social movements of conservation and evolution

If we were to distill society into a dichotomy of impulses, one that underlies not only cultural attitudes but the narrative structure that defines political discourse, the poles would have to be conservatism and progressivism. With each generation, both in terms of government and population, as well as paradigm shifts brought about by advances in science and technology, the fundamental challenge for any society is learning to adapt to changing circumstances without losing its core character. That is, without losing its core character in a sudden, cataclysmic change that can create social unrest – as opposed to the change in character that can occur gradually over the course of a society’s unfolding history. Although by no means the only possible or necessary dichotomy, it thus seems reasonable to interpret societal dynamics on the basis of the ideas and practices society conserves and those it changes in an effort to maintain stability.

Unfortunately, the discussion about these two inherent impulses is too often reduced to the simplistic all or nothing confrontation of Right vs Left, Conservative vs Liberal, and the straw tigers (the metaphor is deliberately mixed) that emerge from both. Although there are differences between how each “side” presents the other (to be partly glib, liberals rail against social injustice while conservatives rail against liberals), interprets policy, and governs in practice, it is the massing of partisan ideological forces that creates the problem.  

The point isn’t to call a plague on both these houses, however well deserved, or to repeat reasons why the partisan divide is antithetical to good reasoning, but to suggest that the rhetorical trappings of the Conservative vs Liberal distinction ultimately obscures the character of the conservative and progressive impulses by focusing on rigid idealistic categories. Dogma, in other words. And what is being obscured is not the product of a dialectic but the way in which conservation and progress essentially occupy the same space and time while simultaneously delineating opposing movements. Conservation and progress function as opposing forces that nevertheless come together in the end.

To understand what this means in practical terms, we can begin by sketching how the rhetorical manifestation of these impulses ultimately shares a similar set of assumptions. In the simplistic pundit terms, conservatives are right to be suspicious of government excess, to emphasize personal responsibility, and to value family and community. Interestingly, these are also liberal values albeit in a context rejected by conservatives, namely, the view that inequality is in itself a social problem. There is a risk, of course, in drawing that contrast. Definitions of conservatism and liberalism are all too easily adjusted for the sake of scoring rhetorical points. However, it seems sensible to enough to suggest that there is agreement when it comes to the basic human goals of safety, happiness, and social harmony – the difference is methodological, and ideological differences coagulate around differences in method.
Consequently, the idea of conservation, narrowly defined as preservative function, is necessary to keep within society those ideas and practices that work. To this is opposed progress, which strives to develop new ideas and practices as solutions to existing problems. Both serve as a counterpoint, in that conservation rejects change for its own sake, and thus the false positives of progress, while progressiveness rejects the movement from function to dysfunction when tradition is ossified into the status quo. What we are left with is something evolutionary, but not in the sense of “social Darwinism,” and certainly not in the misapplied conception of evolution as a kind of teleological process. Rather, it is a matter of adapting to circumstances that are sometimes variable, even volatile, and sometimes persistent. While I don’t want to suggest some sort of societal dynamic that is homeostatic in its effect – that would imply that a given society has a natural balance to which it returns to when disturbed, an implication that is upended by historic examples of large-scale upheavals (think French Revolution) – I do think we need a better conceptual framework to encapsulate the tension between conservation and progress that is necessary for society to exist.

As a point of clarification, it’s worth noting here that I define “society” narrowly, to some extent, as the numerical aggregate of individuals. Yet it is also necessary to account for the fact that the dynamics of the aggregate can in turn influence the individual. So while I would reject the idea of society as an emergent organism that is greater than its constituent individuals, I would suggest that insofar as individuals have common needs, shared cultures, and political/economic cohesion there is a construct we could refer to as “society.”

Returning to an organizing concept that brings together conservation and progress (or evolution) while also refuting the often vaguely articulated partisan distinction of conservative versus liberal, it might helpful to shed to idea of social engineering that is implicit in policy. Although the term is unpleasant, as it suggests an active and mechanistic manipulation of society towards a particular goal, that is nevertheless what goes on when governments pass laws. Certain behaviours are punished, others are rewarded or, at least, tacitly accepted simply by not being disallowed.

But what if instead of engineering, with all the rigidity that comes with the concept, we turned towards design as a conceptual model? As an active disciplines informed by give and take, a feedback loop between problem, solution, context, and the way in which the solution itself alters the context thereby altering the overall system, design offers a useful analogy to interpreting policy. To borrow a cliché, the concern is on figuring out how to fit society’s form to the various functions we want it to perform, recognizing that it’s not a question of function then form, or form vs function, but that good design is the result of function and form working through each other.

Thus, among the qualities of a desired conceptual framework are:
  • Seeing society, its strengths and weaknesses, as it is.
  • A focus on practical rather than ideologically pure solutions.
  • Working with the fluidity inherent in social organization.

So: fact-based (“reality” based), practical, and adaptive, resulting in the wisdom to know what to conserve and maintain in society and what to reform or revolutionize. Is it even worth labeling this to distinguish it from the pop-punditry terms “liberal” and “conservative?” If so, what word would be suitable?

