Friday, February 25, 2011

Hard Work, Discipline and the Uncapitalistic Problem of Idleness

A nun is received by a woman at the gates
The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness, by Edward Burne-Jones
I doubt that hard work and discipline, major incentives and foundations of modern-day capitalism, are an integral and natural part of human beings. We may be born with a predisposition toward those aspects and some embrace and internalize them more quickly, easily and readily than others, yet it is generally not a spontaneous expression of one's natural state, unlike its much criticized counterpoint, idleness.

I believe that if given the chance, people would prefer to do nothing and would probably shun work whenever they can. Even in today's workforce, many people call in sick or ask for days off because there are certain days they really don't feel like working. It happens pretty much to everyone from time to time. And obviously, such sentiments and actions are counterproductive and lead to a loss of revenue for the company if not the individual.

Yet in modern society, more than ever, you need to work hard and restlessly for a living and nothing is free. Because of a competitive market, you need to try your best and in some cases wear yourself out, so you don't lose your job to someone else. Networking and contacts can only get you so far in the pragmatic and profit-oriented world of business.

At the same time, you have been drilled for many years and through different sources, such as family, friends, school and counselors that work is not only necessary but indeed “good.” It is not only a commendable activity, but is actually transformed into a virtue. You are in many ways judged and defined by the work you do, which is exemplified by the question of what you do (for a living) since “you are what you do.” 

A life of idleness is frowned upon, while lucrative professions, such as lawyers and doctors, demand global respect. As a result, you work not only to fulfill economic and financial needs, but also for emotional and psychological reasons. The concept of work is so ingrained in us that we simply cannot think of a life without it.

While work is equated with morality, idleness is considered a sin. In other words, we feel guilty and bad when we do not do anything “productive.” In terms of business, productivity is translated into income and profit, and this may explain why many business-people simply cannot find the means to fully unwind. Benjamin Franklin's maxim of “Time is money” is so deeply ingrained that they cannot shake off the feeling of wasting precious time and money when they are not actively devoted to their business.

The capitalist world thrives on such a frame of mind to operate at the highest levels. By internalizing hard work and discipline, we become part of the immense system of production. “Publish or perish,” they say in literary and scholarly circles. Yes, I do enjoy writing and publishing posts, but then again I am not making a living from it.

It is true that doing what one loves, following one's vocation means that hard work and discipline will flow naturally. Yet there is always the danger that your enthusiasm will ebb out through the repeated cycle of daily work routine. There is always the shadow of idleness reflected in your tasks because, let's face it, there is nothing better to do than to be doing nothing.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Court in Order: Justice and Verbal Duels in the Name of the Law

A judge with a gavel in his hand
Recently I had the opportunity to have an inside glimpse at a court trial. I arrived as a witness to support a friend of mine and to give credence to his version of events. I went to court with one thing in mind: to state the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth.

I have an innate sense of justice and think that one should be completely honest and transparent in one's actions, and whenever necessary accept responsibility for one's mistakes. At the same time, nothing angers me more than deception, lies and hypocrisy, all of which could be summed up in the word “injustice.”

The only idea I had of court proceedings was a handful of movies and TV programs, such as  Matlock and Judge Judy. And in fact, that knowledge, although not completely congruent with reality, did give me at least some necessary and basic guidance about the judicial process.

My first impression, however, was how everything seemed ritualized and how everyone perfectly “played” their role. The lawyers looked and fit their role perfectly. They were well-dressed and carried a black leather briefcase brimming over with their client's files.

The private defense lawyers cordially greeted the state attorneys as if they were meeting at a social gathering event and not at court where they would hash out a fight over the accused person's life and fortune. You could see the nervousness on the face of the accused, but none of that seemed to have impact on the legal counsels.

I must say that my view was that of an outsider's. For them, it was their daily life. And just like a medic cannot -- or rather should not -- be affected by the sight of blood, gore or suffering, the lawyers also must remain cool. If there was pressure on the counsel I could not tell, but then again, they were not the ones with their freedom at stake. And yes, theirs is a seriously high-paying job, soaring figures I do not even see in my dreams.

Then at some point silence, respect, everybody rise because the judge has entered. I was not too sure whether I was supposed to be inside since I was a witness. And sure enough I was kindly asked to leave. No, I was not escorted out; all was done respectfully, gracefully.

