Sunday, August 28, 2011

Columbus as Brave Explorer or Grave Murderer

Portrait of Christopher Columbus looking proud and serious

Christopher Columbus (or rather Cristobal Colon) is often celebrated as a hero and has been assigned his own personal day alongside truly remarkable people like Martin Luther King Jr. Columbus defied many obstacles and managed to sail halfway around the world. His bravery and determination led to one of the most significant discoveries in world history. Christopher Columbus brought us sugarcane and the land of great dreams and promises that the American continent has ensured for centuries since.

Upon reading Howard Zinn, I saw a completely different facet to this account of history. Previously, I was aware that Columbus' main motive and driving force were stacks of gold and that his discovery was sheer luck based on serious miscalculation. At the same time, he was also religious to the bone, and he was planning to bring his own message of salvation to any primitive people he might run into along the way, whom he collectively and erroneously referred to as “Indians.”

In fact, his arrogance, greed and ethnocentrism knew no bounds. When meeting native Indians, his head was filled with material gain. The Arawaks welcomed him and shared all their possessions with the newcomers, not having been exposed and contaminated by the unnatural love for money and gold. But to Columbus they seemed naive, even insane. Who in their right mind would share their possessions so freely, especially with a stranger?

So instead of enjoying and thanking them for their unbridled hospitality, he forced them to show him where the gold was hid. It did not help the cause of the Arawaks that they did not have any weapons except spears made of cane, which were definitely no match to the swords and armor of the Spaniards. In fact, Columbus noted with amusement that when he produced a sword, the natives were so clumsy and so ignorant that they accidentally cut themselves with its blade.

To add to his profits Columbus decided to take various Indians captive so he could sell them as slaves back in his home country for an extra bit of income. That various of them died on the trip especially due to the harsh conditions and the cold climate must have been a blow to his income and pride, but it hardly touched his personal integrity.

Moreover, his sailors who remained behind at the fort called “Navidad” fell short of the Christmas spirit and gifts; they took absolute control over the island, forcing the natives into labor, raping their girls and women while killing those who resisted these abject and inhumane living conditions. In fact, various Arawaks saw no other way out and committed mass suicide through poisoning.

Some of the cruelty as observed by Bartolomé de Las Casas was that Indians were knifed by the sailors to test the sharpness of their blade, and a particularly horrifying incident in which sailors took away the parrots of two native boys beheading the kids just for fun while keeping the parrots.

One of the unspoken and often overlooked legacies of the “Admiral of the Seas” was the decimation of large parts of the native population. Instead of peace and salvation, he mostly brought the natives violence, hatred, death and destruction. These inhabitants were driven off, regarded as subhumans and were exploited ruth- and heartlessly. Religious values, such as empathy, compassion, justice were all wiped out by the incentive for power, control and wealth.

Despite all, Columbus is still revered and is given his day in the United States. The bloodshed is buried and forgotten, perhaps even forgiven, just like a bitter aftertaste from the past that is dissolved by the sweet success of subsequent generations of settlers, all of which has led to the impressive world status and industry of this young budding nation and its annual celebration of Columbus Day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Maya and the Physical versus the Metaphysical

A Woman is hiding behind curtains
Erasmus Darwin's The Temple of Nature
Maya, I have claimed elsewhere, can be approached from two different perspectives. One builds on the assumption that everything “out there” is Maya. Everything we encounter in daily life is illusion, regardless of whether it causes suffering or joy. The second approach is that everything could be real but our minds distort them and turn them into unreal images. In that sense, a cleansing of vision and mind is necessary, the same way a dirty or broken mirror cannot give off an accurate or valid reflection of objects.

Here I want to approach the phenomena of Maya from a slightly different angle. Maya is similar to the first view in that physical objects are not real. Anything that is material is impermanent, so it decays according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Our body, for example, falls into the same category. Moreover, one can claim that physical objects are not what they seem. On a subatomic level, they are merely atoms moving in space and hence their form or rather existence is illusive.

