The Collapse of American English

 

03262015-Kingdome_01By Shawn StJean

Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic.  Perhaps.  It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English.  The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear.  But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.

This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.

I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer.  With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”

Need this be a bad thing?  After all, what’s more efficient than “K”?  Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity?  Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.

Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):

“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.”  As in “I don’t do Christmas.”

“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”

“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic.  “I’m a huge fan.”  In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it.  We all speak in metaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.)  One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.

“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”)  This one in particular disturbs me because it demonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here.  “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers.  It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.

“You’re all set.”

“It’s all good.”

“basically”

“it’s all about”

“comes into play”

“deals with”

“back in the day”

Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time.  I must be overracting.  Aren’t these replacing archaic usages?  We’ve got “tweet.”  And “text.”  “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?

“[   ] is a thing.”  Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week.  We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions.  At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?

Okay.  Let’s say I’m right.  So the language is imploding.  What’s at stake here?

Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine.  Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had.  What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words?  Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge?  Will they read it?  Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it?  Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearean solilioquies do to us?  And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great.  One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example.  For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.

George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s.  He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others.  Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort?  Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it?  Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it?  My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information).  And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them.  Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.

A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here.  Raise your hand if you like music.

That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics.  In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error.  Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found.  Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine.  Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning.  Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error.  Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth.  Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs.  Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s.  Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers.  Umm.  Except. . .

One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media.  And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English.  Don’t think so?  Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse.  Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t.  Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm.  As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British.  But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule.  As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object.  A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”

Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)

I doubt the sustainability of that argument.  Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less).  Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore.  Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”?  Can’t we just dispense with one of these?  Well, we could.  Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts.  That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.”  NOT “less people.”  Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic.  There’s less forest, which means fewer trees.  There may be “less opportunity.”  There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.”  But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them.   And reevaluating the value we place on human life.

I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:

Where R U

It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer.  And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most.  Why?  It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”).  In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself.  Here’s how that might go, in response:

“None of your damn business.”

“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”

“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”

“I’m at Main Street and Vine”

“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”

“I left an hour ago.”

Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list.  Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply.  Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness.  Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.”  Sure.  But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check?  Did you answer them?  If you did, you, as are we all,  are complicit in the process of collapse.  Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:

[2007]  Dear Professor:  I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died.  I misplaced my copy of the syllabus.  Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work?  Thanks, Kayla

[2017]  I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed

Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter.  In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from a peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.

I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization.  But I don’t fancy it helping.  It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)

As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history.  Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.

The solution?  Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ.  Read anything.  Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits.  Some are better than others, obviously.  Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.

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United Artists in Turmoil: Teachers (1984) BluRay Review/Analysis

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Directed by Arthur Hiller.   Released TODAY.

Notable Soundtrack featuring .38 Special, Bob Seger, Night Ranger

United Artists, originally begun as a creative and financial alternative to the Hollywood studio system before films even had sound, by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, and several partners, struggled successfully with that vision through the 1950s and ’60s, eventually backing what might be called a series of “anti-blockbuster” releases in the 1970s, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the original Rocky.  We can give them their fair share of credit for what remains of intelligent, risk-taking and watchable film in America today.  The 1980s were a particular turbulent decade for the outfit, including a merger with MGM and brief acquisition by Ted Turner.

Eclipsed today by lightweight efforts in the James Bond franchise and the increasingly overblown Rocky sequels, a film like Teachers (1984) came and went into obscurity, undeservedly so.  It’s not as significant as Apocalypse Now, of course, but it’s no Trail of the Pink Panther either.  The studio delved into all genres: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Horror, High Drama, screwball comedy.  Hiller’s piece can be termed Romantic Comedy, in the old, Hawthornian sense of the word “Romantic”: an exaggerated version, satirical in this case, of what we all go through every day.

Set in the middle of a snowy winter rather than the early Autumn or late Spring typical of high-school stories, Hiller’s film immediately warns of its darker tone.  .38 Special’s title-song lyrics, “And for all the things you taught me, only time will tell If I’ll be able to survive” and reference to a “jungle, ” along with a security guard muttering “animals” as he unchains the doors, hint at naturalistic themes.  For those who might object that too much cynicism is packed into a running time shy of two hours, understand that a real-world time frame of many months can be inferred–it’s a convention of the genre.

