Is Donald Trump King Kong?

Are you having trouble dealing with the Presidential campaign of 2016?  We’ve had weird before.  Teddy Roosevelt and his “Bull Moose” party.  Strange.  William Jennings Bryan and the “Cross of Gold” speech.  Stranger.  LBJ treating reporters to a look at the surgical scar on his flabby stomach.  Stranger than strange.  Now we have perhaps the strangest twist ever to burst onto the scene of Presidential politics.  With a population in excess of three hundred million people, Americans have somehow chosen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to compete for the most powerful position in the world.

Getting a handle on this bizarre election requires bizarre tactics.  So instead of comparing 2016 to past elections, pull out a new frame of reference.  Only the horror/sci-fi movie genre can lead us to a full comprehension of what we’re facing right now.

Let’s start with King Kong v. Godzilla.  Think about it.  If you’re a pedestrian in the screaming crowd when King Kong faces off with Godzilla, are you rooting for one monster over the other?  Are you better off if Godzilla wins?  If Kong triumphs?  No, you’re just trying to get out of there between the falling skyscrapers!  But looking at these movie characters helps us better understand the characters fighting on our Presidential stage.  Who’s who?  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  Godzilla is a calculating fire breather.  Kong is a lumbering ape who lets his emotions get ahead of him every time.  You decide who’s who.  Using this analytical lens, we suddenly gain a clearer picture of what we have here.  And again, which way are you better off? (Watch out for that building!)

King Kong v. Godzilla

Want another lens?  Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.  Which is which?  Again, it’s obvious.  The Wolfman is vicious.  He will tear your throat out because that’s what he does.  When you see the Wolfman coming you have to hide.  The way White House staffers used to duck through doors to avoid First Lady Hillary.  Frankenstein is big, clumsy, and uncomprehending.  He doesn’t mean to do the damage he does.  He can’t help it.  Either way though, you don’t want to be on hand to celebrate the victor, do you?

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman

Finally, let’s look at Billy the Kid Meets Dracula.  Yes, there really was such a movie.  It’s hard to believe, but then it’s even harder to believe that we’re having this Presidential campaign.  In B.K Meets Drac, You have a ruthless Old West outlaw versus the Prince of Darkness.  Billy is frighteningly freewheeling, and doesn’t give a flip for consequences.  Count Dracula is a careful, cunning bloodsucker.  Billy is always unscripted; the Count measures every word and every move.  Again, you figure out who fits whom,  AND, ask the question: which adversary do you want to see win?  Really.

billy-the-kid-vs-dracula-42

The good news is that in horror/sci-fi movies the two battling forces usually end up destroying each other.  They’re both eliminated in the end so that the world can go back to sleep.  Perhaps what we need in this Presidential race is a little movie magic.

They’re Watching!

Shadow Figures

We hear a lot about privacy today.  People say they want it.  They claim to be upset when their privacy is violated.  For example, they don’t want the government snooping into their personal lives.  Whatever that means.  Yet they do want their Facebook friends to know what they had for breakfast.  And what they thought of it.

Whether you’re a privacy freak or whether your life is a social media reality show doesn’t matter.  Why?  Because They’re watching.  They know.

They who?  Never mind; They are there and They are aware of your life.  They even know how much of it you have left.  Years ago, well before I had any reason to think about it, I received my first invitation to move into a retirement home.  Where did the retirement home (Let’s call it Sunnyvale)  get the idea that I was a prospective tenant?  Obviously They told them.  The shadowy figures who keep track of us passed on the information.  Probably for a price.  I sure didn’t put my age on Facebook!

That first unwanted invitation started it all. Through the years, I continued to get unwanted invitations.  Invitations for macular degeneration checkups.  Invitations for  other rest homes.  Happy Valley.  Peaceful  Acres. Ads for drugs that aging people might need to perk up those failing bodily functions.

I started to take it all for granted, comforting myself with the lie that I wasn’t as old as They thought I was.  Not only did I not need Their notices; I would never need them.  After all, I had no plans to let myself get to such a sorry state that assisted living would be an option.  At a certain point, I would freeze my deterioration and refuse to age any further.

