Are Your Beliefs Believable?

     Hiroo Onoda died recently at the age of 91.  You should know who he is.  We should all know who he is.  Though we may never before have heard his name, we share a crucial personality trait with him.  It has to do with what we believe and more importantly, the way we believe it.

     We all have beliefs, those core ideas about life and living that we like to identify as guiding lights.  What we don’t discuss is that second set of beliefs hiding behind the noble pillars of the views we espouse.  This ideological duality is so deeply rooted that we forget it even exists.  We take quiet pride in signing on to the Big Ideas of Truth, Justice, and (fill in your own Big Idea here; for Superman it was “the American Way.”).  But we don’t always practice the Big Ideas.

     So what do we really believe?  There’s hardly a need to go over the answer. We believe what we do, not what we say.  We publicly insist on healthy eating and privately devour Twinkies (or replace with your preferred equivalent).  We publicly praise regular exercise while privately avoiding it like a medieval disease.  

     This doublethink should endow us with a healthy level of skepticism about beliefs in general and our personal beliefs in particular. But there’s something worse than not really living up to the lofty ideals we pretend to embrace. There are ideas we hold sacred that are in actuality less valid than the myth of King Midas. 

     Will Rogers opined that it isn’t the things we believe that are the problem; it’s the things we believe that just aren’t so.  Hiroo Onoda’s example allows us to explore our own intellectual stubbornness from a safe distance.  Mr. Onoda was a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.  When Japan surrendered, he was in the Philippines. His commanding officer ordered him to stay behind and spy on the Americans.  While he held his position in the jungle, the rest of the world moved on.  Rock and roll, civil rights, the cold war, and TV, Vietnam, the moon landing, and hot pants zipped by. He even missed the Hula Hoop. Elvis, the Beatles, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Khrushchev, and Frank Sinatra rose and receded while Hiroo concerned himself with the necessities of raw survival.

     When Mr. Onoda was finally found, he wouldn’t come out.  His former superior, Major Yoshimi Tanigushi, had to be located and dispatched to personally issue the order. One can only imagine the shock he felt on being catapulted into the early ‘70’s without any psychological preparation.  The fashion scene alone must have been enough to frighten him into retreating to the real jungle.

     We either laugh or grimace at stories like this.  It seems like a scenario from a situation comedy.  An eccentric soldier is found still fighting a war that ended a generation earlier.  Didn’t he suspect something might be wrong when he didn’t get any new orders for ten years or so?  What did he think when the first jets started passing overhead?  Would he have just stayed dug in if they hadn’t pulled finally pulled him out?

    Yes, he would have.  And we can’t afford to dismiss him as a figment from “News of the Weird” because we have our own dogmas that we grip in our ideological teeth.  Once Mr. Onoda was liberated, he went on to have a life of impressive accomplishments.  What will it take to liberate us from the notions to which we so stubbornly cling, those misguided views that stand like a figurative Wall of China between us and what we might be?  How long will we remain entrenched in jungles of our own making?    

Japanese Soldiers Surrenders
The Case of the Bogus Belief: Hiroo Onoda walks out of a viewpoint

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Feeding the Frankenstein

We all have an inner Frankenstein, a monster that we shouldn’t  feed.  When we keep him hungry, our lives tend to run more smoothly.  Our attitudes tend to be more positive.  When we let him dine, we stoke an inner ferocity.

     The Frankenstein everyone shares is the one with the green eyes.  It’s the Frankenstein of envy.  When we let him go, his rampages can demolish figurative villages.  They can also be inconsistent.  The movie Frankensteins always let it rip on an equal opportunity basis.  If you’re in their way, you get it.  Our personal Frankensteins are different.  They demolish some huts while leaving others standing.  They rip some things to pieces and ignore other things.

     This is because we are inherently illogical.  We never really envy a whole person; instead we covet a person’s job or house or car.  Or we might covet all three, but we don’t want his or her carpal tunnel syndrome or that slight limp.  So we end up acting as though we’re jealous of a person when in fact we’re not.  We’re irrationally jealous of only a part of the person as though it’s possible to cherry pick certain aspects and leave others.  This is a condition we can call Selective Sight Syndrome (we never view the whole picture).

     This syndrome is best depicted in the poem “Richard Cory” by Edward Arlington Robinson.  The narrator of this piece feeds his Frankenstein on envious thoughts of the title character who he says is “richer than a king.”   Cory is said to make pulses flutter, and he glitters when he walks.   “We thought that he was everything,” the narrator pines, “to make us wish that we were in his place.” What the narrator never contemplates is what he doesn’t see: Cory’s inner despair.  So the narrator’s monster tromps through the corridors of his  mind for nothing.  Cory ultimately goes on to commit suicide.  Still want to be “in his place” Mister Narrator?

