Moving On

Every once in a while I take a weekend and unplug completely.  This past week was pretty much the epitome of ‘working for the weekend’ (ah, Loverboy.  Where would we be without that particular concept?) and I honestly couldn’t watch anymore as the grief of the citizens of Lac Mégantic was broadcast across all news outlets while the owner of the train company not only refused to take responsiblity, he sounded like an arrogant sociopath once he finally deigned to comment on the situation.

As of Friday evening at 5pm, I turned off and tuned out for the duration.

Nice to have the break, but I missed a whole whack o’ news- little of it good:

The Zimmerman verdict down there in the States represents yet another violation of anything resembling justice.

A young Canadian actor was found dead in his hotel room from a (likely) drug overdose.

The waste of youth, talent and potential in both cases is tragic- if for different reasons.

Both will prompt all kinds of discussion in the coming days. On Moyers and Company Lauren Feeney and Eric Boehlert discussed the media frenzy around the trial, how the story went from being about the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin to the ‘Zimmerman Show’- and the conservative ‘news’ groups that viewed him as some kind of persecuted innocent (!).

I imagine that greater minds than mine with more knowledge of the American system of (in)justice will try to make some sense of the travesty.  I can do little more than add my dismayed voice, in whatever small way, and shake my head at the ‘one step forward, two back’ social reality evinced by the US over the past month.

I admit that I watched the first season of Glee.  There was an energy to it that was attractive- and the flashback song selections were pretty fun.  Sort of lost the plot as it went on- and as we started to see less of Sue (who was awesome)- but I appreciated the talents of the actors/singers on the show.  In comparison to the endless selection of ‘talent’ competitions, Glee offered some real musical theatre in an entertaining one-hour format, and Finn was at the heart of the whole shebang.

Not being all that tapped into much infotainment, I wasn’t aware that Cory Monteith struggled with addiction.  31 is too young to exit this world- especially for someone of talent and support.  Sad.

All this waited to be discovered when I turned the computer/tv back on this afternoon.

But before I did so… as part of my hiatus, I went for a good long walk yesterday.  It was a glorious weekend- especially after the, um, extreme weather we had last week.  We took the storm- and the clean-up and aftermath- in relative stride.

The Indy was in town- always interesting for the crowds it brings to the downtown core.  And there were the usual festivals, community parties and special events that make Toronto such an awesome place in which to hang out in the summertime.  LOVE this place in the summer.

Anyhoo.  While out for my walk, the Shuffle Daemon was at it again.  This time it seemed to be anticipating the fact that I’d need a reminder that sometimes the bad stuff- even when it’s really really bad- has to be put behind us and we just need to keep on keeping on.

Perhaps the iPod was tapped into the fact that I had just been thinking about story and song, and Papa Nez, because the first song to come up was a country/southern-rock classic:

That song never ceases to put a smile on my face.  The idea of just rolling with things and moving on as the spirit takes you… something that I find so very hard to do.


Running on Empty.

Same type of message, but Jackson Browne describes one of the key things I try to keep in mind in my life:  “Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive- trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive.”

The frenetic pace that he describes in the song reminds us that we need to both keep moving on and stop every once in awhile and appreciate those things that are most important.

Further good advice from Billy Joel came next:

Working/worrying oneself into heart attack (ack ack ack ack ack)- so not worth it.  It’s all about priorities and perspective.

This one hurt my heart:

Although it was in keeping with the whole keep on moving theme that the Daemon had going, and despite the fact that INXS remains one of my fave bands, the tragic death of Michael Hutchence (also too young) always casts a bit of a cloud over their fantastic songs.

Still, Just Keep Walking, from their first album, when they were (ridiculously) young and hopeful, frequently reminds me to keep my head down and move forward regardless of the difficulties thrown in my path.

U2 always seems to weigh in:

Walk On is about Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the more than 20 years she spent under house arrest as a result of her fight for her country’s freedom.  On a universal level, it talks about leaving behind baggage while taking only what is most important as the fight requires a change in locale or perspective.

And, because the Shuffle Daemon has a sense of humour (and because I have rather strange eclectic taste in music):

Who better than Kermit and Fozzie to demonstrate that moving it along is about adventure and companionship- and those we might chance to meet on the way.

Sometimes you just have to let things go and shift gears/change scenery/take a break from the known and breathe in the new.

These six story songs illustrate the concept wonderfully.  Although we can, and should, get caught up in the dailies and the important issues of the world, sometimes we have to shake it off and go in a different direction.

It is important to be aware of and engaged with the terrible stories that happen with way too much frequency.  Our access to communication requires that we not ignore the injustices and atrocities.  The stories- well-examined and evaluated- must spur us into action to counter the wrongs that we find contained within them.

Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to move on.  Becoming mired in the negative leads to anomie and apathy.  Being bombarded by the bad, it is hard to find the good.

And there is very good to be found.  Our stories continue- regardless of how some might try to silence the inspirational voices among us.

Malala knows- and our songwriting storytellers remind us (through the medium of ‘possessed’ iPods)- that the status quo is always subject to change.

A hopeful note on which to start a new week.

… and I feel (de)fine

The Eschaton.  The End of Days.  It seems to be everywhere lately.  There are television shows, movies, books and seemingly constant news articles about various ways in which society as we know it might be brought, abruptly, to a problematic conclusion.

There are viruses, plagues, earthquakes, aliens, and, pretty much everywhere you look, zombies!  Zombies!  ZOMBIES!  From the Walking Dead to World War Z(ed)- they are among us and just waiting to rise and make life even more miserable.

I wrote here about societal anomie and how it leads to expressions of anxiety that include apocalyptic stories.  The apocalyptic tradition has provided some of the best, and most enduring myths.  They endure, in part, because periods of great collective social anxiety tend to be cyclical.  As the stresses return again and again, the idea that there is something better (or at least different) that will redeem us while punishing those responsible for the stress- albeit after a period of complete lousiness- is quite attractive.

Some definition of terms:

Apocalypticism is one of the major literary trends in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity, often representative of the uncertainty of the of the sociopolitical environment of the time.  As is the case with other hermeneutical categories found in the historical and literary studies of Judaism and Christianity (gnosticism is another such category- we’ll explore that one later), the designation ‘apocalyptic’ is often too-freely or non-specifically applied.

