Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Group Level Integrity


Goodbye, Norma Jean … a candle in the wind
Rock singer, Sir Elton John

Who killed Norma Jean?
Folk singer, Pete Seeger

Who killed Whitney Houston?

I’m still “getting it,” these questions of who did what.

What’s got me thinking is a passage from Book Three of a series about an ecological disaster, the Chtorr Wars, by a denizen of southern California, David Gerrold. The hero agrees to attend futuristic “human potential” training. There is a huge attendance, anonymous enough for guys to be tempted to wimp out and slack off, I guess. Friday night is “welcoming and orientation:” The students give their word that next morning they will be in their seats, ready to go, at nine a.m. Result? Some of them, about ten percent, “think so little of the words that fall out of their mouths” that they straggle out of their rooms late or don’t even show up and have to be summoned. The trainer is so angry. He explains this war won’t be won by accident; they will need “integrity,” which means: keeping their word and helping others to do the same.

So far, I get it; I try to have integrity too, not just because my favorite people do, but also as a consistent life style choice, even if I am in an anonymous crowd, or alone where no one will see me. The trainer continues—and let me say his anger is for emphasis, not for getting personal—and he says, looking unimpressed, to those who were on time, 

“So you think your integrity is handled because you were on time? Well, it’s not. Because there’s another whole level of it here that you’re not experiencing. It’s no accident,” Foreman said to him “that you’re in a group that can’t be trusted ten percent of the time. That’s you—that’s your integrity at the level of the group.”

As for me, well, at least I’m starting to get it, at least individually. My path to understanding began with my teacher, Mr. Thompson, playing folk records one day. He played for us Pete Seeger’s song for Marilyn Monroe, and another song of Seegar’s, Who Killed Davy Moore? “ “Not I…” said the manager, “Not I…” said the trainer…” They each had their reasons, rationales, excuses and so forth. What counts in the real world? Results! In fact, some business executives flatly refuse to hear excuses. I for one stopped trying to give “reasons” or to defend myself, after the first time some fool misinterpreted me as making an “excuse.” Ouch! So now I focus on results.

Mr. Thompson played those records only once. And so, down the many years, I have misremembered Pete as singing, “Who killed Marilyn Monroe?” (He actually said “Norma Jean”), years where I resolved not to wimp out if ever I came to be tested. (Although it’s too late for Marilyn) And never to say, “I’m only one man, behaving just like all the others want me to!”

And now, as I write this, my community is dealing with the untimely demise of yet another celebrity dying from over-doing drugs, however legal. Poor Whitney Houston. 

As part of our nation’s struggle to comprehend this, a British man on CNN interviewed two famous entertainers. Both were recovering addicts, one in a heavy metal band, and one in Hollywood. Both men said the group around Ms Houston, the “entourage,” failed her. The actor was so determined to publicly stay straight that he fired a man who knowingly offered him illegal drugs; the singer, married with children, finally went straight only after his manager was determined to walk away from all the cash, to quit, if the singer did not get clean. There will always be “reasons” to “enable” someone’s drug using… In my case, if I focus on having integrity, and accepting responsibility, then, I hope, I will “act as if” I am as brave as that metal singer’s blessed manager.

That manager set a fine example for me. We all set examples for our groups, in matters ranging from the life-and-death issues, to the small every-day ones; from a local business, to our national war on terror. A co-worker of mine, Lorna, told me about once being part of a group that traveled on business. As a lone voice, at first, Lorna persuaded all her colleagues not to fudge their expense accounts. In the long run, this surely meant a stronger, more effective group, a group with integrity, knowing they could all count on each other. At the national level the principle would surely apply too. I guess we are stronger, as a body politic, when we help each other do the right thing. The opposite would be, say, doing like folks in the Arab world, where they abdicate their citizen responsibility.

As for what we do, or don’t do, in our group lives… it all matters. For example: Today, if we are in an office, stationed overseas for counter-insurgency, where the “terrain” in which we are maneuvering is the “culture,” then at the very least, if we have given our word to understand that culture, we would stop a buddy when we see him carrying korans (bibles) down the hall to burn them. As you know, locals have found the ashes. As I write this, according to this morning’s newspaper, the riots are continuing, and the death toll is rising, without any regard for the public apology by President Barak Obama. The groundwork for giving the president’s apology a little credibility could have been started long ago. “Ugly Americans” could have encouraged each other to be respectful Americans. Ignorance is just not acceptable: The war will not be won by accident. Even more than in a conventional war, counter-insurgency requires individuals to be taking responsibility to have integrity.

And if my readers think I shouldn’t, in the middle of an essay, suddenly mention the War that now occupies our minds, then perhaps, in reality, we don’t care about the words out of our mouths, or heard in our ears, or even feel responsible for the proper noun “war,” and then maybe, in reality, we don’t possess enough integrity to prosecute the War. And if so, then we should stop… and think about such a lack of commitment.