Characters are lead by bleary-eyed teaching vet, Alex Jurell (Nick Nolte,) whose awards are fifteen years in the past  but who still sees more value in saving individual students who might slip through the cracks than in propping up a corrupt, mass-production system, championed by his friend, sell-out administrator Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch): “You’re job is to get them through this school and keep ’em out of trouble–that’s it.”  Their similar surnames alert us to the fact that every educator faces a crossroads in career paths, and not all choose an idealistic one.

But it’s an ensemble piece, minor characters sometimes stealing the show, like an escaped mental patient recruited as a substitute Social Studies instructor, Herbert Gower (Richard Mulligan).  He’s a showman, of course, but he knows that keeping his students awake is prerequisite to them learning anything, unlike his colleague ‘Ditto’ Stiles (Royal Dano).

Morgan Freeman, not long after his stint as Easy Reader on PBS’s The Electric Company, fills a wonderfully ironic role as a corrupt lawyer helping to sweep illiteracy under the rug.  He and Lee Grant (as Superintendent Dr. Donna Burke) function as major villains, trying to keep the doors open and willing to skin Jurell alive if need be.

The vast majority of teaching ever represented in the American cinema portrays teachers as either devastatingly boring, or a cranky, if not insane lot.  But one would never know that anything were ever taught or learned within the confines of a school building, because scenes in most films are “saved by the bell” (classes lasting, apparently, an average of 8-10 minutes in America).  Whenever possible, of course, a sexual element gets thrown in for good measure (see the late Transformers 2 film for a regrettable example).  No, we actually see and hear Jurell trying to teach, and his students struggling with and against him.

Teachers doesn’t sign off early–one can’t help wondering if a few honest-to-goodness educators served as consultants.  Nolte fails to engage his students with the textbook material, notably Eddie Pilikian (Ralph Macchio,) and he’s most effective as a reluctant role model with the lifestyle of a broken-down loser, but with the advanced ethics of a disillusioned campaigner.  His unstated theory–we sense he’s tried them all–seems to be that if he can reach the worst kid, the better ones will all come along.  It’s worth a try.  One fiasco involves him being drafted by Eddie and Diane (Laura Dern) into a mini-drama to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, similar to the one that lent some gravity to Cameron Crowe’s lighter, contemporaneous Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s still timely stuff, but speaking as one who sojourned through high school in the mid-’80s myself, Hiller also offers an authentic period piece here.  Nolte doesn’t have a smart-board or computer–he has all he can do to keep the radiator in his classroom working.  The kids aren’t driving 6-year-old cars as in Linklater’s often-brilliant Dazed and Confused, or ordering pizzas in class a la Fast Times, or staging detention-be-damned production numbers as in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.  At one point, during a parent-teacher conference, Macchio gets slapped across the smart-mouth by his father. It’s a sobering moment, for all of us, a reminder of how much has changed.

Hiller pulls off a rare trick in not polarizing the cast–neither the kids nor the adults escape his satire, or forfeit his sympathy.  Eddie probably deserves the reminder, and his Dad also deserves collaring by Jurell.

Nolte’s major conflict with the system–whether to compromise standards to such a degree that his job becomes meaningless–resonates today as well as it did thirty years ago.    Teachers haven’t gotten much respect in this country since the time of Ichabod Crane, and so the incentives to die for principle defending any particular hill or trench come mighty infrequently.  Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams) functions in the role of Hiller’s mouthpiece, a former student who appears just in time to remind Nolte that he has made a difference, and herein the film falls prey to that charge against all works of social criticism: it’s too heavy-handed at times.  “We’re not talking about business here, we’re talking about the future!” cries lawyer Hammond to her boss, ordering her to squash a lawsuit against the school.  She regroups, in one of the more memorable nude scenes on screen, and it’s a bit over-the-top for a work that functions with a sustained aesthetic of realist detail to buttress its romantic elements.  This isn’t helped by the semblance of a happy ending, which comes abruptly and can mistakenly leave the impression that integrity must triumph over corrupt unions and The Man.  But it’s really a conclusion to a third act in the tradition of existentialist drama like Two-Lane Blacktop and even The Magnificent Seven: the Jurells and Gowers and Hammonds and especially Palikians can’t win, but it’s better for all of us that they were there, than otherwise.

