Living In The Snow Queen’s Mirror

So, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Snow Queen,” the setup for the story is that the devil, disguised as the headmaster of a school for trolls — and was there ever a better setup for an analogy? — constructs a mirror that amplifies everything bad and ugly that it reflects, and refuses to reflect anything good or beautiful.

In other words, Hans Christian Andersen anticipated social media. Right down to the trolls.

The beauty of it, I suppose, is that on actual social media, you don’t even have to break the mirror. It comes pre-broken for your convenience, and is no less effective for all that. In fact, I am struck by the way that it works exactly like the shattered mirror in the story: it becomes lodged in our hearts and our eyes. It hurts us. It gets us used to accepting its distorted view of the world, and our distorted view of other people. And gradually, we forget that there was ever anything to love about them, or the world. Or, what is worse, we take only the distortions of people for reality and decide that the only way to make the world beautiful again is to get rid of those horrible people.

Further, in The Snow Queen, the only thing that still seems beautiful to the boy whose eyes and heart are distorted are the snowflakes, cold and perfect. And it seems to me that this is exactly how we react on social media: eventually, the only thing that seems beautiful to us is our causes, perfect in our imaginations. No human can measure up to the perfection we see there. And yet, like snowflakes, we will find that “causes” are ephemeral. Ever changing their details, and ready to melt at a touch, ever to be replaced by newer, more perfect causes, that will surely, this time, be the most beautiful. The most perfect.

In the story, the shards of mirror in the boy’s heart are melted by the love of his friend, a girl who braves the dangers of winter to love him. We would do well to remember that this is the only solution. But for us, we cannot melt the shards of social media in our eyes and hearts by waiting for someone else to love us (though God knows, a good person’s love can certainly ease the process). Nor, unfortunately, can we simply stop using social media — it’s too valuable a tool for that. Instead, we must have courage to hold to the truth we have faith exists and love others in spite of their apparent ugliness. Because only in that way can we discover their real — though, like all of ours, flawed — goodness.

I Have No Enemies…

There’s an old story about Josef Stalin that alleges that the Communist leader and mass murderer called for a priest on his deathbed. Seeing as Stalin had been a terror to the Church, the priest tasked with this duty was frightened, but determined to tell the truth. In a shaking voice, he told Stalin that he must forgive his enemies. To his surprise, the dictator smiled and said, “That will be quite unnecessary, Father. I have no enemies.” Finding this impossible to believe, the priest summoned his courage and asked how that was possible. Stalin replied, “I’ve had them all executed.”

I watched the James Bond film, SPECTRE last night. It was pretty much a uniformly awful movie, with a predictable plot and nothing in it that hasn’t been done before and better by earlier Bond movies, notably the superb From Russia With Love, which the screenwriter had obviously seen approximately 472 times, but had failed to understand.

One of the worst features of the film was its depressing predictability: James comes home to find that “C,” a new politician, is considering dropping the 00 program entirely in favor of electronic assets. It is clear within 5 minutes of his appearance that C is either the ultimate bad guy of the film, or in direct cahoots with him, and C is indeed unmasked as a traitor in the service of Blofeld (whose motivation was apparently to dominate the world because he was jealous that he had to share a few hours of his daddy’s attention with James when they were both teenagers, which makes him the most ridiculous temper-tantrum thrower of a world-dominating villain since Anakin Skywalker in Episode II, but I digress).

The reason I bring it up is because it really highlights the feature of what seems like a lot of movies these days: anyone troubling the hero must be the worst villain imaginable. It seems as if it is no longer possible for the hero to be saddled with someone who is (even temporarily) perhaps an asshole, but on the same side. For C to consider dismantling the 00 program, he does not have to be a traitor. He can still be a problem James has to solve, of course. In fact, he’s a much more challenging problem if he is loyal, because then James can’t simply kill him.

Movies weren’t always this way. As recently as Pirates of the Caribbean it was perfectly possible for the heroes to have opponents, such as, Captain Norrington, who are kind of assholes and who have to be circumvented, but who are, when it comes down to it, on the same side against the pirate-zombies and who are reasonably brave and not traitors.

One of the most extreme examples of the decline in this sort of thing is the mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America. A much better film than SPECTRE, it imagines a Ken Burns-style alternate history in which the United States was defeated and wholly assimilated into the Confederate States in a short Civil War, after which slavery was legal up to the present day. That this is a dystopia is obvious, but the screenwriters take it to such extremes as to imagine the United States being sympathetic to Hitler in the 1930s while at the same time going to war with Japan in the 1940s. How this bit of political gymnastics works out is never explained. The film even goes so far as to have the Confederate States sneak attack the Imperial Japanese Navy in Tokyo Bay on December 7th, 1941.

You can see what they have done here: the Confederate States of 1941 must not only be evil, (as, granted, they surely would have been), they must be so evil that they cannot experience the injustice of a sneak attack themselves. They are literally incapable of being wronged. If the Japanese had launched the war as they did historically, and bombed a Confederate fleet at Pearl Harbor, then we might, horror of horrors, be forced to imagine that something even worse than a Confederacy might exist. Like people who might, say, perpetrate the Rape of Nanking, which of course, the Japanese did.

