3 Things to Remember When Talking about This Issue on the Internet

This is the Issue that people are talking about on the internet today. While there are no strict rules for participating in this “conversation” per se, there are three important guidelines which should govern one’s actions. They will enhance the predictability of your contribution and ensure that the status quo remains undisturbed:

1). The future of civilization is at stake.

We are at the threshold of Hell. Whatever happens with regards to This Issue will solely determine the course of our survival/freedom/access to delicious apple pies.

Make no mistake; this event or controversy is unprecedented in the course of human events and our response must be unquestionably and demonstrably correct, or Hitler will have finally won.

2). You are Right and They are Wrong.

At perilous times like these, it is obviously vital that the boundary between those on history’s good side and the minions of Cthulu are absolutely clear.

If our certainty in our own righteousness wavers even a little, then our journey to the Dark Side will be complete. To graciously listen to the positions of our best opponents is paramount to treason. Violators of this ethos will be stained with the blood of the innocent and ostracized.

In fact, let’s just get this straight right now: there are no “best opponents.” The group is defined by the actions and opinions of its most fringe members. The appearance of thoughtfulness or nuance is a trap designed to steal your soul. If you disagree with Them, They are both flotsam AND jestsam.

In addition, since the construction of this border wall between obviously-good and obviously-evil is so vital, lumping vast numbers of people into convenient ideological groups is crucial. Don’t be fooled by apparent “reasonableness.” If They say something that challenges You, throw them in your prefabricated box and let history judge them harshly. Also, come up with some sort of devil-term to describe the lot of them. That’s always good.

3). You cannot go too far in making your point.

Again, I cannot stress the significance of this moment enough. It’s all riding on what you’re about to post to Facebook, so go big or go home. Manners and goodwill toward others is some Necronomicon crap. Remember how nice Idi Amin seemed in that movie?

Seriously, if a public figure makes a statement that puts them in the devil box, they probably have unnatural relationships with squirrels or something. If not that, then they were in some elite college fraternity where they swore to destroy the world of goodness and rainbows and replace it with toxic nerve gas and New Coke. And now they’re in power. What are you going to do about it?

The world is a buffet of curse words and reductionist logic.

You know what you have to do.

English: A black and white icon of two people ...

English: A black and white icon of two people talking to indicate discussion with peers or neighbors, possibly in educational settings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Tournament, A Tournament, A Tournament of Lies

tournamentBracket

The end of the semester has sure been hard on my blog. Oh well. Onward and upward.

One of the pleasures of moving is experiencing a new culture with child-like curiosity. There’s real joy in being an innocent, unencumbered by the cynicism that comes with familiarity. I’m sure that certain things about the Athens, GA area will eventually wear down my resistance to bitterness, but I’ll fight that dread fate until the end.

What helps in my efforts for now is the fact that I possess two small children, 8 and 4, and their wonder naturally becomes mine. From my youngest’s fascination with Southern accents (“Mommy, I speak English, but I don’t speak y’all”) to my eldest’s wholesale adoption of cowboy boots as essential fashion, I am constantly reckoning with this new culture and landscape, and this has been blissful.

It’s become obvious (to me at least) that any proper exploration of Athens for my kids must include an introduction to the Great American Band, R.E.M. The band and this community are practically synonymous and their music is therefore essential to understanding the local culture. To this end, I’ve loaded my Android up with all my old albums and have been playing them for the girls, who have been loving it (and what’s not to love?). The seminal song, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” is high up on the family playlist, much to my delight. Take a moment to refresh your Gen X memories:

The song is catchy and enigmatic and weird and wonderful. One of the great pastimes of my generation was reciting the lyrics – making sense of the rapid-fire rhymes and idiosyncratic references was, if successfully pulled off, a trip to the Bank of Cultural Capital. If you were privy to the song’s secrets, you had what the kids today like to call “street cred.” In short, it captures that most imperceptible element, the “coolness” that Athens contains within its city limits.

Hearing it again, freshly, through my daughters’ four ears, has been been an intellectually stimulating experience as well. It’s lyrical rejection of paranoia as a motivating political tactic was powerful enough in the throes of the Cold War. (This is a theme throughout the entire Document album – see “Exhuming McCarthy). Today it is an essential defense against our public discourse.