Perhaps, for individuals and groups, it is fear that keeps us from accepting, and acting, on our responsibilities. Gerrold considers such fears in a passage in his first Chtorr book, where the hero is in high school. I can still picture the hero sitting at his desk in global ethics class, with the teacher symbolically pressing his hand down hard on the kid’s shoulder, putting him on the spot, saying to the kid something like, “…Is that what you think responsibility is? Blame, shame, burden and guilt? Sounds like a law firm.” In time, the class decides that responsibility is not a burden, but instead is a “willingness to be a source.” Yes. For me this definition invokes lightness and empowerment. In other words, when I am acting on my perceived responsibilities I might become tired, but I won’t feel all twisted up. Not anymore.

As for the concept of “group level integrity,” I’m still thinking it through. Consider the death penalty. Up here in Canada, where a “life sentence” is at most 25 years, (even less with statutory release) a released killer might kill again. On the other hand, a death penalty means killing too. We-just-can’t-win! What I think now is we make our choice, and then, whichever we choose, I wear clothes of gray. As I see it, I’m a responsible, weathered adult. I’m not someone wearing virgin white robes who pins the blame for our “not having a death penalty” totally, and solely, on the government. Nor do I say sending peacekeepers to dusty barren Afghanistan is solely of the government. My feeling is this: Even if, say, I didn’t even vote in the last election, I am still not lily-white innocent. Living with this grayness, I think, is part of my responsibility at the level of the nation.

During my youth we lived in black-and-white, saying, “If you aren’t part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.” Maybe that is true, while, as a paradox, I also live in a gray world. As for star entertainers, it seems to me that their plight is... living in a nation that puts intense pressures on them, and enables their drug use, despite contrasting ideals not to do so.

It's not easy, being in the real world. I’m trying to do the right thing, trying to have an awareness of my responsibility for the level of integrity in my group as a whole. I wonder: If I was associated with a woman’s luncheon group, would I mention the death of Ms Houston, and try to discourage us all from getting prescriptions from multiple (two or more) doctors; would I suggest bringing in a guest speaker to speak on housewives overdoing substances? Or would I wimp out of making the effort to speak truth to the power of peer pressure?

As I documented in my essay Better to Sow, I have strong recycling credentials, but I still don’t know if I would speak truth to power: If I was with some environmentalists, standing idly near a house that had been condemned for toxic mould, from a marijuana grow operation, and suddenly one of us pulled out a joint, then—? Would I say, “Stop!” while I pointed to that house and the enviro-damage? And then say that poor Whitney had been embedded in a society where some of us enabled drugging? Would I add that I, for one, just can’t be supporting the big drug machine? …Or would I be too afraid, and instead just patronize my peers, by rationalizing that they weren’t ready yet to be part of the solution?

I wonder.

… Goodbye, Norma Jean, …Goodbye…

Sean Crawford,
East of Eden,
February 2012
~As you know, the Greeks lied, falsified, covered up their debt status in order to be admitted into the euro-zone. Was the Greek government able to do this because they were embedded in a nation that believed in falsification and graft? Perhaps. And perhaps any “group” turn around, to finally produce "economic productivity through integrity," would have to be a “national” turn around. Where each and every one was participating. Or perhaps, instead, it will be easier for Greeks to endure years of poverty (over a decade) than to change. …Yes, I read about Greece in the current best seller Boomerang Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis.

~Integrity counts because things are connected: interesting quote from the above, p 202, "It's not just a coincidence that the debts of cities and states spun out of control at the same time as the debts of individual Americans."

~The Japanese may be encased in formality, yet their nation did a fine turn around, for the time being, to dress informally—no jacket and necktie—in business offices so as to save energy (from air conditioning) after losing some nuclear reactors to the tsunami.

~Here are the two songs.
~Better to Sow is archived under November 2011
~Focus and Commitment is archived under June 2011
~For things Chtorran, David Gerrold’s home page is here.
(I still don’t believe in doing links, especially for my own posts, but David’s a computer guy, so I guess he would want me to link to him)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Citizen Rocky



In the US of A are many ideologies. I call it “ideology” when believers won’t second-guess themselves upon meeting someone from Canada or Britain, even when that someone gives them a funny look and says, “Are you sure? Because no one in my country believes that.”

Here’s my thought experiment: Suppose, like many in the US in recent years, I am a “market fundamentalist,” believing the free market is always functional and Good and Morally Correct. (Let’s forget we had to rush up to Canada for vaccines after the marketplace failed us during the panic over the avian flu) Suppose one day I’m at my country club with two of my fellow “fundies.” In walks a man pleased with himself and his new million-dollar bonus, a financial executive who has just helped to melt down Wall Street and plunge the world into a recession. Do I smile, share his happiness at his new bonus, and invite him to join us to make a foursome for golf?... No…

The principle here, it seems to me, is all of our enforceable US laws are under the umbrella of the US Constitution. Meanwhile, all my morals, my circles of friends and my ideologies are under the non-enforceable umbrella of Citizenship. It’s a higher umbrella: Any warm body, any civilian, is always under the legal code; but only good citizens will choose to commit to a moral code. For financial executives, it’s a choice as old as the Greeks: As Homer pointed out regarding Agamemnon’s unfair treatment of Achilles, an unfairness that undermined the war effort, “sometimes a citizen has the perfect legal right but not any moral right.”

