Sunday, December 25, 2011
For a significant portion of my being an atheist, there was a dearth of leadership and guidance. I suppose before 2006, the only atheist "leader" I was aware of was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whom I never really liked for various reasons. "Coming out" as an atheist is a tricky thing in and of itself, and it's much harder when there's nobody to look to as an example. It's especially worse when you don't even know of any public atheists, and the feeling of being alone just multiplies.
Without any guidance, I'm sure I said some dumb things in this period when attempting to argue my position. Or, maybe I didn't even argue at all. Both are equally likely.
As I got older, my atheism got a little bolder, perhaps even to the point of being obnoxious (remember the lack of guidance thing). It wasn't until I was out of college that I was introduced to people like Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (and later, many others). Seeing atheists in public was amazing to me, and it provided a framework for how to think about atheism and how to behave in a proper way to represent atheists. They were the leaders that I was waiting for during my adolescence. But, that's not the point of this story.
I came to know Hitchens through his atheism first, and from that, came to admire him. To this day, I consider him to be a superb writer and even more skilled debater. However, the more I learned about him, the more I came to disagree with his politics. Specifically, his stance on the Iraq War.
Remember what I said earlier about knowing things and internalizing them? Well, everybody knows that people you admire aren't perfect, they make mistakes, and they can be right about one thing and completely wrong about another. However, it's one thing to know this, and other thing entirely to have experienced. Challenge yourself right now: Can you name a famous public figure who has at least one stance you can completely agree with and at least one stance that you find morally indefensible?
Hitchens, in nearly one fell swoop, provided a leader for me at the time when I needed one, and then immediately taught me how to scrutinize my leaders. I learned how to distrust those that I admire, and not follow them blindly or deify them. Again, this is a lesson that everyone knows, but rarely experiences. It's a lesson that I can't forget, and one that I'm grateful to apply all the time.
So, farewell Hitch. Thank you so much for teaching me. You were incredibly smart, uncommonly talented and superhumanly industrious, but not great.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
“We started because we had to,” explains Bryan Dyer, co-founder of Madiba Children’s Outreach. It’s a sentiment that has been shared by all the philanthropists and freedom fighters since the beginning of civilization, one that refuses the status quo and seeks something better. He continues telling me about his work with MCO, “We have a stubbornness to never give up.”
Bryan started his non-profit career in 2006, assisting charities during his travels throughout West Africa when help was needed. And, help was in fact needed. Far too often, Bryan witnessed what he refers to as “donor’s fatigue,” the malaise that sets in after years of struggling against an economic regime that refuses to fall. When so many are needy, it becomes far too easy to not put forth the energy needed to take care of so many people. While helping as many as he could, it was clear that another solution needed to be found. That’s when something more has to be done, to challenge the status quo and seek something better. “That’s when I started thinking about starting a charity,” Bryan says.
Nelson Mandela is a name known the world over. His was a struggle spanning generations, and one that seemed impossible to succeed. To topple an oppressive government, he spoke out, took up arms, become incarcerated, and lost years of his life. To the casual observer, the life of Mandela and the non-profit organization of MCO would have very little in common, but such is not the case. Like Mandela’s mission, there is no room for “fatigue” of any kind. In both cases, innocent lives and livelihoods are at stake. And, of course, both MCO and Mandela are facing an aggressive system designed to keep people down. In Mandela’s case, it was the indefensible, reprehensible apartheid regime. With MCO, it is the oppressive economic system that keeps so many in Ethiopia underfed and uneducated. Both of these systems are seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but, as Mandela himself put it, “It always seems impossible, until it is done.”
The situation in Ethiopia, where MCO is based, is indeed dire. “It’s kind of difficult for me to explain the life condition of people in this country,” writes Beruk Amare, co-founder of MCO and native Ethiopian, “I cannot say ‘poor’ because it’s way worse than that.” According to a study conducted by UNICEF, 38% of children under the age of five in Ethiopia are underfed, and well below half of all children finish primary school. Children being the most vulnerable members of society, require the most assistance when systems attempt to stymie their growth. It is here that stubbornness to help is most necessary.
