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As they took up arms and, in the phrase they commonly used to describe initiation into battle, went "to see the elephant," individual soldiers worried about their direct personal responsibility for the killing.
Compared to ideationally fractal animals like tigers, whose tigerness is evident all the way down to the fur, an elephant looks like an evolutionary garage sale of parts thrown together only to test the cognitive skills of the blind and parody the limited perspective and confident opinion with which we often greet the unfamiliar. I imagine that a live battlefield could also seem like a jumble of disconnected parts and restricted views, tied together only in retrospect by overwhelming terror and the abstractions of distant observers.
Still, "seeing the elephant" seems an odd way to describe going to war.
A more interesting (and likely) explanation is this joke, current in the decades before the Civil War, in which the elephant still represents the shock of the new, but now the impact is potentially fatal and your own heedless, thrill-seeking curiosity is ultimately to blame:
A New England tale tells of the farmer who had heard much of the unique appearance of the elephant, but had never seen one. He was told by a neighbor that the circus was expected in a nearby community and he swore he would attend. Setting out early on the following morning in his wagon, the farmer hoped to make the first performance. Upon reaching a crossroad several miles from home, where vision was obscured by a tall hedgerow, the farmer urged his horse into the intersection. At that same moment the circus train, led by the elephant, reached the crossroad from a different direction. The resulting collision smashed the wagon to splinters, killed the horse, and knocked the farmer unconscious. The circus train passed on as though nothing had happened. Awakening after several hours, the farmer surveyed the destruction and stated dryly, "Well, at least I've seen the elephant.
Lance Armstrong is lying, of course. What's interesting is that, like most people, he's doing it so poorly.
Paul Ekman has found that only 5% of us are good liars but "most people get away with the lies they tell because the people they're telling them to don't really want to know the truth." (The hysterical denunciations of Landis within the cycling world do not strongly bespeak the presence of inquiring minds.)
Anyone who has ever enjoyed the extended company of children will recognize the ontogeny of lying "tells", from first rudimentary attempts, hilariously betrayed by long pauses and overt eye rolling, to the more subtle involuntary grin and eye widening displayed by the pre-teen who thinks he's about to get away with it, all the way up to Armstrong's bluff, non-denials. This is the way we fail at lying in adolescence and probably still do as adults, largely because we are trying to deny and justify at the same time:
"I didn't do it. And if I did, it wasn't just me. Anyone who loves this sport/business/country as much as I do would never besmirch its name by accusing me of such things. Now, unlike some people, I don't want to waste your time with a bunch of he-said-she-said or confusing factual details that, in the end, won't clear up anything. Hell, I wish I knew what this was all about myself! I mean, you know me, right? We've been your hero for how long now? And this nobody, this bum, this schmuck is gonna tell us what's right and what's wrong? Well, we won't stand for it, will we?"
How many times have you heard this speech? It's obvious, isn't it? Isn't there a simple lexical analysis program that could scientize what we all know instinctively and make it acceptable to identify and red flag patterns of public speech the way we now do with spam filters? (Outliar. There, the name's done.) At least it would force us to become better liars.
Last week's local elections were "old-fashioned" according to De Volkskrant (in Dutch) because no campaign made significant use of new media. But even by old media standards, the marketing was very primal. The political parties were more concerned with defining themselves than engaging with issues or one another, but they were all auditioning for the same role: the down to earth everyman fed up with "those politicians" who speaks in simple, clarifying truths. Everyone was looking for the knockout phrase, the "You're no Jack Kennedy", which meant that the campaign often had the menacingly ironic tone of a Clint Eastwood movie.
The Socialists stated this laconic proof of social physics:
(You. Me. We. SP.)
Voters generally accepted the premise, but rejected the conclusion.
D66, like the UK's Liberal Democrats, have always defined themselves as "different" (i.e. in principled disagreement with whomever happens to be in office) Why waste words?
(Different. Yes. D66)
Labour triggered the collapse of the previous government when it broke with its center-right CDA partner over Afghanistan. Finally released from its tragic self-imposed banishment into power, the PvdA was born again as a characteristically evangelical duality of man/woman, lion/lamb, hard-on-terror/good-with-children Christ figure.
(Strong and social)
The CDA, as leader of the government, had to twist the hardest to kick itself in the ass and could only pound its tiny fists against pet peeves like parking fees:
(The car is not a milkcow. For lower parking tariffs.)
But the most primal campaign came from the right-of-CDA Liberal Party, the VVD. Both the messaging and the execution seemed to be the product of an awkward but earnest Junior Conservative Club contest conducted sometime in the late 1980s.
When I saw this, I thought, Bless. Can't you just see them with their bow ties and dental braces?
They had another street poster campaign that must have been concepted in Microsoft clip art (Hey, flustered businessman buried under government paperwork! Hang In There Baby!) and when I first saw the television ad, I congratulated myself for having the cultural insight to recognize what was clearly a parody of political advertising by one of those typically Dutch satirical cabaret acts. It's in Dutch, but you'll get the point: Gramma won't get to see the kids today because of, once again, those darn high parking fees, which seem to be some kind of conservative kryptonite.