I learned in college about how the Iliad begins with Achilles, the invulnerable superhero, sulking in his tent. This I learned only from taking a liberal arts (general studies) class - praise the Lord for higher education! I  don't believe college is purely for job training; I don't believe in market fundamentalism.  I do believe in citizenship... 

Citizen Rocky

I still remember a warm summer evening when Corporal John Oxley, an old army buddy, walked me around and around a park and talked some perspective into my head. It helped immensely. A few years later it was my turn to do the same one warm evening at the end of term, walking with a young university man. I’ll bet he still remembers, too. Call it paying it forward. The student’s name was Rocky. He knew how to study hard. But here was the thing: Rocky had just spent a year studying awfully hard, only to get awfully poor results. As we talked, I came to see that my challenge that night was to give Rocky permission to see things from a bigger perspective.

Perhaps, if Rocky and I had been women, I might have pointed out how “just recently” we women, through our weekly consciousness raising groups, had given each other permission to see that society was wrong… The messages we women were getting about when to speak up, what we were supposed to look like and how competent we could appear to be—or aspire to be—were just plain wrong. … Back then nobody could have imagined there would one day be an hour-long weekly TV series about a woman commanding the federation starship Voyager.

Rocky and I, being males of the white collar read-for-pleasure and attend-university sort, had received messages too. On TV was there was the Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched: both about businessmen. Peruse the contents of a collection of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and again the message was clear: the hero and his wife and their friends were not merely of the working world, but were specifically of the office world. No proletariats, no artists. It followed logically, then, that the most grown up thing for a white collar university student to do was to value a career program over, say, a program in the fine arts, and to value a business program most of all. And poor Rocky was an earnest sincere young man. Of course he believed what society appeared to believe.

But I knew something about Rocky: he was like me. As a young soldier I had not just been a person wearing green clothing and carrying a gun. No, I had aspired to be a “real soldier” between my ears. And now Rocky was trying to be a “real student.” As it happens, some students, poor fools, are merely persons carrying books, while they merely talk about the weather and gulp beer. They might just as well be clones of their non-student peers. Not Rocky. He conversed with students about “the meaning of life, the universe and everything.” He played on a varsity team, he got involved and of course he voted in student elections. He cared about life. Because I knew Rocky cared, I knew how to reach him.

Perhaps, that night, bearing in mind how students have found “you can’t go home again…” I pointed out to Rocky the importance of the personal growth we associate with our student years. Not so much our later years: For non-students there may be such a thing as too much growth. A book for police chiefs, Police Command, (page 63-64) from the days of long hair, back when peace officers were called “pigs,” notes the common belief, back then, that a policeman will be better able to relate to the community if he takes a few college courses. Then, in the wisdom of that time, he shouldn’t get a complete diploma because too much education would ruin him. (This has changed) Perhaps I pointed out how on remote army bases, just as in General Baden-Powell’s day, soldiers could quickly learn to put on comic stage plays, but the training and growth needed for acting in serious dramas would be beyond their best interest. (This is still true) Only students, traditionally, are seemingly unharmed by, and encouraged in, culture shock and growth. They are not encouraged to squish themselves down. But then they can’t go home again.

Maybe I said such things, but most likely? I think I talked in terms of citizenship. After all, Rocky was already an involved, participating member of his university... A few weeks later, as a number of us were straggling into the warm night from the student bar, I overheard Rocky saying something like, “Sean said a soldier has a narrow circle of interest, a businessman has a bigger circle, but a citizen has the widest view of all.” In a nutshell, that’s what I had said to him. Why squish yourself down, before you even graduate, to restrict your circle? Why not, to quote my feminist soccer friends, “go for the gusto!”

It follows logically that a spirited citizen could well use the campus years to pursue some grand interests. The old motto of the University of Calgary, translated, is “I will lift up my eyes.”  Rocky switched majors to something he cared about, something that fit his values: He started to seriously learn about history. Immediately, without any more effort than before, he was getting A’s. (This was in Canada, where A’s are hard to get) It all worked out; now he has a good job with a good pension. Today Rocky is still like me: I teach classes at work, and with my essays, while Rocky teaches at school.

Summer becomes winter; winter becomes summer. Down the years into middle age I have had my circles of friends, and yes, some of them have been “fundies.” I maintain my economic bias and vested interests, of course, but I never forget how all this is embedded in something higher, in “the big picture.” When I lift up my eyes I lift my spirits too.

Sean Crawford
Summer, 2011

Choose your values well: In the literary novel Revolution Road (later to be a Brad Pitt movie) the hero has a tragic friend: A man who, like many in those days of the “strong, silent Hemmingway ideal” had used his considerable will power to warp his life into being a “regular guy,” a man uncultured, with an uncultured wife, a man not too verbally skilled. Sad to say, I can relate to him.