During his first day in Ethiopia teaching English, Bryan went out to celebrate his arrival and found himself in Beruk’s bar. The two became fast friends while Bryan began to start a life in Ethiopia, and Beruk continued his business ventures. During this time, Lauren Slade, third and final co-founder of MCO, was working at a local private school and eventually made the acquaintance of Bryan and Beruk. Lauren had just finished working with the Peace Corps, and would later go on to an internship in India.
“I have always wanted to do something meaningful,” writes Beruk. “Something that makes sense.” At the beginning of 2011, Beruk found himself accompanying Bryan to visit children who had become victim of “donor’s fatigue”. “They were a lot skinnier,” says Bryan. On that trip, Bryan and Beruk provided food supplies and dropped several children off at school. “When I saw the children, I knew I wanted to participate,” writes Beruk. “It felt so right.” It was through a series of conversations between Bryan and Beruk began seriously discussing the possibility of bringing MCO to life.
Lauren was completing a graduate degree in Conflict and Development back in the United States while Bryan and Beruk were planning the nascent stages of MCO. In a conversation with Beruk, she heard about the plans to start a non-profit organization. “I really loved the idea of being part of a new, local, grassroots organization so I came back to Ethiopia,” she writes.
Of course, during this time of planning and preparing to help MCO take root, life was busy happening. On February 16th, 2011, Bryan and his wife Tg welcomed into the world their first child, a baby boy. It was decided that the charity would be named after Bryan’s newly born son. “I wanted him to feel a connection to a strong role model,” says Bryan, and for his son, chose the name Madiba, after the internationally famous freedom fighter and former head-of-state of South Africa – or, as he is more commonly known, Nelson Mandela.
“Starting a NGO, I knew was going to be really difficult, but weighing the benefits and thinking about the beneficiaries I knew it was a no-brainer,” explains Lauren. “I’m most proud of MCO and our child sponsorship program because I believe we look at our beneficiaries lives in a holistic approach. Meaning, even though we are considered an educational assistance program, I’m proud that we not only consider the obvious (school fees, uniforms, supplies) but also look at the other factors that make children’s lives more conducive to learning (food support and health care support).”
“MCO is about giving hope to children,” writes Beruk. “It’s about giving life. It’s about giving a responsible educated human resource for the country…I love my country. I was a soldier and fought a war for my country. Now, my country is fighting poverty. To contribute in producing skilled labor in this country makes me feel like I’m doing something.”
“We know what it’s like to struggle. We know what it’s like for NGO’s to start out,” says Bryan. “We founded MCO knowing how incredibly difficult it would be. We have optimism, and confidence that we know the challenges ahead of us. We have anticipated every obstacle, and we have strategies.”
The obstacles facing any nascent NGO are prodigious, to say the least. It requires the planning and knowledge that years of experience provide, the need to make the world a better place. It will take that stubbornness, that refusal to give in to fatigue. There are many obstacles, but they can be overcome. Or, as Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible, until…”
Monday, November 21, 2011
Also, it's about porn.
Let me back up. (HEYO!) Sometime this summer, I caught wind of the excellent series Women Vs. Tropes, from Anita Sarkeesian Feminist Frequency. To do a grave injustice by attempting to summarize the series, it dissects some common tropes (tropes are things which are not quite cliches, but pretty close) and discusses why they are detrimental to feminism and society's perception of women. Anyway, one of these videos (shown below) put me in a mental pickle:
If you didn't bother watching the video, (don't sweat it. I don't either) allow me to, one again, write a painfully short summary: the evil demon seductress is a female character, of supernatural origin, who uses sexuality to trick men, usually for nefarious purposes. Now, I agree that portraying women as using sexuality as a weapon, whether demon or otherwise, is a negative stereotype. However, in this video, I found myself noticing that a critical component was lacking in Anita's analysis. And that is, the evil demon seductress is fucking hot.
Now, when I say "the evil demon seductress is fucking hot," I don't mean like, "oh snap, Mystique has boobies." No. Well, yes, ok, she does have boobies, but that's not important right now. The evil demon seductress as a trope is an extremely sexy one. I have actually had conversations with my friends that have gone something like this:
"Do her. I don't care if she kills me."