I had to spend various hours outside the courtroom until my name was finally announced. Or rather mispronounced. So with a certain doubt I entered and there they were awaiting me. I raised the hand the moment I entered, but was told to do so only when I had entered the corner box.

I was told to spell my name and swear the oath. I saw on everybody's face patience and comprehension. I was a “newbie” and I needed to be guided. It was my first time. No harsh words. Even the judge seemed to have a smile.

What followed was a bit of a show. I was asked questions by my friend's lawyers which I saw coming, and I understood their relevance for the case. Then I was handed over to the Crown. He grilled me with questions as well, trying to puncture holes in my argument. I did not feel pressured though. I was representing the truth and had nothing to be nervous about. And so ended my day at court.

But I took with me a refreshed perspective. Court proceedings lack the flair and drama you see on television. Lawyers and attorneys do their job like any of us. And although there is a solemn air and decorum during trial, afterward there is a cordial atmosphere. I heard one lawyer congratulate his "opponent" for doing a great job and that he always enjoyed dealing with him because he was learning from a master.

So all it came down to was a verbal duel of rhetoric. The one with stronger arguments had won the case. Hands were shaken afterwards, and nobody harbored any bad feelings. It was a game in which you test your skills and knowledge when it comes to verbal and legal tricks and jugglery. The most vital information is not in the black leather briefcase but inside the counsel's head.

At the end of the day, each goes their own way. But the accused is either greatly relieved and a free man or woman or they will spend their allotted time in jail. They have no choice but to take it all much more seriously, after all. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Orientalism and Western Fear and Suspicion of Islam

Sensual book cover of "Oriental Stories"
In his book Orientalism, Edward Said claims that the Western definition and representation of the Orient is inherently flawed. Because of a lack of contact and interaction with the Orient and a predominantly ethnocentric view, Western scholars of the past shaped and molded information about the Orient that was not entirely accurate nor congruent with reality.

Mainly in the 18th and 19th century, the idea of a sensual and mysterious Orient took hold of many writers and poets. The Orient was seen as an enigmatic place, but compared to Western standards it was defined as weak and “uncivilized.” Marx claimed that the Orient could not stand on its own feet and needed to be represented by the West.

Over time, the exotic representations in literature fired the imagination of the Western people, and they grew interested in the region. However, they were not looking to learn about the Orient but rather seek in it a confirmation of their own hypotheses supplied by scholars and embedded in an aura of the sensuous tales of Thousand and One Nights.

The same occurred to Napoleon whose passion for the Orient led him to conquer Egypt. Napoleon had respect for the Orient, but he was mainly misled by faulty ideas implanted from his bookish studies. In fact, he did not see Egypt as it really was, but rather as it used to be in its heydays of learning. 

Since the two views were not compatible, he attempted to “help” Egypt return to its height of learning of the glorious past. He thought himself the new Alexander bringing higher standards of life and freedom to the “primitive” people who had presumably lost touch with their own history.

Nonetheless, he tried his best to conquer Egypt in a peaceful manner by projecting Western intellectual and economic superiority claiming that the natives could reach the same level if only they embraced Western culture. 

To that purpose, he also implemented institutes and research centers to both gather information about the Egyptians as well as to influence the minds of the native people there, while many scholars collaborated on a book about Egypt that had a strong influence on Western thinking and opinions about the Orient.

As The Doors sing, “The West is the Best,” so Western structure and strategies were seen as the superior model for liberty and progress. Not unlike today's political climate and ideology, it was meant for the “good” of the native people, while their own opinions seemed to be irrelevant in the matter.

One of the problems of Orientalism, according to Said, is that these ideas about the Orient propagated themselves and have become an integrated part of how the Western world views the East. Despite technology and travel, these ideas are persistent and even immune to change. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the case of Islam.

In the history of religion, there have been various crusades against the Muslims. The Muslims conquered vast areas of Europe, and the Church feared such conquests as their own influence in the region was evaporating. However, there seemed to be little conflict with other religious groups, such as the Hindus or the Buddhists.

Part of an explanation might be that those Eastern religions were not as aggressive as Islam. Islam may have had a more aggressive agenda only to be paralleled by Christianity; both tried to expand through either missionary methods or full-out belligerent conquests. But there might have been another reason at play.