Footnotes from Academia:
Here is a link to a good editorial in the local student newspaper on "why university?" with a perspective on citizenship

US citizens may be surprised to hear that here in the Canadian part of North America nobody bothers to put the adjective “good” in front of university. As in Australia and Europe, all of our universities are good. Same with our high schools.

US Americans may also be surprised to know that in Asia students enjoy being photographed with their sensei, while in Canada teachers are respected and nicely paid. (Respected, but with mixed feelings, like with lawyers) When I read Michael Crichton’s brief scene of how US yuppies regard teachers, (in Timeline?) I felt revulsion. Don’t yuppies know any better? I recall a congressional committee during the cold war investigating US schools and then reporting that if the system had been purposely set up by communists it would not have been any worse.

Imagine my despair last month when the New York Times was serving as a forum for concerned citizens who were strangely ignorant of the efforts of their congress even though they were concerned about the state of the schools… they were trying to be open minded… but not one was bloody willing to take their head out of their america! No one dared look at how other nations do it. Hello, there are foreign countries? Where people speak English? It’s not impossible to do like Rikki Tikki Tavi: “Run and find out!”
Meanwhile, I don’t suppose they looked at what a fellow New Yorker, John Gatto, wrote back in 1991, either.

As for post-secondary schools, as regards real world professional status: According to my professors, who have traveled to North American academic conferences, (and compared and contrasted) my Canadian degree program is easily equivalent to a US master’s degree. Easily. But the Yankees won’t admit it. Among the reasons is this: They forget that US universities, besides still not achieving closure on the Vietnam conflict, have still not addressed the grade inflation of the Vietnam years. This inflation was from department heads trying to help draft evaders keep from flunking out. There are still entire faculties where the average grade is definitely not a C.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Personal Mistakes


Somewhere, in a parallel universe, there is another Sean Crawford. Like me, he knows his Y-axis from his X-axis. Unlike me, he sees “his” graph as charting a line straight across. Abilities and talents, skills and competencies: In his eyes, these are all on a flat line, for him and others. Ain’t that a pity?

From what I know of human nature, most of us aren’t exactly ego-less humble sages. It seems most likely Sean would rather not have a crystal clear vision of his limitations. Surely he’d prefer to keep a blurred sunny point of view that maybe, just maybe, he’s a little better than what he appears to be, to himself, on those clear bitter-cold days. This leads to a scary plight: With every mistake, surely, he must see more and more clearly where his line is. A pity.

Meanwhile, here in God’s own universe, my own graph line goes ever upwards. For competencies, abilities, and even everyday life skills, I have nowhere to go but up. Ain’t that nice?

Surely, as I go running up that hill, I can leave all my mistakes in the dust at my heels… In fact, I no longer have any mistakes… but I sure have a lot of “learning experiences.”

On cloudy days, if I retain my sense of humor, I can say, “Drat! I keep feeling my AGE.”


“I keep having Another Growth Experience!”

How nice.

Sean Crawford
AGEing gracefully,
February, 2012

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poverty and "The Hunger Games"


I was reading The Hunger Games

Owning a car, I could go beyond city limits to the big mall on the bald prairie. (Cross Iron Mill) Having two coins to rub together, I could, within that mall, sit in the Tim Hortons coffee shop to think and read. I went there right after spending a full hour looking at expensive hunting jackets at the Bass Pro shop: I needed to think over whether buying a “fanatic jacket” by Sitka would be worth it… It has prima loft, nice pretty pixel-like camouflage, and the zipper goes up diagonally to leave room for central pockets and a pouch for a laser range finder.

To ease my middle-aged eyes, I was reading not the paperback but the expensive hardcover version of The Hunger Games, with a mutant bird on the cover. The photo for the movie version, coming soon, shows an adolescent girl with her hunting bow. At the table next to me—hey!—a Filipino teenage girl had bought the same book. “Everybody’s reading it!” she said.

It’s a page-turner, about a girl in an impoverished coal-mining district who risks the death penalty, poaching to keep her family barely fed. It’s no secret the plot is somewhat like the Japanese story Battle Royale, where the kids go in to fight and only one comes out. What intrigued me was not the hunting, not at all. Rather, I liked how the narrator, when she goes to the affluent Capitol City, keeps seeing everything through a sort of “double vision.” She keeps comparing the decadent, filthy-rich city-folk to the poverty she has known every day of her life. I can relate.

After I was raised in poverty, and then spent my formative years outdoors with blue-collar workers, I found myself one day, in my mid-twenties, indoors amongst rich university students. They were nice enough, one young man told me if I wanted a really good dentist I could see his dad, but they seemed to barely know they were middle class, and they had no clue they were rich. One of the student clubs even put up posters for a “trailer trash” party. They took the posters back down after it was pointed out that some students would have grown up in house trailers—something the young scholars were not smart enough to think of on their own.

Of course I wanted to “do the student life” by joining a club. Passing by the ritzy ski club, I found my way to the student newspaper, a club supplying typewriters and pulp yellow typing paper. I quickly discovered that the volunteer journalists there, although a little smarter than the average students, were equally oblivious about being rich.

