.  For today, let’s just look at The Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, which was the first work in the series (and which pleased the Cathedral board so well that they commissioned the rest).

 

Signorelli began the work in 1499, a mere year after the execution of Giralamo Savonarola in Florence in 1498 (Savonarola was burned at the stake for the heresy of denouncing church corruption corruption, despotic cruelty, and the exploitation of the poor: he was a sort of ur-Luther).  Death, political tumult, and questions of true righteousness were much upon people’s minds.

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In the work, the Antichrist (center bottom) preaches to a great crowd.  Although he has the features of Jesus, we recognize that the Antichrist is not the savior thanks to the pile of gold and treasure heaped at his feet by deluded followers. These so-called Christians are stupidly unable to discern the teachings of Jesus from the self-serving slander, calumny, and lies of the vile (yet sumptuously attired) puppet on the pedestal.  We art lovers however can clearly see that the Antichrist’s true lord is right there behind him, whispering the words of the sermon into his ear.

In the background, the Antichrist’s vile shocktroops (dressed in tactical black like ninjas) seize control of the church and the state.  In the foreground his coistrels and operatives slit the throats of the righteous.  Various scenes of depravity show a woman selling herself to a stupendously rich merchant as the Antichrist performs false miracles of healing and resurrection.

However the center left shows the Antichrist’s fall (figurative and literal).  The archangel Michael smites the foul false messiah with the sword of divine Justice.  Golden fire spills from heaven, laying low the Antichrist’s evil and benighted followers who die writhing in anguish.

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It is a stunning work. Signorelli knew it was his masterpiece and painted himself in black in the left corner watching events transpire (indeed, also mixed into the crowd are young Raphael, Dante, Columbus (maybe), Boccaccio, Petrarch, Cesare Borgia, and Fra Angelico in his Dominican garb), and yet it is a deeply strange and confusing painting.  The righteous and unrighteous are all jumbled together in weird intersecting groups which are hard to distinguish.  There is a great empty hole in the center of the composition and the final victory of the angel is in the mid-distance on the left (which is not where it should be in terms of classical composition).  The gentle Signorelli was perhaps troubled by the Orvieto of 1500 (which was filled with squabbling mercenaries fighting between two factions of wealthy nobles).  Also, as he was painting the work, the plague was in the 8000 person city and two or three people died every day!

It is almost as though the pious Signorelli is warning the viewer about brutal leaders who crush the peasantry for personal gain and sanctimonious “Christians” who pretend to believe in Jesus while truly serving the Devil.  The work is ostensibly about end-times but it shows Signorelli’s contemporary society coming apart from fighting, misinformation, plague, and greed.  It is wonderful to look at art, but thank goodness this is a work about the distant past. It would be truly disturbing if it offered timeless lessons about the never-ending strife, greed, and fear in the human heart or how susceptible we all are to impostors who are the exact opposite of everything Christ stood for.

 

 

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Self Portrait With Masks (James Ensor, 1899)  oil on canvas

Yesterday we sure had some…fun?…looking back at the evil clowns in the literature and music of yesteryore.  Before we push through to the evil clowns of the twentieth & 21st centuries (and examine why they excite and disturb so may people), let’s take a break and check out some disturbing clown art from Belgium’s most famous artist!  This is not Ferrebeekeeper’s first post about dark clown art–we already featured a controversial evil contemporary clown painting a few years back (it is funny–and maybe meaningful–to reflect that that post was from the last Halloween when I was a drinker!). But anyway, in today’s post, we are going to try to look at art which is not contemporary (since the art world these days sometimes seems like nothing but evil clowns), yet, moving back in time to look at James Ensor’s garish & phantasmagorical artwork raises a lot of disturbing questions.

Now whereas we know whether clowns of literature and opera are evil, things become less clear when we get to visual art–since all we have are visual cues.  Clearly the wistful clowns of Picasso’ rose period, the clowns of Pigalle as seen through the eyes of Toulouse Lautrec, and the sad twilight clown of Watteau don’t belong here (gosh, artists really do like clowns!).  Instead we are going to look at the decidedly mixed nihilistic clowns of James Ensor.

