Bread and Circuses

Sticking with thoughts about calliopes*- in particular, their ability to draw in the listener, their encouragement of us rubes to come and join the fun of the midway- and the chasing of said music machines, I’ve noticed a certain thematic recurrence featuring circuses and such like things ’round these parts.

It’s partly the time of the year. Any day now- with the summer spectacle of the Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games a fading memory (a hearty ‘well done’ to all the organizers, volunteers and athletes, by the way)- the ads for the CNE will begin to dominate the airwaves (if they haven’t done already- I’ve mainly avoided the airwaves lately. More on that later) marking the end of the summer.

It’s not feeling like the summer is anywhere near its end right now- we’ve had a stretch of crazy hot-and-humid sort of days (all fine with me)- but there is a shift in the type of energy- and a definite sense that back-to-school and the winding down of all things summery is in the air.

It’s hard not to get caught up in a new energy. My next door neighbours are creating quite the sensational fuss, what with being (currently) two games behind the Yanks in the AL East and turning up the heat as contenders for the first time in decades. There were 40+ thousand people down around my house every day last weekend as the Jays hosted those guys from NYC. That’s a whole lot of people creating a whole lot of buzz (I’ll refrain from stating the obvious- that more than a few were certainly ‘buzzed’- on expensive SkyDome beer…).

Please don’t think I’m hopping on a bandwagon here. I’ve never, really, jumped off. Not fully, anyway. Some of my fondest memories are of shivering in the cold at Exhibition Stadium in the days when the Jays first arrived in town- and before they moved to the Dome (sorry Rogers-types- it will ALWAYS be the SkyDome, as far as I’m concerned), with its ability to shield us from the elements somewhat.

1985, for example, was a banner year for the club- marking the first time we won the division championship- and the accomplishment was marked on the weekend with a celebration of the players that made that happen. The nostalgia was pretty phenomenal. Good to see all the faces that marked the shift to the Jays becoming contenders and welcome them back with some big love.

And then there was ’92 and ’93. I was in the early years of my exile in the Nation’s Capital (what was I thinking?!? Hindsight and 20/20 and all that), so I missed the electricity that powered the city as the Jays won back-to-back World Series- led by some of the greats of the game (Joe Carter remains a personal hero of mine- for reasons that go way beyond his ability to swing a bat and catch a ball- but, oh, that home run and that catch…). But I yelled and screamed my support from various couches and sports bars in Ottawa and cried with the rest of my hometown when the boys of our northern summer brought home the Canadian bacon (as I laughed at the ineptitude of the folk in Atlanta who hung the flag upside down. Ah, ‘Mericans. Gotta love ’em).

And I’ve attended a few less-than-stellar outings since I came home and moved in next door. Even bought a cap with their ‘new’ logo a few years ago (although I really like the one with the Maple Leaf a whole lot better).

I’m getting cautiously optimistic. Torontonians are wise to temper their sports enthusiasm with some caution- our teams are notorious for their shared ability to trounce all over our raised hopes and dreams. But I am getting a little caught up in the excitement- while yet holding on tight to my oft-broken heart.

I’m also a little distracted, and I’ve now distracted you with my talk of my local sports heroes… Let’s bring it back to the point, shall we?

The late-season surge in energy and hope for contention is also indicative of the fact that we will be setting aside our summer-dreaming (for those of us privileged enough to have been able to take breaks from the norms associated with ‘making a living’ and all that adulting-type stuff) as the cooler practicalities of the fall start to set in. A last hurrah, as it were.

Although I’m now five full years out of the classroom, I still feel that back-to-school pull- the nervous energy that comes from course set-up and the preparation to meet all the new minds that I might be permitted to influence. A new year- in a sense that is more real, somehow, than the changing of the calendar that we mark in the dead of Canadian winter.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been suffering from a significant pulling-back and sitting-out of late. Through an (on-going) process of introspection and general examination, I’ve isolated some of the reasons behind this ennui. One cause that keeps rearing its head is a need I’m feeling to distance myself as much as possible from the calculated distractions that are offered up everywhere we turn. It may seem a tad hyberbolic, but I really think that my recent avoidance of things of import is a reactionary and somewhat unconscious recoiling from the nonsense on television and elsewhere in the media these days.

The lead-up to the election is a big source of disgust disquiet- and I’m certain that our soon-to-be former PM is not unaware of the general public malaise that is sure to be the foregone result of a campaign lasting eleven freakin weeks.

