Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Integrity and Philosophy

Hello Reader,
Got Gibbon’s old classic?
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The decline was in things unseen: character, virtue and civic spirit

My college teacher for Leadership 202, “how to run a meeting,” Gerry Bruce, used to encourage our integrity. If we were having a classroom “meeting,” or discussion, about a tough philosophy decision, he would have us each secretly write down for our eyes only what our answer was—so we would have to make a choice.

If a classmate asked him for time to address the class for something, (such as a party or special event) and if she told him, without honest thought, that it would take “two seconds” then he would not allow such dishonesty. Students had to have the integrity to estimate how much time they were asking for.

Last week’s footnote went: 
Perhaps, if you are reading this in a future library, you are wondering why I would sacrifice the natural flow of my essay to suddenly, in the third from last paragraph, go sideways to a paragraph referring to the war on terror. 
To me it’s obvious, but maybe I could answer in a sidebar, next week. 

Now it’s next week.

My answers: 
Secondly, in a democratic war some sacrifice is expected by everyone, if only the sacrifice of time, attention and a citizen’s duty to be informed. 
Firstly, dear reader, I wonder too. Do the American people deserve my sacrifice?

Do they think so little of the words that fall from their mouths that they say “war” when they secretly mean to stay on their couch, letting only their civil servants “give a care?” Letting themselves abdicate any citizen oversight or planning? A war is not won by accident. I think they are too lazy to win—how, you may ask, could I say such a horrible thing? As I see it, here’s the smoking gun: Americans can’t even be bothered to “demonize” the enemy. Such a lack of national focus would have been inconceivable during my dad’s war, when even sensitive artists were quick to make funny demonic propaganda posters. 

Perhaps those people who declare war yet refuse to demonize, also think there is only “a small difference” between the terrorists and us. That’s no way to run a war. My dad could have told them, as President Barak Obama’s mentor Saul Alinsky said: “You can’t ask a farmer to leave his wife and children, his crops half-grown in the field, for a small difference.” 

Nor can you ask my sister to (hypothetically) leave her college degree in Arab Studies half-finished to go be a volunteer translator wearing a long modest dress, to accompany the U.S. army at night. (Surely the army or the embassy would at least provide her with rations and a free roof overhead—they could even call her a “civilian contractor”) 

Therefore my sister won’t be giving aid and comfort to any Arab families when the U.S. troops are “recruiting for Al-Qaida” by kicking in doors at midnight, frightening families in the bitter search for insurgents and weapons. No. While lazy Americans are saying from their couches, “Let George do it,” I would tell my sister, “Stay in college. The American people don’t deserve you.”

… Note of gratitude: Some of the above ideas are ones I have applied from reading the Chtorr War novels of David Gerrold about a world desperately fighting against an alien invasion by ecological infestation. (No Martian Fighting Machines with death rays) I love that series.

I wonder: Did the folks of the sprawling decadent Roman Empire look back to their famous old city-state republic as a golden age? Did they know, as historians do today, that they were in decline, headed for a fall, even though they were so much greater in terms of gold and territory than the virtuous republic? If they did know, they must have felt helpless to reverse their decline.

One theory, for spotting a state’s decline, is presented by a character in Robert Heinlein’s speculative fiction novel about a grown up orphan named Friday. A wise man tells her a nation in decline has declining civility, adding that the worst offenders view their rudeness as a strength.

I wonder if Heinlein had read old Roman parchments? 

I guess nobody knows how to spot national decline (except for the obvious tell-tale of government being dishonest with the money supply, producing inflation—as in  pre Nazi Germany until Hitler was appointed and stopped inflation cold in its tracks—as documented in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) but here’s another theory: Perhaps a nation has lost greatness when they no longer aspire to have integrity in their language. I suppose the loss of integrity would be most noticeable in a nation’s elected leaders and “patricians.” 

Speaking of leaders: During the U.S. civil war, at a time and place when everyone else went in for florid speech, as an historian has noted, both President Lincoln and General Grant were concise and accurate in their speech—which helped them to trust each other at great distances. Perhaps in their personal lives and relationships those two had the same philosophy as I do: Honest language prevents decline. During my dad’s war, Sir Winston Churchill would correct bad language such as reporting that in Italy yesterday we “were fighting with the Germans.” As if war is a game. No, we were fighting with our allies, against the Germans. Once an officer, as a figure of speech, said to Churchill, “I’m afraid that—” “Don’t be afraid!”

Now what’s to become of us? We may have the president of the United States speak of the “war on terror” but he seems to secretly regard it as being, at most, a mere police action. "Let George do it." "Leave it to the civil servants and career military."