The myths of all cultures reflect the issues and beliefs of the times specific to each composition.  The apocalyptic tradition developed as a response to the perceived disparity between expectations and the reality of the societal situation faced by the Jews of antiquity.

Apocalypticism can be defined as “a type of religious thinking characterized by the notion that through an act of divine intervention, the present evil world is about to be destroyed and replaced with a new and better world in which (a) god’s justice prevails.  Apocalyptic schemes usually involve a moment of judgement, in which persons are called upon to answer for the evil of the world and are either acquitted to salvation in the new world or convicted to suffer divine punishment or destruction” (J.S. Kloppenborg, Q-Thomas Reader, 1990).

Dealing with the such realities as exile and diaspora, apocalypticism as a literary expression and theological speculation developed according to societal and religions necessity.  It was used variably as legitimation for political and religious propaganda, and to fulfill a socially perceived need for justice, transforming from a vision of messianic prosperity to one focusing on expectations not being met.

As a nascent religious movement, Christianity arose during a time of upheaval caused by foreign (Roman) domination of Palestine.  The issue of this dominance was relevant to the people involved in the Jesus movement and the authors of the writings that would eventually form the New Testament (along with the many contemporaneous non-canonical myths and writings).  Problems associated with justice and right order plagued the early Christian inheritors of the apocalyptic tradition as it had inspired their authorial predecessors.

Obviously, the current definition of apocalyptic has expanded to include all manner of potential cataclysms- either originating in this world (in evil laboratories or through nature rebelling against the repeated abuses to which it has been exposed at the hands of humanity) or from somewhere beyond (the myriad alien invasions from outer space or the reappearance of Lovecraftian creatures from the centre of the earth).

Regardless, these stories reflect the continuum of a mythological tradition that arises in response to significant disconnects between social expectations and the reality of the day.  Even when presented with tongue-in-cheek humour- think This is the End– now in theatres, or the upcoming, much anticipated (I really would like Simon Pegg to be my best friend) The World’s End.

In a social reality which, in one week (sigh), sees ever-increasing evidence of political corruption and the mishandling and violation of public trust at ALL levels of government and regardless of particular ideological affiliation, it really is no wonder that we are revisiting the mythological themes behind the apocalyptic vision.  When those we have elected to look out for the best interests of all citizens are not delivering the expected level of justice, frustration levels are made manifest in many ways.

Apocalyptic angst- as it appears in popular culture and literature- is a prevalent contemporary use of mythology that clearly demonstrates the truism ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’  We express our anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo through our various creative outlets.

The ideological forecast for the summer seems to be rife with apocalyptic thinking.  It will be interesting to see if such murmurs of discontent garner results in the larger societal context.  They will certainly provide entertainment and something to think- and blog- about.

Escape goats

Given my great love of myth and symbol as expressions of what it means to be human, it should hardly come as a surprise that I love language in general and the origins of words and phrases in particular.  We take words for granted- use and misuse them without too much thought about where they came from and, sometimes, what they really mean.  So many words and phrases that are part of our (relatively) common parlance have origins in the language of myth.

One such term has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness a lot lately- not because it is all that out of the ordinary, but because I heard it spectacularly misused in conversation not long ago- although, to be perfectly fair, both words have the same root and have been used interchangeable historically.  Still, the speaker calling herself an ‘escape goat’ very much summoned images of a cartoonish getaway goat stationed outside of a bank as quick post-robbery transportation.  Think Benny, the New York taxi from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, as a goat, and you have a pretty good idea of the mental picture I got.

The concept of the scapegoat has its origin in the Ancient Near East, most notably in biblical mythology.  Although there are comparable examples from Ebla, in Mesopotamia, that predate the biblical usage of the concept, the role of the scapegoat in the ceremonies associated with the Day of Atonement is perhaps the most familiar to contemporary audiences.

Leviticus 16.1-34 describes an annual ritual that likely was originally a purification rite for the sanctuary where religious events and sacrifices took place.  It detailed the steps required to remove the impurity caused by the personal pollution of those who were present in the sanctuary, in particular, the bodies of Aaron’s priestly sons who ‘drew near before the Lord and died’ (Lev. 16.1) after offering up ‘unholy fire.’ (Lev. 10.1)

Aaron is told to sacrifice a bull as an offering against his own sins, and then ordered to take two goats and, by drawing lots, choose the ‘Lord’s goat’, which would be used as the blood sacrifice to atone for the collective sins of Yahweh’s Chosen people.  The second goat- the ‘Azazel’ goat- was sent into the wilderness, figuratively bearing the sins of the Israelites and taking them away from the sanctuary and the presence of the deity.  The two goats ‘paid’ for the sins of the nation in their stead.

Traditional English translations of the Hebrew bible render the Hebrew (transliterated) Azazel as ‘scapegoat’.  The original term is much more interesting and provides evidence, if more is needed, that the core beliefs of the ancient Israelites weren’t quite so monotheistic as all that.  ‘Azazel’ means ‘angry’ or ‘fierce’ god (El)– one who is seen as being in opposition to Yahweh.

Azazel appears as a character in 1 Enoch- as one of the leaders of the fallen angels or Watchers. In 1 Enoch, Azazel leads his fellows in providing humanity with such useful tools as the knowledge of warfare, metallurgy and the production of cosmetics (among other transgressions).  The corruption associated with evil comes from the teaching of inappropriate and sinful skills, as well as through the unholy congress of angels and humans.

This represented a new idea in the development of the mythology: sin came from something outside of human beings.  Evil originated in a sphere that was separate from the human realm, and therefore salvation must likewise come from an outside source.  At this point in the development of the mythology, humanity was seen as more the victim of supernatural forces than as a source of evil itself.  Augustine, much later, will strongly disagree with this perspective with his ideas about ‘original sin’ and comparable nonsense.

1 Enoch is one of the earliest texts in the development of biblical apocalypticism (even though it is a non-canonical, pseudepigraphal text) and one that heavily influenced later literary and legendary traditions.  Azazel, and the problems he caused in allowing humanity ‘access’ to sin, will certainly show up again in this blog.  Far from being an entirely negative figure, Azazel can be seen as a Hebrew Prometheus, providing humanity with the tools they required to enable the progress of civilization.  He is far too interesting to be merely a footnote in the discussion of the scapegoat.