Beware Millennials: You’re probably thinking the same thing.  You can’t see yourselves aging can you?  Your skin will always be as resiliently taut as it is today; nothing will ever droop.  But They are watching.  Patiently.  They are counting your hours.  They are scheduling the first invitation.

And how do you know when your time is up?  They will tell you.  Don’t shake your head at me; I know.  How?  They told me, that’s how!  Yeah, They actually sent me notice that my hourglass has a scary shortage of sand in the top section.  The other day, I got the final invitation.  It wasn’t about assisted living this time.  It wasn’t about any kind of living.  It was from the Neptune Society.  An offer for their “pre-paid cremation” program.

I didn’t open it.  Wouldn’t that be submitting to Their verdict?  But I can imagine the content anyway: “Getting ready to cash in those chips?  The last roundup’s getting pretty close, isn’t it pardner?  Don’t leave those final arrangements to others.  Don’t make survivors have to worry about what to do with your remains.  Think how relieved your family will be when the Neptune Society informs them that it’s all taken care of. . .”

Yikes!  Sleep well tonight, Millennials.  Don’t be concerned about anything.  They’ll tell you when to be concerned.

Trump: The Bigger Circus

A new political season is upon us, and we’re being treated to another round of the media’s favorite sport: The Death of a Thousand Cuts.   This sport involves targeting a candidate for a barrage of negative reporting until people wonder how they ever could have considered that person viable. When Sarah Palin was nominated for Vice-President she was a popular governor. But the media’s thousand cuts quickly turned her into a bimbo and former governor.

Now it’s Donald Trump’s turn. Not that he doesn’t sometimes cut himself.  Even his supporters probably recognize that the Mr. Nice Guy award should go to someone else. His angry man persona is not the product of a media writer’s imagination. And we won’t even discuss the hair. But if you’ve been paying attention, the media does seem to have decided to employ its sharpened scalpels on Mr. Trump.

One commentator has predicted that Mr. Trump is destined to fall because he’s supposedly a “throwback” candidate. Too much dependence on media attention. Very uncool. Another political observer says that Trump will fall because women don’t like him. This editorial is illustrated with a series of mind-numbing graphs measuring the female reaction to Mr. Trump from six or seven different perspectives. Republican voters, general election voters, etc.

TRUMP

Then there are the stories. Mr. Trump blames crime on undocumented Mexicans. Mr. Trump has a racist advisor. Mr. Trump calls former POW John McCain a loser. Mr. Trump defends the notion that there is no such thing as rape between married people. Trump-owned companies seek to import foreign workers for his hotels and restaurants, contradicting his stand on protecting American jobs. Even Jimmy Kimmel has gotten into the act, running a montage of Mr. Trump overusing the term “disgusting.” Can you count the cuts? Fast and furious.

Ultimately though, it won’t be the media’s cuts that break Mr. Trump. His ascent or descent will be up to him. This is because he is a bigger circus on his own than any circus the media can manufacture. This was true of Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin FDR. It was also true of LBJ. These men were – for better or worse – larger than life, as Donald Trump seems to be. But perhaps the 20th Century titan with whom Mr. Trump is most comparable is William Jennings Bryan.  History fans will recall Bryan as a man who habitually connected himself with crusades that by today’s standards appear more than a little eccentric.  A perennial presidential candidate, Bryan capped his career by taking part in the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial.”  The trial demonstrated the fine line between contender and cartoon.

But let us not underestimate Mr. Trump.  As FDR demonstrated over and over again, a thousand cuts don’t always, well, cut it. The suggested course of action for members of the media is to sit this one out. It’s Mr. Trump’s show; all you can do is monitor the ratings.

The Case of the Co-Opted Crisis

Not long ago the media was abuzz with commentary about the Confederate flag and why it should be banned from flying in southern state capitols. Many media voices insisted that this symbol of the defunct Confederacy is actually a racist banner. Others say that it represents the states’ rights v. federal government debate, and that it honors the young men who fell on those bloody battlefields long ago.

The catalyst for the commentary was the Charleston church shooting. The butcher who executed people at the conclusion of a routine meeting in their historic place of worship had apparently once posed with the Confederate flag. His connection with the ‘stars and bars’ brought about its banishment from public display.