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James Ensor (1860-1949) was a sort of outsider artist of the Symbolist era.  He lived in his parents’ attic much of his life and rarely traveled.  His mother owned a costume shop, so, one could argue that many of these “clowns” are really strange masks or ludicrous costumes.  What is a clown though, but a masked costumed comic performer?  Ensor’s art might be described as thriftshop existentialism: skeletal beggars and weird apparitions in fancy rags struggle through their days towards oblivion.

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Two Skeletons fighting over a Dead Man (James Ensor 1891) oil on canvas

A more cutting argument might be that Ensor’s clowns are sad rather than evil.  A lot of these clowns do look very sad indeed–like they are trapped with the three stooges in an Albert Camus novel.  One of Ensor’s paintings (immediately above) features two bedraggled skeletons fighting each other for the corpse of a hanged person as a bizarre cast of ghostly outsiders look on.  All of the figures are dressed weirdly and have peculiar makeup, but are any of them evil?  Are any of them clowns?  Are any of them living humans at all? Maybe???  It certainly doesn’t matter: the pitiable spectacle paints existence as a nihilistic and sordid tableau with such force that it doesn’t matter if I have betrayed the theme of today’s post by putting it up. It’s not like evil clowns are paying me for writing this anyway [evil clowns, if you want to pay me just drop a note in the comments and we can move the discussion to email]

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King Pest (James Ensor, 1895) etching

Ensor was also a political artist.  For some reason, he felt that the pompous masters of society were abusing and degrading the people below them in the social hierarchy.  He was not however a romantic or an idealist:  one gets the sense that the victims in these interactions would behave just as meanly if the roles were reversed.  Ensor was also famously an atheist (although he sometimes painted Jesus as a sort of ultimate moral philosopher).  The haunted queasy feeling of these works is thus a metaphor for ultimate oblivion.

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Comical Repast: Banquet of the Starved( James Ensor, ca. 1917-18) oil on canvas

Ensor painted life as a meaningless clown show where social hierarchy was a rickety ladder of betrayal and corruption.  In his world, everyone is a sad clown, but the aggressive, abusive, and domineering clowns are in command because of their mean tricks.  It is not an uplifting view of existence, but he painted it with such bravura force and ghastly energy that his work has a sublime aspect.

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Red and White Clowns Evolving (James Ensor, 1890)

There is a spirit of bitter mockery and unfulfilling vengeance which motivates these works about fin de siècle European society as it moves towards the Great Wars.  Evil clowns in literature and art are all about vituperative nonbelief!  James Ensor got that.   His clowns are a cutting metaphor for cruel existential absurdity.  And, to wrap up, here is Hop Frog again!

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Hop-Frog’s Revenge (James Ensor,1896) Oil on Canvas

Though I had my doubts when I first started writing this, I now have to say, some of these clowns are not just sad, they are definitely super evil.  Thanks James Ensor, you always come through!

 

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The Assassination (James Ensor, 1888)

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Something I have wanted to write about for a long time is the uncanny way in which human societies are analogous to ecosystems.  Furthermore, the roles within these societies grow and change and wink out—just like species in different ecosystems do–and yet they hew to certain broad generalized templates over time. This seems so self-evident to me that almost doesn’t need to be talked about, and yet when I do talk about it, I realize that it is difficult to explain comprehensively.

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There are many ecosystems—like rainforest, arid scrubland, deep ocean bottom, steppe, or coral reef.  The creatures in these ecosystems are designed by long, long generations of competition and gradual mutation to use the resources of the ecosystem to survive.  Thus a sea anemone eats plankton that the current wafts into its tentacles…and then a clownfish evolves to live protected in the stinging tentacles and look after the anemone…and then a sea turtle evolves which eats anemones and so on.  The larger ecosystems are connected too.  For example, the pelagic ocean depths engender huge quantities of plankton which wafts onto the reef.

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There are many niches in ecosystems—like arboreal fruit gatherer, lurking swamp predator, or planktonic browser.  Convergent evolution causes the shapes of creatures adapted to these roles to take on many similar characteristics:  thus arboreal fruit eaters (whether they be iguanas, tarsiers, or cockatoos) have cunning grips, small agile bodies for precise balance, & acute depth perception; planktonic browsers have huge mouths, filter membranes/apparatuses, and a shape build to conserve energy; and reef building organisms are sessile with grabby arms and a calcium carbonate skeleton they can retreat into (even if they are not corals).