And there's something to be said for that. You see, with many, maybe even all, of sexist tropes, there is an element of sexiness to them. That is the reason that they persist. Nobody is actively trying to show women in a negative or offensive light; That couldn't possibly be anyone's goal. No, instead, people are making their fantasies come to life, whether it be in movies, comics or books. It just so happens that when these fantasies dominate the media, it has a negative effect on the way we see real, non-vampire women.
To put this another way, let's say I have a son, and this son is kept in isolation from any media until he's sixteen years old, when I release him from his cage and out into the world. So hypothetical son comes across a history book and sees an image from America's segregation period (the official one that supposedly ended in the 60s)
"Hey Dad, what's going on here?"
"Well Spider-Man [my hypothetical son's name is Spider-Man, btw,] some people think that just because someone's skin color is different, it makes them less of a person, or more inclined to play basketball."
I think he would hear that explanation, find it reasonable, and agree that this type of behavior should not be repeated. But if he came across an image like this one:
I'd imagine it would be a little bit harder to talk him out of enjoying that one.
"Hey Dad, what's going on here?"
"Well Spider-Man, some people think that just because someone's genitalia is different, it makes them less of a person, and more like an faceless object."
I think he would find that explanation very unreasonable and the above image to be totally rad, or whatever the fuck future children are saying thoseadays. And here's the thing, deep down, I have to agree with him, that picture is totally rad and I wish I could just get a woman's phone number without any effort on my part.
But, here's the thing, even though something would be enjoyable for me, it's not exactly moral to treat people like that. What if a had a slave? Sure, that would make life a bit easier for me, but jesus christ, at what cost? It's inconceivable to find a way to justify behavior like that. So no, things that are enjoyable for one person at the cost of another are most assuredly indefensible.
But then, if I realize that the image that I'm viewing is sexist, and if I tell myself that real women are not objects, and if I know that treating other people like objects is morally wrong, then what's the problem? Can I not enjoy images such as the one above as an individual? Well, let's talk about trust.
Say for example I told a racist joke in front of 100 people, ranging from those that know me very well to those that don't know me at all. Those that know me very well (the three people that read this blog) will still believe that I'm not racist. Further down the list, people will start saying, "Oh that Warzala character is quite the cutup, I'm sure he telling another one of his dickish jokes I've heard so much about." Further down, people start to question how well they know me, and whether or not I'm racist. The people that don't know me at all will assume I'm racist, while meanwhile, Person Zero, me, will be the most resolute in believing that I am not a racist. I can say to myself that I'm just trying and failing at being funny again, and that I'm not actually a racist. Since the only two people inside my head are the government and me, I'll believe the most firmly in my non-racism. But am I right?
Compare the mental exercise of the racist joke with the act of seeking out and watching pornography, the ultimate in objectifying women. Now, if I watch pornography, I can tell myself that I'm not actually sexist, and that I know that this is for pure enjoyment, and I won't let it change the way I view real women. But is it true? Can it possibly be true?
Because here's the thing, I don't trust you. If instead of being the one telling the racist joke or watching porn, I was the one in the audience, how well would I judge somebody else? The answer of course being: exactly the same as they would trust me, which is not much. Eventually, I have to come to the conclusion that perhaps I can't trust myself as much as I thought. Maybe even though I want to believe that I'm not racist, I might be after all, since I tell such jokes. Maybe even though I want to believe that I never objectify women, that I still treat women like real people while still enjoying objectifying images, that I'm still effected by it after all. Chances seem to be much greater that I'm lying to myself than that I'm somehow above media programming.