But there is more to the story. There are people who see a crisis as an opportunity to accomplish long-held goals. This was certainly true of the Charleston story. Those who had wanted the flag to be gone for a long time, moved in quickly to take full advantage of the tragic shooting. One might call them crisis carpetbaggers. They changed the focus of the story from the victims and their families to their anti-flag quest.

And this is unfortunate. Let the Confederate flag fly into history with the ragged gray uniforms and the invalid currency. Confine it to some obscure museum as the critics demand. But in the case of the Charleston shooting, the wall-to-wall flag focus co-opted what was really a story about a community, the terrible thing that happened there, the people who lost their lives, and the families who needed attention, attention that was instead directed to a controversial piece of fabric.

Confederate Flag

He’s Back! And it’s your fault!

Okay, you had to do it. I’m talking to you, media people. There weren’t enough weird things happening in the world; you found it necessary to sic a ghost on us. And not just a ghost, an ANGRY ghost. I can already hear him storming back into the world he so peacefully departed a few years ago. His dark, tailor-made suit has been pressed for the occasion. His conservative silk tie rests carefully on a white, spread-collared dress shirt. Elegant cufflinks shimmer in the dim light as he walks. The polished cap toed shoes glisten with authority. Walter Cronkite is back, and he’s not happy.

If you’re on the younger side, you might take this announcement lightly. Big deal, you may mutter disrespectfully under your contemptuous breath. It’s not Kurt Cobain. Go ahead. Make that mistake. This ghost is one to be reckoned with. When you look into his deep-set eyes, blazing beneath those bushy white brows, you’ll know what I mean. And if that were not enough, there’s the schoolmaster mustache and the flowing white hair. He seems to have been painted by Michelangelo.

The physical appearance harmonizes with the voice. It is gruff and somewhat clipped, as tough as Mark Twain’s Missouri, his home state. The first thing that voice is going to ask is “Now just who is this Jay Z fellow?” The reason for his asking this is the Elevator Affair that recently dominated what now passes for network news. Mr. Cronkite has returned to avenge his craft; he was America’s “most trusted” newsman for most of the 20th century. He wants to know why a tiff between celebrities in a posh hotel was given wall to wall coverage for days. And days. And days.

You see, Mr. Cronkite is accustomed to real news. The only time he gave stories extended coverage, the topic was something like the assassination of President Kennedy or the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Beyonce’s sister Solange flailing at her brother-in-law, Jay Z, during an elevator ride doesn’t compute with Mr. Cronkite. He wants some answers as to who’s responsible for giving such drivel a level of attention equivalent to the first moon landing. And more broadly, he’s trying to find out what’s happened to the news in general.

We were once made of sterner stuff. In Mr. Cronkite’s day we took it for granted that the news would be news. Pushed aside in favor of celebrity gossip have been the hordes of children (and adults) living in Internal Displaced Persons camps in Uganda. Did you know these people survive in part on fried rats? These people need intervention. They need an international outcry and international pressure brought to bear. Mr. Cronkite always paid attention to things like that.

Perhaps the reason we don’t have a Walter Cronkite today is that we have changed. We settle for less now, much less. Events that are shaping the world in which we live take a backseat to the latest celebrity snafu. Did you hear that Rihanna accidentally dropped the cell phone of an LAPD officer while snapping a selfie? Mr. Cronkite hasn’t. During the Vietnam War, Mr. Cronkite donned the type of combat gear he’d worn as a correspondent in World War II, and plodded into the jungles to tell us what was really going on. There he was, helmet firmly planted on head, giving us the real news from the place where it was happening. Now he’s waiting, arms folded expectantly over elegant jacket lapels. Who wants to tell him he’s just a faded blast from the past, a quaint antique from a bygone era? Who will step forward to put old Walter wise on how his kind of news isn’t cool? No one? Maybe those hip members of the modern media are all off covering a celebrity bash somewhere. While life transforms around us, we’re preoccupied with the latest development on Dancing with the Stars. Our whole concept of news is defined by TMZ. And sadly, that’s – to paraphrase the closing line of every one of Mr. Cronkite’s classic newscasts – the way it is.
Walter Cronkite
I wouldn’t keep him waiting if I were you.