For example, a few times I saw an incident where heads snapped around in agreement: I knew by the “snap” that something psychological was going on. What would spark the head snap? Some one saying not to review a certain movie, two weeks or more after it opened, “…because any one who wanted to see it would have seen it in the first two weeks.” I always kept silent. I think the reporters were pushing away from their minds any image of an impoverished student, a student who might see a movie at most every second weekend, fearfully counting his change and waiting for at least a couple of weeks to check out the buzz, to think over whether the film would be worth it…

Alone, I slowly reasoned it out: These students had been kids raised with a weekly allowance, who would (yawn, stretch) go weekly to see “a” movie, rather than a particular movie. These students, some of them, saw shows so often they no longer had an excited hush when the curtain whisked back, but would instead (yawn) peer during the movie to notice the lighting and props and stuntmen. They were the living embodiment of the boss singing, “Fifty-seven channels and nothing’s on.”

As it happened, student entertainment writers could review a movie for free. Of course it was common for sophomores to write witty, catty, scathing reviews. One day Lisa Hobson curiously asked me why my reviews were always so nice. I said simply, “I see movies so rarely, that when I see one, I always like it.” Besides, even to this day, I still don’t do catty. And, years after leaving poverty, I still have a ghostly double vision: I’ll have it for life, I guess.

Today our economy is more productive than ever before; hence our society is more affluent. It takes less work-time than ever to manufacture, or to earn the money for, a loaf of bread. Affluence shows up on TV: The props and sets for the TV series Enterprise look like sets for a fancy movie, when compared to the simple sets of the original Star Trek. This is surely from affluence, because the TV audience-percentage is still comparable to the original series.

Amidst this affluence, as Jesus had predicted, the poor are still with us. One day I was volunteering with the Boys’nGirls Club, with elementary-aged kids after school. The other leader said that for Thanksgiving people have a roast turkey. I hastened to add, “Or a chicken.” A young girl announced proudly, “We have a chicken!” The gap in price between a chicken and a turkey can be as vast and insurmountable as the curb before a wheelchair.

These days certain technology is everywhere; even families on welfare have a color TV. A few years ago, my sister was a leader for Brownies and Girl Guides. She told me how if the girls had a sleep-over, perhaps as part of a trip down to the big city, then one thing was certain: VCRs were so ubiquitous that no matter what movie my sister rented, the girls had already seen it… I am reminded of a newspaper cartoon where two kids build a snowman. Then one says, "That’s our obligatory childhood nostalgia moment, now let’s go inside and play Assassin’s Creed!" (Video game)

Our new “social media” technology is not yet everywhere, even though it's in the news so much. Not quite a Frankenstein’s monster, not angelic either.

I’ve read newspaper accounts of girls using various types of tech to horribly bully other kids. Luckily, my nieces, born out of wedlock, were born early enough to miss all this cyber-bullying. The girls grew up with a “single parent family” scarcity: I noticed when we went to see a movie how they never suggested popcorn. If they were growing up today, poor and vulnerable, would they be cyber-bullied? …No… Because they wouldn’t be able to afford the technology!

The journalists who write those glowing accounts of the wonders of teens “all doing social media” with tablets, handhelds and computers, are the same reporters who seem to forget about the kids in our city needing yearly donations of school supplies, packs and winter jackets. The reporters seem awfully oblivious to the economic facts of life: Divorce statistics are grim, single parent means “seventy-five cents to the male dollar” single mother, and some people can’t afford a personal computer, any more than they could afford skis. Should I be angry at the journalists, or despise them, or what?  Maybe I could forgive the reporters for simply being members of a community content to forget about poor people, to push them out of mind.

… I decided, over my coffee, to go back and buy that camouflage jacket. Now I can hang it up to gaze on it so proudly… but beneath it is a ghost image: I see a thrift store sweater, under a zipped cotton hoody, under a thin fleece pullover, mismatched, all worn together in desperate hope of adequate warmth.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains,
2012 A.D.

Speaking of bullying, I just found a 2014 book by Carpenter and D'Antona called Bullying Solutions full of true stories, where, according to the back cover, "the readers" will gain practical user-friendly advice. Unfortunately, "readers" will mean parents, because judging by the more than 40 case studies, teachers are still mostly useless. 

I am reminded of a feature-length movie documentary where the teacher confronts a student, asking why he didn't tell teachers, only to have him say that nothing happened last time when he told her. She hadn't done her job—and didn't know it. And where not one of the teachers at the school would lead by example by sharing with at least the faculty, if not the students too, having been bullied as a student. I find such lily-white innocence statistically unlikely.

I knew a teenager, not-so-recently now, who was utterly, ferociously savage in girls field hockey, yet not one teacher ever wondered if she had been sexually abused or bulled at home. In fact, she had a gun held on her. She and I don't respect teachers.

~I keep this blog site free of any photographs or bells and whistles. This is because according to the newspaper many Americans still use the cheaper, slower dial-up internet. So does my sister. She lives on a rural street without any TV cables.

~A related essay is A Poem For Richard Cory, archived January 2015.