Which calls to mind that wondrous old Juvenalian concept of ‘bread and circuses’. He used it to denounce what he saw as the self-involved nature of the ‘common people’ and their willful ignorance about wider concerns and matters pertaining to things like civic duty. Not one to pull punches, was Juvenal.

Master of satire that he was, he employed the metonym to describe the unwillingness of 2nd century CE Romans to understand, or even acknowledge, their history and the need for their political involvement in order to ensure the health and well-being of the system. He said, essentially, that the People have abdicated their duties, in favour of sitting on their butts hoping that they will be handed bread and invited to circuses- state-provided food and entertainment.

Were the people culpable for their anomie and disengagement? You betcha. But the fact of the matter is that even wayway back in Ancient Rome (one of the cornerstones of the democratic/republican- using both terms in their original senses-systems that we hold in such vaunted esteem), leaders opted to give the people what they think they wanted as a means of garnering support.

Plus ça change. The satisfaction of shallow desires- for free refreshments and hollow entertainment- remains the biggest tool in the kits of contemporary politicians. And the owners of media conglomerates. And heads of national and multi-national corporations.

If they all, together and separately, keep us diverted by the next big show streaming on Netflix (or by a story about a wonderful show- one that was produced with the intent of making early education accessible to children from all socioeconomic backgrounds- moving from a publicly-funded broadcaster to a pay-for-service cable channel), encouraging support for the local college football team (as we funnel money into such programs while things like actual educational standards at the same college suffer from lack of funding), or just by being a buffoon that appeals, inexplicably, to the ‘real’ people, then we mightn’t be inclined to delve deeper into the issues that are driving the continued inequities and flat-out wrong directions in which they are attempting to take us.

Bread and circuses generate support that is not based in silly things like exemplary service or concern for the good of society in its entirety, and to distract us and take our attention away from what is really going on. Large corporations and banks and politicians and religious institutions- anyone, really, who has been given power under the social structures that these groups have contributed to building- can continue to throw shadows to disguise their underlying intent of self-promotion and the furtherance of personal agendas.

The other day a friend posted a link to an article talking about how a developer is planning on building a hotel on the grounds of the CNE (former home of those Blue Jays). Jaded as I am by the state of development in this city, it didn’t really surprise- although it did appall more than a little since that place is sort of sacred ground for a lot of Toronto-folk. When I thought about it a little more, though, the symbolism of such a thing seemed insidiously apt- building towers so that the populace can actually stay overnight ON the circus grounds? Why didn’t someone think of this before?

Of course, all these ‘leaders’, public and corporate alike, will claim that the distractions are well-intended and meant to protect us and our best interests.

Sure.

In one of my favourite books by one of my favourite (Canadian) authors, one of the primary characters, a military leader and soldier (among other things) entertains two small children in his care by casting shadow hand puppets on a wall. The show is meant to divert the children’s attention from the assassins that have been sent to their house to kill them- and to cover up the sounds as the men in Ammar’s command dispatch the ‘bad men’ and keep them safe.

As in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the shadows on the wall are meant to distract from the reality of circumstances. In the situation in Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, the attempt is well-intentioned- they were protecting children from political machinations, after all- but ultimately doomed to failure. Though young, one of the children understood the puppet show for what it was- and asks, at its end, if the bad men have gone.

We are not children- and yet we seem to be more than willing to let our leaders distract us with shadows on the wall, with bread and with circuses, rather than to pay close attention and free ourselves from the cave of superficial perception.

The light of the fire that is the source of the shadows may be hard, and uncomfortable, to look at, but we need to stop shying away from those things that are ‘hard’. We have to accept our responsibility, as citizens who participate in the structuring and furtherance of our societies, to weather the discomfort of escaping the cave and the pain of the initial exposure to the sun and its light, in order to clearly see it in all its truth- and to take that truth back to those who remain entranced by the shadows on the wall. They will resist- Plato had that much right (and how little has changed)- since the journey is full of challenges and inconveniences and we have become intellectually lazy-beyond-belief. But we still have to try.

I needed to re-learn that piece of Socratic/Platonic wisdom. When chatting with my wee sister on the way to Sunday dinner, I admitted that I have had to ‘unfollow’ certain friends on the facebook, what with the lead-up to the federal election. I’m having issues with seeing posts in support of certain soon-to-be-former PMs and the rest of his merry misfits.