In Christian mythology Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat.   Through his sacrifice all who profess faith in him are forgiven of the totality of their sins, and offered redemption in the afterlife.  He removed both the pollution and burden of sin, saving those who would follow him from the need for sacrifice- either in the form of the burnt offerings of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity stemmed, or in the self-sacrifice that Yahweh, and other contemporaneous gods, demanded.

In the current vernacular a scapegoat is someone who is vilified and punished for the sins of others- an often-blameless figure who is used to divert true justice, and often an agent of deception that hides the corruption of others.  I can think of one extremely timely scapegoat who has been thrown under the bus this past week (looking at you Mr. Former Chief of Staff to the PM) in the furtherance of an agenda/mandate that seems, increasingly, to require such actions in defence of suspect leadership.

Perhaps the image of the goat as a means of escape is actually the one that is indicative of the greater humanity.  The goat could be used as a means of transportation out of the environment of lies and prevarication that requires such sacrifice.  Misused or not, the idea of any kind of escape from such sordid necessity of displaced sacrifice in the name of preserving wrong behaviours seems the more humane and human option.

On second thought, I think I’ll hang onto that particular mental picture and hope that the cartoon goat carries those without real culpability far away from the systems that require such unethical acts of preservation.

Holding out for a Hero

It hasn’t been a great week (using understatement as a rhetorical device there).  Daily- sometime it feels like hourly- it seems that the news is full of stories about corruption and/or just plain BAAAAAAAAD judgement in the hallways of power and alleged public representation and service.

I could add my voice to the din surrounding our now-internationally-infamous mayor, but I prefer to hope that his chickens have finally come home to roost and he will no longer be able to escape the just desserts (my outrage is leading to terrible mixing of metaphors) his actions and attitudes warrant.  Gotta give props to the American comedians’ take on the situation though- however embarrassing it might be for this City that I love- and those of us who sure as hell didn’t vote for the guy.  And then there’s the wonderful home-grown commentary by brilliant writers like Jude Klassen/Tasha James.

I have already made my feelings fairly clear about the PM and his actions and ‘Action Plan’, so his non-response to the scandalous goings on with his senate appointees and high-ranking staffers is, sadly, no surprise at all.

Then there are the tragedies making international headlines.  The senseless killing of a young father (seemingly) over a truck.  A tornado that destroyed a town and  too many lives.  And, just today, a British soldier hacked to death by frustrated alleged adherents of one of those faulty ideologies I have written about here.

The media has once again resorted to ‘tragedy porn’, ‘reporting’ unimportant or unsubstantiated details and filling time with mindless chatter when there is nothing new to actually report (although how wonderful was the footage of the woman finding her dog, unharmed, under the rubble of her house while being interviewed?  THAT was worth the camera time).

The scrums surrounding the mayor, however deserved, are stomach turning as far as I’m concerned.  The impulse to harangue and harass and get ‘answers to nothing’ while beating out other ‘reporters’ for market share is morally and ethically repugnant (but is more important than actually providing the public with information or insight, apparently).

These events, and the way in which they are covered by media outlets, are feeding that anomie that I discussed before.  And although I have started a number of posts about the apocalypticism that is generated by this disconnect between societal expectations and reality, right now I don’t feel like adding to the negativity.

Joseph Campbell’s focus on the symbolic role of the Hero in myth and symbol was one of the starting points of his body of work.  He defined a Hero as someone who gives his/her life to something larger than oneself.  Someone who performs physical or spiritual deeds leading to the discovery- or rediscovery- of something otherwise lacking in society.

A Hero is often the founder of something- leaving the old ways behind on a quest for the new.  The Hero’s journey begins with something having been taken from the society or with a serious absence- of justice, rationale, compassion and etc.- in the Hero’s world.  Following the example of the Hero places all of us on an ancient trajectory- or the branch of an ancient tree- linking us all together as part of something that started long before any of us were around and that will still be here long after we are all gone.

I have created a new category for this blog- ‘Hero Worship’- and I will be rolling out examples of humans who are fighting the anomie through their actions, writings or general ways of being.  I need that positivity right now.  I have to climb out of the mire of the reality of injustice and greed in this world of ours.  Despite more prevalent news to the contrary, we DO have people who are doing things worth celebrating and leading by examples worth following.

I am going to give THEM my time and attention for the next little while.


Gilgamesh.  If there was ever a classic example of a  cautionary tale about leaders misusing their power to the detriment of the lives of the people, and the displeasure that this abuse caused the gods, the Epic of Gilgamesh is it.  A Number 1.  While there is a great deal going on in the myth, its warning against bullying tactics as a political ‘strategy’ is as important today as it was more than 4500 years ago.

The earliest extant version of the story dates to about 2100-2000 BCE, from the time of the Sumerian revival in Mesopotamia.  The Ancient Near East was a collection of City States, constantly battling for supremacy.  We have no precise dates for the historical King Gilgamesh (sometime between 2800 and 2500 BCE is likely), but he is mentioned in the Sumerian King List and tradition holds that he conquered the previous ruler to become king, and assumed that hereditary lineage in order to increase his legitimacy and authority.  According to the stories, Gilgamesh’s mother was the goddess Ninsun- Lady Wild Cow- making him 2/3 divine (not sure where they got that fraction, but that’s what the tablets say), and following his lifetime he was seen as a god in Mesopotamia.  Being a descendent of the divine wasn’t a requirement in Mesopotamian kingship, but it sure didn’t hurt.

Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, the modern city of Warka in what is now central Iraq.  There remains a large complex of monumental architecture dating from the 4th millennium BCE that corresponds with the description found in the myth.  He appears as a character in many stories, but his Epic touches on fundamental points regarding the organization of Sumerian/Mesopotamian society and how the worldview defined such things as redemption, friendship, kinship, death, immortality and the afterlife.  But the myth begins with the importance of the responsibility of kingship, emphasizing the lengths to which the gods will go when the king is misbehaving and endangering the social order.

The foundational dichotomy upon which Mesopotamian society was built is that of the perpetual need to balance order and chaos.  The material world was created out of the body of the goddess of chaos, and her influence is constantly trying to reassert control.  The gods, and then the humans that they created to alleviate their burdens, have to maintain the order that is required to stave off these attacks of chaos.  All beings must follow these rules- and the human king is meant to be the exemplar for his followers.