In our time, and to a degree that Michael Stipe and company could never have imagined, paranoia and fear are co-conspiring kings.

Perhaps it is because of 9/11.

Or.

Perhaps it is because conspiracy has become big business.

The fact is, now more than ever, the most important decisions we make as a society are driven by fear and that is truly frightening. (Yes, the irony of that sentence is purposeful). The profits of cable news depend on the motivation fear provides, and the networks therefore have no qualms about packaging and selling conspiracy. It is a money machine.

This is, quite simply, a cultural disaster.

Caution and suspicion are not inherently bad things. In fact, when kept in check, they provide a vital conscience for both the individual and society. Fear is an instinct that has helped humankind survive from The Great Flood through Y2K, but its proper place is at the margins of life, not the center.

When thrust into the role of a life’s organizing principle, fear is crippling and destructive, forcing the individual to hide away from the world and forgo much of the experience that makes life worth living in the first place.

When extrapolated out to the societal scale, centralized fear breaks all the bonds that unite diverse people. All challenges then become more than obstacles to be faced and solved, they become the fault of “someone else.” Conspiracy theories are constructed, packaged, sold, and applied to every difficulty the nation experiences. These theories strive to make sense of chaos where sense does not exist. They are bought and sold in an economy that depends on victimization as its primary export. I believe that our hero Westley, from The Princess Bride said it best:

Indeed we are being sold fear, and consumer demand is high. This is a crisis we all now face. Together.

For all the good and great things the Enlightenment has brought us, this fascination with the individual has gone too far. We are more than individual consumers whose fates are our own concerns. George Costanza said it best, I think, when he said, “you know, we are living in a society!” Instead, we have drifted off, too far, into our own imaginary islands and left the very real mainland to rot. And it’s more than that we’ve simply drifted. We’ve fled one another’s great company.

R.E.M.’s song offers the wisest advice I can think of to confront this crisis. “Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives, and I decline. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.” In other words, don’t worry so freakin’ much.

The video that accompanies the song captures its essence as well as any could. The boy rummaging around the deserted shack in the wilderness, the end of civilization as it were, neither weeps nor gnashes his teeth. His forebears have left him ruins and rummages through them them with curiosity and humor. Then he skates among them.

We find ourselves in the same position as that boy. Our fathers and mothers have left us messes to clean up, as theirs did for them. There are problems to be solved and there alternatives to be chosen, but there is some joy to be found in the process. And isn’t it better to go through it with other people?

My family has staked out Athens as the place where we’ll make our stand. It is different from what we’ve known. We came here alone. Scary, but hey, we have R.E.M. to guide us. Coming up on our first year here, we can see a lot of progress in making this strange place our home. But, our strategy has not been installing security systems and building safeguards. It has been risk. It has been getting to know people. A place is not just its landscape and buildings, it is its people. Bad things will invariably happen to us as they do to everyone, but we will not be alone as we face them, blaming the hands of unseen and non-existent conspirators. Life is with people.

The past year has, in fact, been the end of the world as we knew it.

But we feel fine.

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Teaching with the Alien

alien secret service

In previous posts, I’ve confessed to a weakness for “speculative documentaries.” You know, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, U.F.O’s, and all their friends in the crypto-zoologicaspere (I should copyright that term!).

One program holds a special place in my heart, however: Ancient Aliens.

As I’ve shared previously, this program performs a dizzying array of death-defying rhetorical shenanigans, and is so utterly removed from the logic that binds the rest of us to reality that I thoroughly enjoy watching it.

At its heart though, I think my love of the show’s antics is a love of rhetoric. I watch the crimes that Mr. Giorgio and company rhetorically perform against humanity and, like Superman, my argumentative mind springs into action. “This would be great to show my students!” I think aloud.

Uh oh. I think you see where this is going.

Unlike a lot of literature types out there, I personally don’t mind teaching freshman composition because, to me, the construction and expression of arguments are a vital part of what makes us beautifully and insufferably human – I believe rhet/comp to be central to any liberal arts education. With those lofty goals, the argumentative gymnastics of a conspiracy-ridden mind are gold, Jerry. Gold!

