Archive for the 'Culture' Category

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Growing Up

Popular media abounds with cached tropes, with easy, prepackaged ideas that travel in the wake of simple visual or textual cues. A man kicks a beggar and has scary facial hair? Ok, so he’s evil. Another is clean-shaven and helps the beggar? He’s good, and will probably save the world, especially if he’s an orphan and/or was born under mysterious circumstances. You get it. The writers of these works put in cultural reminders, so we know early on how we’re supposed to feel about certain characters. It’s easier than developing them, and the superficial result is the same. Good writers, of course, will be aware of these tropes and use them carefully, or subvert them when useful.

One of the most oft-invoked tropes in coming-of-age stories is the loss of innocence1 as the step that causes a character to grow up. But what do we mean by “loss of innocence?” It’s not “innocence” in the sense of “having done nothing wrong” but in the “naive,” “blissfully ignorant” sense. The idea is that once the character has witnessed or experienced evil, or just tragedy, he or she is somehow an adult. Of course it’s not that simple, but I believe that it is one of those things that reappears so much precisely because it rings so true. We feel the truth of it. What is it, though, about witnessing bad things that causes a person to grow up? I don’t think it’s the comprehension that bad things happen or that they happen without clear justice. It’s the part after that. The part where things are broken. In the short-lived cult-TV series Firefly, there’s a scene where their ship isn’t working, due to a particular part being broken. The captain asks the mechanic, Kaylee, to find some way to fix the ship. Kaylee, who has a deep, almost affectionate connection with the ship, just looks up at him with despair in her eyes, and says, “Sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”

I think that’s the loss of innocence – the recognition that for all your good intentions, even for all your good actions, no matter how hard you try, things go wrong. Things go wrong, and they can be your fault, and there’s no way to make them right again. I imagine that it comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who encounters that late enough in life to understand that all of the storybooks and all of the movies had it wrong. Things don’t always go right, and you don’t even always get a chance at redemption when things go bad. True, it doesn’t always play out that way. Sometimes, you can fix it. But, sometimes, “a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”

And that, in part, is what it means to grow up.

  1. No, before any of my friends start getting all worried, let me assure you that I’m fine, and there’s no tragedy that sparked this post. ^

Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0

Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, does it again.
In this week’s edition of the London Jewish Chronicle, he wrote an amazingly eloquent response to the various recent proponents of atheism / critics of religion, managing to neither deliver an ad hominem attack nor retreat under apologetics. In his typical fashion, he simply stands up and says the truth about Judaism, speaking simply but not simplistically about complex issues. I have nothing at all to add, as he said everything I would’ve said on the topic, and then some, and said it better. Here are a few choice excerpts, but please, read the whole thing:

…Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is an angry and, at times, eloquent polemic on the evil men and women do in the name of God. It has only one drawback. It does not prove that God is not great. What it shows is that those who claim to be acting for the sake of God are not always great. But then, we knew that already.

Nor is it religion alone that is subverted by violence. So, too, is every institution through which human beings have regulated their conduct with one another. People have done evil in the name of politics. That does not mean that we should, or could, abolish politics. They have committed injustices in the pursuit of wealth. That does not mean we should eliminate property. They have committed crimes in the name of love. That does not mean we should ban love.

But Hitchens is not a prophet, and that is not merely because he does not believe in God. He does not believe in humanity either.

Human beings are complex, their interactions even more so. Yet we long for simplicity. Hence the perennial tendency to say, “if only”. If only we could abolish property, or class, or codes of self-restraint. If only, say the crusaders, people believed in God. If only, say the counter-crusaders, people stopped believing in God.

That is the eternal appeal of “final solutions”. They begin, every one of them, in a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell-on-earth. That is why the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not yet”. The mainstream of our tradition has always rejected the attempt to bring the end of history in the middle of history. If only people stopped saying “if only”.

The virtue of books like God Is Not Great is that they force us back to first principles — in this case to a truth about Judaism that has been far too little written about. It is, we know, a code of action and a set of beliefs. But it is also — and this gives Judaism its extraordinary internal complexity — a field of tensions: between particularism and universalism, exile and homecoming, acceptance and protest, halachah and aggadah, revelation and reason, mysticism and philosophy, sages and saints. Even religious leadership in the Torah is dual: the prophet and the priest. Judaism is not so much a creed as a conversation. It is complex because the human condition is complex. We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.

….

Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike, and re-engage in civil conversation about how best to secure a world safe for our grandchildren to live in. In the words of the Unetnah tokef prayer we say at this time: the great shofar of warning has sounded. Will we hear the ‘still, small voice’ – the voice you can only hear by listening? On that, the human future will depend.

[read it all]

(hat tip: Cross-Currents)

Serendipity

With the new site finally up, I decided to get around to writing all sorts of backlogged posts I had planned. Here goes.

I came across this article a while ago, and it struck a chord. William McKeen, a professor, the chairman of the University of Florida department of journalism, writes about serendipity, and how we may be losing it in the modern era of efficient searching and information at our fingertips:

There’s an art to finding something when you’re not looking for it.

In my freshman class at the University of Florida, I require the 240 students to subscribe to the New York Times Monday through Friday. I haven’t even finished announcing this in class the first day, when the hands shoot up. “Can’t we just read it online?” they ask, the duh? implicit.

“No,” I say and the eyes roll. They think I’m some mossback who hasn’t embraced new media.

“Why not?” Challenging, surly, chips on the shoulders.

“Because then you would only find what you’re looking for.”

Serendipity is a historian’s best friend and the biggest part of the rush that is the daily magic of discovery. It’s one of those small things that make life worth living, despite all the torment, pain, tragedy and stifling Interstate traffic.

Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There’s so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days – better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind – but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding….

Keep reading…

This stuff interests me on several levels. First of all, I like thinking about the computer revolution and what it has done (and is doing) to our society. I’m not sure if we realize just how radically some things are changing. This is a great example. McKeen isn’t just talking about how we manage one area of our lives; this is pervasive. It’s about how we approach information, be it informative (e.g. a research paper, a newspaper article), entertaining (movies, music, books) or somewhere in-between. And as he points out, it extends even past there, to a sense of shared ideas. If we all listen to the radio, there’s commonality. But if I listen to my music and you listen to yours, and no other, then we lose that. I think McKeen is right – that’s a problem. Question is, what do we do about it?

Funny thing is, the other reason I found this article so interesting was that I tend to rely on serendipity quite a bit, especially when surfing the web. McKeen didn’t note that while we tend to browse less in the Internet Age, when we do, it’s a lot more productive (not efficient; I don’t know if you can talk of efficiency in an activity like browsing.) And I don’t think I’m alone. How many people look one thing up in Wikipedia, then get sidetracked on a fascinating exploration of some topic they’ve never read about? And how many are doing that simply because it’s just so easy to navigate from one to the other with a single click? I read a lot on the web, and it isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Often, I’m not even looking for anything specific. Isn’t that serendipity too?

All The Cool Kids

(Yes, still putting off part 3. So sue me.)

I was thinking today about trends and fashions. No matter how radical or off-the-beaten path a cultural group is, they’ll all tend to do things a certain way, just because a few of them started doing it that way. I wonder what it is about us that makes us flock so readily.

Heck, I bet the even the Amish churn butter a certain way, ’cause that’s how all the cool kids were churning.

Reality TV and Other Disasters

This whole reality TV thing is getting out of hand. I mean, it’s gotten out of hand already, but this is worse.

I mean, there are the maddeningly mad Martha Stewart-wannabes on “Wickedly Perfect” (the first reality TV show in CT….figures), the disturbing families on “Wife Swap” and “Trading Spouses,” the whole digging up emotional scars and picking at ‘em on “High School Reunion,” and who can leave out that mucus-encrusted gem (or is that “gem-encrusted mucus?”) of the Fox lineup, “Who’s Your Daddy?” Please tell me that there’s a special level of Hell for the producers of these shows. Like one with both “holy wrath” and “great vengeance,” with some brimstone mixed in for good measure.
What is brimstone, anyway? You never hear about it these post-biblical days. You don’t see a newspaper with the headline

Seven-Year-Old Miraculously Survives Dangerous Brimstone Accident
“That Was Some Pretty Strong Brimstone,” Authorities Say.

But that would be cool, wouldn’t it? The headline, not the brimstone. I imagine brimstone is very much in the “not cool” category.

In any case, back to reality…TV. What’s next? Who’s going to be able to top that?

I’ll tell you. Fox is going to strike again, with a show where they just videotape real people being taken out back and getting shot. It’s called “When Guns Go Off,” and it’s sure to be a hit.

Ok, so that last one I made up, but admit it: for a split second, you believed me.