Archive for category culture

Some early-morning thoughts on how we should feel about Bin Laden’s death.

Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:

“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?” 

I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.

But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that  cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.

But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.

The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.

Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.

This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who  have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.

So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.



Two movies you need to see (with me)

Most sci-fi out there sucks, regardless of the medium. The main characters have stupid names like “Dirk Steelhammer”, and the plots are either ruined because they require you to have read the “Quantum Mechanics of Star Trek” book the author ripped his science from, or because they’re painfully formulaic – usually involving stock characters like an emotionless, lone-ranger-type main character and a beautiful and scientifically-minded woman with a tough-as-nails exterior that hides her desire for love. This is why I don’t read much sci-fi or watch many sci-fi movies, even though sci-fi is probably my favorite genre.

But, this year my sci-fi intake is going to spike dramatically because there seems to be a rise in the number of talented story tellers who care about the human condition, and who are interested in making sci-fi movies that have not only brains to them, but hearts as well. Big, bleeding hearts.

So here are previews for two, really interesting-looking, soon-to-be-released “soft sci-fi” movies (that is, sci-fi movies that focus more on the ‘fi’ than the ‘sci’).

The first is from a guy who might be my new favorite director – Lars von Trier. He’s the guy responsible for Antichrist, which caused such a ruckus at Cannes last year. I thought that movie was really excellent (certainly one of the most affective movies I’ve seen). He also did Dancer in the Dark, which is a sledgehammer-to-the-chest of a film if there ever was one (it also won the Palm D’or, which is sort of the yearly “Best Movie In The World” award). In fact, he’s known for making movies that seem to aim (though not, I think, in a contrived way) at devastating the viewer. And, at the debut of the film below, he simply said that, from here out, his films would have “no more happy endings”.


This next film seems a bit more hopeful, though still heavy. I don’t know anything about the director or anyone else associated with the film.

The plot seems to depend on this idea popular among some cosmologists that, since the universe is infinitely large (which it actually isn’t), and contains an infinite amount of matter (which it actually doesn’t), every possible combination of matter will occur an infinite number of times. Thus, there are an infinite number of planets just like this one, with people on them with the same names and appearance, and who make the same choices, as this one – as well as an infinite number of planets exactly like this one with very minute to very large differences in the choices, names, looks, etc. of their inhabitants. I only say all that to give you some background on what looks like an important idea to the film. But the fact that that idea is just plain wrong (for reasons to do with the pure mathematics of the theory) shouldn’t affect our judgement of the film, I think, even though it’s sure to create some discussion on the science it relies on.

But I’ll shut up. Here’s Another Earth:

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Love…or something

During the last two semesters I’ve been occasionally involved in conversations about people falling in love with, marrying, and/or having sex with strange things. From these conversations about the real lives of real people, an interesting picture of the possibilities for human experience – the possibilities for living a subjectively satisfying life – emerges. As it turns out, those possibilities are much wider and more bizarre than we’re accustomed to think. Here’s proof:

Guys and Dolls, a great documentary on men whose significant others are expensive, anatomically correct, female dolls (a la, “Lars and the Real Girl”).

A couple who divorce after the husband is caught having sex with a prostitute…via his avatar in the game, Second Life. Not too surprising, given that they met, dated, and married in the game.

A woman who has loved many an inanimate object takes it all the way, by marrying the Eiffel Tower: part 1part 2.

A man who has been arrested for having sex with a horse. Twice. Same horse.  (I feel a bit bad for posting this, considering what he says at the end, but it’s of course up to each individual to be compassionate).

Another man arrested for (repeatedly) making some love to a picnic table.

A forum full of surprisingly decent sounding people who just happen to be in (sometimes quite committed) loving, physical relationships with their pets.

I’ve found more bizarre examples, but the voice of prudence suggests I quit a few posts ago.

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A five month-old starves to death while parents raise a virtual child online

South Korea for a while has been leading the world in cases of internet addiction, and it seems that the first two deaths directly related to just spending too much time online come from there. Several months ago a man dropped dead in an internet cafe after a nearly ninety-hour online gaming binge. Now, a couple has neglected their child to death. Apparently they would spend all their time at the 24-hour internet cafe, taking breaks once a day to run home and feed the child. This was obviously too much responsibility. In a nauseating twist of irony, the game they were playing in lieu of caring for their kid, Prius Online, is based around a newborn that the gamer is responsible for nurturing and raising.