Dear Mr. Skygack,

I know it’s been a long time since you’ve been here. We didn’t have space travel. We didn’t even have air travel (other than the Wright Brothers’ few airborne minutes). We don’t know much about you Mr. Skygack, only that you came from Mars to document life on Earth. Most people never spotted you, but one person created drawings of your observations. He must have been a satirist because he always drew you comically misunderstanding everything you saw. But that was more than a century ago, and you’ll find it hard to believe what’s happened here since.

Mr. Skygack
Here’s how you were shown during your Earthly visitation, Mr. Skygack

You started something we Earthlings call ‘a social phenomenon.’ And it gets bigger every year. It’s called cosplaying (They probably should have labeled it ‘Skygacking,’ but life’s true innovators rarely get credit for their creations). This phenomenon has to do with people dressing up to look like characters from science fiction and fantasy. Thousands of people are doing this costume playing, and you were the first one they imitated.

Before going on, I should explain what science fiction and fantasy are here. When you observed Earth, nobody used these names much. Now, everybody knows them. If a story is about human-like robots or people going into outer space, it’s called science fiction. Even though we can now really go into space, we still call stories about space exploration science fiction. We’re quirky that way. If a story is about dragons or strange beings with wings, it’s called fantasy. I know what you’re thinking; you’re a space traveler, and there’s nothing fictitious about being from Mars. But most Earth people aren’t very enlightened.

Now let me describe how you initiated the phenomenon I mentioned. It started with a few people dressing up like you (or like the you they had seen in that artist’s cartoons). They wore their Mr. Skygack costumes to parties. They were such a hit that over the years, other costumes started to appear. One of the most often seen is Superman. You may have heard of him. Superman appeared on earth thirty years after your departure. He came from the planet Krypton, and because Earth has a yellow sun instead of the red sun his native world had, he developed super powers (like running faster than a speeding locomotive and being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound). Like you, Superman is thought to be a fictional character. But any man who was ever a boy knows Superman is real.

You may have crisscrossed in space with the Starship Enterprise a few times. A lot of costume players like to dress as Mr. Spock, the ship’s science officer. He’s from Vulcan. You’ve no doubt visited there more than once. You can imagine how intriguing the pointed ears are to bland-looking Earth people. Besides, now there are two Spocks to imitate, the old Spock and the young Spock. Have your travels taken you to the Klingon world? Earthlings are fascinated by the lumpy, overhanging Klingon foreheads. A number of Klingon cosplayers have even learned the language. It isn’t real cosplaying unless you can voice your character.

And that’s the point. Cosplaying isn’t just about wearing costumes, Mr. Skygack. It’s about something much more. Cosplaying is the creation of another dimension of being. If only for an afternoon, its practitioners get to step out of their daily lives, and in a sense explore aspects of their own personalities by seeming to become someone or something else. They play the roles of larger-than-life heroes and villains. They are Spiderman, Hulk, Joker, Batman, Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, and even Chewbacca. Many play the role of a famous British time traveler by the name of Dr. Who. (I know these names are unfamiliar to you; they’ve all popped onto our cultural landscape since your visit). By assuming the personality of a character, cosplayers create a world within a world, one inhabited by colorfully surprising and varied elements. Cosplaying allows not so much an escape from reality as a means of brightening its more pale aspects. Personal imagination and creativity flourish in a unique way. Why should the wonder of pretending end with childhood? Remember the things we learned about life by that pretending?

So Mr. Skygack, if you ever decide to come back here don’t say you weren’t warned. Remember you started it. Take your usual copious notes because there is much to be learned from the alien-looking species called cosplayers. When you see the robots, the space creatures, the super heroes, the sorcerers and sorceresses streaming into a big city convention center, you’re really just seeing humans looking for ways of enriching the human experience.
Cosplay Super Heroes
Here are some superhero cosplayers for your examination, Mr. Skygack
Comiket
Above, are cosplayers at an event titled Comiket in Japan
Lucille Ball as Charlie Chaplin
The famous American comedienne Lucille Ball once cosplayed Charlie Chaplin
The Great Dictator
And Charlie Chaplin learned the hard way that not every character is an appropriate cosplay choice
Elvis Impersonator
Mr. Skygack, this cosplay character is farther beyond the standard reaches of reality than most

Pumped Prom Syndrome

As the lights began to flicker on my high school years, one important experience remained. The football games, the annual bonfire, the dances were all behind me. But the social El Dorado remained, the Dance of dances, the Prom. My friend’s mother insisted that he secure a date for the Grand Occasion, even though he had never before had a date. She made him get on the phone in front of her, and call at least ten girls. They all said no. Well actually, the dial tone said no. He had a way of pretending to dial a number, and then faking the conversation.