I give you the following video, for which I must thank my friend, Stephen:

Step One: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I showed this video to my classes today, after confessing my love for conspiratorial narratives. I told them about the all-encompassing grand narrative of the Ancient Alien types – how the Annunaki supposedly came down and created human beings to mine Gold for them et cetera. (Here I should point out that this video is not connected to the program Ancient Aliens – it simply shares the same mythos). Then basically anything that ever happened after that is part of the alien conspiracy. The whole bit. I admitted some shame in knowing as much as I do about the “theory,” then I asked them to watch the above video and take note of some of its particulars to specifically argue against. The key phrase was “specific.” I stressed that they were to identify concrete formal and rhetorical structures that they could then analyze for their function and overall effect.

The conversations we had were excellent. Several students pointed out the problems with zooms that pushed beyond what pixel limits of the original video would allow. Still others argued that the abundance of rhetorical questions simply plants ideas in the views head and tempts them into making false assumptions. Others pointed out that the computer generated narrator-voice makes attribution impossible and that the script could have been written by a ten-year-old boy and we would never know.

One canny student observed that the application of a video filter that resembles a heat-sensing camera falsely suggests that the poor secret service agent is a reptilian. She noted that the heat sensor would have had to have been a part of the original video for that gimmick to work.

The Importance of Being Specific

I was proud of my rhetoricians in training. They noticed many things that I did not, and we had a series of terrific conversations about writing. Most importantly, I tried to stress that when they are engaged in argumentative writing, it really helps to have something to, you know, write about. By not simply relying on their initial, general impressions – “Are these people serious?” “Don’t they know that they sound crazy?” – they made it possible to have a productive conversation. In short, identifying concrete things that present problems gives the writer something to write about. I then urged them to take the same approach with their current research projects.

My Personal Response to the Video: Aliens? Maybe. Anti-Semitism? Yep.

Before moving on to the next topic of the day, I offered my own response to the video, re-enforcing the fact that my response was only really possible after identifying specific, problematic elements in the video’s argument. Now I’ll share it with the internet.

This video is a raging, syphilitic case of anti-Semitism.

First of all, whenever I hear the term “Zionist cabal,” my Jew-hater radar detector springs into action. Check.  Second, after laying down its “Zionist cabal” card, the video ever so un-subtly offers the following image of Lee Rosenberg, President of AIPAC:

Lee Rosenberg

I have no doubt that the video’s authors found Mr. Rosenberg’s most awkward moment so they could juxtapose it directly against the image that immediately follows; that of their “shapeshifting alien.”

Supposed Alien

The argument is clear. The video exploits its deceptive rhetorical tricks to suggest (without actually saying outright) that not only is there a Jewish conspiracy, but the Jews themselves are more closely aligned with the aliens than with the humans. This, of course, goes back to anti-Semitic rhetoric that spans the ages. The oft-debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a model for this type of deception and, incredibly, there are still people who believe in its truthfulness, as I’m sure there are people who believe the claims of this 3 minute video.

This video is not simply mindless stupidity, it is ugly hate speech packaged for weak-minded conspiracy theorists. It is dangerous if we don’t pay attention to how it makes its arguments.

Oh, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, look at this.

Same as it ever was.

At any rate, I used this as an example of the importance of paying attention. Passive consumers of information are prey to dangerous minds, and may become dangerous themselves. Active readers have the benefit of an insight that is not only advantageous, but also a moral obligation.

English class may not always be thrilling, but the lessons we’re trying to teach you are important.

Unless, of course, I too am one of the Annunaki, sent here to confuse my students and keep my race in power.

I am bald, you know.

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Ancient Aliens: Religion is for Suckers, Try Blind Faith Instead!

Ancient Aliens

I have to confess something rather embarrassing right from the outset. I have fallen into the habit of falling asleep at night while watching what I can only call “speculative documentary” programming. Conspiracy stuff, Bigfoot and friends, and, of course, alien propaganda. This post is, I suppose a belated companion piece to my previous one about the Georgia Guidestones. Here’s the link to that if you’re interested. I find it all so very amusing and can doze off without feeling like I’ve missed anything important. Commence with your psychoanalysis. I’m sure I deserve it.