I see in these films a symptom of something I find to be ugly and dangerous. The idea that being challenged in our preconceptions and beliefs about what is best (or worst) is equivalent to an attack that must be met with lethal force and no shred of mercy. And that is indeed frightening.

From Somewhere In Orbit

Dallas and Wichita: This Is The Post You Are Looking For

This was not the blog post I was going to write today, but Steven Barnes asked me to write something up about what I saw and experienced, so here it goes.

I don’t often say that I am proud to live and work in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up here, and have lived most of my adult life here, as well. It isn’t and never will be a tourist destination. But yesterday, I was proud of my city.

Black Lives Matter, in the form of a local group called IGYB (I Got Your Back) had planned to hold a protest here on Sunday. Rather than oppose it or warn people, our new Chief of Police, Gordon Ramsay (really!) spoke with IGYB and decided to hold a public cookout for any and all who wanted to come and play and talk and eat together. I have to credit my wife for our participation: I would never have seen that the event existed without her.

At first, when Mr. Barnes asked me to write this essay, I was unsure of what I was going to say. I wasn’t able to really join in the discussion or listen to the speakers. By the time people were speaking, my children, who are seven, five, and three, were up past their bedtime and were starting to melt down. I would have done nothing by staying except frustrate them (and doubtless the people around us). Nothing earth-shattering happened, either in general or to me and my family. I didn’t make a new friend, sadly. I’m not the kind of person that easily begins conversations with people I don’t know. And I didn’t say or hear anything life-changing. I didn’t have a conversation that opened my or anyone else’s eyes.

But as the conversation on Steven’s Facebook page grew, I could see how much people wanted to know about this event, and how very, very basic the questions were. So this is what I saw:

I saw my White and my Black neighbors there. I’d say that the races were pretty evenly present. Maybe about 45/45 Black/White and 10% Other.

I saw dozens, if not scores of Wichita Police officers (and Kansas Highway Patrolmen, and Firemen and EMTs) mixing in with the community, smiling, and glad to be there. I saw them speaking with people with Black Lives Matter shirts on. I saw both groups speaking with men who looked like bikers. Everyone was greeting one another. No one looked afraid.

I listened to a young Black singer while we ate. He had a good voice. I regret I got caught up in my children and didn’t find out his name.

I had a brief discussion with an officer who seemed optimistic about the way the city was headed, and he’d been on the force since 1988, when I was entering high school.

I saw my children jumping through bounce-houses with my Black neighbors’ children, with huge smiles on their faces.

I watched my children enthralled by a couple of eight-week old puppies that were being carried by a pair of Black men who were a little older than I am. They let the puppies down on the ground to play with my enthralled kids. I thanked them for their time.

As we left, I heard a speaker. I don’t know who he was and I don’t know exactly what he was saying, but he was saying it to a crowd of all ages and races, several hundred strong, who were giving him their undivided attention. And he called on them to become more active in their community, and to be involved in the political process. He had faith in our democracy, and our people, that we would be able to come together and to do what is right.

And this morning I saw photos posted by a young Jewish officer holding Black children and dancing with them. Ten years ago, that young man was sitting in my history classroom. And I was proud of him, and grateful to have had the privilege of seeing him grow into his dream of serving our community, and doing it well.

And today I am remembering Dallas, and how easily Wichita and Dallas might have changed places. Because right before the terrible act of violence that seared Dallas across our minds, they, like we, had come together — White, Black, Police, and Civilian — to talk to each other, confident that they could make peace.

Today, because of the leadership of our police chief and our Black community leaders, I have new faith that we here in America can make peace with one another. No people on God’s Earth ever had a better chance.  Things are really and truly getting better in our nation, despite the terrible things that some choose to do. I am a history teacher, and I can tell you that this is not usually the way that things go. When a nation has a history of conquest and enslavement, it’s much more common to see increased separation leading to violence, oppression and revenge. And all those things are still with us, yes. But the pain that we are now going through is in may ways because our expectations of ourselves and of others are rising. I can tell you from living in them that many other countries do not go through this pain — but it is not because they are less oppressive than we. It is because prejudice and concepts of race superiority are so entrenched that they are not even questioned.

I know there are those who will think that I only say such things as a justification for maintaining a status quo. I do not. I say it because I see the good that began in Dallas swallowed up and lost in the horror of its ending. And I know that while Mr. Barnes had no need to ask me or anyone else about the terror in Dallas, he needed me to show him the good in Wichita. If we do not believe that good is possible, then how will we ever invest our fortunes in it, much less pledge our lives and our sacred honors?

The last thing I said at the cookout was to exchange greetings with a Black family that I don’t know. I think it was probably a father, his children, and his mother. We said hello, and the older woman said, “God bless you.” Yes, ma’am. May His blessing be upon us all. And I hope to see you again, at another cookout. There’s talk there may be more of them. I do hope so. If we can, we’ll be there.