So, as of last Saturday, I am off the P. And not only that, but any images that might treat a person like an object. This will not be easy, especially since I haven't stopped actually enjoying any of that and I don't think it makes me sexist, but there's a very good chance that I'm wrong. However, in the end, one must do what is morally right over what is enjoyable.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
Let me loll you into a false sense of hope by talking about the good. First thing that comes to mind is seeing Freida Pinta pretty naked. It's next to impossible to ignore the fact that this is a good thing. If you would have whispered in my ear while I was watching Slumdog Millionaire that I would someday see this woman in the buff, I would have done a choreographed group dance. (Get it? Bollywood joke.) However, now that I'm thinking about the naked scene, even that kinda sucked. It was a passionless, awkward moment, like the producer took the final draft of the script and wrote in a red felt-tip pen: "There should be ass and (.)(.) here." If you still don't believe that this is the worst movie ever, take this as your cardinal piece of evidence: It makes beautiful naked women boring somehow.
The biggest obstacle for most people to enjoying this movie will lie in the script. If I'm a good mood, I'll suggest that this movie went through several different drafts, by several different writers, each of them with a specific goal or aim in mind with this movie that got intertwined with all the other goals until it made no sense whatsoever. In an action movie, the script is usually no more important than being the method of propulsion from one scene to the next, so that standard is already pretty low. Here though, the script is actively trying not to make sense.
For one, the two main characters find themselves not only on physically opposing forces (which is fine) but philosophical forces at well. That is, the bad guy thinks that a physical legacy is most important (namely, siring many children), while the good guy argues that one's good deeds is most important. For his victory, the good guy is rewarded with...a child. I'm not stretching this in any way, no sir. The voiceover even informs us that for all his fighting, he's granted a child, the exact thing that was a saying didn't matter not five minutes before. This is like if Drago got beaten, and then everyone in America decided communism is pretty cool.
And another thing, I have no idea what the bad guy was actually doing this entire movie, or what the hell he wanted. Alright, so he talks a lot about making a lot of babies to carry on his legacy or whatever, and he does that. He procures a bow that can shoot an unlimited amount of magic, exploding arrows, but I don't think he actually cares, since he shoots it all of three times in the entire movie. Hey dude, do you want to conquer all of Greece? See your enemies hiding in the mountain? Shoot your magic bow, not once, not twice, not even three times, but forever. Give your army the day off and just shoot things until you're bored. Then plant your seed in some wombs and go shoot some more.
Characters come and go in this movie and I have no idea why anybody would care. I suppose one of the main selling points for this movie is seeing the gods fight, and you do, but they're never actually introduced or display any godlike power other than being able to do 300-style speed changes and punching through somebody's face until it explodes. Not only are the gods excruciatingly dull, they are actively sitting out for most of the movie, because of a law that says gods can't interfere with human affairs. If you have read any Greek myths at all, you will immediately recognize that as being a made-up law, since fucking with people is just about all the gods do. Not only is this non-plot-moving anti-mucguffin boring, but it proves to be a poor strategy, since the gods pretty much lose in the end, when they could have won before the opening credits stopped rolling. See what I mean about this script actively trying to suck?
And the humans, oh sweet christ the humans. Somehow this stupid species manages to do less than the gods. The female lead was put there pretty much just to get naked. The male lead contributes, in descending order of importance: a stirring speech, chilling with John Hurt, not wearing a shirt. Other characters do less and die quicker.
The real moment when I went from just being bored to actively hating this movie was when the...senator? king? I don't even know who the fuck he is or what he does...started talking. The movie does just about everything in its power to make you hate this guy, even though he's the only logical dude in the whole country. See, he has this wacky idea to try and solve problems diplomatically, like a stupid asshole, when the hero, a real man's man, runs up and tells him that the bad guy can use magic, so we should fight him. Then, this stupid asshole doesn't believe the random guy that claims the enemies shoot magic bombs, when really he should be KICKING SOME ASS CUZ THAT'S WHAT YOU DO, YOU PUSSY.