In that vein, the film itself can’t be updated to HD quality no matter how much remastering/digitizing goes on, but that would be as questionable a move as updating the edgy soundtrack to a set of 21st century songs.  The new Blu-Ray is short on special features, but as Hiller’s film was unavailable except in VHS for many years, it may be that you don’t own the DVD anyway.  It’s well worth the screening–and if you’re an educator or librarian, or know one–the acquisition.

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Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog

 

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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?

 

Sniper-Think, Killer Narratives, and The Loss of Presence

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By Shawn Stjean

No cultural phenomenon could better support the U.S. government’s interminable “War on Terror” than the current wave of sniper hagiographies on screens and in bookstores in 2015.  It’s not surprising, given a public forced to accept drone strikes as some kind of moral and even righteous activity.  But I say, hey, let some of those shooter-turned-writers cash in on their experiences–they earned it better than the guys who sent them into harm’s way.  But it’s all killing from a distance, isn’t it–presidents have been doing it since long before the Mexican and Indian Wars of the 19th century.  And now the average guy can do it vicariously from his armchair, raising a glass to “Reaper” or the next one, as he flips the page on yet another patriot claiming to be “the one” who got Bin Laden.

Partially because I was a Marine long ago, and knew several snipers, and received a fair amount of long-distance weapons training myself, I devoted a good portion of my novel Clotho’s Loom to a sniper narrative, in order to show its dehumanizing effect on the shooter.  Hey, these guys have red blood like the rest of us: some are as decent as anyone you’ll ever meet, some are relentless fools.  But let’s not kid each other–what they do is not heroic, and not anything a mother or father should want sons and daughters to aspire to.  Thirty-three confirmed kills may sound cool on your video game board at 17 years old.  If you’re older than that, it should start to bother you.  At best, it’s a necessary battle tactic; at worst, murder.  It sure ain’t fighting fires.

But I’m not really here to talk politics.  Like a submarine story, there’s no denying the inherent suspense in writing about military adventurism on the ground.  And a novel ought to present the story, and let the reader judge.  The problem is, biographies and pseudo-biographies and autobiographies like the present ones aren’t confined by that limitation. So by definition, the “pro” position gets articulated, while the rest of us with hesitations stand mute.

No, then, I’m really here to point out the underlying lack-of-thought process that is echoes in our everyday lives by the sniper mentality, which is: Get More Distance.  And how to do that?  Simple: Better Technology.

Wait! you might say, what about skill, discipline, commitment? True, but the rest of us are living a diluted version.  We have the distance, in spades.  The rest?

Think about it.  We have: headphones with artificial rhythms insulating us from the natural rhythms of our respiration, LCD screens blocking us from our views of the world and each other, mirrors distorting our sense of self-worth, drugs and alcohol deflecting the pain, noise between us and the silence or our own thoughts, texts saving us from lengthy telephone conversations, telephones saving us from inconvenient visits to friends and family, two tons of steel, glass and airbags between us and the next driver, navigation systems telling us which way to steer, calculators doing the math for us, Google searching for us, virtual dating and break-up by text, contact lists remembering numbers and even names for us, long-distance college classrooms taught by God-knows-who, kevlar and rubber cushioning our feet from the grass, an average 38-minute commute between home and job.  Cameras digitize our faces to keep our loved ones apprised of our appearances.  Tattoos and piercings take the place of scars.   We do our best trash-talking online [ahem].

And 7000 miles between us and the wars.  So many that we don’t think about them for days at a time.

From my list above, half of the items did not exist a generation ago.  A century ago, almost none.  In 1915, you visited with your people if you could, wrote them letters if you couldn’t.  And you wrote “I miss you,” because you really did–no technology dulled the pain for you, because that kind of pain is normal, it’s healthy, and it’s designed into us at the genetic level in order to help us keep our priorities straight.  And in those days, if you wanted the land or the resources or the lives of another country, you had to send tens of thousands of your own husbands and fathers and sons, with a very real probability you’d never see them again, over there to either take those things, OR decide they weren’t worth the risk and violence after all, and come home or stay in the first place.

We’re all snipers now.  Most, risk-free.  Are we heroic?