 

Adult Themes. Not Safe For Anyone.

I am indebted to Steven Barnes, author of Dream Park, Lion’s Blood, and countless other wonderful novels for the genesis of this post. On social media, he discusses the concept of adulthood in detail.

I have come to believe that in our society, we are gravely confused about adulthood, and what adulthood means. Sometimes, I wonder what our civilization has come to when the most frequent context for the word “adult” is as an adjective describing entertainment with explicitly sexual themes.

It’s no wonder our society is obsessed with sex, and who is having it with whom, and who has the right to have it under what circumstances. Clearly, we have made the ability to copulate into a significant proof that we are worthy of an honor, and that honor is the privilege of being considered by our fellow adults to be reliable and responsible self-supporting beings. This is amazingly sad when you consider that this activity can be carried out by beings that literally have no brains. Yet for all this, there is a more sinister connotation to the use of the word “adult” in the context of entertainment.

We’ve turned “adult” into a word that means that you are free and unrestricted. That no one can stop you from consuming whatever you want. And the most disturbing thing about this definition of “adulthood” is not that it’s new or strange, but that it is old and depressingly familiar. It’s the definition that we all learned as children, when we resented our parents’ constant direction. They were the ones who stayed up late, watched anything they wanted, chose the food we all ate, liked it all, set boundaries and cut off fun. Our definition of “adult” is the child’s definition, and that says far too much about the culture we have settled for.

So what’s the right definition? Steven Barnes has defined adulthood as (to the best of my memory) the ability to provide physically for yourself and another human being. There’s a lot to like about that definition. It’s practical, relatively easy to measure, and about as unbiased as anything I can think of. But although that is an excellent beginning, I think adulthood is something more than this, too. I think it has to be more. I’ve seen too many so-called adults who were certainly competent providers tear up their spouses, their kids, their co-workers, and their subordinates without ever losing their ability to make a living and support another person. And on a certain level, that’s just, because despite those faults, those people made themselves valuable to others in ways that couldn’t be ignored. But I saw my grandmother and grandfather, who passed the above test (in many ways, with flying colors) turn their marriage into a little annex of hell because of their childishness. And that childishness was a real and dangerous thing because it endangered their son’s ability to repeat their success. It certainly robbed him of many opportunities to learn from their strengths. Further, their childishness endangered their grandchildren’s ability to grow into real adults because of the pain they inflicted.

But now let me tell you about my father. He didn’t come out of that situation unscathed, but I’ll tell you this: he sure as hell took the opportunity to learn from his parents’ weaknesses. The older I get, the more I appreciate that my father took a bad situation, a situation that many people would have used as an excuse to be weak, looked at it, and said, “I will not follow this.” I don’t think I ever heard him put the whole lesson into words. He said things like: “You do what you have to.” He said things like, “We’re family, and this is what we do for each other.” But if I had to put it into words, I would say, that adulthood is the ability to accept pain in your life without sacrificing others to avoid it.

Life is pain. Life is joy, too, but that joy comes with a lot of pain. I can’t count the number of people I know who unhesitatingly, and sometimes with vindictive glee, will throw friends and family members in the path of pain so that they can avoid it. Or so that they can have pleasure. That’s why people have affairs. It’s why people neglect and abuse the children they are supposed to be turning into adults. And while many, possibly most of us, avoid the huge wounds that tear a relationship apart in one blow, most of us habitually indulge in the repeated violations of trust that stretch these bonds to the breaking point over years. Because we want what we want. We want it now. We’re too tired to do one more thing for those we say we love.

Of course, we all have our limits, and there’s such a thing as needing to love and nurture yourself, too. Adulthood is the ability to distinguish between the desires of your heart and the desires of your stomach. Adulthood is the ability to say no to what you want in favor of what you absolutely have to have. And if you can’t tell the difference, then you will never be more than half yourself, the other half eaten up by petty desires.

But I am dismayed when I see how many people seem completely unable to say “no” to themselves, and are trapped in the desire of the moment as if it is their life’s goal. I am grateful beyond measure that my father taught me how to say that word. And I am well aware that I don’t say it enough; I’m not as good at it as he was. And no, he wasn’t perfect either. But he’s better at it than I ever have been. Maybe I haven’t been close enough to the consequences of a marriage that completely breaks down to appreciate it. If that’s so, then there aren’t words to express my gratitude.

Today, I look out at my nation, and I see clamoring hordes of children, crying out that they are adults, but at the same time, clamoring just as loudly for an authority to give them what they want, rather than resolve to make it for themselves or do without. And when they are challenged on this, they cry even louder that they have rights (usually by virtue of existing) but no power to do what they want. These are not the cries of adults. These are the cries of frustrated children. And the thing about frustrated children is, that they usually do get what they need, but they find that it is not what they want. The adults hear their cries and treat them as children.

If we will not be adults, then the adults will come for us, and they will put us in the place we have asked for.