Wee sister commented that she keeps such peeps around in her feeds- since she likes to examine arguments from all angles. Ouch. That one stung. I like to think that I am past-master of hearing all sides before deciding my own perspective, but I have to say that certain attack ads and the front-and-centre-ness of a whole lot of rhetoric on the parts of all of the federal political parties has made me want to turn off the tv and tune out of the written articles permanently.

That, combined with a little article I saw in the New York Times yesterday morning, have reminded me that the examination of the whole has to be taken in consideration, regardless of how obvious our own conclusions might seem to be. Overcoming confirmation bias- when we aren’t even aware of it- is a trickytricky thing, sometimes. It’s easy to see all those places in which we are right. Identifying the wrong bits… that involves looking at things from all sides- and in all lights.

Which means checking back in. I’ll have a look at and listen to all the posturing and politicking- whether or not it reinforces what I already think is the right answer- and re-engage in the process. Looking beyond the shadows on the wall isn’t always fun, or easy, but it beats becoming blindly subject to the bread and the circuses that they use to mollify us and keep us quiet. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so I might manage to drag a person or two out of the cave to join those of us who aren’t satisfied with what the mollifying shadows might be selling.

(Yes, it’s that Mike Oldfield guy again)

Treat me like I’m evil
Freeze me ’til I’m cold
Beat me ’til I’m feeble
Grab me ’til I’m old

Fry me ’til I’m tired
Push me ’til I fall 

Treat me like a criminal.
Just a shadow on the wall

The plan: ignore the shadows on the wall- flailing desperately, as they do- while they try to convince of their ‘truth’, and head back into the light, and reality. Pulling whomever I can grab along with me.

And what the hell. What’s life without a little hope?

Go Jays Go!

*Another indication- should you need more- about that whole interconnectedness thing about which I tend to go on and on and on… Having eschewed television (for the most part- baseball games don’t count- and they lost to the Phillies (!) last night- I popped on my rally cap and everything!- so I might have to rethink my optimism a little. Although it was an interleague game, so it doesn’t really count…) I’ve been reading a whole lot lately- and that reading has been focused on authors who create great characters.

Since Mr. Stephen King is pretty unmatched when it comes to introducing us to people who leap off of the pages, I decided to give ‘It’ a go. I thought I’d read that one- years ago, actually- so I was expecting a re-read (I definitely remember the cover of the novel- with Tim Curry as Pennywise) but this is my first immersed visit to the town and its folk. My memories of the story come from the miniseries- which starred EVERYBODY! What a cast that was!- so getting to know the characters through King’s written words has been excitingly brand new.

Anyhoo… one of the characters first encounters the big nasty that plagues the town of Derry after he follows the sound of a calliope playing ‘Camptown Races’. Fortunately, Stan manages to escape the manifestation of the festering source of all that is wrong in Derry, but the incident marks him for the rest of his life. Calliopes- with their associations with the liminality that has always been a feature of the carnival and sideshow- can draw us to things better left unvisited. Mr. King is wise in his warnings. Stray tunes, carried on the wind- or drawn from memory- can be harbingers of a great deal of trouble.

Figuring out which song is safe to follow can be dangerous business. Yet taking a risk has to be better than stasis and stagnation…

 

 

Know Thyself

I’ve posted about self-reflection before. It’s something I try to do often- with positive intent, rather than as an impulse to self-criticize. This time of year, especially, seems to bring it out. The longer nights somehow induce a whole pile of inward-turned thinking.

I tend to see the holiday season as a good opportunity to engage in some reflecting and a little bit of analysis as I check in- with friends and family, certainly- but also, and perhaps most importantly, with the person I see in the mirror every day.

This wasn’t my favourite year of all time. 2014 started with Dad in the hospital- and we lost him a few, very long, months later. I’m not sure I’ve really encompassed that loss, to be honest. It hits me at peculiar times- when I find myself picking up the phone to give him a call, for instance.

That keeps happening because there has been a fair amount of positive stuff going on, as well. And Dad was the first guy I’d call when something great was going on. I’m working at a job that, while it’s outside of my ‘regular’ wheelhouse in many ways, challenges me and makes me feel that I’m contributing something of value. Something bigger than me- and something that benefits a whole lot of people.

And my team is pretty freakin’ phenomenal- so the fact that I come to a place 5 days a week and get to hang out with people I like and respect… well, that’s a damn sight more than I was able to say this time last year.