Ideas, comments, suggestions ?


review: green lantern and ghost rider spirit of vengeance

Whenever filmmakers attempt to take a story crafted in one medium, such as comic books, and tell it in another, the most common mistake is to transpose when they should translate. Of those attempts to lift a story wholesale from the pages of a comic book and film it straight, I can only think of two films, Sin City and Watchmen, that achieved a reasonably successfully transplant to a cinematic form, brimming with the Frankenstein-like proclamation that the final result is alive. Yet despite the earnest fidelity of their respective directors, even these films suffered the rejection that comes, paradoxically, with both an excess and a deficit of the literal. For Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, the excess comes in glacial pacing while the deficit comes from more or less subtle bending the structure of the film’s climax. In the inhumane Sin City, the objection comes from the way violence stylized on the page by necessity of the medium becomes sensationalized and celebratory when filmed for aesthetic effect. The sleaze with which Frank Miller coated his neo-noir stories hardly helped but, rightly or wrongly, hard-hitting sleaze has an unmistakable power to persuade as evidenced by the critical acclaim. (By comparison, Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's take on Batman are successful examples of translation, as is Jon Favreau's first Iron Man endeavour.)

Green Lantern, based on the long-running DC comic, suffers in large part from a script overstuffed with plotlines condensed to clichés, and thinned-out characters salvaged, barely, by capable actors. As a result, the zero-to-hero formula, done with greater success and exuberance in the shamelessly fun The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, never takes off to giddy altitudes. Surely there should some flicker of exhilaration in the notion of a reckless test pilot inducted into a galactic police force and entrusted with a quasi-magical ring that can realize anything he imagines. Yet despite Martin Campbell’s prior success with the Bond franchise’s arguably best outings, he can’t coax much emotion or suspense out of the script, drowing what action scenes there are with yawning stretches of derivative exposition. The film’s primary villain, a billowing smoke Cthulu named Parallax, is massive not in menace but in special effects. And for the wonder we should experience at the multitude of alien races that make up the Green Lantern Corps, there is only a dulled sense of interest.

What sinks the film, however, is the fundamental hokeyness of the premise, which doesn’t lie in the premise of a galactic police force empowered with incredible alien technology, but in the cartoonish insistence of using emotions as sources of energy. Hence, the Green Lantern’s rings are powered by courage and willpower, while the film teases with a yellow ring powered by fear. A glimpse through Wikipedia reveals that, in the comics, there exist in the DC Universe other lantern corps with rings powered by various emotions. It’s silly and unscientific, highlighting Green Lantern as juvenile wish fulfillment instead of credible space operatics. In failing to either translate or transpose the comic to film, the result is curiously lifeless.

Lifeless, however, would not be an apt description of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. The film explodes with the life of a campy action film, chock-full of over-the-top performances and the unapologetic exploitation of the ghost rider’s magnificent character design, which is that of a fiery skull-headed biker wielding chains that burn evil-doers into puffs of ash. That the film lacks everything that makes a film good – a sensible script, credible drama, and coherent direction – certainly results in a missed opportunity. But every time Cieran Hinds, playing none other than the Devil, uses his marvelously expressive face to offer a sneering frown, or Nicholas Cage tries to outdo himself in his uniquely spastic brand of scenery-chewing, we are reminded about the virtue of a B-movie: the ability to have fun despite the lack of technical acumen. Of course, it’s no surprise to learn that the film’s messy character concept and ludicrous theology has its roots in a comic known for an inability to fit substance to style. Developed on its own, the comic’s imagery presented the epitome of bad-assery but, apparently, never succeed in generating a workable dramatic concept. We can forget, then, both transposition and translation, along with the notion of reinventing the care concept at the cost of fidelity. But we can enjoy a film that celebrates its goofiness and, consequently, delivers a more entertaining experience than dullards like The Green Lantern


quick review: The Iron Lady

Watching The Iron Lady is much like walking into a retirement home and finding realized one’s worst fear about growing old. Worse, however, is the condescension that comes from exploiting the dementia of a still-living historical figure to deliver a meet-cute fantasia on coming to terms with bereavement. Here, bluntly, is the point: as much as we can sympathize with Ms. Thatcher for her condition, that’s not what interests us most about her. Suffering from the same species of divided attention that cleaved Madonna’s lesser effort, W.E. , into two limp halves, The Iron Lady sets off Ms. Thatcher in her declining years against a PowerPoint presentation of her greatest moments. Neither the portrait of an influential figure at twilight nor the reenactments of her political/historical accomplishments achieve power. The filmmakers’ unwillingness to take a stance, either supportive or critical, along with an absence of analysis, results in a bland film that is provocative only in its lack of provocation. Insofar as Meryl Streep delivers a strong performance, hardly a revelation given her well-deserved stature, the film leaves her stranded in a vacuum, without the bracing context to boost her portrayal of Thatcher into greatness. The Iron Lady? Call it The Iron Maybe.


Nine Pillars; Few Legs to Stand On: THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

A review of The Nine Pillars of History: An Anthropological Review of History, Five Religions, Sexuality and Modern Economics, All as a Guide for Peace, by Dr. Gunnar Sevelius.