What strikes me as most interesting is that at heart both traditions are very close and have, by and large, the same origins and sources. This might have been a reason for the conflicts. By being very close in ideology, the Western world began to fear Islam. The ideology of Hindus of many gods, or Buddhists of no god at all, posed no problem because they were too removed from the belief system of the Western people.

Islam, on the other hand, had many characteristics in common. It would take less steps and adjustments for a Christian to embrace the Islamic faith, and vice versa. Because of this reason, the Western world preferred to ignore the similarities and accentuate the differences. In the past, both scholars and religious officials in the West claimed that Muslims disregarded the teachings of Jesus and had their own equivalent Savior in Mohammed.

This was simply not true. Islam, in fact, regards Jesus as a prophet. They do not see eye to eye with Christianity that Jesus is the son of God, which is to Muslim sensibilities an act of blasphemy since God cannot have or rather beget children in their view. Yet that Jesus is holy and his teachings exemplary is fully accepted by the Muslim faith.

Mohammed was considered the last prophet. He was holy in the sense that he was chosen by God and that he brought the holy book called Koran to the Muslim people. But he was in no way considered God or a deity to be worshiped. He was a prophet, nothing more, nothing less. He may have been higher on the scale of prophets because of what he brought to the Muslim people, but that did not change the fact that he was an instrument or mouthpiece of God.

Hence, the Western misinterpretation of Islam had its desired effects and consequences. People grew suspicious of Islam and feared it. They saw it as an exotic and alien belief system that endangered the Christian faith. Christians needed to be alert so that they were not engulfed by this “perfidious” and “treacherous” religion. In such an atmosphere no real dialogue could take place between the two religions.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Voices and Images of Cultural Change: The Historical Impact of Television, Music and Cinema on Culture and Consciousness

Typical American family from the 50s in front of television set

Television made its major appearance in society during the era referred to as the “Golden Age of Television.” Television offered a lot of potential and was considered a drive for innovation and progress. The media was being created; cameras had the opportunity to bring us images that had never been seen before. It was hailed as a new Renaissance, yet this time around it was not books that brought about change, but rather moving pictures on a screen.

But did the tube really bring about a revolution? When we think of the 50s and the movies and programming of the era, we may feel a certain letdown, yet the period more than ever planted the seeds of a divisive rupture with the more traditional past in terms of beliefs and values. The baby boomers, mere kids at the time, already felt the desire to rebel against their parents.

It is no wonder that James Dean became the symbol and inspiration of the younger generation. He, in fact, embodied the new misunderstood and under-appreciated generation that thirsted for radical change. James Dean is a magnificent actor, but it was his attitude and, moreover, his timing that made him instantly famous. He would not have had the same impact at another time, while in his generation, he represented what many still did not dare to say or express. His untimely death, although an accident, had become the fixed symbol of a hopelessly stuck generation.

Strangely enough, the television screen seemed too small to reflect those issues; people still flocked to the dark and secret intimacy of the big screen as shows like I Love Lucy or sections of Kids say the darndest things did not provide much intellectual thought. Cinemascope, the 3D experience of the past, was bigger than life and could not be experienced in the comfort of one's home. There was a promise of a revolution in the air that would affect almost any area of life.

This momentum arrived during the wild and roaring sixties. Although there was a cinematic rebellion in terms of the French New Wave and such American classics like Bonnie and Clyde, the revolution was mostly in the homes and streets. Demonstrations and public mischief abounded, while mind-altering drugs made their first appearance. Television was still dormant in those days and mostly used as a distraction from life in the form of innocuous entertainment, such as LassieBonanza, and Candid Camera.

Notwithstanding, the Beatles managed to use the medium effectively with their legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to cause the never before seen or experienced sensation called Beatlemania. Yet soon enough, they decided to drop their clean-cut image and realized that they felt at home in the loud rebellious crowd. In fact, if there was any art that reflected the feelings, desires and struggles of those times, it was embodied in the wonderful music and artists that hit the scene in those years.