“May I speak to Amanda?” he would politely intone, “Hi, Amanda, this is Frank. I was wondering if you might like to go to prom with me. . .”

The one-sided conversation unfolded with the earpiece pressed firmly to his head to muffle sound. His mother worked placidly on the family dinner, satisfied that her son was at least trying. He had determined the final score before starting: four girls would already be going with someone else, three girls wouldn’t be going at all due to family conflicts, and three girls would have pending invitations. The variety of fictional responses gave the charade an illusion of reality. By the tenth faux call he was off the hook.

I was another prom dropout; my imagination had made the event seem too gigantic to deal with. The prom of my mind was a towering Goliath. I retreated from its looming shadow to the false comfort of familiar distractions. Prom – as I viewed it – wasn’t for the humble likes of me. The others in my small circle of friends chose to see it the same way. If high school had been a movie, we would have cast ourselves as extras, faceless figures filling in the background for the stars. Frank talked to the dial tone because he feared the sound of a real “no.” We shared his fear. The sidelines of isolationist obscurity were a boring but safe alternative.

Our unfounded fears had an irony; prom really wasn’t that big a big deal in those days. It was basically just a dance with some extra trimmings. You picked up your date in the family car. The venue was the school gym. Other than the formal wear and corsage, there were no expenses. You got home well before midnight.

Now the exaggerated prom perspective my friends and I once entertained has gone viral. Prom is a mouse that’s roaring. Nothing about the modern prom can be called simple. The modest chiffon dresses of the past have been replaced by gaudy lookalikes of what saloon girls wear in TV westerns. Prom couples now cruise in limos. Five star dining precedes the event, and an expensive overnight excursion (post-prom) is the follow up.

The prom invitation is no longer a two-minute conversation between classes or over the phone. Elements that were once reserved for movie musicals are routine. Excess is the new norm: a large supporting cast of smiling well-wishers, splashes of flowers, perhaps a billboard, maybe some fireworks. Think Glee in overdrive, and you’ve got the idea. One enterprising young man painted his invite in gigantic letters on his prospective date’s street. Naturally, her driveway was lined with flowers and other ornamentation. The old fashioned, mere asking of the question seems as extinct as Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Prom has become a tornado of fantastic expectations. It’s a glistening, self-validating, overwhelming summit. It’s an existential leap of faith. It’s a one-item bucket list.

Consequently, the stakes are ever escalating. No level of big seems big enough.

Case in point: A young man in Pennsylvania is stopped by a school administrator on his way into an assembly where Miss America is slated to speak. He is warned that word has gotten around of his plans to ask Miss America to be his date at the prom. The administrator tells him that such a question on his part will be seen as a disruption, and will result in disciplinary action. But according to the young man, he’s “already in the zone,” so he goes ahead and makes his proposal during the question-answer part of the presentation – and immediately steps into a zone far different than the one in which he imagines himself to be situated.

Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” descends with a crash, kicking off with a three day suspension for having ignored the warning. Miss America has politely declined, citing her busy travel schedule. She does however issue a statement requesting that the suspension be rescinded. It isn’t. Next, potential prom dates start crawling out of the woodwork. Women of the social media world (one hundred light years north of Mars) express their wish to accompany him. The Bunny Ranch Brothel in Nevada offers to send two dates. The young man says no thank you (Apparently at least a few boundaries remain, in this case his mother.) Finally, Khloe Kardashian offers to go with him (presumably bringing her camera crew). The young man wisely takes a pass on that option as well. But what opened this weird floodgate? If prom is truly the path to self-validation, a celebrity date is almost mandatory.