So then he gets killed, twenty minutes of face-exploding happens, and basically nothing you care about happens. The hero gets a son, which is not that impressive considering that most high school freshmen have already done that, and I guess we're supposed to count that as a win? Here's a quick test: Do you like movies where people blow up other people with their hands? Well then borrow your mom's car and go see this movie.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
To be honest, and painfully accurate, there are many good reasons to be embarrassed for and of comic books. However, I have to start with what I would hope is the most obvious, and the most painful for me to witness, which is the costumes. Exhibit A:
This is Cyclops. And not only is this Cyclops, but this is Cyclops at the height of whatever cool-looking phases he might've gone through, drawn by Jim Lee, widely regarded as being one of, if not the very best artists working today. Personally, I think this costume is his best one, with the shoulder straps and excessive belts, but it's still pretty stupid. There's just no getting around that. Try as I might, I can't force my brain to think that wearing spandex to the middle of a fight is anything but weird. However, this isn't even what I wanted to talk about. The real problem is in Exhibit B:
This is Witchblade. I never really read Witchblade, but she got me through some awkward years. (I won't say which ones.) Now, I have a problem with Cyclops and his yellow undies, but sexist drivel like this is pretty much a deal-breaker for me. Books could be written on this subject, and unfortunately, it won't be me, or at least it won't be me right now. Needless to say, if someone caught me looking at a comic with the Jim Lee Cyclops in it, I would be a little shy about it. If someone caught me looking at Witchblade, I would feel downright shame. And rightfully so, for that matter.
However, as is the common theme among superheroes, that which can be used for evil can also be used for good. For every blatantly puerile depiction of woman, there is a Storm. Just for reference, when Witchblade looked like that, Storm was being drawn like this:
Why yes, that is a full-body suit on a superheroine. While I was growing up, I was reading about women who were more mature than I will ever be. (Poop!) Not only mature, but fully-developed and rounded characters who were sexually active in ways real women are. Jean Grey was of course married to Cyclops at this time. (She also wore a full-body suit.) Rogue was involved in a long-term sexual tension relationship with Gambit, and was not at all shy about admitting that she wanted to be touched, like a real person would. (Guess what she wore? Full-body suit with a jacket over it.)
These days, I'm pissed as hell whenever I see the White Queen on the page. (If you saw X-Men: First Class, you'll probably understand why.) However, Storm is still there, telling Cyclops that he sounds like a goddamn asshole, or Magneto that he sounds like an egomaniac, or reminding everyone that violence has consequences. Not only is Storm not a piece of eye candy, but she's the wisest, most level-headed member of the team.
Again, books could easily be written on this subject, and sadly I have to gloss over these points. However, Storm's character leads me into a strong point on superhero comics: Superheroes provide good role models, in a weird, but not uncommon way.
You may think I'm an idiot for thinking that a fictional character in a medium largely associated with adolescents would be a good role model. The truth is, we use fictional characters as role models all the time. Probably the most common example is Jack Sparrow. After Pirates came out, I imagine that everyone who saw that movie spoke a little smoother or tried to sound a bit more witty and aloof. And I can promise you that you know somebody who went through a phase of saying "savvy?" for no good fucking reason.
The panel of Storm I posted above is a good example of using a fictional character as a role model. In case you can't read it, she is saying, "I don't believe in violence." That's wild. Storm's character is capable of creating a tornado inside your ass until you are dead. The ways that she could kill a person are endless, and even in a world where people shoot lasers from their eyeballs, she's pretty powerful. She could do whatever the hell she wanted but she doesn't. She could easily get whatever she wanted, but she doesn't. She doesn't believe in violence. By virtue of being an adult male in my 20s, I'm stronger than half the people I will see on any given day, and I'm lowballing that number (or maybe not, because I'm a nerd that reads comics and therefore allergic to exercise.) Just like Storm, I don't go around kicking people's asses just to get what I want. I don't believe in violence. I can't say specifically that I learned this lesson from Storm, or even comics in general, but I can certainly say that I never learned it from any professional wrestler, boxer, MMA fighter, veteran, military personnel, or head of state. So, yes, fictional role models do exist.