~Science fiction author John Scalzi received many replies on his blog when he posted Being Poor. 

~Scalzi too respects folks on dial-up. Near the bottom of his post, before a long list of ping back comments, he stops the comments, (at 350) so the post won't be too hard to download, and he then has a link so comments can be continued in another place. (I think he got 150 more)

I'm not important enough to get trolls, but if ever I did, I hope I could be as gracious and effective as Scalzi is. …Oh ya, one more thing: his brother and sister are among the commenters.

~I've just learned that Scalzi lived in a trailer while going to school. Today, ten years after the above essay, he posted a followup, and in the comments all sorts of people thanked him for his original.

~As a teenager, after we went from a party line (normal then) to a private line, (normal now) I talked for hours on the telephone, so I respect teens wanting social media. But as for older folks, I get bloody impatient: see my November 2010 piece Fluffy Social Media.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thematic Citizens


“Thematic.” It means relating to a common theme; it’s a word I now associate with observing and seeking out.

Yes, that’s my word of the day, thanks to science fiction (sf) writer Gordon R. Dickson, best known for his novels in the Childe Cycle. At the end of a short story collection, Steel Brother, there is “The Childe Cycle Status Report” and an Algol Magazine interview by Sandra Miesal, “A Conversation With Gordon R. Dickson.” In both parts Dickson explains how his Childe stories, taken together, are thematic. I find the idea of “seeking out” intriguing. As he tells Miesal:
…I am writing something that I hope the average, wanting-to-be-entertained reader will pick up and absorb. That’s the whole point of the consciously-thematic novel. It’s a way of making a philosophical statement that the reader sort of swallows without having realized that they’ve swallowed it and only later realizes it’s in there. The propagandistic novel gives you no chance but to accept or reject the statement. The consciously-thematic novel makes the statement available to you but does not require you to choose either one. You can simply ignore it.
Elsewhere in the conversation he says of his Childe novels, “… that their message is not an accidental blurred thing but a clear statement for those who will look for it.” The trick, of course, is they have to be willing to look.

Written science fiction, of course, in contrast to Hollywood’s moving pictures, has always rewarded those willing to look and think. The novel Nineteen Eighty-four, by George Orwell, starts out with the clock striking thirteen as bits of grit are blowing into the doorway. With that opening line the reader may rush on past, or think, “How silly, to take metric to the extreme of having thirteen to twenty-four bells.” Combined with the grit, he realizes, “A powerful government has forced its metric ideals on the people, without the democratic check and balance of common sense. More than just powerful: Obviously that government is oppressive, since they don’t have the economical, and psychological, resources needed for having clean streets.” As an essayist, I see I’ve just done my own subtle-thematic-thingy, by leaving it to my essay readers, those who are willing, to ask: What “psychological resources,” what character traits, are discouraged amongst the public by oppressors?”

This realization in reading 1984, from the very opening line, comes before the reader has even encountered the first huge poster of Big Brother. Later in the novel, of course, it will be made explicit that “ideals” are but an excuse to exercise power, with power as an end in itself. A leader will reveal to a prisoner a fact of life: You don’t seize power in order to make a revolution; you make a revolution in order to seize power.

In my favorite sf novels, come to think of it, the theme is subtle, and not put in words by anyone, neither by the author nor by any of the characters. Sometimes the story is not, at first, even written with a conscious-theme. Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a novel (Cordelia’s Honor) of the adventures of Cordelia against a plot to overthrow the government, with Cordelia being a starship captain who has left the service for a planetside marriage. Bujold was most of the way through writing her novel before she (and Cordelia too) realized it was about leaving one’s lone career and fully accepting the ties of children and family.

I used to be subtle with my essays, too subtle. And so one day I had to go back to my older ones and edit in some explicit thesis. This was after my buddy Blair pointed out I was mistakenly writing for science fiction fans. Hence I was writing essays with a nice chain of logic but at the very end not nailing in a thesis. Blair explained it was better to be less artistic, and more patronizing of the readers, rather than expect people to create a conclusion. He was right, of course.

As for essays on the Internet, I am told there are artistic ones. Such a relief to hear. Unhappily, so far, I have almost only found writing for computer nerds who will read at their workplace, perhaps while their code is booting. These nerds will rush along the words wanting really short pieces, with their minds in neutral, wishing to be spoon fed. Call them “really bright guys who are common sense challenged.” One lady even wrote, “If you can’t make your point in 200 words, you shouldn’t even bother.” How queer, since I can think of classic essays where the beginning alone takes 200 words. Obviously in her world there are no classic essays... no classics to return to for creating new connections, insights and thoughts missed the first time. A pity.

As with essays, so with novels where, as G. R. Dickson notes, people have a choice about subtle things. It’s fine to read only for the adventure, of course, while there is also more to find if you are willing.