Paralleling the Miss America fiasco is another celebrity prom story, this one from Philadelphia. The country club prom of an elite girls academy was shaken up when Olympic gold medalist (and rock band member) Shaun White showed up at the invitation of one Carly Monzo, a student and avid fan. Ms. Monzo had recorded an invitational video, “GoProM?” which she placed online. Naturally, she used Mr. White’s music in her production. He immediately saw the video, and decided to pop in at the Huge Happening with his band. One can only imagine the existential energy that must have charged through the teenager when her idol made his appearance. In classic teen talk, Ms. Monzo expressed her elation: “All of my friends were crying for me and I was like ‘Carly, don’t lose it,'” she gushed.

The oversized concept of prom and its social/spiritual significance can lead to some frightening excesses. A sixteen year-old Connecticut girl was stabbed to death at school this prom season for turning down an invitation. In olden days, such a rejection might have caused a guy to hit the soda shop to drown his fleeting sorrows in a thick chocolate malt. He might even have indulged in one of the heartbreak hits like The Beach Boys’ timeless “Warmth of the Sun:” “. . . I cried when she said ‘I don’t feel the same way.’ Still I have the warmth of the sun within me tonight. . .” The theme of such songs was that you get over life’s little hurts – without turning into Jack the Ripper. But a prom magnified beyond reasonable proportions – like any other distorted mindset – can lead to unpredictable – and sometimes dangerous – places.

Prom is of course only a small example of the ways in which we often see things the way we choose to see them. Not the way they actually are. This perspective can result in stunning letdowns. When we don’t get the validating Zing we seek, when the fantasy coach that would whisk us into our highest visions turns out to be just a pumpkin, we end up as squashed as a jack-o-lantern on Halloween night. Isn’t it healthier to open ourselves to seeing the real world? In that way, we can find and develop our place in it. A warning to existential divers: there’s no water in that pool.

Promenade in the School Gymn
The Promenade (Prom) in pre-existential days

A Study in Boundaries

One of the more searing Twilight Zone episodes begins with a birthday party.  Dr. Bill Stockton is being honored by his neighbors who appear to be quite fond of him and of each other.  One of the neighbors gives a little speech, gently poking fun at the doctor for the noise he made while building a bomb shelter in his basement.  Everyone laughs at the doctor’s endearing eccentricity in constructing such a thing – until a warning comes over the radio.  Unidentified objects have been spotted heading in fast.  They might be Russian planes armed with nuclear weaponry.  Chaos ensues as each neighbor flees to prepare for the impending attack.  The boundaries of civility disintegrate as the neighbors return to demand entry into the shelter.  The fact that it can only hold three – the doctor, his wife, and his son – doesn’t matter.  The stampede of former partiers breaks up the doctor’s dining room. They turn against each other in ugly ways.  One neighbor calls another a “semi-American” for being Hispanic.  He punctuates his point with a sock to the jaw.  Just as the madness reaches a frightening crescendo, the radio announces that the incoming objects are only birds.  Embarrassed by their descent into barbarism, the neighbors try to climb out of the abyss by discussing ways of repairing the damage.  Almost stumbling up the stairs, Dr. Stockton turns around with a dazed expression, and observes that more destruction has occurred than any bomb could have wrought.  Boundaries have been demolished that can’t be rebuilt. 

     We think we don’t like limits, but we really do.  Children become annoyed when their parents impose restrictions.  But how would they like it if their parents suddenly stopped caring?  Why don’t we enjoy news footage of riot scenes?  It’s because we understand too well what the burning store fronts, overturned cars, and battered people signify.  The boundaries have been torn down, allowing the less appealing aspects of human nature to run wild. 

     The fictional experience of Dr. Stockton is regularly mirrored in the real world.  Not long ago a man in his thirties left his wife and children behind for an 18-year prison stretch.  His offence was an outburst of road rage that had caused an elderly man’s death.  One can safely assume that this man will soon learn the art of living within boundaries – in the extreme.  And what about the New Jersey woman who has confessed to killing her neighbor’s dog by throwing it into traffic.  She broke into the neighbor’s home, grabbed the dog, a 2 year-old Shih Tzu, and heaved it out into the path of an oncoming truck.  What could have been the motivation for such an act?  Surely it must have been something enormous to drive a person to do something so horrific.  Did she believe the dog to be the carrier of a disease capable of killing off the neighborhood?  No, it wasn’t anything that urgent.  It seems there was an argument over a parking space.  Let’s repeat that: there – was – an – argument – over – a – parking – space.