Taken to its extreme, this view would discredit science, which is based on physical phenomena and evidence. It is not to say that it is wrong, but rather that it is not infallible. Science looks at events that are part of an illusive process thus it examines that which is constantly passing away. It is trying to explain and make sense of the inexplicable in a rational manner. In other words, it disregards the “spiritual” elements that are what give each object and person their “life” and “breath.”

As a result, both our bodies and everyday objects only seem to exist as they are. What projects them into our consciousness is their spiritual essence, that which makes each object and body unique. Through the breath of life, they are transformed from an indeterminate physical object to being, and they exist in the concrete reality with space and time as reference points.

How can objects possibly come to life? Therein lies the problem of science. It not only classifies and categorizes but it also presupposes that matter is “dead,” without will and consciousness and hence predictable. This may be the reason why science has generally failed to make sense of humankind and has delegated this topic to the hybrid field of psychology.

But science may also become flawed because it is the scientist who analyzes and determines what science is, adding more speculation and relativity to this method that aims at objectivity. Unless the vision of such a person be cleansed from any framework, i. e. influences or traces of Maya in forms of distortion, illusion, cultural baggage, science will not be fully accurate.

To return to the matter of Maya, it seems that we can break it up into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical. The physical then is all that can be observed, weighed, measured and analyzed. This is mainly the focus of science and scientific pursuits. However, the metaphysical is beyond the grasp of full understanding, as it is slippery, knows and follows no definite rules or laws and elopes human prediction and comprehension, at least at the current point of our limited perspective and knowledge.

The realm of religion and spirituality might give us some hints or answers toward understanding the truth about metaphysical aspects. However, this information ought to be taken with caution as the forces of Maya, in this case ignorance or misunderstanding, can easily overrun the profound spiritual aspects and teachings.

Similarly, a too rigid hold on science and scientific knowledge is also full of Maya as the person is deluded in thinking that the world in all its aspects can be fully grasped and reduced to a simple formula. It boils down to the fact that in order to diminish Maya, we need to render upon science what belongs to science, give religion its own independent territory, while at the same time allowing free and unbiased interchange and exchange of ideas between the two different-minded camps.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fascist Governments and the Freedom and Self-Expression of the Arts

Celebration of throwing hats during Marine graduation

Any fascist government, regardless of ideological background has been wary or downright hostile toward the arts. Whether it is the Nazis burning books, the Communists banning and prohibiting works, or any other government or organization that actively censors works of art on the grounds of ideology, art is seen as a subversive threat to their hegemony, while the artist and intellectual are the marked and targeted enemies of such societies.

Nonetheless, such governments have used the value of art for their own sake as a tool of propaganda. They ensure tight control on materials, their hand poised over the censorship button to select what kinds of messages may be transmitted, at the same time ensuring that their own standpoint is presented in a clear and visible manner.

In other words, they take away the original and creative expression of artists and use the same method to fabricate their own brand of stifled and limited art to win over or rather to brainwash and lull the hearts of minds of their citizens. When it does not work through “positive” means, such as reinforcement and rewards, the flag of punishment is waved and those who step out of line in their behavior or thinking shall meet the iron rod of discipline.

In fact, the goal of any fascist state is uniformity. It builds on the premise of a false and strongly deluding sense of equality through identification. The trump card of fascism has always been blaming scapegoats but mainly on the basis that they are the unwanted “other,” the ones who stand out, the ones who are different, whether in appearance, lifestyle or belief system.

The strange and unknown is often perceived as a threat and these totalitarian manipulators ruthlessly exploit this fact. On the other hand, cultures that are multicultural, tolerant and accepting of other people and lifestyles are more resistant to the fascist disease.

In societies where self-expression is encouraged, it becomes easier to see the other person's point of view. This is one of the great achievements of literature and the humanities. In our ordinary consciousness we can never know what the other person is thinking and feeling. We get glimpses through their behaviors and words, but we can never fully put ourselves in the other person's shoes so-to-speak.