Dr. Gunnar Sevelius’s effort with his book, The Nine Pillars of History, falls within the tradition of thinkers putting their ideas on paper in the hope of changing world paradigms. An ambitious hope, certainly, but a laudable one in an era increasingly dominated by technology-mediated rhetoric and hyperdata, the hyper-real information-neutralizing glut of data. Much like Buckminster Fuller and others, we need intellectuals willing to engage the broader philosophical and practical underpinnings of our social dysfunctions. Unfortunately, Dr. Sevelius’s ostensibly anthropological effort is diluted by methodological confusion that strands him in circular reasoning.

Read the rest of the review at The Front Page Online.


nixon's choice

Sex In the City star Cynthia Nixon recently gave the hornet’s nest a swift kick in the wasp when she was quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile:
I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.
When that didn’t go over well, she issued a clarification in the Advocate:
My recent comments in The New York Times were about me and my personal story of being gay. I believe we all have different ways we came to the gay community and we can't and shouldn't be pigeon-holed into one cultural narrative which can be uninclusive and disempowering. However, to the extent that anyone wishes to interpret my words in a strictly legal context I would like to clarify:
While I don't often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have 'chosen' is to be in a gay relationship.
For all the howling protest by an offended LGBT community worried that Nixon’s comments cede ground on the biological inevitability of sexual orientation and, consequently, fuels the anti-LGBT crusade, a crucial ethical consideration is missing. And that consideration is the moral status of homosexual/lesbian sex. 

Attempts to reduce the question to biology to a large extent mask the issue, although the argument is persuasive. If sexual orientation isn’t a matter of choice, then it’s unfair to condemn someone for something that’s not in their control to change. It’s an argument, incidentally, that doesn’t necessarily lead to celebrating expressions of sexual orientation, or other contentious characteristic. After all, we could argue that psychopathy is not a product of choice, yet we would not encourage its expression nor fail to restrain psychopathic individuals. In any case, the science does suggest a biological basis, raising the issue of sexual fluidity (cue Dr. Kinsey), but it all seems rather fuzzy.

Yet the fact that everything about us, including sexual orientation, results from the intersection and overlap of biology and culture doesn’t tell us anything about the morality of homosexual, or heterosexual for that matter,  sex itself.

Consider that if a man gets into a boxing ring with another man, we judge nothing immoral in the fact that they hit, even bloody, each other. Or if a person goes to the physical therapist, there’s nothing immoral in his/her being touched, massaged, and exercised. Why? Because these are consensual activities. Without getting into an academic discussion of ethics, we can keep things simple by recognizing that moral judgments must take into account harm and consent in determining what is moral and immoral. Where there is consent, there usually isn’t harm, and what constitutes harm can in some situations be open to interpretation. In S&M, for example, or combat sports like boxing, pain and minor injuries aren’t typically interpreted as harm, whereas a mugger’s assault with a knife or gun would unquestionably be seen as harmful. Another example is how consent is a key distinction between sex and rape.

On the morality of gay people being attracted to each other, and acting on that attraction through sex and/or a loving relationship, the moral reasoning is this: If there is consent, and no violence is involved, then there is no basis for making an argument that homosexuality is harmful and, by extension, immoral. So if there’s nothing wrong with being gay, what does it matter if it’s by choice or biology?


news from around the world: february 6, 2012

Interesting articles I've read and would like to share with you...

3 Ways Facebook Plans to Exploit Users

Facebook analyzes users’ political posts for Politico

10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free

Gay "honor killing" movie shakes Turkey up

Apple: made in China, untaxed profits kept offshore
Of course, Apple is not the only technology company that does this...

Rare photos reveal how Hitler lived in luxury

Anniversaries From "Unhistory"
Noam Chomsky points out what happens to even flushed down the memory hole.


quick review: midnight in paris

Although the initial montage of Paris scenes sets the tone for an homage to the fabled City of Lights, Midnight in Paris is less about satisfying the Parisian tourism office then it is about celebrating the artistic impulse towards inspiration. Inhabiting the role of Woody Allen’s archetypal screen persona, mired in a familial situation of discord thanks to a controlling fiancée and disapproving in-laws, Owen Wilson feels right at home as a successful and self-aware Hollywood hack yearning to unleash his literary ambitions. Much of the film’s humour derives from how much he is unlike his fiancée, played as a superbly wound-up fussbudget by Rachael McAdams, and her friends – Martin Sheen as a pompous, preening pseudo-intellectual is hilariously grating. Very much a West Coast personality – no sign of neurosis here – we squirm and sympathize as Wilson strives to share his love of Paris and art with a woman, and in-laws, caught up in the superficial snobbery of material luxury. 

The surprise comes from a fantasy element that Allen introduces with such finesse and wonder it’s enough to forget the contrivances of his recent films and unfurl the welcome home banner. Wonder is a good word to describe the beautiful filmed Midnight in Paris. An effortless and magical blend of comedy, drama, nostalgia, cautionary tale, and nuanced social criticism, the film is peppered with a strong cast enjoying themselves, on-point dialogue, and a clever scenario that leads to an authentic lift of the spirit. It’s surely one of Allen’s best works.