While I enjoy essays, more of my reading is fiction. Lately I’ve been intrigued by two subtle lines in the fiction of sf writer Robert Heinlein. I’ve lifted my eyes up from the page to ponder how so much can be unpacked from a simple sentence…

I can’t recall which of Heinlein’s novels, contains a spoken line to the effect that “any police service that goes in for wire tapping and bugging, ends up with the police chief himself being bugged.” Well. At my first fly-past I assumed that with so much bugging technology lying around some police officer, either a “keener,” or a “bad apple,” would end up spying “on” his chief. On the second time past I had second thoughts: could it be spying “against” his chief? Could it be that when bugging becomes easy and commonplace within the police service there is a change to the ethics and values of the “city’s finest?”

A “change?” Better call it a “corruption.” Wait—is not the police force embedded in society? More change, then, to society as a whole, as we are each of us, as the Reverend Martin Luther King noted, bound up in a web of mutuality.

According to rumor, the FBI started by spying on the activities and love lives of communists and union organizers, and then moved to keeping files on the sex lives of congressmen, as well as the activities of my favorite reverend for civil rights. Finally, it is rumoured, they escalated to covert actions, such as cointelpro and the killing of Karen Silkwood. It is said that as early as President Truman the White House daren’t fire Hoover, for fear of secret files. Mutuality: It is a short crooked line from Hoover to the Watergate tapes. After sober thought: Better to keep to using specific wiretaps subject to specific warrants by a named careful judge.

Perhaps, then, the Patriot Act is too trusting of human nature.

In Heinlein’s novel Glory Road the hero, an athletic expert fencer, magically ends up on a quest wearing a sword, with a sidekick to set up his nylon tent, and a princess by his side. The hero starts out, though, in the US army in a jungle war in Asia, near a bustling port where people will pirate-copy western things like Irish Sweepstakes tickets. (This was before digital) While Glory Road is technically a fantasy, it also has the thoughtfulness so appealing to readers of science fiction. The scene I am recalling is where they are about to unpack to camp in a beautiful park-like glade. The hero peers around and the princess assures him, “It is safe.” Still nervous. She adds, “It is defended.” Then the hero relaxes.

When I first unpack and expand her six words… I envision a young handsome blond in a denim jacket in a pool hall. The lad probably won’t have the character to have become skilled at a musical instrument, a performing art or a sport such as fencing (not unless he is desperately grasping at straws as a way to escape the slum) Finding everyday life challenging enough, he totally rejects taking up cliff climbing or hiking. This means, secondly, that outdoor pursuits can be used for character training for juvenile delinquents, and firstly, that remote parks are safe enough, defended well enough, simply by having park rangers with radios. Meanwhile, gambling in the pool hall, his winnings are safe from violence only if the other patrons and the police will defend him. If no one will help, or at least be willing to serve as a stool pigeon, then the boy is left helpless.

Speaking of character training, or lack thereof: If the lad goes to prison, then "safety" will mean "a gang." His fellow convicts will form no justice committee, nor even an escape committee, not like normal people dropped into a WWII P.O.W. camp. This makes sense: Persons unfit for society are unfit to form a civil society “in the joint.”

When I unpack the dialogue still further, I see the Asians in Glory Road could not prevent war or piracy, not without having the character, the civilian resolve, for “effectiveness” in their police and armed forces. Today, of course, the communist police lack the will to stop economic piracy, while the South Vietnamese army, so infamously unbrave, is now history. It was in one of his essays, not in his fiction, that George Orwell remarked that civilized men are safe at night only because other men, inevitably less civilized, are guarding the frontiers while they sleep. (A remark used by Jack Nicholson’s character in the film A Few Good Men)

Expanding still further—how far I’ve come from six words! …Safety is not the default: Rather, from bustling ports to remote parks, safety follows conscious defense. This could mean responsible citizens like in Athens, or less responsible civilians like the hero’s Asian friends, or, as one of Heinlein’s characters once muttered, really pathetic guys “paying Danegeld.”

Perhaps, then, the pacifists who are anti-army are too trusting of human nature.

OK Blair, here’s my thesis: Good reading takes work, and, it takes work to have a healthy society. This idea, thematic to novels of Heinlein, is also thematic of many of my essays. Believe in democracy, yes, but don't be too trusting. For me, it’s fun to slow down to think about essays and fiction, especially when such prose reminds me that, on this planet, fully responsible citizens are not the default.

Sean Crawford
Where “the pursuit of happiness” includes reading,
Calgary, February 2012

Danegeld, claims my hard drive dictionary, is a land tax for defence against Norse raiders. No, not quite. My old high school textbook explains that the English occupiers of old Roman Britain (Saxons, Jutes, Angles and others) paid the Danes "Danegeld" to come and do their fighting for them against other would-be occupiers... only to find that they had no power to make the Danes leave afterwards!

The same text noted that while our sympathies are with the sophisticated merchant city of Carthage against the crude agricultural city of Rome... the Carthaginians, in the end, deserved to lose: They tried to use foreign mercenary troops against unpaid Roman volunteers, rather than volunteering themselves. I am reminded of the South Vietnamese parliament refusing to lower their draft age from 21 to 19 because they had young American G.I.s to do their  fighting for them... Robert Kennedy said the Vietnamese were too unmotivated, as in too noisy, to make contact with the enemy while on patrol. They declined from one patrol in a hundred making contact to one patrol in two hundred. The G.I.s? One patrol in 38.