Greatness never sits down beside exaggeration, or lies, or wishful thinking. Integrity means wholesome thought, word and then deed. Any Girl Scout knows that. 

And that’s why I think the American people, even after conserving resources for their war on terror by pulling out of Iraq, have doomed themselves in advance to not-win.

Sean Crawford

As for “citizen oversight,” by searching the web I can find individual congressmen, in tiny groups, going briefly to the occupation zone as Ugly Americans and then staying among the elite in the Green Zone—just as Ugly Americans (as in the classic book) would stay glued to urban Saigon—but I find no sign of a Congressional Committee going over long enough for a structured formal study. 

No one was reprimanded or fired. Perhaps congressmen thought it was peacetime, and so therefore they were most needed back in couch territory. In contrast, in my Dad's war congress was involved, forced the removal of General Patton from the front lines after he tried to motivate a shell shocked man by slapping him. 

As long as our congressmen remain calmly content to not-win, then, like the guerrillas in the former South Vietnam, the terrorists will be excited to keep not-losing.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Sarah Connor and Gratitude

A crow was lamenting—something was sad. I was listening from my car in a sunny parking lot eating a nice big sandwich.  My life was good. Strangely, for a creature of nature, the bird cried at precise five second intervals, “Craaw…(five seconds) craaw…(five seconds) craaw…” Perhaps the crow thought, “These are emotional times, serious times, where crying is more important than conserving caloric energy.”

Deja vu. I was reminded of a murder of crows at the top of Primrose Hill, the highest point of London. They had been walking and flapping about the cowling of a motionless Martian Fighting Machine, which was standing high on three stilt-like legs. An hour ago, as I had been crossing a canal, forcing my way through the Red Weed, I heard the Martian operator, still alive, activating his call, the only sound in dead London, at five second intervals. “Ulla… ulla… ulla…” By the time I reached the hill, at twilight, the Machine was standing still as death, only the crows left alive.

In my sunny car, as the bird wasted calories—how unnatural—I played a compact disc with the compositions of Bear Cleary for his soundtrack to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Cleary’s music is somber, plaintive, and lonely in the dark, as if Cleary had included a night train whistle. (but he didn’t) Tunes like Cromartie in the Hospital and Derek’s Mission are relieved by only two lyrical songs, sardonic and superficial, one with the bouncy descending line: “Ain’t we famous baby, ain’t we famous we are.” 

Forget fame. Sarah’s world portrays two time-space locations: the present Los Angeles, sunny and bright, and 2027—rubble and bunkers. To Sarah, and to everyone surviving in the future, fame is frivolous. A few resistance fighters come through to the present: They focus on their mission even though they are suddenly on easy street. A young traveler screams at a family because, in her eyes… they don’t how lucky they are! They don’t get it! They don’t know anything about the coming rubble, starvation and bleached skulls…

To Sarah and her son John the values society disregards today are in fact the classic values, such as bravery, kindness and being helpful. And relationships. How superficial to the Connors are the frivolous things we of today place so much pride in, such as working long hard hours, away from our family, at the office striving for a bigger car, fancy possessions and silly fame. We should be grateful we live in these easy times, where it’s so easy to kid ourselves about what matters. In the backs of our minds, surely, we know we have built our values on flimsy foundations of paper. And paper can so quickly burn to ashes, blown away on the nuclear wind. I think of that sad crow looking down on our misplaced lives.

The 2008 TV show, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, was canceled for having low ratings. Someone thought the ratings were from having too much philosophy and not enough car explosions. I don’t agree; I found Sarah’s musings and the philosophical plots quite interesting. Maybe if ever this world is to be saved it will be from more philosophy, not less. 

During our war on terror that, by the very definition of “war,” is always in our minds and in my essays, it is quite noticeable to me that terrorists place no value on philosophy, and put a second-class value on “their” womenfolk who, if given equal rights like Sarah, might think about building a peaceful world for their sons. As a Canadian Muslim put it, terrorists never have degrees in the liberal arts. They never analyze stories.

If the Berlin Wall has fallen and yet our culture still tells stories of apocalypse, lately stories about plagues of zombies, then surely there are sound psychological reasons. I wonder if we are creating these stories subconsciously to remind ourselves to see the world with fresh, grateful eyes. In Sarah’s world, one angry time-traveling officer, enraged by somebody drifting away from the mission, says: “I took you from hell and brought you to paradise!” Yes. 

I try to take a moment, on a sunny day, in my air conditioned car, to reflect: ...I am living in paradise.