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Of course there are always generalists like raccoons or rats or pigeons which have a number of useful traits that allow them to flourish in a city, a field, or a forest, or wherever…but truly complicated ecosystems engender flamboyant specialists like frogs that live in bromeliads or saber hummingbirds with beaks longer than the rest of the bird’s body.

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A jungle might support a few tribes of generalized hunter gatherers (who literally live off the rainforest in the manner of jaguars and toucans), but humans build our own jungles which we call cities.  In the city there are niches for jaguar people who take what they want and for toucan people who are colorful and pick fruit from the tops of trees that others can’t even get to.  Let’s imagine them respectively as business magnates and art curators. Resources are plentiful in cities.  They arrive in raw forms from other places like farms, mines, or forests and then are processed and synthesized by the city which creates secondary and tertiary tiers of specialists who live off of individual refinement steps which might not even exist elsewhere.

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A farm town might have farmers, millers, bakers, bailiffs, carters, and a few thieves, as well as a single baron and a mayor. The city has grain merchants, food factory workers, pastry chefs, bicycle police, teamsters, catburglars, legions of dukes, and a whole vast city hall bureaucracy (and all the other roles in between).

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As the niche change through time so to the roles change, but there are underlying similarities. Farriers, lectors, and lamplighters have died away but we now need mechanics, voiceover actors, and electric engineers. Some jobs, like bricklayer or toymaker endure for thousands of years.  Some, like wartime airplane detector exist only for a particular moment in time (after airplanes but before radar).

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If you look at society from a distance you can see how technological and social changes mirror the changes of evolution. Cartwrights generally are replaced by automakers (although there were probably not may individuals who made that career change).  Indeed, our manufactured objects themselves illustrate this change (as you can see by looking at a history book of cars and watching fins and fenders grow and shrink, even as the overall cars become lighter, faster, and safer).

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Just as the natural world is more dynamic, beautiful, and robust when there are may sorts of environment with many different creatures, human society is more prosperous when it has lots of different sorts of settings including places of enormous diversity with all sorts of specialized roles.  The interchange is complicated in the human world.  How many theatrical make-up artists can Iowa support? Yet the collagen in the makeup came from Iowa farms…and perhaps the makeup artist herself (and maybe the actors she works on too) originally came to Broadway from little towns in the corn belt.

This metaphor is useful in looking at the arc of history (which is really hard to comprehend from a human-length temporal perspective).  Additionally, it ties the world of natural history/paleontology together into a seamless narrative with the world of history/sociology (we will get back to this in later posts).  It becomes easier to see how thoroughly we humans are part of the natural world—we are sophisticated colony primates not some aberration from outside biology (or clockwork children made by a crazy god). Beyond these vast perspectives of deep time, biology, and macro-economics, however, it is useful to look at society as interlocking ecosystems because it reminds us to be more careful of one another since we need one another.

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There can be no city without the countryside! And who would farmers sell their barley to without cities? (and where would rural hospitals get doctors or malls get new fashions)?  Likewise the farmland needs the forest. The fishing village needs the ocean. In this red-blue era where people from the country and the city apparently despise each other (!) we need to recall it is a false distinction. Everyone needs each other.  The world is a web.  If you touch one thread the whole thing vibrates. And it is changing so fast that we little spiders and flies must also change so swiftly that it is barely possible to figure out who is preying upon whom anymore.  We will come back to this concept, but right now take a look around you and squint.  If the clerks, and stockbrokers and stockboys don’t start to seem more like termites and tigers and tapirs…if the dairymaids and cows don’t seem like ants and caryatids, well let me know. I’ll write it all down a different way.  But I will be surprised if you don’t see it.

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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Here are 2 troubling stories from opposite corners of the internet…and they are related in a way which is worth addressing.

The first concerns the new addition to the Federal Reserve Board, Marvin Goodfriend.  Goodfriend is a famous hyperinflation phobic.  He believes that quantitative easing (or any sort of monetary stimulus) in the American economy will cause the worth of money to deteriorate in one of those nightmarish economic breakdowns familiar to residents of Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic.  This concept has been substantially debunked both by economic theorists with slide-rulers and by the real-world example of Japan which stagnated for decades thanks to thinkers like Dr. Goodfriend.  Yet Goodfriend obdurately refuses to admit any error in his models.