In literature, however, the expressive and courageous writer can expose herself. It is like a cosmos that is opened up for all to see. We learn about the plights of people through fiction and biographies. We see that they, whether gays, foreigners, Jews, Muslims, are essentially human beings who want, desire and feel exactly the same things we do. Strip away the outward differences and practices and you will end up with a person exactly like us.

This is what the totalitarians cannot stand. They prefer you think in simplistic black-and-white terms. It is easier to go to war when you believe that the other side is not only wrong but downright evil. You think yourself a hero because you are under the impression you are doing a moral deed by killing the "bad guys."

The so-called enemy is then singled out and many other facts are blocked out. They are stripped of their humanity and are not sons of other people; they are not husbands and caregivers of their family, not somebody's brother or friend or loved one. They are just militants that have come to destroy your nation because they personally hate you. This kind of thinking is encouraged by both sides of the conflict and most of the populace is ignorant and bounce around empty slogans and subscribe to bankrupt ideologies.

But as long as there is freedom of self-expression, when media is allowed to show both sides of any conflict, when everyone gets a chance to speak up and ask tough and probing questions, only then do we have a chance to break through the walls of ignorance and fanaticism. Otherwise, look out your window because the next fascist group is parading just around the corner.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

How Teaching is Similar to Directing

Stern schoolmaster facing class of young hard-working children

It has been one of my life-long dreams to become a movie director, seconded by a career in writing. In terms of directing I had my first taste when I made a short film alongside a friend of mine and the experience was wonderful and rewarding. At the same time, I got to sense some of the difficulties that may come with this line of work.

Anyhow, I ended embarking upon a teaching career. In fact, there are a few similarities between the two professions. The idea came to me when I realized that apart from every teacher having their own style, quirks and trademarks, the same lesson plan can have completely different outcomes, the same way two directors with identical scripts will not produce identical movies.

One of the decisions film-makers must make is the pace of their work. Does or should the movie follow a deliberately slow or an action-packed fast pace? Is the film able to consistently keep the interest of the viewer?

Pacing is the rhythm of the work / class. Most of it is related to instinct and experience. A seasoned director will notice that certain parts of the movie may slow it down unnecessarily or that some segments do not contribute to the main flow of the storyline. Although digressions may work in some instances by adding variety to the work, too many of them will confuse, bore or irritate the viewer.

In a classroom the lesson plan is your script. You will have time allotted to each activity, but the estimated times are only approximations. In reality, you will often have to adjust to the students' needs and their previous knowledge. Some activities may be extended while others need to be reduced or modified. The drawback of teaching is that you will not have a lot of time to reflect since, unlike a director, you cannot cut and edit a finished work in the studio; as an educator, you have to do it during the class itself.

The experienced teacher will also realize which activities work and which ones should be scrapped. Some will incite interest and participation, while others will feel like beating a dead horse. Whether you have spent sufficient time on an activity, whether you have “milked” it all the way, is what the teacher needs to decide on the spot, which makes it important to ...


To be creative is one of the main requirements of certain professions, especially in the arts. Both teaching and directing revolve around the ability to spontaneously react to situations and challenges.

I cannot speak much about directing due to my lack of experience in the field, but there were moments where we had to solve unexpected and unforeseen problems on location. Due to the fact that the shooting days were limited, we needed to come up with a solution quickly. What may cause feelings of distress in some is a welcome challenge for others.

As a teacher you may be very well-prepared, but there are always what I call the “technical pitfalls.” For example, you bring a transparency or slide to the classroom but the projector does not work. The DVD or CD you brought skips and stops without warning. As a rule, I always have a Plan B (and sometimes even “C”) when I come to class because I enter with the expectation that something “will go wrong.” But even though I abide by Murphy's Law, I am still caught off guard every now and then.

So I improvise. I quickly grab hold of the situation by coming up with something that will not only fill the allotted time but that is educational and intellectually satisfying and stimulating for the students. Yet this does not only apply to “emergencies” or “unforeseen circumstances.” Since we as educators are purveying and gauging the mood of our students, we often need to change our plan on the spot to achieve a better outcome.