At any rate, Amazon Prime has just added three seasons of the (ahem) History Channel program Ancient Aliens. I have been sleeping very well these days.

title screenshot

title screenshot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The premise of the show is pretty simple, really. Ancient aliens. What about them? Whatever, it all comes back to ancient aliens. The pyramids? Yes. Zeus? Yes. Noah’s Ark? The Holy Grail? Thomas Jefferson? Yes. Yes. Yes. Even Bigfoot! It seems that anything that has or has not transpired in the human experience is a direct result of some paternalistic race of space travelers.

I have no interest in taking the time to debunk the program’s claims. Arthritis would surely kick in before I could finish. Besides, there is already a website that does that. Here. I’m more interested in basking in the delicious irony of this program’s ontological claims.

To summarize, people who call themselves “proponents of the ancient astronaut theory” find a way to stuff everything that the human mind has ever conceived of into their box of pre-conceived, dearly-held notions. Always at odds with “mainstream archaeologists  or “mainstream scientists,” these folks insist that nothing our race has ever done or thought of could have been accomplished without help from “flesh and blood extraterrestrials.”

It goes without saying that the program is ridiculous, but I should take a moment to add that it is also insulting to everyone who is a human of any sort whatsoever. One mainstay in its presenters’ rhetorical bag-of-tricks is to claim that folklore, mythology, and religion are always misunderstood as metaphors or stories. The show’s main “character,” this Giorgio person pictured in the meme above, always insists that the literary and artistic images left by ancient man were not creative inventions, but rather literal depictions of alien technology and beings. This denial of the primacy of the human imagination kind of infuriates me, in all honesty. To deny that human beings have the capacity to engage with the world and all its complexities and create an imaginative representation of that variousness is to deny that we are human at all.

Wait a minute. I guess they do deny that. At about 23 seconds in:

Each program has its own theme (the Bigfoot one is a special hoot), but I’m particularly interested in those that graciously correct our misguided religious notions. According to the ancient astronaut theory, the Bible is full of stories of extraterrestrial encounters. We, in all our silliness, have mistaken them for accounts of religious experience with the Divine. Adam and Eve, Jacob’s Ladder, and even the life of Jesus himself are all literal recorded accounts of contact with aliens. Let’s be clear about that. This group of people maintains that everything in the Bible is literal. It just isn’t divine because that would be crazy. Jesus was a flesh and blood alien. Jacob saw, not angels, but (you know) aliens descending and ascending the ladder. Adam and Eve were genetic mutations created by the aliens!

Two things strike me as ironic here. First, these people take the Bible far more literally than I do as an orthodox man of the Christian faith. I’m perfectly OK with Job being an existential three-act play passed down to help us deal with the terrifying complexities of life. But, oh yes, I forgot. We have no capability of imagination of this sort. Oops. My bad.

Second, let’s think about this systematic debunking of not only the imagination but of the supernatural as well. I have elsewhere maintained that the imagination and religious practice are intimate partners. So what happens to our faith in the ascendance of the ancient astronaut theory?

According to the ancient astronaut theory (I do so love typing that phrase), angels and gods (and God) are misinterpreted flesh and blood aliens. Our adherence to belief in the supernatural quality of these beings is clouding our vision and we are unable to see the truth; not just about this, but about human history. The death of religion as we know it is a natural consequence of this epiphany. We are now free from our slavish devotion to a God that insists that we live our lives in such a way that glorifies him in everything we do or say or think. No longer must we look back at our lives and even history and look for ways in which he has guided and protected us. No longer must we look forward to the return of a God that doesn’t even exist.

Now, with this new vision, with this freedom that comes with realizing that there is no God, but only aliens, we can imagine our place in creation differently. We can know that we were created in the image of these aliens. We can see how they’ve guided us through the ages, inspiring our art and helping us mature as a race. We can feel the elation that comes when we know their plan for our lives; when we accept that they could not have created us for no reason. We can seek their will for our growth as a species. And finally, when they at long last return to welcome us into the universal community of planets, we will be ready because we’ve been expecting them all along.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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Georgia Chronicles Part One – The Georgia Guidestones: Conspiratorial Kitsch

Being a new citizen of Georgia, I’ve relished experiencing its culture for the first time. From chicken farms to the great BBQ debates to the local pro wrestling scene (more on this later, I’m sure), it’s all been dazzlingly interesting. So much so that I’ve decided to make my observations a semi-regular feature of this blog. How our patron saint Matthew Arnold fits in, Lord knows. Perhaps this is the anarchy part of Culture and Anarchy.