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“I solemnly swear I am up to no good”

Of course, it is possible that Goodfriend is a bad person who wishes for society to fail (his surname is suspiciously similar to what some shapeshifting demon might choose to best beguile foolish mortals), but the point of this post is not to castigate this one reactionary central banker.  We are using him as an example of a bigger problem which humans have.

The second story involves the horrifying story of the crazy Turpin parents who had 13 children whom they shackled, abused, and tortured for decades in private. The younger cohort of these pitiable children were “home schooled”, but the eldest child did attend public school where her classmates recall her as a sad awkward child who smelled funny, was smaller than everyone, and always wore the same threadbare purple outfit.  As you might imagine, if you ever were a child, these haunting peculiarities did not cause her classmates to ask what was wrong (indeed all of society failed to ask that germane question for 20 years), instead she was mercilessly picked on, taunted, and abused. Although the run-of-the-mill sadists of grade school probably didn’t register compared to the world class sadists who were her birth parents.  We know this about the little girl’s childhood because one of her classmates remembered her–and remembered picking on her and taunting her and wrote a heartfelt essay about it.  The internet has mercilessly jumped on this guy with wild abandon.  He has made himself a target of all sorts of anger and attacks.  It seems unlikely that a third-grader could have changed much: his admissions were brave and have aided the public discourse about what is clearly a deeper problem.  Yet in zeal to express their righteous anger over a social failing people have piled onto him.

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Primates have a weakness.  If any individual backs down they lose their status.  In the human world this means that those who admit failure or wrongdoing, are shunned and detested. This would seem to have a certain cruel logic, and yet the world is bewilderingly complex.  As one tries to impress one’s fellow primates, it is easy to make mistakes (like picking on a classmate or choosing an economic model which inflicts maximum damage to workers). If a person admits they are wrong, they give up much of their social status–the real cheese at the heart of our rat’s maze society.  But if we can’t admit to these mistakes and learn from them and change then all society worsens.

I picked on Goodfriend because he is in the news and because he will undoubtedly deepen the next economic crisis, which could be right around the corner (and because picking on people is a cheap way to gain status) but I could have chosen unrepentant & willfully ignorant characters much closer to the top of society. A certain president, for example, has never admitted he was/is/will continue to be wrong.  His ironclad refusal to ever admit mistakes in any realm seems to be one of the chief sources of his power–although punitive/ reactionary economic models and ruthlessly picking on the weak seem to help him too. There is a reason I chose these examples!

But we don’t want to get off track. We want to compare the person who was heckled by the entire internet for thoughtfully admitting a mistake made as a child versus a retrogressive hack who has ascended to craft world monetary policy precisely because he never addressed well-known problems with his worldview.  There is clearly every reason to never admit you are wrong!

If we can’t figure out what is wrong, we can’t fix things without solving a baffling puzzle, and then facing off in the court of public opinion against all of the people who obdurately refuse to admit or even see the truth because it would diminish their cachet.

That situation seems to in fact be where we all are. It is a paradox that those who never admit mistakes are given precedence over those who learn from their errors.  It is a mistake we are all making and we need to rectify it.  Except for me of course…I am a cunning essayist above such things.

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Did you all watch Moana?  That movie was amazing! It may be my favorite Disney movie (and I am a big fan of hand-drawn animation instead of the computer rendered stuff, so that is really saying something).  The eponymous hero is brave and truly heroic, yet her strength does not come from magic or violence (or a marriage proposal from some foppish prince), it comes from constant striving to go farther and understand things better.  That is a rare thing in our entertainment world.

There is an amazing revelation early on in the movie.  Moana longs to leave her island paradise and sail the broad oceans, but society forbids anyone–even a hereditary princess–from sailing beyond the reef.  Then, in a scene of breathtaking wonder, Moana discovers the secret history of her people. They were not originally from that island…once they were fearless explorers who sailed across the Pacific Ocean on enormous exploration canoes.  Yet they have become insular—obsessed with rules, hierarchies, and the past.  Not only have they become fearful and small, but they have caught all available fish and their fruit groves are dying…

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Naturally, the talk about Moana has largely centered around two things: (1) whether it is secretly an allegory of American politics (I don’t think it is…exactly…but clearly there are uncomfortable parallels); and (2) whether it bowdlerizes Polynesian culture (it does, but, come on! kids’ cartoons flatten and distort every story and the movie presents Polynesian culture with respect and wonder).  “Hercules” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” destroyed those stories: in Disney’s hands they literally ended up with opposite meanings (and endings) than in the original versions, but you don’t hear French people and ancient Greeks complaining.