Sean Crawford

~in 2014, starting from the sand pit on the common near the house of H. G. Wells (his house has a plaque) I made my way to Primrose Hill. It’s out beyond the tourist map of Central London, and yes I did have to walk along a canal to get there.

~There was a fierce blockade during the first world war. German troops were desperately short on food and material. When a great mass of troops from the eastern front were freed up by Russia’s surrender, the Germans tried their last great offensive of the war. 

(Too bad the Germans had put their war under military, not civilian control—not like in a democracy—because the presence of all those troops could have been graciously presented as a reason for the Allies to agree to a peace treaty—but of course, the army guys couldn't think that creatively) 

According to my high school teacher, the attack stalled… partly, my teacher said, because the troops slowed down to loot the plentiful food.
Sometimes, I guess, bloodless sanctions and cruel blockades are more effective than bayonets.

~Perhaps, if you are reading this in some future library, you are wondering why I would sacrifice the natural flow of my essay to suddenly, three paragraphs from the end, go sideways to  referring to the war on terror. To me it’s obvious, but maybe I could answer you in a sidebar, next week. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Tourist Making Conversation With Strangers

Hello Reader,
Got social skills?

In which I blog the first half of a nice speech I gave at my Toastmasters club. And being as I’m too lazy to waste a speech, I thought I would blog it here as an essay, even if I only have enough time to give you the first half.

Have you heard? In the last days of August I’m taking a big silver bird! To the United Kingdom of Great Britain! Maybe I’ll go the exotic city of Edinburgh, and then, like so many before me, walk “the Royal Mile.”

Some self-satisfied snob said, “When I travel, I get off the beaten path, and talk with “the people.” I think, “Really? The people? If you are going to talk to strangers in Scotland, then first you have to talk to complete strangers you run across here in town—Do you do that?”

After the above introduction, I said to my peers in Toastmasters, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I will talk on ‘how to strike up a conversation with a stranger.’”  

My peers might not have done theatre improvisation, or watched Drew Carey doing “Whose Line is It, Anyways?” but in Toastmasters they had all done an improvisation called “Table Topics.” That’s where the chairman asks you a question, and then you have to talk for “one to two minutes.” Such an impromptu speech is a totally separate skill from being able to go home and write out your speech ahead of time. To me it’s like how a hunter can be excellent at the skill of snap shooting but hopeless at distant targets, if he never practices long deliberate shots. (Soldiers train for both)

As you can imagine, when you first try Table Topics your brain and body freeze up tight. But don’t worry, in time you learn to relax and freely improvise on your feet. You get good at it. Likewise, you can get better at talking to strangers, as an improvisational skill, not quite like your skills for mingling, say, in the lobby at a toastmaster event or attending a wine and cheese thingy. There people are attending in a “meet people mood;” there you could, in theory, boost your confidence by writing your social questions ahead of time on a small file card to put in your pocket. You know the ones: Do you live around here, have plans for the weekend, see any good movies lately, and so forth. In contrast, encountering a stranger on the sidewalk along the Royal Mile is a little different, but not by much. Not like wandering around a friendly summer bar-b-q, no, but more of an improvisational thing, and happily it’s a skill you can learn. Maybe by role modeling.

As for modeling, one time at college I entered a wine and cheese with Joyce Gee, a petite pretty girl. She was worried, unsure whether she would be able talk to anyone. I said, “I have an idea! You just stay right beside me and as we mingle around, after the first words, I’ll include you in the conversation.” So I’d say hello, get us started, and then? They’d all talk solely to Joyce. Yes, she was pretty.

Another memory: One time I was sitting on a stool at the counter of the old Lido CafĂ©. Ken Fung, the manager, asked how I was. I said with some gloom that I had a weight on my shoulders as I had a project due in three days, but then I would be able to feel fine. He said, “I bet you have to do a speech for Toastmasters.” Wow! How did he know? Maybe because he had a son, Vincent, in Toastmasters. I guess the lesson, dear reader, is that strangers are more alike than they are different, they know your concerns, and they are just as eager to talk as you are. Have faith.

Have faith not only in your ability to learn to improvise, but also in your ability to have an awareness of who wants to talk. We all know which dog doesn’t want to be petted, which person doesn’t want to be hugged. Jerry Mundis in his excellent book on debt tells of the time he was walking along with his head down. I forget the actual story, so let’s pretend: His companion drew his attention to “Aren’t those the most beautiful clouds?” he looked up for a micro-second, said, “yes,” then looked down at his feet again to worry about his bills. She confronted him!