As I sit here, so many examples come to mind. Spider-Man teaches us that it's much better to be smart than strong, and that we all have the power to help. Captain America, especially in recent years when we need it the most, teaches us that love of country does not mean total obedience. Professor Xavier teaches us an almost Sisyphean idealism. I believe all of these lessons are both important and painfully absent in American society today.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
A fact that even an amateur linguist knows is that language is a descriptive exercise, not a perscriptive one. That is, if we all woke up one morning and decided to start calling coffee "tea" instead, that wouldn't be "wrong" in any sense of the word. Granted, the dictionaries in our bookshelves wouldn't match our spoken language, but words are what we make them. Contemplating the old, rarely-used word in my blog title is an activity that yields fun results. Depending on what's happening in my life at any given moment, the word has a different meaning for me. If you look up "peripatetic" in the dictionary, you'll see that it refers to wandering about or walking, and when I first changed the title from "The Unbidden Pen" to "The Peripatetic", that was similar to the meaning I had in mind, being the type of person who tends to travel a lot. (In my adult life, I've yet to live 13 months in the same location.) The word is a direct reference to Aristotle's Peripatetic school, and the style of teaching he employed, which supposedly was to walk and talk. Because of this, I began to think a little bit differently about being a "peripatetic". If Aristotle was teaching while traveling, that must mean his students were learning through travel, throughout travel. And furthermore, what does that word "travel" mean, anyway? Not to get overly metaphysical here, but when we study science, aren't we "traveling" through this world, discovering its secrets? (These latest meanings can be reflected in the most recent blog posts, which have a decisively different tone and goal than my earliest writings.) Lately, however, I've stumbled across another meaning that fits.
The story goes that the great mathematician and cool dude Archimedes was approached by a king with a metal problem. You see, the king had recently asked a blacksmith to create a crown of pure gold for him, supplying the gold for said venture himself. The blacksmith made the crown, which was definitely a gold color, and presented it to the king. Exercising a curious degree of prudence for a man who wears custom-made gold hats, the king then wished to know if the crown was indeed pure gold, or if the blacksmith had snatched some of the king's gold for himself and replaced it with a lesser metal, like adamantium. He approached Archimedes with the aforementioned metal problem.
The problem lied in the king's stupid head, which was not a perfect rectangle or square, but instead a goddamned spheroid. See, if you have a block of metal, you can measure the volume, and then weigh it. If it weighs like gold should, well then congratulations, you're a Greek scholar and you got gold. If not, well then somebody better get to executing that blacksmith. But the crown, being a crown, was not a square or a rectangle, and the goofy shape of it made it hard to determine the volume, so nobody had any idea what it should weigh.
In my head, Archimedes is approached with this problem and promptly stumped by it, for days, at least. Maybe that's the way it was told to me, maybe I just like the story better that way, maybe it's because the problem can only be thought its way out of itself. Regardless, Archimedes is trumped by what seems to be a pretty simple problem: How big is this thing that I'm holding in my hands? Dejected, tired, and beaten by a stupid yellow hat, Archimedes shuts his brain off for a while, and draws a bath. His mind goes peripatetic.
While sitting down in his bath, Archie notices that the water rises upon contact with his wrinkly old ass and grandpa balls, and he suddenly realizes that the volume of water that has just risen is equal to the volume of his disgusting body dipped in the tub. According to legend, he jumped out of the tub and ran naked through the streets yelling, "Eureka!" Greek for "I found it!" (The historical scholars I've talked to about this inform me that there is no evidence of Archimedes first using the bathtub water to measure the volume of his genitals, but I remain convinced of his fact.) The crown was then measured in terms of displaced water. The volume discovered, the crown could now be accurately weighed, and it was found to contain traces of silver.
And that's the power of daydreaming. One of the smartest human beings alive, while setting his mind to something, couldn't handle this relatively simple problem, but yet when his mind starts wandering, great things happen. I have this weird habit of taking time out in my day just to think. Sometimes I attempt to cover it up with other stuff (listening to music, taking the bus) or sometimes I'm pretty blatant (strange) about it, like when I pace in my apartment, or find myself staring out the window. (I don't have a lot of friends.)
I've had a lot of good thoughts during these times, and sadly, did not share them. And that's where my new, concurrent definition of "peripatetic" comes in: learning through the wandering mind. There is a certain elegance to working through one's own cognitive dissonance, and others can learn from that as well. Although I work hard to continue learning and strive to, at the very least, always be accurate in what I say, I think I carry far more weight as a daydreamer. I hope my mental wanderings converted into text can help nudge a few people into figuring things out for themselves. Thanks for reading.