You’ll be a better hero to your kids if you hug them when they need it, and scold them or grab them by the shirt-collar when they deserve it, and put up with the discomfort-level, either way.  A text and emoticon just keeps you too far away.

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Colors On the Street: Red, White and Blue

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By Shawn Stjean

This may seem like I’m simply nostalgic over the past, but believe me, I’m not.  So bear with me.

When the snow-plows only take a single, half-hearted pass down most of the side streets, but make the main roads whistle clean, it’s hard not to notice what’s on them.  By main roads I mean not just highways, but streets occupied by one thing, predominantly: stores.

When I was a kid, my hometown didn’t support more merchants than the average American small city:  a few markets, toy store, library, newsstands, jeweler, cobbler, pharmacy.  Most of our citizens worked in the factories scattered along the river.  Those jobs and businesses have all but bled out now, or moved first to Mexico and later to China, but the ghosts of the old buildings remain today.  Not all bad news: ‘cuz back in the ’80s, along with cable TV, we got a big, shiny new mall and some big-box stores.

Somewhere along the way, one of the elementary schools was closed, and burned down after remaining vacant for about a year.  The lot was cleared.  It might have seemed slightly perverse in those days (Sunday night television, for example, featured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney) to directly replace a school with the liquor store that stands there currently.  After all, we already had a couple of them on the strip.  So the rebuilt building functioned as a Chinese restaurant, for awhile.

During that era, the local hardware store succumbed to the competition from the new Home Depot a couple of miles to the south, and the Lowe’s to the north.  Today, it’s a liquor store.  Not far away, the pharmacy where I bought my comics from the husband of my 5th grade English teacher, transformed into a bank for about a decade, is now. . .a liquor store.  Mid-sized mom and pop supermarket: a liquor store.

Just lately, as I was forced to avoid the back roads and use the snow-cleared main artery, I passed what I expected to be one of the few bookstores in the region.  A large nationwide chain, that recently closed its doors.  I’m sure you remember it.  The building?  You guessed it: now a cavernous liquor store.

Meanwhile, the new LED road signs warn us all to “Drive Sobah,” conjuring images of cops who will run you down, if they haven’t already towed you away or ticketed you for parking on the street in front of your own house, that won’t get cleared anyway.   (Where is that revenue going, anyway, if not to the snow removal budget?)  I’d have thought that the local government controlling, through licensing, the number of outlets that sell spirits would have helped a bit–the same way the blue laws used to prohibit sales on Sunday–but it’s a free country, you can’t stop progress.

Notice some patterns here?  What’s the message, accumulating like unshoveled drifts, year after year, in Small Town, USA?  After surviving a childhood in overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers: take your compromised education down the street to work a non-union retail job selling cell phones, computers, packaged food; then drive home, if you can get there; turn on the boob tube;  by all means do not read a book;  watch kittie videos on the internet; and most importantly. . .keep drinking.  But, as you return to that job–which is probably much more of a commute than you’d like, though, hey, you have a new car (and five years of payments to go with it,) right?–stop by, spend some money, and always drive sober.

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(Re)Awakening the British Spirit in the Star Wars Mythology

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By Shawn Stjean

No more basic example of cultural criticism exists than to recognize that the original Star Wars offered a subtextual retelling (in production during our nation’s Bicentennial,) of the American Revolution.  And even though it enjoyed success worldwide, US citizens, whether they thought consciously about it or not, had an extra layer of identification with Luke Skywalker and his outgunned band of rebels, battling the evil Imperials.

As the teaser trailer for the next iteration in the mythology has appeared, I’m reminded that there’s an even deeper subtext that runs through both trilogies, running counter to American mythology, that apparently will move forward.  I refer to the films’ far-less discussed British-ness.

The screenshot above from the The Force Awakens teaser invokes nothing so much as a knight, straight out of Arthurian legend, leaving the shelter and protection of court, to enter the wilderness with medieval broadsword, and fulfill his quest.  The hilted sword itself, while functional in its ability to turn an opponent’s blade from the wielder’s wrist, also in its time functioned as a readily identified icon for the cross, as carried by the Crusaders.  Do not underestimate the connotative power of this image, especially when featured in a 88-second text that reintroduces us to a whole new phase of George Lucas’ canon.