The 70s may have been anti-climatic and disappointing in comparison, at least on a musical level. The generation seemed to either lose track or get sidetracked or just lose steam. Either way, music became comfort food and a number of TV shows provided mindless and formulaic entertainment. Series like Charlies Angels, Six Million Dollar Man, and Starsky and Hutch are good example of action series that are politically insipid and harmless, although series like M*A*S*H were a welcome exception. People in general did not want to think about important issues; they just wanted to relax after a day of work with potato chips and a beer in hand. In other words, not that different from today's reality.

However, there were still jewels in this period, again on a cinematic level. A string of more realistic and politically conscious cinema hit movie theaters in the United States. Movies by Sidney Lumet brought back the revolutionary consciousness, both as reminder and call for action. Dog Day Afternoon, for example, brought issues to the daylight that were lurking in the American psyche of the post-Vietnam generation and criticized mind and crowd control via the state government.

A more exuberant statement about the tube and its followers was made in his next movie Network, where Lumet showed us where we were heading with sensationalism and how empty and shallow our lives were to become as a result. Its famous catchphrase "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" rings true even in today's society. 

Other movies like Cimino's The Deer Hunter showed a restless yet experimental push for personal and political freedom of expression, which, however, may have come to a screeching halt with Cimino's own epic failure Heaven's Gate that pushed his movie studio to the brink of bankruptcy and pretty much destroyed his career.

Then came the 80s and bright flashy colors and lifestyles made it to the foreground. It was mainly a revival of the late baby boomers, but it was the breeding ground for Generation X about to make its mark in the next decades to come. The greatest credit or revolution if you like, was the advent of MTV videos. This, in fact, changed the music experience by intertwining music with images, and a new art form was born. It was back in the days when rap was still cool and actually had something to say.

There was still little of interest on the tube. The shows, such as The A-Team and MacGyver did not have too much to offer; well, MacGyver was at least educational in the sense that you were learning a little bit about chemistry. At the same time, kids were bombarded with badly drawn, formulaic, pointless and violent shows like He-ManSpiderman, and Transformers with little, if any, educational value. 

From the ashes of the cultural revolution, the landmarks and pitfalls of cinema and the banality of television arose the X-Generation that was suddenly bulldozed and overwhelmed by the onset of the new era of the Internet, the ubiquitous alternative to the "boob tube."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Flaws and Negative Traits of Atheism, Theism and Agnosticism

Empty glass candleholders in the front

The majority of belief systems can be summed up in the three main categories of Atheism, Theism, and Agnosticism. Simply put, the first one believes there is a God, the second believes there is no God, and the third group believes that whether there is a God or not is impossible to know.

I will attempt to give a more or less objective account of these three groups, the Atheist, the Theist, and the Agnostic, by pointing out some of their negative traits and flaws. In other words, each of them will get the same treatment because there are certain prototypes of people in each category that are, to put it mildly, on the annoying side.

The annoying Theist is the one that is constantly trying to convince you of their beliefs. They are an unhealthy mix of advertiser, crusader and recruitment agent. You are constantly bombarded with their arguments and will receive a blind eye and deaf ears when you attempt to retort with solid and logical arguments. It is the Creationist who categorically denies evolution and believes that dinosaurs never existed and that the Earth continues to be flat and is merely some thousand years old.

What I like least about this group is their unerring belief that they are always right and you are always wrong, even when you are actually right. Their religion or belief system is allegedly superior to yours; in fact, they are doing you a favor by saving you from perdition because, believe it or not, they care about you and are concerned about your personal salvation.

Their persistence is both astonishing and excruciating. These types of Theists constantly try to convince you of their cause. They should be happy that they themselves are “saved” and let others believe what they will. It's a free country after all, right? Right?

Now among the Atheists, there are also those persistently negative people who are too convinced of their beliefs for their own good; they will not budge either. They are so obsessed with their stance that they actually lose out on some of their objectivity and begin to hate not only religious people, but God himself who, paradoxically, they claim does not exist in the first place.

When your mission is to eliminate God and all spirituality with it, it is not unlike throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Whether Atheists are right or wrong remains to be seen, but those who are overconfident are just like the fundamental religious, in reverse mode.

Finally, there are the Agnostics. They claim that we simply cannot know one way or another; it is impossible for humankind to make an assumption either way. They are just like the Swiss when it comes to the major questions of life and death. They shrug and say we cannot know anything for real, and hence we ought to doubt our own capacity for knowledge.