A director too has to be on his toes at all times. A line that may have looked great in writing does not always translate or ring true from the mouths of the actors. Then you need to change it, improvise. Also, it would be a good idea to give your actors / students a certain amount of autonomy and control. Get them involved in the decision process but be sure that they do not take over. That's why it is important to remember that you are the one who is ...

Calling the Shots

Let's face it: Ultimately you are in charge. Whether your film or class is successful depends mostly on you. As teachers we tend to blame the students, their lack of interest, knowledge, motivation, participation, but all in all, we are responsible for providing an interesting and stimulating class to them. That is our job.

A director cannot distance himself from his work either and excuses will get him only so far out of his responsibilities. The class in retrospect, just like the movie, is a finished product. And when they are falling apart, you are the one who needs to take control and guide the whole thing in the desired direction.

Obviously, digressions are a welcome relief from a fixed structure, but keep in mind your main goals and objectives. Have my students accomplished what we set out to do? If there is disturbance, say an unruly student, you need to ensure that it does not throw off the direction of the class. Those are moments when the teacher-director is called upon to be strict and to demonstrate who is running the show.

That does not mean that the actor-students are left out of the creative process. Quite to the contrary, they actually enrich it all. It is their ideas that add salt to the class environment. Without students or actors, our line of profession would not only suffer but be, in fact, impossible.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Christianity, Karma and the Culture of Prosperity

Two poor, homeless children sleeping in an alley
Jacob Riis, Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890)
In medieval times, the knight considered himself a holy warrior fighting in the name of God. He would justify not only the means of violence and brutal slayings of the so-called infidels, he also strongly believed that God was on his side. Such belief systems that God will be on the side of the victor and punish the opponent was widely held in those times.

When there was a duel or battle between knights, it was said that the one favored would gain victory by divine will and right. The outcome would often be a form of justice and restoration of order ordained by God. Constantine, for example, attributed his victory to the divine aid and interference of the Christian God and, as a result, embraced and promoted Christianity for his kingdom.

Nowadays, many people tend to judge result and outcome on similar criteria. It is based on the simplified karmic belief that if you do good, you will have positive results, but those who do bad, will get their deserved punishment.

Yet when we look at the order of things in the world, we sometimes come to doubt this philosophy. It often seems that evil is triumphing since dictators and charlatans are gaining important positions everywhere. In these cases, religion steps in to create a balance by claiming that no matter what happens in the world, in the end, there will be justice and the good will gain entry into paradise, while the evil will burn in hell for all eternity.

So far so good. I believe in the importance of doing good regardless of personal benefits. At the same time, I embrace the belief that good people tend to get rewarded in life though it is not always as clear-cut as that. Those who commit evil acts I think live in ignorance or have a completely erroneous perception of what life is all about and why values and humanitarian concern are of utmost importance. In other words, they confuse material wealth and power with spiritual advancement.

Nonetheless, the karmic system is often turned on its head in most of Christianity, especially when it comes to its fundamental or radical offshoots. These ideas have their roots in Calvinist doctrines of the “culture of prosperity.” In fact, Luther's idea of following your vocation is transformed into using your talents to make money.

So people who have managed to become successful -- and the focus is on financial success -- are seen as favored by God. People strive to amass wealth because God is said to reward the faithful by giving them access to luxury. If you are rich according to this pseudo-ideology, consider yourself blessed.

If the rich are favored by God, then that would mean that the poor are in such a state because of either a lack of effort, of faith or perhaps even both. This reliance on full personal responsibility completely avoids looking at any socioeconomic or political reasons for poverty. The fact that the “blessed” rich have exploited people driving them deeper and deeper into the abyss of poverty while at the same time increasing their own profits is conveniently overlooked in this way of thinking.