Needless to say, at that moment Mundis was not “present” or “grounded” or “centered” or— well, he was just not in the mood to talk to any stranger. I try to be aware not just of others but of myself too: If I’m feeling “dark” at a particular moment, then that’s OK, that’s normal; it’s OK to for me to ignore strangers until another day. In fact, I wrote an essay about a whole day of ignoring people, called Say Hello To Strangers, archived March 2014.

I have a pretty young acquaintance, Clarisse, who can walk the length of Calgary downtown without any young men speaking to her, without herself speaking to anyone. Just as might happen on the Royal Mile. I know her through my friend Miranda, who tells me Clarisse walks without an awareness of the impression she gives off… when she is (seemingly) walking without any awareness of her surroundings. Without any caring for her surroundings… and then, it logically follows, without caring for the people. At least she doesn’t walk too fast, not like a type A personality. But she does walk eyes front, arms slightly swinging in symmetrical time, face blank, in her own little world. A remote world.

Miranda, at least on her good days, moves through the world like a Girl Guide, alert and observant. Her eyes are light and roaming, her face is open. In Star Trek terms, she is present with her scanners scanning, sensors sensing, her radar dish whirling merrily. That’s her proven way to strike up conversations with strangers.

For my Toastmaster speech people laughed when I began twirling my hand like radar. By this halfway point, having already talked about faith, and awareness, I added a little more about awareness, and then I went on to explain willingness. My essay, as I type this, writing at the Cochrane Coffee Traders, is over a thousand words. It’s time I bid you good luck in talking to people, I’m off to meet folks in Calgary. Maybe I’ll see you on the Royal Mile.

Sean Crawford

~Do you want a Part Two?

~Soldiers not only practice deliberate shooting and snap shooting, they also do “run downs” just like they would when maneuvering in the field, where they have throw themselves down and shoot while breathless.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Human Religion

Hello Reader,
Got religion?
Got the Spanish Inquisition?
Don’t worry, this essay is atheist-friendly

From my May 2017 essay Human Interest and Muslim Demons, this was a deleted 

Speaking of God, I can imagine my European readers asking, “Why are Americans so patriotic; why are they so religious?”

For the patriotism, I don’t know, but here’s a thought: Maybe Americans have enough democracy to feel safe being patriotic, without being scared of any masters using their patriotism against them.

As for religion:

I’m aware that in Europe faith is not so important. In fact, I read in Reasonable Creatures that back when I was a boy, even when fascist General Franco was ruling Catholic Spain, the Spanish still had less church attendance per capita than in America. I shake my head. (Historical note: Franco wanted to join the Axis, but Hitler wouldn’t let him in the club)

I’m North American myself, but I’m not living down in the States, so today I won’t speak for folks down there. Where I live, my short answer for “why so religious?” would be that here in the bible belt, stretching over three lonely prairie time zones, with small towns dotting the cold landscape, where we measure the distance in hours, not in kilometers, the church is a big part of our life.

I remember, at my university, hearing the European students, in an LGBTQ (Gay club) meeting, being amazed at how Canadian students were so concerned, were spending so much of their precious club meeting-time discussing safe churches and efforts to reconcile their faith to their orientation.

The faith answers I still remember are: You can’t judge God by God’s followers; thou may not make a golden calf (to worship) out of old testament scriptures; Jesus has given us a new testament.

…So there I was, with a group of students milling around in the hall outside the college chaplain’s huge meeting room. We were waiting for him to come and open the door so we could have an open-to-everyone faith discussion.

One of the typical students who showed up looked a little ill at ease, and confessed he wasn’t Christian. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict he’d be feeling a little shy, foolish and “out of it.”

As we went inside and put our chairs in a big circle I wondered, “How could I help this guy?” How could I encourage him not to be intimidated by “real” Christian students? I believe in coming from a place of love, and “telling my own story” with “I” statements. Not “preaching at,” not telling a person what to do. The loving thing is to be honest and vulnerable.

And so, after the subject of “journaling” came up in our group conversation, I shared, “When I write in my journal I spell god with a small g, (not a capital G) so I don’t get mixed up with the “bad guy God” in the Bible.”

Well! Are you wondering whether the others got angry at me? They didn’t. In fact, it slowly turned out that roughly half of them had at one time resorted to using a code word for God—including the chaplain. I think it’s like how if a child’s feelings have been desperately hurt for years by her dear parents then, in adulthood, she’ll end up calling them by their first names. Same principle.

God bless us, everyone.

Sean Crawford