The 1977 original mixed in but downplayed, as much as it could, such elements.  Filmed substantially at Elstree Studios outside London, and employing many Brits among crew and cast, including a real knight (Sir Alec Guiness) as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hammer films veteran Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, the story recounted not a civil war (as the opening crawl claims) but an open rebellion against a corrupt empire.  In finally defeating its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, everyman Luke employs a Force for humanism bequeathed to him by his father.  This is key.  Because I doubt there was an 11-year old boy sitting in those theater seats in 1977 who didn’t feel the strength of the thematic message of that climactic space battle.  When Luke puts away his computer, and freely chooses to use the Force to guide his hand, we not only witnessed the superiority of the human spirit over technology (expressed in cheers and standing ovations by the crowds as the orgasmic explosion of the space station filled the screen). No gimmick or special effect could have achieved such a response.  The film spoke to us at a much deeper level, told us that great feats of courage are possible by anyone, no matter how low their birth or background, no matter how small or weak their physical body, no matter how powerful the tech and resources arrayed against them.

Years later, as the second trilogy premiered with The Phantom Menace, commercial success welcomed it in arms of inevitability.  But die-hard fans made no secret of their discomfort and dissatisfaction–these are a matter of public record.  But the reasons cited were often unarticulated (“something’s missing”) or silly.  Jar-Jar Binks could not have sabotaged that film, any more than British-butler droid C-3P0 could.  I propose an alternate explanation: while catering intermittantly to an American sensibility, the Star Wars films progressively adopt disturbing (to us) trends from other cultures.  Here I’ll ignore the oriental, and direct my focus right across the pond.  PM‘s plot hinges on a search for The Chosen One–unnamed by prophecy–and we discover that he was fathered by the Force itself (immaculate conception.)  He’s a born noble, like Oedipus, hidden in obscurity.  Already this sounds much less North-American to me.  We proceed to learn that this universal cosmic force which “surrounds us and binds us, all living things,” as Obi-Wan had explained to Luke years earlier (or later, chronologically,) is in fact very elitist in its function: only certain special people have the gift, so much so that they are identified at birth and whisked away to be trained in the Jedi temple.  It undoubtedly served Lucas’ larger canvas to introduce slow compromises to the Jedi Order (beginning with Kenobi’s initial lie to Luke about Vader murdering his father.)  However, the audience’s sympathies shift more and more away from the unconscious/mythological level to the conscious, intellectual level.  Eventually the second trilogy pares down to a few moral characters with whom to sympathize, fighting on the side of internally degraded forces in a vain attempt to restore the principles of the Republic.  This may all be much more “grown-up,” and therefore more satisfying in a certain cerebral way.  But Americans, especially, would much rather look away and point the finger at corrupt forms of foreign democracy (see Jon Stewart’s 2014 Rosewater) than accept an allegory of the decline of their own.  Here, the Republic works!

The initial resistance to The Empire Strikes Back is telling in this connection, for it stands as a film with a much less romantic, more “grey,” European aesthetic: life as a series of disillusionments, defeats, and loss, sometimes compensated by survival.  Many throughout the world welcome this sort of philosophical realism–but it is far from the “Everything will be alright” handholding that define 90 percent of American films (including Return of the Jedi, with its childish proposal that Vader could find redemption).  Living Americans never have had to live under sustained aerial bombardment and blockade such as the English did during the mid-twentieth century, or occupation such as the French endured, or the sacrifice of many millions to outlast invasion, as the Russians, or had weapons of mass destruction unleashed upon them, as the Japanese.  We have the luxury of our illusions, observing the world in exclusive terms of “the dark side, [or] the light.”

So the six films increasingly reveal that the Force, like the truth itself, really resides in the custody of the few elites, to be employed against non-sensitives in such forms as mind tricks, telekinesis, and dueling/acrobatic skills.  Anakin finds the Jedi order itself to be very hierarchical, in which padawans answer to knights who answer to masters who ultimately answer to the Council (or just Yoda, or even the Chancellor.)  I’m not claiming that the United States is without its elitism or its class system–but we are very fond of telling ourselves that, and films defy that collective ego-image at their peril.