However, the problem is even more complex than that. We live in and are surrounded by a culture of prosperity. The media presents us the lives of the rich, and we are like hungry folks craving a slice of the delicious cherry pie. We are the majority of the people in this world; we are the peasants standing outside of the gorgeous palace not unlike the beginnings of the French Revolution; we are gazing with incredulous eyes and drooping mouths at the glamorous excess and beautiful lavish lifestyle of the rich and famous.

But the ones in power are smarter than before; they have learned their lessons. They envelop us skillfully in intricate webs of rhetoric and logical inconsistencies, absurdities and make believe. One day, this could be you if you only work hard but mostly if you give yourself completely to the power of our power-hungry god. If you accept our conditions unconditionally and do exactly as we tell you then even you can dine with us inside.

The fact that the American dream has come up empty and has ended up as a sham for most people has led many of the powerful elite to use the language of religion. They manage to distort the values and commendable religious teachings to serve their own needs while playing on our desires and insecurities. No, money is not the root of evil; it is considered a blessing in this religion of prosperity. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Why is it Difficult to Give Peace a Chance

Allied tanks entering liberated Paris during World War II

Although most of us know both consciously and instinctively that peace is the best and most commendable of states and outcomes, we often do the opposite at the micro and macro level. In everyday life there are problems that can be solved in a peaceful manner, yet we frequently resort to conflict-ridden solutions. In politics, diplomacy is often fraught with limitations and difficulties, even equated with weakness, while force and war are chosen as the more “effective” resolution.

There may be two reasons for such a preference or proclivity. Both are based on human nature but different aspects of it. The first one is an issue of gender and gender-related actions. Society portrays and enforces the stereotype of the strong testosterone-driven masculine force, whereas the caring, intuitive and peaceful attitude is attributed to the meek and soft image of the female. This has repercussions on various actions of society and in most cases, religion has been used as a means to propagate such messages in implicit and explicit manners.

The second reason is linked to the realities and facts of human nature. There are some tendencies that reveal our angelic side, while others show that we have demonic capacities as well. It seems to me that war and aggression are more natural responses since it costs us much more effort to preserve and make peace. It is easier to hate and hold a grudge than to forgive and forget.

This general human tendency may be attributed to the dark forces within each of us that Freud called the id, a reservoir in which all our frustrations are stored and hid. It is like the basement that fills up and is cluttered with litter and unwanted junk and that we tend to avoid and sidestep for the very same reason.

Naturally, there is also the element of society and upbringing. Violence is unacceptable and frowned upon. Tantrums may be a natural outburst and release of anger or boredom, but they are heavily criticized. Violent acts in school are not tolerated and censured and other aggressive acts are met with strict disciplinary action. It is our conundrum where we attempt to still and counteract violence with even more violence.

Freud states that it may be of little use to look the other way, to pretend all is well and quiet on the Western front and to ignore the mounds of junk building up in our cellar. Violent impulses if not given expression, through catharsis at least, will go underground and lurk and fester there unbeknownst to us. We might surprise others and ourselves with sudden outbursts that may seem untypical, out of place and out of character for us.

In such a society where peace is on one hand held up as an ideal but is in reality enforced on various levels through efforts that do not preclude aggression, peace becomes an inverse form of violence. Peacekeeping forces waving their guns and bringing about peace through violent means make the achieved end of peace doubtful. Lasting peace cannot be created through the power of force.

On the other side of the spectrum, peace activists who oppose war through violence run themselves into a web of ideological contradictions. Religions that use bellicose language to achieve peace or paradise are doing nothing but fan the waves of violence and hatred. And all those who hate nothing but hatred still demonstrate lingering sparks of hatred.

What can be done then? The first thing we can do is to accept that violence is a part of us; it is around us as it is within us. It can be stifled for a while but it cannot be extinguished. There are different ways of venting violence, and we would have to find those that cause the least amount of damage to ourselves and others, such as sports or self-expression through the arts.

Moreover, we need to practice peace on a daily basis. It should not be an empty word or promise nor wishful thinking. It needs to be much more than an attitude. We would have to practice peace at any possible moment. We need to find peace of mind within ourselves. And more importantly, we need to be at peace with the violence that is smoldering within.