Lately, in our world, everyone seems to be becoming ever more tribal. We are swift to find (or imagine) insult about anything concerning our group or worldview, and strangely unable to perceive the wonder and possibilities of the bigger picture.  I have been writing about princesses because I want people to stop being so stupid and tribal.  We need to re-examine the leadership archetypes we grew up with so that we can make some better choices.

There are two antithetical reasons we sell the concept of princesshood to little girls.  The first reason is about making children behave.  If you master rules and norms, people will like you and you will succeed. The other is about true leadership, not by coercive means like threats, lawsuits, or bossing people around, but by generosity, and imagination, and beautiful example. If you making your life into something remarkable and amazing, other people are drawn towards you and want to follow you.

Everyone has to tread the line between these two poles– whether you have to submit to the whims of the great masters and the weight of society–or whether you can build a life of beauty, meaning and worth on your own terms. Moana masters both, and is able to lead her people beyond the reef back to their true heritage of exploration and discovery.

People worldwide are growing dissatisfied with the self-satisfied conclusions of the post Cold War era of globalization and automation.   They ask whether we should turn back the clock to make society more insular, static, tribal, and impoverished (yet more safe), or whether we should instead keep growing, learning, and discovering—even if it puts us at danger.   It strikes me that there can only be one answer: the insular society of the 50s was not really all that safe.   The only way is forward; there actually is no road back. We will keep exploring this idea, but in the meantime watch Moana, and tell me your opinions about princesses (or share some favorite childhood memories).  We are starting from the beginning in rediscovering what is best about leadership and how to move on to a future which is worthwhile.   Reexamining some cherished archetypes is a good place to start, but there is a lot we need to talk about concerning where we want to go and who we want to be.

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Today, as we continue through “princess week”, Ferrebeekeeper introduces a whole new feature: movie reviews!  For our inaugural cinematic post, we are writing about a mediocre fairy-tale movie made thirteen years ago for little girls. “Ella Enchanted” stars Anne Hathaway, Cary Elwes (as the evil prince!), Eric Idol, and a whole bunch of people I have never heard of.

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Featuring jarring joke anachronisms, weird pacing, strange scenery, and some pretty hammy acting, “Ella Enchanted” is not “Citizen Kane”.  Yet the protagonist Ella is played by a young Anne Hathaway who brings her full emotive talents to the role and gives real poignancy to the nightmarish plight of central character.  And, even though this a children’s movie, the central problem is horrifying.

The movie’s magical fairy godmother is a mercurial entity who uses her magic capriciously. When presented with infant Ella, this fay sorceress is revolted by the chaotic nature of babies. She uses her power to endow Ella with a terrible gift: absolute obedience.  Ella must promptly do whatever she is told by anyone. Ella’s loving family shields her throughout childhood by home-schooling her, keeping her away from outsiders, and avoiding idioms & imperatives as much as possible, yet adulthood and the world inevitably intervene.

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In the wider world, obedience is a terrible curse.  Malicious and malevolent forces abuse Ella and make her into a pawn. Any stranger can kill her with a careless word or cause her to do the most terrible things imaginable.  At one point, she gets in a cooking pot while ogres light the fire.

Ella falls in love with the handsome prince (who seems quite taken with her beauty, wit, and seemingly impulsive character, however the realm’s other political players swiftly recognize and exploit her curse. Acting under the direction of the wicked regent, she must kill the handsome prince at midnight… Does she murder her true love, or can she find a way to break the compulsion of obedience laid upon her in her infancy?