I haven’t been nearly as prolific as I’d like to be, writing-wise, either here in the WordPressWorld or with the creative projects that I have on the go. This is partly due to serious computer issues- Abe (my heretofore trusty MacBook) has given up the ghost well-and-truly, and you couldn’t pay me enough to set foot anywhere near an Apple Store until the consumptive consumerism of the season has settled somewhat. The SO’s laptop is filling the void as best it can, but, really, I need my own tools in order to work most effectively. I’m a creature of habit- and I like the comfort of my settings and keyboard set-up.

More than the technical issues, though, the world-as-it-is continues to cause me enough existential stress that I am completely and constitutionally unable to figure out where to start. I ruminate and seek response/reply for some of the insanity I see out there, and I just cannot do it.

That a disproportionate deal of the insanity arises out of the implementation of unthinking, anti-intellectual applications of outdated and irrelevant religious ideology, is a truth that is as evident as it is hard to swallow.

The other day, this article, by John G. Messerly, showed up on one of the newsgroups I read fairly regularly. I perused it with interest, and with something like alacrity, a couple of days after Xmas. I admit that my thoughts tend in that direction all the time- but when there is in-your-face evidence of credulity at every single turn, questions of belief seem to surface even more frequently.

I don’t get it. Truly, I don’t. How seemingly-intelligent people can subscribe to blindness of belief in fairy tale figures- however wonderful the myths may be- and societal controls that are millennia-old.

I can suspend my disbelief for long enough- at this time of year, at least- to allow for some wonder and child-like innocence to show up. When I watch the original Miracle on 34th Street, or It’s a Wonderful Life or, even, Elf, I get the need to believe in the supernatural. The realities of life can be so stark and shocking in comparison that the potential presence in the world of Kris Kringle, or Clarence (or George Bailey and all the residents of Bedford Falls, for that matter), or Buddy the Elf (and his adopted Papa Elf- how do you not love Bob Newhart- and Lou Grant as Santa?) can take a bit of an edge off of the harshness of the realities of this world.

And the world can be a pretty harsh place.

Messerly notes:

” …a significant body of scientific evidence suggests that popular religion results from social dysfunction. Religion may be a coping mechanism for the stress caused by the lack of a good social safety net—hence the vast disparity between religious belief in Western Europe and the United States.

There is also a strong correlation between religious belief and various measures of social dysfunction including homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births, abortions, corruption, income inequality and more. While no causal relationship has been established, a United Nations list of the 20 best countries to live in shows the least religious nations generally at the top.”

The fideism about which he speaks- the idea that faith is independent of reason- isn’t an epistemological theory I can understand. In any way.

I’ve read a whole lot of William James- I’ve included him, and his theories about religious experience, in course syllabi, in fact- but I just can’t get the justification behind his ‘will to believe’. It involves such circular reasoning that even thinking about it for too long makes me nauseated with the motion sickness.

Pascal’s Wager is even more inexplicable. The inherent intellectual and rational cop-out– that it ‘costs’ nothing to believe that (a) god exists, so why not believe in that god, since it might be beneficial in the long-run (forgive the paraphrase and over-simplification for the purpose of succinctness)- makes me grind my teeth in frustration.

Kierkegaard’s ‘leap of (or, more correctly, to) faith’, an attempt at apologizing for the inherent paradoxes and contradictions in Xianity, flies in the face of everything I know about the need for rational examination and discourse among human beings.

(Okay, his concept of the personal, individual interaction with the god, and the need to translate the values espoused by religions into positive, exemplary actions– as opposed to theoretical imaginings, used in judgment but without acknowledgement of context, relativity or relevance- may have some dialectical merit, but isn’t, unfortunately, the go-to impulse of most institutionalized religions.)

The presuppositions required for such (and, really, all) apologetics don’t hold water. They can’t hold water, in my pragmatic (I do get the problem with using that word/philosophical ideology, associated as it is with the foundational theories of Mr. James, especially after taking him to task for the irrationality of his fideism. Just goes to show that he was a man of his time and context, in my opinion. I’m not convinced that he’d defend that ‘will to believe’ stuff so much, were he around today. He was, after all, a scientist.), humanistic understanding of the world.

I’ve always tried to approach my interactions with others with a ‘live-and-let-live’ sort of mindset. I’ve said before that I don’t understand militant atheist types who run down their ideological opponents with personal slurs and the very-public questioning of their mental capabilities. Even when I agree with them. Wholeheartedly.