It isn’t authentic British-ness (if there is such a thing), then, that undergirds the films, so much as the American vision of that entity: unquestioned authority and hierarchy by birth, elitism, exclusionism, expansionism, and a sense of racial/moral superiority, versus American democracy, inclusiveness, and tolerance.  Obviously, to claim this “Yank vs. Brit” dichotomy is real would be absurd–but it certainly is what young people learn from Hollywood film and television.  These dubious truisms may be more visible in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, though no more palpable than in Star Wars.

Even though Lucas’ films are truly postmodern, mixing languages, racial and cultural traditions, and visual iconography (Mark Hamill, for example, trained in Kendo for his lightsaber duels, and Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Japanese director Kurosawa), it’s useful to unpack the various elements, to separate the less- from the more-meaningful.  Will U.S. audiences embrace an even further push east as the Empire rises again, or will they insist on a return to their own cultural values?

link to the teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLk59H86ww

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September 11 Reflection, for Kids: Do the Twin Towers Still Stand in 2014?

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By Shawn StJean

On this date, the anniversary of our great national tragedy, we often invite ourselves and others to “reflect.”  That is the purpose of this short primer.  It is intended for younger children–those born since 2001, perhaps, but we can all use reminders, sometimes.

“. . .life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . .”  –Declaration of Independence

“. . .secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .” –U.S. Constitution

“. . .with liberty and justice for all.”–Pledge of Allegiance

“. . .give me liberty or give me death”–Patrick Henry

We often speak carelessly of FREEDOM today, and the word has become a replacement somehow for a more complex concept that forms the first symbolic pillar or tower of our republic, as its founders conceived it: LIBERTY.  Rarely will you find the word “freedom” as you study the early documents of our country, but the word liberty is abundant.

What is the difference between freedom and liberty?

The second contains the first.  Freedom is the right and ability to do whatever you want.  LIBERTY is the right and ability to do whatever you want, as long as it does not interfere with the rights and abilities of others.

In short, liberty is freedom with limits, just as a republic (what we really live in) is a democracy (what we say we live in,) with limits.

Think of a stoplight: it’s, to me, the perfect symbol for liberty.  Without it, two cars approach an intersection, each driver freely pursuing his happiness, and often this works fine.  But, by chance, it may not: BANG! Collision.  With a stoplight in place, each citizen agrees to surrender a small piece of his freedom (in this case, time) so that everyone can remain free.  Other examples can be substituted: the paying of taxes to support government programs, service in the military, even the trouble it takes to educate oneself to vote.  Young people contribute, too, by sharing, by standing in line and waiting their turn, by walking up public stairwells on the right side, by respecting another person’s right to speak, or be different.  All require a limitation on total freedom.  So when you hear the phrase “Freedom isn’t free!,” you are hearing about the sacrifice required for the greater standard of LIBERTY.

People say “It’s a free country,” as if that were a struggle that ended 200 years ago, or 70 years ago, with our grandparents.  But our country is only as free as each one of us can make it, today.  As the American abolitionist Henry Thoreau wrote, “We have used up all our inherited freedom.”  And songwriter Tom Petty continued his thought: “Everybody has to fight to be free.”  “Fighting” may not be as dramatic as it sounds, day-to-day.  It may only be not interrupting someone else, or cutting the lawn for Mom without having to be bribed, or apologizing when you hurt someone, or doing your homework (which means contributing your fair share,) or helping another kid who’s having trouble.

Liberty is, without question, the first pillar or tower of our society.  It can never be laid low by outsiders: We can only do it to ourselves, by forgetting a simple concept: if everybody isn’t free, then nobody is free.

As for the second tower, I think the existence of the first enables the freedom for every free person to build it for herself or himself.  In the coin pictured above, the Goddess of Liberty holds both a symbol of Peace (an olive branch) and a symbol of Vigilance and Defense (a shield).  Notice, no offensive weapons.  In fact, this original design reveals a mother’s bare breast, suggesting Health, Kindness, and Love.  The gate she strides through names God.  For others, a pillar of their lives might be Generosity, or Charity, or Strength, Courage, Fortitude, or Intelligence.

So what’s your second tower?  And, Never Forget (as they say on this important anniversary,) that everyone has the right to build her own.

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