From this perspective, Gilgamesh, for all his gifts and talents, was not, at first, a good king.  He was the King of not just Uruk, but of Hubris, and his womanizing, glory-seeking and bullying violated the proper order and left his people in despair- and also great danger.  Through the forced labour of his citizens, and taking them away from their regular daily tasks, Gilgamesh built the great walls around the city, not for the protection of his subjects, but for his own glory in posterity.  He acted as he desired, regardless of the complaints of his advisers and priests.  At his command ‘his weapons would rise up, his comrades have to rise up‘ and go to war for the furtherance of his glory.  He had no peer, all others were beneath him.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch at all (sadly) to see direct correspondences with many world leaders today, right now and in the recent past.  I could list specific corresponding examples with one leader in particular, but I’ve already ranted about that guy enough this month.  Suffice to say the story of Gilgamesh recounts what ultimately happens when a leader, meant to be the example for the people, does not fulfill his ordered role.

The gods, of necessity, responded to the king’s breach of order and the complaints of the people.  The goddess Aruru, who first created humanity, took clay and created Enkidu, the warrior and wild man, to confront Gilgamesh.  After a mighty battle to standstill, respect and then great friendship grew between Enkidu and Gilgamesh.  They discovered that working together on the correct, properly ordered, path of justice was the only way to uphold societal stability AND keep the gods happy.  No more bi-partisan politics for Gil and The Wildman.

Gilgamesh was forced to look outside himself and his own immediate, short-sighted, selfish desires, and learned, through trials and heartbreak, that his role was not to be remembered for his personal greatness or to achieve immortality outside of the proper order of things, but that he had to assume the responsible rule of his people for as long as he was granted the time to do so.  And by fulfilling his role with responsibility and care- for ALL his people- he DID, ultimately, achieve lasting love and remembrance.  So much so that he remains a recognized figure thousands of years after his kingdom passed into history.

Contemporary world and local leaders should hearken to his tale.  There are no gods to intervene on our behalf, but as the citizens of the world WE have the power to take our politicians to task when they abuse their ‘ruling’ powers.   The leadership of societies remains a sacred (if I may use the term in the vernacular rather than religious sense) trust that MUST transcend personal (or religious or political ideology-driven) desires.  Bullying, whether through greed-based lobbying or defamatory attack ads, is NOT an acceptable means of guiding the progress of the people.  It is shocking to me that our leaders cannot seem to grasp this basic truth.  We need to become like Enkidu, challenging our leaders in ways that foster respect and help them understand the need to work together and for the betterment of all.  We might have to begin with a mighty battle, but, if the Epic of Gilgamesh tells us anything about humanity, we have the capacity to turn that fight into a better future for us all.  If Gilgamesh, the peerless, 2/3s divine king can learn that lesson, then surely our all-too-human leaders can be brought ’round to the sense of the moral of his tale.  One can hope, anyway.

…PEOPLE Kill People

Ah that old salt, dragged out by the likes of the NRA whenever there is a tragedy involving guns (please oh please don’t get me started on those people and the spineless idiocy that the US government demonstrated, once again, in refusing to strengthen anti-gun legislation.  That’s definitely another rant).  Tragedy happened again, in full view of the world- with no guns involved this time (at least in the initial event).  But there were children involved, as is the case all too often.

I have to admit that I’ve had some difficulty finishing the posts that I’ve started over the past couple of weeks, and although I very much felt the need to respond to the act of terror at the Boston Marathon and the media frenzy that followed, I couldn’t bring myself to do so right away.  The point of this blog is to celebrate humanity.  To tell our stories and present some of the ways in which the myths connect us all.  Ways that transcend racial, cultural, geographical or historical context, and accept and celebrate the differences that inform the manner in which we characterize and tell those stories.  Knowledge and familiarity should breed the opposite of contempt.  There is beauty to be found, if we take the time, and it shouldn’t be crushed under the radical actions of a group or individual seeking to further a nebulous agenda sourced in an extreme ideology.  Others (like Patton Oswalt) have responded with beautiful writing and a heart-felt cry to stand strong.

I’ve needed some time to get over this latest evidence of Man’s Inhumanity to Man.  I could write about how I was tempted to remain glued to the television, watching as everything unfolded and waiting, with the rest of the world, for some progess to be made in finding the people responsible.  Or how I suffered flashbacks of a sort, remembering sitting on my couch, wrapped in a blanket- despite the fact that it was a beautiful day- on September 11, 2001, paralysed, but hopeful that there would be answers to be found if I somehow just kept watching.  But there were no easy answers to be found that day, or in the years that have followed.  So on April 15, 2013 I deliberately turned off the television.  I couldn’t watch as ‘experts’ postulated on causes or culprits, as news stations jockeyed for positions in close proximity to the blockaded streets in downtown Boston, and posted more and more images of frightened, devastated people.

I understand the importance of the media in telling our stories, but ‘news’ these days is often so sensationalized and in obvious search of the bigger market share, that it has become physically and psychically hard for me to watch.  I knew the story wasn’t going to go away, and that there were ways to stay informed without being bombarded by every ‘lead’, ‘suspect’ or ‘theory’ that was entertained for more than two minutes.  The full story is still unfolding, weeks later, and will require a response from many levels of government and society.  That it is a story of tragedy is without doubt.  That there are complexities wrapped up in the event, remains to be explored (and, despite what some politicos might think, MUST be explored- but THAT’s another rant…).

The origin of the word and concept of the marathon has its beginnings in mythology, marking the legendary tradition recounting the run to Athens by a Greek messenger to proclaim victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon.  The myth doesn’t have a particularly happy ending since the runner collapsed and died immediately after his message was delivered, but the story has come to stand for the same things that the races represent.  The runner, Pheidippides, executed an amazing feat, covering an enormous distance in the committed pursuance of his job and the larger furtherance of the glory of Athens.  Marathon runners across the world enter the races as a means of continuing self-challenge and push for the next personal best.  I am not a runner, and those that are have shaped better responses as runners (or as former runners, like my friend Tracey here).  The completion of a marathon at all, and the long, proud history of the Boston Marathon specifically, must remain events to be celebrated without the taint of dark designs meant to mindlessly terrorize unsuspecting civilians.