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Now I don’t want to ruin Ella Enchanted for you…so I won’t.  You can go watch this thing if you want to find out the ending (if you can’t already guess how it turns out). I am writing about it because I can’t stop thinking about it.  The malevolent fascination of ineluctable obedience gives the movie far deeper resonance than it perhaps merits.  Watching someone trapped under a terrible compulsion do what others desire is enthralling.  There is fear and horror shining in Ella’s eyes as she goes around hurting people and destroying herself at the whim of others.  And yet, dare I say it, it all seems…familiar.

Society is built like “Ella Enchanted” and most people are acting under compulsion to do things they don’t care to do.  A great many of these things are self-evidently stupid and pernicious.  We live in a world where you have to drive or else be run over. If you answer your mail wrong you could go to jail. Social compulsion makes even the most powerful people into puppets.  And if you balk very much at all, you go out on the street to freeze and starve.

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And there is an even darker other half to “Ella Enchanted’ which we could think of as ‘Everyone Else, Entitled.”  In the movie, most people are perfectly happy to take advantage of Ella (just as most of us don’t care how we get out iphones and chicken dinners). People very quickly come to think “Now you work for me.  I own you and control you and tell you how you must feel and must act.”  Such ideas apparently just come naturally.  Exploitation seems to be a built-in price for society—fore REAL society, not just this stupid movie.

Yet, to leave the real world and return to Ella and princesses. The entities who control Ella never control how she feels about things.  A princess has autonomy even if, sometimes under duress, she can only use it in the smallest ways.

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Ella figures out the secret to breaking her enchantment and winds up a princess (oops, did I spoil the movie?).   In fact, she was always the hero (that handsome prince was a bit of a stuffed-shirt, if you ask me).  The real question is whether we can learn this lesson?  Can we find the right touch to make use of use little moments and fleeing opportunities in a life filled with compulsion?  Is there a way to escape, or at least partially master society’s oppressive burden of obedience?  Can we ever really be autonomous and star for a moment as the hero in our own life?  It is a big question, and the answers are not as certain as a princess’ storybook ending.

An artist's rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

An artist’s rendition of a solar sail spacecraft!

The Planetary Society is a club which believes we should spend more resources exploring space.  I used to be a member back in the halcyon days when I could afford their annual dues, but alas, I have merely been following their exploits lately.  Mostly they are a political action committee: they use their money to hire lobbyists to remind recalcitrant leaders of the many, many benefits of space exploration. Also they showcase celebrity explorers, scientists, and astronomers (or other famous folk) in order to popularize space research to the fickle and forgetful public.

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Well, that’s what they do most of the time…Sometimes they spearhead astonishing James Bond schemes of their own.  The most recent of these grand plans involved buying a converted Soviet ICBM and using it to launch a solar sail into outer space!  Sadly (yet somehow predictably) the Russians sold the Society a dodgy bum missile which failed after a minute and a half of flight and exploded over the Arctic Ocean.  This happened ten years ago, and despite the abysmal failure, I felt honored to be part of it!  When did you last cooperate on a project which would make Blowfeld jealous? (I exempt mention of my tax dollars which go to NASA—you federal scientists are awesome and I want you to keep it up, but I am talking about a private club right now).

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

A Delta-class Submarine Firing a SS-N-18 (of the sort that failed)

Anyway I bring all of this up, because the Society has scraped together enough pocket change to try again (even without my annual $37.00 membership fee).   In five days they are launching a test flight which will pave the way for a full-fledged solar sail launch in 2016!  The Society learned certain things from the failure a decade ago, most notably “do not trust the Russians” (a lesson which is written upon the very landscapes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia to the extent that it is visible from space, but which was still somehow lost on the Planetary Society until they actually purchased an ICBM).

The Planetary Society's LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

The Planetary Society’s LightSail spacecraft, with its four sails deployed, undergoing tests in Sept. 2014. Credit: Justin Foley/The Planetary Society.

This time they are buying aerospace capacity from more reputable sources—the US Air Force (for the upcoming test flight) and SpaceX for the full mission.  I mention all of this in order to direct your attention to the test flight on May 20th (EDT) which Ferrebeekeeper will definitely revisit and to also point you toward the Kickstarter funding project for next year’s full fledge flight!  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, you could always spend it launching a high tech sail the size of a New York apartment into space (well, maybe the actual spacecraft will be larger than that once it unfurls from its breadbox size cubesat).  Aside from buying stunning original artwork, what could be a better use of your petty cash?

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