I’d normally offer a bit of commentary on how our technology is continually uprooting us from our connections – both physical and psychological – to the organic, material world, but I have to go feed my tamagotchi.

A fuller account of the above story can be found here.

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Is this story right? – Why we work so damn much

I’ve unintentionally assembled this story in my head. Someone with some american history knowledge tell me if I’ve got it.

Why our lives are sucked dry of meaning and pleasure by a 40-hour work week:

1. America is formed in reaction to what is seen as excessive government interference into economic, religious, and private life.
2. America is built in a land of plenty, where the threat of starvation or homelessness is absolutely minima.
3 America structures itself to minimize government interference in these areas, giving it the role of referee – making sure that everyone plays by fair rules (e.g. no monopolies, etc.)
4. With the life of the economy securely in the hands of the population, the possibility of prosperity is seemingly available to anyone with a good idea and a will to work hard. This is the American Dream.
5. Under the American Dream, since most people find themselves in the middle or lower-class, the psychology goes: I don’t have a whole lot, but I could have a whole lot if I worked really hard, so I will work as much as I can.
6. With the economy structured and maintained purely by people with this philosophy, the amount of work performed is extended far beyond what is required to meet the basic needs of life because, with the combination of plentiful resources and the dream of prosperity, work is no longer about meeting one’s needs, but rather is about climbing an economic ladder.
7. The average American, now, is in the historically bizarre situation of having plenty of food and reliable shelter, but still working as if faced with the threat of starvation. Most citizens never realize this – that the average person through history has not seen any need to work far more than what is required to meet their physical needs.
8. This bizarre situation is self perpetuating. For example, consider: in a free (i.e. non-government-run) market, pharmaceutical companies exist, as all other companies, in order to make money for their investors (in other economies, pharmaceuticals are developed, tested, and distributed by a government agency with little strong financial interest). In a society where the threat of death by disease is extremely low, and life expectancy is very high (ours) pharmaceutical companies need a way of generating revenue other than actual need for its products, where, in a society where pharmaceuticals were developed and distributed by the government, that agency would simply have its funding cut, so that the funds could be redirected. Instead, in America, the companies are given the freedom to promote their products commercially, by sending the message that citizens are constantly in danger of infection, disease, etc. This acts as an atom in the carrot hung in front of the worker’s face, giving a (very thin) motivation to continue working when needs are met.
9. So, the cycle continues: though there’s no need to work so much, the sense of need is constantly kept alive by a free market, that thrives not on the basis of its ability to meet real human needs, but to manufacture the perpetual sense of need, and offer a never-ending stream of items that simultaneously generate and meet these needs.
10. The result: Americans spend the majority of their waking hours (that is, most of their conscious lives) working, even though they could get by on far less, and spend more time playing, simply at the cost of giving up many of the items they don’t really want or need.

2 Facts:

– If you work a forty-hour week, you get, on average, about three hours of free time a day. That’s three hours, only 1/8 of your time, to spend on the things you enjoy and the people you love.

– Studies have confirmed and reconfirmed that, once a person makes enough money to meet their basic needs and have just a little (a few thousand dollars a year) left over, their happiness levels out. One’s happiness, then, does not increase with wealth, but rather ceases to increase, regardless of affluence, once one has enough to eat, clothe themselves, have shelter, etc.

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So I’m on Twitter. I set up an account a while ago but never really used it, partly because I had trouble getting the phone to behave nicely with the twitter app I had. That’s fixed now, so I’m back ok. I feel a sort of instant repulsion to twitter. It seems though, that, for better or worse, this is the direction the world is moving – toward instant social expression –  and that it’s not a trend. So, I’m going to try to get in on it too – at least for a while (there’s really a lot to be said for peer pressure, if you’d never consider being a hermit). So, if you’re on, let me know and I’ll check you out.

Have you found Twitter to be worthwhile?

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Painfully funny…

I’m currently in the yellow. The tiny yellow, that is.