As I wrote the title of this post, despite its intent and its loaded (no pun intended), propagandizing tautology, what popped into my mind and has stayed there as I write are the lyrics to ‘People are People’ by Depeche Mode.  A simple (if catchy as all get out) song about the truly simple fact that blind hatred and aggression are ridiculous and that common decency can still be found.  We just have to somehow ensure that decency takes less time to travel between our ‘collective heads and fists’, and that our reactions to horrible instances of terror and hatred, like the events in Boston last month, are tempered with rationale and humanity.  To do so, we have to firmly reject those ideologies- and their supporting myths- that, in any way, encourage acts of violence and terror against other human beings.  This includes stories that:

Say there is ONLY one true way.

Glorify sacrifice of life as a means to an end- ANY end.

Celebrate violence and sensationalize pain and suffering.

Suggest that anything other than complete equality for all is ‘the right thing’.

Support the continued suppression of the disenfranchised.

It’s time to realize that we can and must control our narratives- both individual and collective.  As thinking, rational, human beings we can actively choose to reject such stories as being dictated, unwavering, stagnant, static guidelines for life and actions, and likewise choose to reject the dogmas and doctrines that claim to be supported by these stories.  It is only through doing so that we will recognize that, rather than being ‘divine’ goads to action or reaction, myths are NOthing more than human creations with human motivations behind them.  And not all human motivations are positive.

We need to remove the gods, and devils, and boogeymen from our ways of seeing the world.  Sure, they make great characters (no one knows that better than me) but as exemplars for behaviour they often leave a great deal to be desired.  There ARE positive role models to found in our myths, but too often even those models are bastardized out of all recognition by later traditions ascribing beliefs or behaviours or words to such characters, out of fear of the different or ‘other’.  It’s time to stop.  Just stop.  Our myths absolutely have their purposes and they can be wonderful and informative about us as people and the ways in which we live and interact in this world and hope for worlds to come.  But it’s long past time to finally put away those childish things that speak of vengeance, hatred, xenophobia, supremacy etc. etc. etc. etc. and to shape our own narratives and interactions with our fellow humans.  “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man.”  True true words from my friends in Depeche Mode.  Please.  Can’t we just grow up already?

The Straw

My intention in creating this blog was mainly to start conversations about great stories, the myths that shape our realities and celebrate all it means to be human, with human failings, triumphs, loves, losses, questions and answers.  It is supposed to focus on the positivity of humanity- there is far too much evidence of the opposite in the media on any given day.  Despite such good intentions, I do have a tendency- partly nature, partly habit- to sit back and observe, offering occasional commentaries on the ways of the world and the politics of the day, without being stirred into action to affect change.

I am not a politician.  I have little respect for most of the people who call themselves ‘career politicians,’ but I have never really been motivated enough to speak publicly and directly against any one political party or person (dinner or cocktail party discussions are a different kettle of cod).  To do so seemed like little more than a support of partisan divides in ideology and approach.  Tilting at windmills that are powered by blowhard, reactionary rhetoric.  I am generally slow to anger and inclined to view all sides of an argument before rushing to judgement and condemnation.

That changed recently.  The Prime Minister of this great country that I am proud to call home has, admittedly, never been a favourite of mine.  I think he is little more than a career politician who is looking out for his own power base and pandering to the opinions of the elite of the country, while taking far too many pointers from his conservative compatriots in the US about such things as the usefulness of attack ads and the need to keep the majority of the people in ignorance about what is really going on in the halls of power.

I don’t like him.  I don’t understand how anyone of conscience could have voted for his government.  I was disgusted by his attack of the new leader of the federal Liberal Party when Mr. Trudeau had the gall to suggest that we need to look for the root causes behind such acts of terror as the Boston Marathon bombings.  I was complacently resigned in my belief that we just have to ride this out, that he, and his lackeys, both in Parliament and the Senate, would continue sounding their own death knell, because Canadians HAVE to be seeing what I am seeing.  I had hope, like many fellow Canadians, that come the next election (which can’t arrive soon enough) the government would be replaced and repairs to our social fabric and economy might begin in earnest, under the reins of people who are looking out for the interests of more than a minority of the population.

Then this happened.

Yesterday, in the context of the recently exposed terror plot to derail a VIA train between Toronto and NYC, the ‘leader’ of our country said that we have to avoid ‘committing sociology’.

I’m sure that he, or his speechwriter(s), thought that he was turning a witty phrase, paraphrasing W H Auden’s poem “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times.”  Too bad he used it incorrectly.  The poem, with its wonderful use of mythic language and themes, was a reflection on World War II, and a commentary on the tension between the practical realities of the post-war environment and the more abstract benefits of higher education.  The former would see “Truth replaced by Useful Knowledge”, and Auden ironically described the pursuit of a university education as following the free spirit of Hermes.  If he had actually read the poem, Harper would see that he falls on the side of Apollo’s “Official Art” and “fat figures in the public eye,” and that Auden was advocating the cultivation of higher education as an adventurous end in itself, and not simply a means to a job and ‘proper’ position in a ‘properly ordered’ society (a philosophy that runs in diametric opposition to that of the Harper government).

The deeper political ideology behind his comments, and the use of a quote taken entirely out of its intended context, has me enraged.  Completely ‘Hulk Smash’ enraged.

His comments are in keeping with destructive, fear-mongering language that encourages punitive rather than preventative responses, and a disingenuous anti-intellectual agenda.  This is not new(s).  But enough is enough.  No one suggested that, in the midst of the drama following the Boston tragedy, any resources should be taken away from law enforcement seeking to capture the perpetrators of the horrific crime so that ‘intellectuals’- sociologists, psychologists, or anyone else- can attempt to establish the ‘roots’ of the radicalization of people that leads to such horrible acts of terror.  American law enforcement was successful in killing and/or capturing the accused perpetrators of the bombing.  Canadian security officials prevented the train derailment and placed two accused conspirators in custody and, by all accounts, are keeping a close eye on the rest of those suspected of complicity in the planning of the act of terrorism.  Security and law enforcement are doing their jobs.  There will be discussion and debate regarding whether more could/should be done with respect to prevention, and this is something to which our security agencies will have to respond.

