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Of “Nostalgic Spasms”

May 21, 2014 Leave a comment

In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

Learning Leaders Learning

November 25, 2013 Leave a comment

At its very least, effective leadership is a clarity of communication. Great leaders simply express their ideas clearly. It’s a matter of presenting distinct possibilities when they exist. Rare are the situations that possess such distinct choices; though, and it is also the role of the leader to both perceive and take advantage of them. Take, for example, the statement often linked to Benjamin Franklin: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” Whether he actually said this or was capable of such poor use of grammatical parallelism is debatable, but my issue here is this application of distinct choice. Though the situation was complicated, Franklin curated the moment to possess these two choices. “It’s either privacy or security, people. So which one do you want?”

One such moment now arrives in contemporary society. Recent revelations of privacy violations by government agencies has led many to question whether “too much” spying is taking place. What was once thought (and claimed) as an action focused on terrorists and criminals has now been revealed to include trusted allies, celebrities and even the Pope. John Q. Public’s records have also been revealed as material worth saving, but with this collection further excuses regarding the anonymity of supposed metadata work to quash some concerns.

Would you rather trade your personal security for your right to privacy? Are you more comfortable facing the possibility of a terrorist attack than having the data of your private life collected and saved? Ultimately this is the question of our time. As shocking as it may seem, some people would rather have their data kept private and take the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack. We’ve reached this point in a post 9/11 world where our initial actions were inspired in part by our emotional reaction to the attacks. We’re older now, more removed from the initial shock, and capable of re-assessing just how much protection we want.

A great leader will recognize this critical question and pose it to the public. Though posed, we’ll also need extensive time to consider a response. Great leadership plays a role here as well: facilitating communication and creating a community of thinkers will be essential in reaching a response. Perhaps our sense of “great leadership” has changed in our contemporary society. Has technology altered what we need from leaders? Tech has certainly changed our day-to-day existence so why might its effects also extend to those we choose to lead? Perhaps our future is one where our leadership is less a figurehead and more a conduit of thinking. Maybe leadership is less the “out in front” and more the “learning side by side”.

Incorporated Grief

November 23, 2013 Leave a comment

Though John F. Kennedy’s biological life ended when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, a cadre of alternative existences lives on. Kennedy the father, our president, the family man and soldier being just three alternative and complimentary existences at play. Kennedy is among a small cast of characters whose death provides a birth: figures who in leaving become enlivened by symbolic status. History is rich with great figures whose greatness went unrecognized when they were alive. Kennedy, like these figures, is an individual “cut down early” or geniuses living “beyond their time.”

Though few knew John F. Kennedy personally, millions feel a sense of sadness when considering his death. Often frames of commonality are applied to garner senses of melancholy. Not just a man but “President” “father”, “Catholic” or “solider” these labels become points of identification and relation. We more easily mourn the loss of someone we relate to or in whom we’ve placed significant importance. Is the death of a President more tragic than another? Of the millions who died on November 22, 1963 why is it John F. Kennedy that continues to capture public attention each November 22?

One wonders how the use of terms is utilized to manipulate responses. Are we mourning Kennedy or ” a president” Do his roles as “father” or “husband” make us more upset than an alternative JFK whose lack of children and wife negate these labels? What of his label as “Catholic”? One wonders whether the constant application of these terms functions more as a distortion. When a priest mentions Kennedy as Catholic does the moment of silence become something more? How is this religious figure utilizing JFK’s faith to cull reaction? What does it matter what Kennedy believed?

In memorializing the life of someone we warp that person’s existence. We layer on symbolic frosting and create some new identity whose c0nnection to its biological root is foreign. Are Presidents laying a wreath on Kennedy’s grave remembering or mourning their own death?Are we crying more for symbols or for something other- something beyond our experience and knowledge?

Jurassic Dreams

October 1, 2013 Leave a comment

The United States government’s shutdown allows one to consider perks and perils of privatization. Privatize a National Park and get Jurassic Park? A private company is the only way that a fantasy land like that displayed in Jurassic Park could exist. The Federal government functions to “protect and preserve” the nation’s interior. While possible, a private company might think otherwise and function instead with the goal of customer desire.

What if the market demands a more exciting use of national landscapes? Do we need another waterfall to photograph? Might we benefit more from some white water rafting parks? Maybe that beautiful field is just perfect for a roller coaster. For some the goal of “preserving and protecting” is the most important role of the government. Save those sacred places for the future. Such glad handing strikes one as insulting- are we truly unable to resist some latest desires to destroy the landscape? Do such suggestions and goals underpin a belief that greedy capitalists will seek out any and all square inches for monopolization opportunities? Some seem convinced that Walmarts on every corner could actually happen.