     What has happened to us?  How have the social norms that held us together for decades, even centuries, fallen apart?  Is it the obsession with self?  This is the age of the I-phone, the I-pad. We’re awash in I-oriented merchandising.  With the exultation of the I is there a tendency to slump into ourselves, to become disinterested in the effects our actions have on others?  At the conclusion of his drama about the bomb shelter, Rod Serling uttered an important thought: “For civilization to survive, the human race must remain civilized.” This observation, or as Mr. Serling called it, this “small exercise in logic,” bears a truth that extends far beyond the borders of The Twilight Zone. 

The Shelter TZ
Storming the Shelter (and destroying the boundaries)

From Bitburg to Bieber: Beware the idea Merchants

Twenty-nine years ago President Ronald Reagan was caught up in a horrific storm of controversy over his ceremonial visit to a certain cemetery in Germany.  The idea of the visit was to acknowledge the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day) by laying a wreath in recognition of the soldiers of both sides who lost their lives in battle.  World media outlets let it rip with a ‘blitzkrieg’ of oppositional reporting.  Several SS men were buried in the cemetery, a fact that was exploited to keep the story steaming.  The theme of the occasion was – in Reagan’s words – “We can and must pledge: never again.” It would not seem possible therefore to mistake what took place as in any way honoring Nazis.  Nevertheless, that’s how the media chose to play it.  Not coincidentally, press coverage of all Reagan statements and actions tended to be generally negative.  Bitburg, the name of the cemetery’s location, became a huge political black eye for the Reagan Administration as its second term began.  Those in control of what average people read and heard saw to that. 

     Perception is more powerful than reality – unfortunately.  How we choose to see a situation often overrides the facts.  A development that to one person is a devastating setback is to someone else an adventure.  In our highly politicized culture, we have chosen to see most of life in terms of stereotypes.  The candidate of the opposing political party is nearly always either stupid or evil or a combination of both.  We don’t take the time to develop any meaningful understanding of the nuances; it’s so much easier to snap up the grab-and-go version. 

     But while we content ourselves with mere cartoons of situations and events, let us be mindful of what our intellectual laziness costs us. When we don’t think for ourselves, we end up being told what to think by others.  We let the bias of the news reporter or the commentator become our bias.  Our perception of what is and is not a big deal ends up being shaped by others. 

     An outstanding case in point is the recent media-manufactured big deal concerning Justin Bieber.  Normally, I would not take the time to notice let alone comment on the activities of an individual whom I regard to be a symbol of the sad shallowness to which pop music has descended.  Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” prove that we were once made of sterner stuff.  But enough is enough; the latest anti-Bieber “news” story is so far beyond the pale it demands a response.

     Bieber was recently forced to apologize, not for what he’s done to music, but for his alleged offense against the sensitivities of peace-loving people everywhere.  It seems that Justin made the mistake of visiting Japan’s Yasukami war shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto memorial to 2.5 million war dead. The shrine’s roll includes fourteen convicted war criminals.  Bieber says he was cruising along, saw the shrine, and asked his driver to stop.  He had himself photographed in a praying pose (of course) and standing with a Shinto priest.  This insignificant stop somehow invoked torrents of rage from the likes of China and South Korea who see it as an unforgiveable endorsement of “Japan’s past militarism.”  “I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer,” Bieber said in his apology, “To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry.”

     Now let’s try to acknowledge reality, if only for a moment.  This is Justin Bieber. Again, this – is – Justin – BIEBER!  Do not allow yourself to take the mental shortcut here.  If a pop star’s visit to a Shinto shrine can provoke an international incident, there is something very wrong. Let’s closely examine the perception-over-reality approach that catapulted Bitburg and has now propelled Bieber into the ranks of infamy.  In fact, let’s take it to its logical extreme. 