My years spent teaching the historical, social and literary origins of many of the world’s religions led me, I thought, to a level of ‘tolerance’ for the views of others- a hope that because the basic impulse underlying the construction of all religious belief stems from a need to understand and order the world around us, that we might, as we continue to evolve, come to the awareness that we have other, less-polarizing and -polemical ways of answering these questions.

The realities of the world are causing me to challenge that particular propensity. As I witness what seems to be a rising tide of ideology-over-equity, of belief-over-justice, I’m starting to feel as if indulging any such unexamined and irrational beliefs (an indulgence that is, admittedly, a wee bit patronizing) makes me complicit in the epidemic of anti-intellectualism that is rampant the world over.

That’s one of the very personal not-so-fabulous realities I’m having difficulty comprehending, let alone, assimilating right now.

“Religion may help us in the way that whiskey helps a drunk, but we don’t want to go through life drunk.”

One of the manymany generous gifts I received this holiday season was a bottle of the Irish whiskey pictured up there ^^^^. Since my travels in Scotland this autumn turned me into a Scotch drinker, my littlest sister thought it prudent to enlighten me about the wonders of the Irish Water of Life, in order to acknowledge our familial heritage and give the distilleries of the Emerald Isle their fair due. There might be a bit of an implied dig there as well- at my lack of productivity in the writing department of late, but I’m assuming best intentions all around.

In any case, the whiskey is quite lovely (my first experience of a blend) and the message on the bottle is even more poignant. It describes the ages-old remedy that Irish scribblers of all ilks have applied to break the back of that most insidious and terrifying of beasts- Writer’s Block.

I’m not prepared to hit the bottle that hard for the inspiration/clarity I seem to be lacking these days, but a dram or two of an evening certainly won’t go amiss as I try to figure out the avenues down (up?) which my thoughts and insights and reactions to the world seem to be traveling.

The ancient Greek aphorism know thyself – apparently originating with the sun god, himself – has been associated with any number of philosophers. Like other such pithy sayings/admonitions (there are Ten, specifically, I can call to mind quite readily), this best known of the maxims (there are over 100 of them) recorded on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi, is interpreted in a number of ways.

Some suggest that it is a commandment to leave the things of the gods in the hands of the gods- to avoid overreaching and seeking that which the human mind is incapable of understanding. To know one’s place, in the universal scheme of things, and not look to ascribe meaning to those things outside of human purview.

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates uses this particular edict to explain why he has no time to think about mythology/the gods or the nature of other ‘irrelevant things’. Since he has not yet achieved the self-knowledge the Oracle demands, he thinks it ridiculous to investigate the obscure, when the obvious remains misunderstood.

My interpretation of this Platonic wisdom says that in order to even begin an approach to understanding the elusive, one must focus on first comprehending oneself and one’s immediate physical– and temporal- environment. Postulating the origins or nature of something entirely supernatural and hypothetical without any sort of demonstrable proof while ignoring/failing to understand the evidence that speaks to the natural order of things is folly– in the truest, oldest and most complete senses of the word.

(Folly: from the Old French for “madness”. Also: evil, wickedness, mental weakness, unwise conduct).

In my quest for equity and respect and ‘tolerance’ I have always maintained that belief in the next/other world- and the god(s) who rule(s) it- is fine. No skin off my nose if people want to continue playing make believe long past the point of rationality and reason. To each their own, and all that.

Until it isn’t fine. Until those beliefs creep into our political and social and educational systems and permit the deterioration of the strides we have made in understanding and defining the real world. Strides toward knowing ourselves as humans- imperfect but adaptable and evolving people with the ability to shape our own individual and communal destinies- rather than as subordinate creatures of a created creator with an unknowable ‘plan’ for our future.

As I continue my self-reflection into the New Year, this new awareness is likely to be the biggest bit o’ something with which I’ll be wrestling.

Tolerance = complicity… that’s a tough one.

While belief may the easy answer for some, elenchus and dialectic are hard for everyone.

Freakin’ Socrates.

Perhaps I’ll need more of the whiskey than first thought.

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.
David Hume could out-consume
Schopenhauer and Hegel,
And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya’
‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
SOCRATES, HIMSELF, WAS PERMANENTLY PISSED…

John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.
Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.
Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart: “I drink, therefore I am”
Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he’s pissed!