A government that goes away allows us a moment to consider its value. Might some areas of government be reduced or eliminated? How might a world of less government work? Let’s consider areas where government might trade its role to industry. No, we still need some regulations as in meat inspection and the countless other areas of consumer protection. We do not need no government; but let us muse on where we might adjust. A little tweaking never hurt anyone.

Slippery Words

September 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Political skill revolves around a slippery use of language. When “civilian casualties” becomes “collateral damage” we double dilute our meaning by turning the death of innocent human beings into vague, fuzzy notions. What is collateral or citizens for that matter? The blood on the pavement is horror realized and the only way to come to terms with its existence is to muddle and hide. For those tasked with maintaining order or whose actions lead to such situations, a distortion of language might be less about the audience and more the interior of the speaker.

How do evildoers come to terms with what they do? Is evil a quality of being able to disregard disgusting acts? Kant’s categorical imperative can be simplified to ask, “If everyone else does what I do, can society function?” It expands the actions of one to the group as a whole. Doing so reveals how certain things that occur on a small-scale can only occur without damage at the small-scale. If we all disregard the speed limit the roads will be chaos, but a few speeders can be tolerated.

Likewise a manipulation of language can only occur on the small-scale. When leaders distort language there must be figures who correct them. Not all will be capable of this action and those who cannot are likely to fall victim to the distortion. The strength of society lies in those who refuse to be manipulated and utilize critical thinking to respond to what occurs. One can think but action is required. Extending beyond the ivory tower is the real act of heroism. Your papers may be published and thousands may re-tweet, like and favor but all is naught is nothing is done.

Determined but Denied

August 11, 2013 Leave a comment

For many, the battle for civil rights comes from a desire to establish equality: one group has been denied and the goal is to erase discrimination. These actors exist in the world where their benefits already exist. They work not to establish rights for themselves but to extend the benefits they enjoy to others. While not the case for everyone, many who work towards greater rights recognize the dangers of inequality and work to eliminate an advantage.

Others work from the other perspective: the position of the burdened. For these figures their work is an uphill battle where the desire for equality drives the action. Recent history features African-Americans and Homosexuals among this group. For these individuals it is their common bond of denial that drives them forward. Moving from a position of wanting equal benefits, they battle against an established power for recognition and award.

It is these figures that present an incredible demonstration of patriotism. It is one thing to exist in a country where rights have been provided. For those whose enjoyment of liberty comes automatically at birth there is a different level of appreciation. Given so much for no reason other than arbitrary details of birth (race, gender, class), these figures have less to bind them to the work that went into establishing the system they enjoy.

For those denied equality it is their stoic determination and unwavering patriotism that strikes one with zeal. To be denied equality and still remain patriotic is remarkable. To exist in a world where the denial of equality comes via the reasoning of trivial and arbitrary details of things like skin color, gender or class is a testament to true patriotism. It is one thing to have pride in one’s country when one has been given so much. Still noble, these figures cannot comprehend existence in a world where these rights did not exist. It is in the patriotism of these figures, denied so much for so long and for such trivial reasons, that a starkly impressive form of patriotism exists. It is in these figures that the purest form of patriotism exists: denied and yet determined, unloved and yet still loving.

The Coward’s Way

July 27, 2013 Leave a comment

“A screaming comes across the sky,” writes Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow. Though set in World War II, Pynchon’s novel reminds us of the sheer terror of war technology and new-found means of delivery. Whether drones or IEDs, war technology can now come from a distance and provide warriors with an ability to kill from a distance. This ability comes as a contrast to older forms of warfare where warrior met warrior. In today’s war there are variable forms of battlefield. No longer do we limit war to self-contained battlefields; instead, entire regions are open to attack. Terrorism further expands these notions of battlefield so that citizens and their public spaces are viable targets.

Do these evolutions suggest a new-found form of war? Is war a game of cowards now? Surely the use of remote technology exists for its claimed benefit of allowing war from a distance. No longer must the soldier face the hazards of the battle field. In our new form of war the battle takes place somewhere else and despite the higher risk of innocent casualties, the muddied terms of war grow increasingly popular. War exists without definition when a battle field is never actually defined. A war that exists everywhere ironically exists nowhere as any place and person plays a part.

Despite our sense of progress with remote technologies we remain blind to the real costs of war. Technology often assists us in making the pains of reality more tolerant. Communication is easier and the daily chores of life become more focused with technology. Does war also benefit from these conveniences? Perhaps a better form of war is what existed in the past. Crude and ugly, the war that exists on the defined battle field recognizes the horrors at play. Working to expand and muddy our definition of war only serves to spread its pain further. War technology accomplishes less in its existence as a remote format. If battle we must than we might better be served by the goal of limiting its exposure.

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