     Oops.  Our selective sight gets us every time.  If we could isolate the parts we think we want, would we be happy?  In other words, grab the cash and the summer home but leave the marital problems and the heart condition.  Nope, the truth is that if we really could take only what we think we want, we wouldn’t end up wanting it.  We would join the ranks of those who – being disappointed with those things – want something else.  So the next time your inner Frankenstein demands a meal, remember what happened the last time he ate.  Going green is a catchy phrase, but it isn’t always a positive thing.

Feeding Frankenstein II
Didn’t you read the sign? Please don’t feed the Frankenstein!

Giving Voice to the Voiceless

There is a reason why the specter of the Nazis continues to haunt the public mind.  As Rod Serling noted in one of his more gripping Twilight Zone narrations, the Nazi regime represents a time in which “some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience.”  The chamber of horrors constructed under Hitler’s shadow was nourished by the absence of an international spotlight.  Instead of receiving world condemnation, the Fuhrer was initially given a free reign by other nations.  He hosted the Olympics and toyed with famous visitors like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Few paid any attention to his behind-the-scenes meat grinder.

     Hitler’s reign came up again recently with news of charges against a former SS soldier accused of taking part in a 1944 French village massacre.  Naturally, the ex-SS man claims to have been uninvolved in the atrocity.  He says he was assigned elsewhere during the massacre, and only heard the noise and saw the fire.  The slaughter was an SS payback for a little job done by French resistance guerillas.  As always, the punishment was several hundred times greater than the crime; an entire village was wiped out because an SS doctor and his entourage had been abducted on an incoming road.

     These villagers were voiceless; their screams weren’t heard beyond the charred ground on which they perished. The world’s attention was focused elsewhere.  Voicelessness was an important component of what went on under the Swastika.  No one was supposed to speak up.  Victims like Anne Frank were supposed to die quietly; there wasn’t supposed to be a diary, such a piercingly resonant voice.

     And what of the world today?  The Third Reich may be gone but its attitude isn’t.  The story of man’s inhumanity to man continues to be scrawled on new pages in new places.  Are we paying attention, or are we as distracted as our forbears were seven decades ago?  Are the voices being heard, or are they being drowned out by news of the moment’s synthetic celebrities?

     The angry ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane must be left standing.  As Serling so eloquently explained, so must “the Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes.”  They remind us to listen; they call on us to look toward instead of looking away from; they teach us that being human begins with an acute attention to the humanity of others.

French Village Ruins
Oradour-sur-Glane: Still speaking for those whose voices went unheard

The Case of the Punishable Parody

Among the stories crowding news outlets last December was the tale of a young man who had found himself incarcerated in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) for making a satirical video which that government had determined to be a breach of national security. For our purposes here, the details of the video need not be chronicled.  It was widely accessible, and contained no content of an obviously offensive nature.  In fact, its lengthiness suggests the possibility that many viewers who started to watch it may have tuned out a good while before its conclusion.

     Nevertheless, the UAE jailed the satirist, thereby triggering the wrath of the American media.  Coolly crafted statements were issued from comfortable confines in New York and Hollywood, condescendingly advising the UAE to cease engaging in third world tactics if it desires to avoid third world classification. 

     And such comments seem reasonable, don’t they?  After all, here in the U.S.A. we’re allowed to say almost anything we wish at any time we wish.  And no one had better object to our right to say it. In fact, our freedom of speech has been expanded by the Supreme Court to include physical actions like burning the flag.  In American speech law, the wilder, the more tasteless a given expression is (or so it often seems) the more sacred is the speaker’s right to share it with us all.

     Interestingly, at the same time that we’re pretending that the American revolutionaries fought to establish liberty for the likes of Larry Flynt, we commend ourselves for our understanding of differing international norms.  We enjoy showing off our liberalism by acknowledging that the U.S. is no better than any other culture in the world.  We savor the saying that we have no right to judge others.  But when you hear such righteous intonations, be skeptical.  Our understanding attitude toward other cultures often ends where our problems with their policies begin. 

     The President of the United States has a Chief of Protocol for a reason.  Other countries have other customs, and it behooves us to pay healthy respect to those customs when we visit those places.  Just because we get away with a great deal here, doesn’t mean that we can plan on similar privileges there.  I am as disturbed by the specter of Americans confined in foreign prisons as anyone else; however, stories like the UAE report suggest a sobering thought for those traveling abroad.  When you’re packing for that overseas excursion, better leave the Yankee upstart spirit in your top dresser drawer.  It’ll be there for you when you arrive back home – safely.

The Wrong Man IV
This is not the view of a foreign country you want to have.