A significant, responsible part of prevention HAS to also involve the examination of social, economic, religious, historical and political factors that CREATE an environment in which radical ideologies can develop and recruit the young, the disenfranchised, the marginalized and the desperate.  The truly cynical person could say that politicians don’t want those social, economic, religious, historical and political situations examined too closely, since they may be found to be the originators, or perpetrators, of those conditions and therefore make the ruling elite complicit in the acts of terror that are enacted.  I am starting to reallyreally fear that politicians like Harper (and his conservative American bedfellows) are simply determined to continue the insidious dumbing down of society, keeping us mindlessly watching our ‘reality’ TV after we come home from excessively long hours, working on contract, in the trades, for minimum wage with no benefits.  Physical and emotional exhaustion and disconnection from community cause stress, anxiety and what sociologists call anomie.  Historians know that periods of sociological anomie lead to the development of apocalyptic ideologies.  And apocalyptic mentalities (for all that they create some of the BEST myths), when acted upon, do not generally lead to happy endings.

Looking for the reasons behind the growth of radical, destructive ideologies is NOT the same as ‘justifying’ or ‘legitimizing’ acts of terror.  Conversely, burying our collective heads in the sand in the belief that ignorance makes us blissful, keeps us blind, and susceptible to getting our asses kicked from all directions.  Since he obviously misinterpreted Auden’s use of irony in his poem, how DARE the putative FIRST minister of our country equate the search for cause in the aftermath of terrible effect with an unethical, if not criminal, action.  People commit adultery.  They commit murder.  We commit those people who have psychological issues to facilities in which they can be helped.

But we also commit to positive things.  To relationships with one another, causes in which we strongly believe.  So I am going to commit.  I am going to commit, and to support others who commit, sociology, history, psychology and to any and all other tools at our disposal to get to the root of the societal problems that lead to levels of anomie that, in turn, lead to unspeakable acts of terror against each other.

The idiom the straw that broke the camel’s back has its origin in an Arab proverb.  One small, light, otherwise inconsequential piece of straw can render a sturdy beast completely incapable of dealing with any more.  This latest, in a long history of unacceptable straws, is the one that has taken me down.  Time to shed the whole bale and say and do something in reaction to idiocy such as that offered by the Prime Minister this week.

My friend, a talented, intelligent, socially conscious SOCIOLOGIST (the HORROR!), posted a thoughtful reflection and battle cry last night as her response.  After some reflection, she took it down.  She is a federal employee and feared possible repercussions (another indicator that ‘Harper’s Canada’ is something we have to speak against).   Like her, I promise to make something happen that will lead to positive change in this country that I love.  Even if it involves committing suspicious and seditious acts of sociology.

And in case Harper truly wants to follow the ‘Hermetic Decalogue’ he should obey all the commandments given to those who refuse to adhere to the ‘official’ party line:

“Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,

Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis

On education,

Thou shalt not worship projects nor

Shalt thou or thine bow down before Administration.

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires

Or Quizzes upon World-Affairs,

Nor with compliance

Take any test.  Thou shalt not sit

With statisticians, nor

commit a social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms

With guys in advertising firms,

Nor speak with such

As read the Bible for its prose,

Nor, above all, make love to those

Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means

Nor on plain water and raw greens.

If thou must choose

Between the chances, choose the odd;

Read the New Yorker, trust in God;

And take short views.”

– W H Auden, 1946

Pope and Circumstance

Last month the Roman Church elected a new Bishop of Rome.  I know, I know.  We call him the Pope these days, but I’m still a little bitter that Valentinus didn’t win the election back in the 2nd century.  Oh how different the Western world might have been if there’d been a gnostic on the throne… Sigh.  Okay, getting past that little history geek idiosyncrasy of mine and back to my point… I admit that I watched, for the sense of pageantry and history if nothing else.   And I also admit to being moved by the first words of Pope Francis I, partly for the obvious humility (and almost shock) he displayed at being raised to such a position of prominence and celebrity after a life among the poor of Buenos Aires, but also because of the reaction that marked the change, in front of our (technological) eyes, of Jorge Mario Bergoglio into an instant media personality.

The crowd in St. Peter’s Square was like that of a Rock n’ Roll audience- if you ignore the preponderance of black and white habits and clerical collars- and despite the fact that, as one friend posted on the Facebook, “it’s not the return of the Beatles” – with the heavy implication that to truly warrant that sort of reaction the two absent Fab Fourians would have had to have returned from the dead- and not as zombies either (although Zombie Lennon and Zombie Harrison might well lay down some interesting jams).  The excitement and anticipation that gave way to tears and screams when Francis I finally appeared was something to behold, even for this non-religious cynic.  It was evidence (and hard evidence is required in the irreligious circles in which I tend to travel) that organized, institutionalized religion is still a big ol’ factor in the world.

Despite the advent of Science, the openness of philosophical and spiritual discourse (at least in some places in the world) and increasing exposure to atheistic writers and dialogue, the institutional Christian religions of the world still retain a firm toe-hold in the practices and imaginations and, seemingly, day-to-day lives of enough people that this story took up the first half of the CTV National news that night, and then more time at the end of the half hour as ‘experts’ weighed in on the event and its importance.

Another admission?  I was pretty surprised.  While religion, faith and beliefs have been my particular obsession study for longer than seems possible, I have become pretty much singularly focused on the stories that are expressions of those things, stories that come from human imaginations and so reflect the best- and sometimes worst- aspects of the human experience.  The ritual, doctrinal/dogmatic and experiential aspects of religion interest me somewhat less- I’m all about the stories, Baby (as it says on the tagline “Made of the Myth”).  But whoa back.

There was something pretty powerful happening on that there television screen, and the emotion in the Square was palpable- even at a technological remove.  People never cease to amaze me.  I really can’t understand that level of involvement and personal investment in the institution of a church (Roman or otherwise), but watching that day I was a little sad for myself, that I don’t have that connection with a belief system and its trappings and traditions (a feeling that does hit periodically- when there are Christmas hymns being sung in a candlelit cathedral with snow outside and gentle light though stained glass windows, for example).