Episode one is the Georgia Guidestones (pictures by Yours Truly).

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For those of you unaware of this cultural oddity, the Guidestones are a Stonehengey-like monument located in a field in rural Georgia (happily only 20 minutes from my house!). They were anonymously designed and constructed by a man known only by the pseudonym R.C. Christian, and their purpose is a source of vast controversy and eschatological speculation. I first saw this monument on an episode of Brad Melzer’s Decoded (back when that streamed on Netflix) and was excited to find out that I would be neighbors with a menacing sign of apocalyptic doom.

To quickly summarize, the big issue seems to be a combination of the apparent Rosicrucianism indicated by the Guidestones anonymous patron (R.C Christian –get it?), and the strange message the stones convey. They basically lay out 10 commandments for a new world order.

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Unfortunately, my photo cut off the Big One – the first commandment, which is to “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.” This of course implies bad news for the New Earth’s 500,000,001st person. It also stokes fear among the conspira-rati, who see New World Orders and secret societies under every anonymously-engraved rock-and-bull story. The Guidestones do, in fact, have a rhetoric of ambitious power carved into its Elbert County granite. But – and not that I don’t love my new home – how this monument is supposed to guide a new race of Super-Men from a desolate field in rural Georgia is a question I haven’t seen an adequate answer to yet.

The nifty part of the Guidestones is its design, which in all honesty is pretty cool. The message is carved in eight contemporary languages and four ancient ones on granite tablets that would make Charlton Heston (and Mel Brooks!) proud. Here are some assorted views:

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And one with my daughter climbing on them (of course – what else would she do with such a thing?).

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So billions of those searching for enlightenment can find it handily translated into their native tongue. Again, though, just how many speakers of Swahili and Russian will pass through Elberton, Georgia looking for “Guidance,” I’m not sure.

In addition, there are astrological – excuse me – astronomical alignments (that sounds so much more scientific) built right in:

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…along with instructions!

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I suppose this neatness and clarity is the main problem I have with the whole project. Where’s the mystery? Unlike ancient, enigmatic Stonehenge, we have a detailed description of how it works. How can the Spinal Tap of 1000 years from now incorporate this into its inept stage show if there is no mystery to stoke its members’ imagination?

Also, as seen in the above photo, under the heading “Sponsors,” we are told that they are “A small group of Americans who seek the Age of Reason.” Great. The New World Order will be all about Cold Hard Facts. And militant birth control. Not that Reason in itself is a bad thing; we most certainly could use more of it in our current state, but the emphasis of this monument’s architectural rhetoric leaves no room for imagination, and this is where life is lived to its fullest (I guess I’m finally making the link to Arnold here).

For as much attention as the population limit gets, I find the fourth commandment to be more obnoxious:

“Rule Passion-Faith-Tradition

And All Things

With Tempered Reason

Tempered Reason as the solution to all the problems caused by not only blind religious faith, but also by our loves and imagination. Methodical, Vulcan reason as antidote to our venomous, irrational humanity. I understand that it’s now orthodoxy to look down our noses at Religion and such things (this is a debate I don’t wish to engage in at this moment), but extending that to Passion? What would the world be like without passion? Limited to the mechanical measurements of 500,000,000 dull technocrats, I say. This deification of Reason confirms my biggest fears about the New Atheism. Once they take down Religion, who do you think is next? Bye bye Shakespeare. Whatever threat that Religion poses for Reason is inherent in the Humanities as well. The life of Faith and the life of the Mind share an elegant, symbiotic dance. This is, I think, some of the point Terry Eagleton was trying to make in his hilarious response to the God-debates in the book Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The Jeremiad tone I take here is, of course, somewhat hyperbolic. I understand for instance that Christopher Hitchens lived an enviably imaginative life. I just hope that come December 22, the survivors have a say in amending R.C. Christian’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. This is why I love the picture of my energetic, irrational, beautiful daughter using the Guidestones as a jungle gym. It is the best use of these guidelines we can hope for.

I’m all for Reason, but not at the expense of Magic.

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By the way.

The anarchist graffiti was there when I showed up. Honest.