     Several years ago I visited a certain cemetery in Chicago with a friend who wanted to pay his respects to the family members buried there.  The cemetery happened to be right along the route we were taking to another destination, so it seemed reasonable to make the stop. While walking among the graves, I started to notice some familiar names.  Like Capone.  And Giancana.  And O’Banion.  Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti rests there.  And so does Machine Gun Jack McGurn, one of the gunmen of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  The cemetery’s headstones constitute a crime hall of fame.

     If we use the Bitburg-Bieber formula this means that I personally support prostitution, drugs, gambling, and wanton slaughter.  It constitutes a buddying up with some very bad guys.  If a reporter chose to spin it the right way, I could be condemned for applauding organized crime!  The pain and suffering these characters caused can be painted all over me. All because I went to a cemetery where my friend’s family is buried. 

     We are daily assaulted with throngs of what we might call idea merchants, people attempting to sell a point of view.  Often a narrative is picked up by a number of idea merchants, and gains credibility through mere repetition.  We hear it all over; we see it all over; we believe it.  And the world becomes a little darker, a little smaller.  So the next time you find yourself condemning something, make sure it’s really condemnable.  Let’s shrug off the mental manipulators, and start taking the time to inform ourselves enough to filter all the relentless messaging.  When the commentators start commenting remember that things are not always as they seem (or are made to seem).

Eye of the Beholder Shot
Is this man protecting the women behind him from some looming danger or is he a deranged criminal holding them hostage? Don’t let your verdict depend on the interpretation of an idea merchant.

The Mind and the Matter

When I was a small child, my bedroom transformed itself every night. Or at least I thought it did. With no sunlight streaming through the window over my toy chest, the night light perched on a shelf was there to give me a sense of comfort and security. The little illumination it emitted was supposed to soften the darkness. It didn’t.

Instead it emitted a sinister ray that made my room look like the inside of a museum of the damned. In the weird glow, every object threw a jagged shadow up against the pale walls. If I woke up around midnight, I would find myself surrounded by bizarre shapes that appeared to be almost alive.

And it was all in my five year-old head. It was the way I chose to see things. In Carol S. Dweck’s book, Mindset, she discusses two basic outlooks. The first is the fixed mindset. A person becomes locked into a certain way of seeing things. This perception is immune to any facts that contradict it. The second point of view is the growth mindset. This outlook sees what is there, but also picks up on possibilities. In other words, if life looks bad at the moment, it isn’t necessarily a permanent situation. Life is not static.

None of this is new; we’ve all heard about the importance of having a positive outlook. We’ve heard it to death actually. How many times have we suffered through Annie’s impossibly hopeful “The sun’ll come out tomorrow”?

But this is the Age of Cynicism. Being optimistic right now looks about as hip as wearing bib overalls at the Academy Awards. It’s cool to be cynical, to probe the dark side of things, to stay up most of the night and sleep well into the day. It’s cool to be tired constantly. Not to be disillusioned is to be in a way, defective.

Could it be time to ask where our angsty fixed mindset is getting us? No matter how much some of us may like to wear the doom cloak, we don’t really way down deep inside want to be doomed (Even if it is cool.) Think for a moment about the kids who went through the Great Depression. This wasn’t a party. If you were in your teens and you got a job, your paycheck went to your parents to support the household. Fun, huh? Then at the end you got a big reward: World War II. Your classmates were blown away on foreign battlefields or you died there yourself.

Yet this is the same generation that fueled the economic boom of the 1950’s. And that wasn’t the only boom they fueled. There was the housing boom and of course the baby boom. These survivors of extremely crappy times had a lot of reasons for fixed mindset thinking. Instead, they mostly went for the growth mindset, the viewpoint of possibilities. That generation had things to be really down about. Global economic crisis and world war before the age of twenty. What’s our problem?

Discussing mindsets can become simplistic to the point of absurdity. We are complex beings. We are light and dark, up and down, and in and out almost simultaneously. And too often we construct our own reality from what we choose to see. We envision the walls squeezing in and the shadows sharpening. Perhaps it’s time to turn out the night light so we can really see.
Weird Glasses
It isn’t what you see as much as it is the way in which you see it.