Personal revelations aside, what surprised me even more than the outpouring in favour of the whole pope and circumstance, was the amount of vitriolic anti-pope, anti-church, anti-Christian postings on various social media time-wasters that I’ve been wasting time with monitoring with academic interest.  Wow.  It eludes me how can people can, on the one hand, post inspirational stories about loving and respecting one another and then respond with such viciousness at the sight of others expressing genuine emotions as an historical event touched them deeply.

Why the hate?  There are reasons, of course.  Good reasons, some of them (institutionalized pedophilia is a biggie).  The issues lie, I’m afraid, at the root of the institutionalization of any belief system- once it becomes a ‘system’ it has codified such things as hierarchies and rules and pro- and pre-scriptions.  And those things lead to people looking for power and ascendency within the system.  Any ideological system faces the same challenges- political, religious and philosophical- because people continue to look for ascendency and power that can be gained through money, social position or political power (putative or realized).

The stories that lead to the development of belief systems are not, generally, inherently good or bad (exceptions prove the rule, of course).  They are reflective of the time in which they were first used to answer questions.  That the myths are then used- or misused- to support the seemingly unsupportable is tragic pisses me off regrettable, but are we somehow ‘blaming the victim’ when we disagree (often rightfully) with the trappings of an institution and include its myths within that censure?  Any story can be interpreted to help confirm any agenda- if the ones doing the interpreting try hard enough to make the story stretch to accommodate.

I refuse to blame the stories themselves for what people have done in their name.  Not all stories have an altruistic or even positive origin, but most of the ones I see out there come from a place that seeks answers and communion with other people (or beings) outside of themselves.  We connect through our stories, and to use them for selfish, self-serving, power-mongering, political purposes generally ends up resulting in our collective detriment.  Unfortunately the most selfish purposes are the ones that gain ascendency, most of the time.  And with power, inevitably, comes abuse of power.

The blatant, repugnant, constant abuses of power that we see in the media don’t mean that we can’t stop for a moment and appreciate the beauty, fleeting and seemingly superficial as it may be, of some elements of those institutions of power, while still calling them out on the abuses that they perpetrate.  But as we take the perpetrators to task we have to remember that most of the adherents of one faith or another believe sincerely/innocently/naively, or for reasons having to do with culture or environment, or because of private insights that have shaped their individual personality and reactions to the world around them.

We take for granted that to believe or disbelieve is a matter of choice.  This is, arguably, the case in the cultural context of North America in the 21st century (although there are certainly places even here where this is decidedly NOT an accurate assessment).  That choice is not, in some environments, a realistic option or even anything that requires thought or reflection, continues to be lost on many detractors who see faith- in institutions or gods or stories- as ‘irrational’ or ‘deluded’.   Faith can be blind, and sometimes destructive, but hatred is always blind and leads us down roads of destruction and intolerance it is best not to travel.  Can there not be a balancing of the two extremes?  In the myths of the Ancient Near East, balance was everything as people negotiated an existence between the dichotomy of chaos and order (rather than good and evil).  We still have things to learn from their stories, and those groups/cultures that came later but picked up on the same concepts.

That same day I saw this link in a news feed.

‘New’ stories, or interpretations of old stories, are always being discovered.  That one made it into an interworld news link makes me optimistic that we haven’t become so cynical and superficial that there isn’t room for interest in rediscovering the myths that seek to inform about the human condition.  The world remains a big, mysterious place, and our stories help to make sense of it.  In the coming months we will begin to see the development of the myth of Francis I, and I, for one, will try to separate that story from the corruption of the larger institution, just in case Jorge has something to positive to tell us, about being human and living in the world.

George, Steve and Woody

I couldn’t sleep last night.  Not an unusual situation for a chronic night owl/insomniac and, in light of the events of the past week and a bit, perhaps even more understandable given my propensity to think and think and think until my brain circles upon itself so much there is no possibility of quieting it down enough for slumber.  I opted for my standard solution when sleeplessness rears its frustrating head but responsibilities the following day mean that I can’t just throw on a pot of coffee and try to get some work done.  I turned on the TV, hoping to find something that would lull me into sleep as quickly as possible so I could face the fast-approaching day.  Good plan, in theory, and one that usually works.  But I made the mistake of turning on the CBC and the time-shifting replay of the day’s ep. of Strombo just as he was introducing Steve Earle.

I have always loved Steve’s music, and followed his rise and fall and rise again, with interest and admiration.  He is a storyteller, fashioned in the mold of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and his politics and opinions resonate strongly with my own.  In the interview he discussed how his latest tour across the States has brought him more understanding of the realities that informed Guthrie’s compositions.  He commented that the current state of the country reflects the same bleak reality that Woody witnessed and recorded for posterity in the 30’s Depression and Dustbowl, a bleakness to which those who came after him were not exposed.  Until now anyway.

I have my own experiences of the ‘economic downturn’, including watching friends, who have been without work or terribly underemployed for extended periods of time, struggle as they knock on doors without response or acknowledgement of any kind.  One such friend describes her experience in the same manner she described her divorce; employed friends backing off from communication and support as if the ‘condition’ of un/underemployment is contagious.  Another has told me quite definitively that if he hears ‘well, you’re lucky to have any job at all’ one more time (either out loud or implicitly), he cannot guarantee that his response will remain in the realm of socially acceptable behaviour or language.

While neither of these friends is riding the rails and doing chores for food and lodging in a convivial family’s barn, the depth of frustration and despair about the inability to support oneself and/or family is being felt on a larger scale than at any time since the Depression.  Steve Earle has written and spoken about the 99% movement, for example, in the same way that Woody Guthrie’s songs are concerned with the conditions of the working class people searching for work during the Depression.  Guthrie’s fight against complacency- as promoted by the government after the years of Depression- prompted him to write ‘This Land is Your Land’, and continue in his support of migrant workers and the production of a body of work that was as much about social commentary and change as it was about music for its own sake.

Both Steve Earle and Woody Guthrie use mythological language and themes in their songs, since poverty, wars of ideology and struggles with what is right are timeless.   And, sadly, recurrent, as those who don’t know their respective histories continue causing them to repeat.  Guthrie’s ‘Mean Things Happenin’ in this World’, about World War II, could have been written today.  The song is about soldiers being sent overseas without any knowledge or understanding of what it is they’re fighting for, while people are killed ‘for a greenback dollar bill.’  His ‘Jesus Christ’, completely in keeping with the biblical and extracanonical mythology, depicts Jesus standing in opposition to the wealthy and power-seeking and suggests that he would have been crucified for the same reasons today.