It may lead to a kind of resignation of a “so what” or “meh” attitude. Now some of them can be rather annoying in their so-called neutrality and their lack of stance and opinion. Talking to them will not even elicit a good hearty debate. It is then that one wishes to talk to either the Theist or the Atheist because at least they have something to say and have a point of view, regardless of its validity.

To all three I can only advise to be more moderate and to lighten up. It is all right to have your opinion, but in some cases the saying is true that those who speak know nothing. In the end, there will never be an agreement on these issues, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A good debate should be like a friendly match of words and ideas.

When all is said and done, each will go home with their own beliefs and ideas, but hopefully they will give at least a little thought to the other person's arguments. Because in the end, who really knows who is right or wrong except God Himself. That is, if He exists, but we can't really know that. Or can we?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Society Pressures through Mandatory, Necessary and Optional Codes

Image of a Panopticon Prison by Jeremy Bentham
I have previously blogged about free will - or rather the lack of it - but it was from a psychological, micro-cosmic standpoint. Nonetheless, on the macro-cosmic level, society and culture play an important role in shaping and influencing the actions of the individuals, sometimes even without their explicit knowledge.

First off, there is the code of the mandatory. This is what society compels us to do with a warning or certain consequences attached to it. It goes by different names, but it could be anything from laws, by-laws, standard practices, rules, and regulations. Anytime we go against the norm or break the laws, we will face some kind of consequence or even punishment.

These prescriptions are usually enforced through a watchful observer. It could be a security guard, a law enforcement officer, or a security camera. You may believe that stealing from a large company or the rich may not be a big deal, but you are compelled to refrain from it because of its unwanted consequences when you get caught. And that is the main point here. Speeding may not seem an immoral action to you and you will break it once given the chance or opportunity, i.e. once you believe that you can get off "scot-free."

A major difference between the religious Ten Commandments and the laws lies in its tone. While in the Bible it is a harsh recommendation, thou shalt, and the consequences are not immediately tangible, the law is much clearer and direct, you must, or else this and this will happen in your life. In society, the authorities have executive control, and they can arrest you via police officers and punish and discipline you via other government and law enforcement officials.

The necessary is different from the mandatory in that you are not necessarily compelled but rather feel compelled to follow the rules. Wearing clothes is not mandatory, but necessary. Nobody forces us to wear clothes; we simply accept it as a given rule and don't give a further thought; it becomes internalized. Some of us embody those values, such as “lying is wrong,” but, in general, nobody compels us nor do they keep a watchful eye on us because we ourselves believe in and fully accept the code's intrinsic values.

Another example of the necessary is work. Nobody forces us to work and make money, but we do feel compelled to do so. Being idle, without being wealthy that is, may have personal consequences and lead to uncomfortable living circumstances. We cannot afford many things that others have and possess, and we feel left out of the loop.

Either way, if we don't follow the instructions of the necessary code, the consequences are generally not too dire. If we engage in unethical activities, we may face ostracism, loss of reputation, perhaps lose our jobs, but generally, we do not face jail time for breaking ethical codes.

The final code is “optional.” Here we are free to do as we please, at least to a certain extent. There may be some recommendations though. We feel compelled to wear clothes, but in many cases, we are given a number of options. The casual and semi-casual dress code denotes a certain kind of control over what we are allowed to wear in a given situation. These codes again are informally or rather socially reinforced.

We also have the option to eat what we like. But then again, that does not mean that we all take advantage of binge eating or junk food. We are, in fact, internally compelled to moderate our eating habits because of the possibility of health consequences. 

In addition, we may have a say in our job selection, but again there is a specific way society views us and how it designates some jobs to appear more desirable than others; whether it is from the point of prestige or income, all jobs are not deemed equal in the eyes of society.

Why do I call all of them codes? Because even though we have a certain amount of freedom of movement, we are still obeying rules and regulations. In fact, it seems that part of Orwell's “Big Brother” fantasy and Bentham's panopticon have become real. 

In everyday life, I am astonished at how many cameras are watching nonstop each and every move of mine for the sake of greater security. Again, the sociological conclusion is rather similar to the psychological one: You may believe you are free to do as you please, but it is not always the case.