Truly, civilians get the army and government they deserve...
(That goes for us too, see my essay Alive and Alert, for Life and Work, July 2011)  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Group Support


I made a joke as three of us walked across an office building plaza: the chief executive officer, the big vice president, and me. I told them that Shannon, the executive I report to, had announced she was going to be away for a day in order to take some leadership training. I said my response to Shannon, after first making sure I was out of arm's reach, was to quip, "More training? Great! I love leaders, without leaders I'd have no one to blame!" The CEO laughed, but the VP responded with less levity, more gravity: "Blame—ain't that the truth."

I think a lot of us "don't get it" that we need to honor those willing to be leaders. And no, this needn't mean jealousy or resentment. Such emotions are a big concern of a colleague, call him Sean, who is excruciatingly democratic. Sean is idealistically against hierarchy or "better than." Me too.

Last week I was standing with Sean by his open car trunk; I noticed that lying loose in the trunk he had a "certificate of accomplishment." I teased him, "Hey, you're supposed to put that parchment somewhere real safe where it can't get wrinkled." It turned out that he wasn't sure how being honored with a certificate fitted into his ideals. After admitting I didn't have a clue where my own certificate was, I asked if he'd like to hear my own alternate theory of groups. Sean idealistically said "yes" meaning he was not afraid to change, and not afraid to be bored.

"Give me an example," I challenged, "of a group where people share a common purpose." Sean gazed around for inspiration and said, "A group going down to help the people of Hondura." So I spun a theory and gave him an alternate scenario to add to his view of life. Then what? Did he grin ear to ear, pump my hand, and thank me for "showing me the light?" Of course not. A new theory of leadership or groups is like a new word for your vocabulary: life gets a little more interesting, and whenever the time comes around the "more precise" word will be there, waiting, but in the meantime life goes on.

It was Professor Herbert Thelen of Chicago who put me on to his "half" theory. According to my memory, Thelen noted how in a formal group every individual is motivated half by the group goal, and half by an individual goal. Half, "I want to help the poor Hondurans," and half—? One fellow wants to get good at building things "on the square and on the level." One lady wants to practice her accounting skills. One chap values the camaraderie; one guy wants to be near a certain brunet. I note this not with sadness at the lack of idealistic mono-motivation, but with affection: I like how my fellows are so human—just like me.

Really, who cares about the people having multiple motivations, as long as everyone is contributing to the group goals? Good leaders have a good perspective on unseen motivations: At leadership school, when it comes to problematic behavior, students are told to focus solely on seeing and changing an employee's behavior, not the person's inner psychology.

As our hypothetical group is down helping the Hondurans, one lady is willing to take on the stress of leadership, one man tirelessly stuffs envelopes to write asking for more help, and one woman always offers neck rubs. Better still, Hondura being so dusty, this lady humbly washes everyone's feet—just as Jesus would do. While this is going on, while these three make extra efforts at helping the group—with leadership, envelopes and feet—I think there needs to be some extra compensation. My response therefore is to honor these three. Jesus did, remember? He had his own "half theory:"Appealing to people's practical side, Jesus said people who serve get a higher place in heaven.

Those who heard Jesus, and adopted a service ethic, would presumably, in the fullness of time, give of themselves only half because of "practical reasons" and half for a new service ethic, a new way of life. Sean might say, "Yes but... people should all, right now, be at a higher level of wanting to help—and so maybe we shouldn't honor the "extra" helpers." My reply would be, "Sure but... people are only human. That's why Jesus taught with parables—not essays—because not all people were ready for a higher level: "Hearing, they understood not.""

Sean might be troubled by this paradox: Everyone in the group is honored for helping the Hondurans, and some are more honored than others. This confounded paradox fades when you step back to see the big picture.

I remember being confounded at a student party in early December once. A friend said, "People should be nice, every day should be like Christmas." I was nodding when two philosophy majors gleefully chimed in to say, "Then what would we do for Christmas?"...Yes. Uncommon effort will never be common.

And so I honor and support anyone's efforts, both the common and especially the uncommon. On a functional team, we all support each other, right? It follows that an honored leader is one who (besides other things) supports the group to move further along towards achieving the goal. And of course a person who washes feet is also supporting the group, and therefore is also a leader.

Of course if I honor this person, encouraging her to carry on; if, say, I lead the applause for her, then I too am supporting the group. Hence I too am a leader, a leader by example.

I think it follows logically that it is fine to make an extra effort to support the group, without feeling "less than," by giving "constructive" feedback to my boss, an effort made as part of problem solving... but while doing so I don't blame my leaders. Not to their faces and not behind their backs. I have no time for "non constructive" useless negativity.

And now I have to laugh. I am so looking forward to telling my ultra-democratic colleague that right where he is, right in his current position, he can be a leader.

Sean Crawford
between snow falls
Calgary, March 2009

~British Honduras is now known as Belize (Be-leez)