Likewise, Steve Earle employs themes of justice and story to respond to contemporary social issues.  I’ve always loved ‘Justice in Ontario’ with its juxtaposition of historical and contemporary stories of injustice here at home.  His album ‘Jerusalem’ employs biblical mythology throughout, discussing the tensions in the region as he hopes that ‘one fine day all the children of Abraham will lay down their swords forever.’  (From the song ‘Jerusalem’).  In ‘Ashes to Ashes’ Earle plays with the themes of the ‘giants in the earth’ (a personal favourite mytheme) and the science of evolution before reaching the conclusion that, with or without a god, humanity seems determined to persist in seeking power, and ultimately self-destruction, at the expense of others.

I spent most of the remainder of the night thinking about all these things and listening to songs that call our attention to matters of great and consistent importance.  Despite the caffeine headache and complete lack of concentration that I’m dealing with as a result, I don’t regret the lost sleep.  Great conversations, even those that are witnessed through the medium of television, should encourage thought and reflection as they prompt further dialogue that might lead us to solutions to the eternal issues that we address through the constant writing, reworking and revisiting of our collective myths.  Like great stories, such conversations demonstrate one of the best uses of the varieties of communication outlets and availability of information that we are privileged to have at our fingertips in the 21st century.  Thank you, George.  I hope the Americans appreciate your conversations (as we loan you out to CNN this summer) as much as we do here at home.

Everybody has one…

Once upon a time there were commentators- people who were paid to explain and offer opinions on newsworthy topics of concern.  They were clearly identified as opinions– and they provided credentials for analysis and acceptance (or rejection) by those reading or watching the editorial.  Last week there was a flood of (justified) criticism of many of the ‘news’ groups covering the trial of accused rapists in an Ohio town.  These commentaries on the commentaries (as opposed to news reporting) are still floating around the interworld, as well as the television, radio and print media.

Since we are losing connections to our myths- and myth making- the dramas of tragic events are being further dramatized- with commentary- and it frightens me a great deal.  People in power- be they politicians, business leaders, religious leaders- have always used the media of the time as a means of control over the population. This control can be seen in the construction of myths, and the ways in which cultural stories become institutionalized and ritualized.  It has always been with us- and the reactions for or against these state- or church-sanctioned ideas have been critiqued by the ‘thinkers’ of different time periods.

After reading an interesting blog post on the reactions to the rape trial and its outcome, I continued reading the comments on the commentary (which was about the commentary offered on the original story), something I generally avoid doing.  The proliferation of trolls and my inherent suspicion of anyone who thinks that an issue of any kind can be adequately assessed and responded to in 140 characters does not lead me to want to engage in such exercises in frustration.  But this notice of the practice of commenting on commentaries on commentaries piqued an, admittedly masochistic, impulse in me to have a look at some reader comments as posted on stories that can be found on the various interworld feeds- in social media and newsgroups.

A couple of hours later I was so dispirited I had to turn off the machine and take a walk.  Wow.  I have always wanted my writings to reflect the positive aspects of humanity and the wonders of the connections we can make through the stories that we tell, but catching a glimpse of the comments kinda sorta completely broke my heart a little in two.  Setting aside the obvious trolls (who are, admittedly, a bizarre and pathetic phenomenon, but there have always been those that seek negative attention for fear of not garnering any attention at all), I was dismayed at both the lack of insight and reflection and the overwhelming preponderance of people who think that they are far wittier than they have any right to claim (and I’m not even going to begin to discuss the lack of grammatical and spelling ability.  Sigh).

As we lose our interest in finely crafted stories that tell us something about ourselves, and we are increasingly drawn to the sensationalized banality of celebrity and sound bites, it seems as though we are becoming more and more consumed by the wilderness of the interworld and losing sight of the wonders of the real world.  The loneliness and desperation of those who have the time and the inclination to leave inane comments on an infotainment posting about the latest celebrity break-up is so palpable as to be foundationally distressing.  And those choosing to comment are only slightly more of a concern to the state of humanity than those who thought that a survey- asking about which side of the most recent celebrity break-up a concerned reader might be taking- was a necessary use of time and interworld space.

That we are encouraged in these pursuits- interworld trolling, uniformed commentary, debates entered into on a stranger’s facebook timeline- is inescapable.  But we really have better things to do.  I’m not referring to watching the latest ‘reality’ or ‘talent’ show.  The powers that be- whether of church or of state- don’t want an informed populace.  They never have done.  Social control is possible when the people are kept tired from over-work and encouraged in ‘relaxation’ that doesn’t involve taxing or expanding the mind in any real way.  People in power maintain that power, unchecked, if no one is articulate and insightful enough to shed light on the problems being perpetuated- or created- by our leaders.

We have unprecedented access to information in this communications-driven era- yet many of us are more concerned with what is happening with an entrepreneurial duck-call-making family from the bayou than with world events or the origins and realities of social problems that are ongoing closer to home.  The past century has seen the invention of wonders that were unimaginable to previous generations, as well as the leisure time in which to enjoy the fruits of these wonders.     And access to these wonders is available, in some form, to most of us, which disputes any charges of perceived elitism associated with knowledge-gathering in this day and age.  Knowledge is out there, we can look at it for ourselves and form our own opinions. Yet, if my ‘research’ into the comments sections of today is any indication, so many of us are choosing to remain uneducated and uninvolved in things of import and value, instead favouring mindless entertainment- and the even-more frightening ‘infotainment’- with which we are bombarded daily.

Everyone is entitled to have their own, individually constructed, opinions, and discussion and debate are the foundations of functional and responsible societies.  It is frightening that we seem to be willingly abandoning the widely available, legitimate tools we have to form educated and thoughtful opinions.  It is easier to simply post a two-sentence quote on social media than to read the entire speech from which it came.  In removing the context from which a story is drawn we lose the impact behind the sound bite.  This is a truism in the study of religion and mythology, and it should be upheld as truth in the examination of current social, political and spiritual matters as well.  We are the sum of our personal and cultural stories, and I shudder to think that the final addition will contain little more than awareness of who won the last television singing contest and which desperate housewife has scored a contract to create a fashion line.  We are better than that.