But the most entertaining part of this old-fashioned campaign is actually online. Zwartboek Kraken could have been Harry Potter's reptilian nemesis and classmate or a New Jersey Superfund site/mob graveyard, but it chose instead to manifest as the VVD's manifesto against squatting. My favorite part is the very beginning:
Imagine: you decide to do some traveling via public transportation. Gas is expensive, you're concerned about the environment(!) and sick of traffic...You come back and find that people have been using your car for awhile...the baby seat looks like it was used for an ashtray and worse: some undefinable and fetid filth fills the place where your baby once found a warm, soft place on the backseat.
Now that is Ye Olde Style repressed sexual panic fear mongering the likes of which we haven't seen around here in many a season...many a season.
ne of interestingness' most attractive features is its non-judgmental character. Anything can be interesting, as long as someone thinks that it is. Interestingness does not discriminate against any subject or format. Billboards and novels get an equal hearing.
But behind its impassive mask of laissez-faire tolerance, interestingness does harbour some tastes of its own. It secretly connotates. When it turns its disinterested, denotating gaze upon itself, it generates an implicit personality and set of values more or less like those of Montaigne. His ghost is raised by reflection.
The Montaignesque spirit of interestingness is fundamentally conservative, based in a self-conscious awareness that any single perspective (most significantly, one's own) is drastically limited, which leads to the search for other perspectives. (Montaigne was a voraciously observant traveler.) How do other beings in other places with other minds see things? What attitude should we take towards a world that we are largely ignorant of? To care about those questions has implications for everything from politics to typography.
For example, interestingness likes fleurons: the squidgy little designs separating blocks of text in your fancier publications. A thoughtful deployment of fleurons is a good sign that the text will be interesting to those interested in interestingness. Fleurons are often used in the Ironic Victorian1 style, familiar from the work of San Francisco2 agencies from Goodby back to Riney and through the Gossage Timeflux to its pre-ironic, striving Victorian antecedents, pushing themselves forward in a cacophonony of type, charlatan illustration and folksy patter full of convincing, irrelevant detail.
But the noble fleuron can trace its lineage back even further, to the illuminated manuscripts of pre-Norman Britain, with their curiously florid yet laconic depictions of Biblical miracles and everyday peasant life, from Jerusulem to Norwich, all the elements of the known universe shrunk to fit precisely through the gaps and margins of the text.
That same dense weaving of words and imagery is mirrored in the distinctive, sonorous repetition-with-variation of Anglo-Saxon writing:
In the composition of Beowulf, scenes and episodes are similarly woven into a pattern of contrast and recapitulation so that the effect is of formal intricacy and immediacy rather than any linear development... The interlace structure has thus been defined as expressing the meaning of coincidence, the recurrence of human behaviour, and the circularity of time as the thread of words crosses and recrosses itself in endless weaves and knots...If it is indeed a vision of the world, it is one which has no beginning and no end...only the endless recapitulation of patterns and the constant interplay of opposing forces.
Peter Ackroyd then goes on to trace England's fondness for meandering patterns from runic symbols to Northumbrian foliated capitals through Sir Thomas Browne's preoccupation with "the making of mosaic patterns with fragments of knowledge," Robert Burton's "false learning and concocted quotations designed to confuse or tease the reader" and Blake's "tense abstraction". All follow the winding, sinuous serpentine that William Hogarth identified in 1753 as The Line of Beauty, a figure graved into the British landscape by countless ancient pathways and whose principles (fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy, greatness) overlap and interweave with those of interestingness.
Interestingness, like Old English verse, is "constantly calling attention to the remarkably wrought quality of the things of this world." Both gain strength through "compound force and internal alliteration."3 Medieval Anglo-Saxons saw the densely detailed and interwoven patterns of the world as proof that it was all made by God. But the direction of that logic can be reversed, to work up rather than point down, and to find in the appreciation of intricate pattern an escape from the blinkered perspective of a solitary self in a single cell and a temporary elevation to the clear and infinite view from which God once saw the universal pattern whole.
1. Other aspects of the Ironic Victorian style include woodcut illustration or typography, a dry sense of humor, a shared wink over the inherent insincerity of commercial communication, focus on the links between minutia and consequent tendency to meander like a bemused grampa and lots of footnotes. These features are also characteristic of Borges, Aspergers, The New Yorker, and the hysterical realist school of writing.
2. Also home of the architectural Ironic Victorian.
3. Inventing English, Seth Lerer. "Wrought," "Tense Abstraction" and "Hysterical Realist" could all serve as titles for an Aspergian manifesto, an art film biography of Borges, a coffee table book survey of 'zine culture, a media studies thesis devoted to the semiotics of Ian Curtis' suicide, or a Wire tribute album.
I am very sorry to hear of your loss. Not the loss of office, but the loss of stability that you are currently suffering. You should know that you are not alone. It may seem as though we are all just moving on as if nothing had happened. In fact, it probably seems as though many of us are rejoicing in the destruction, profiting from it, and maybe even causing it.
But we miss stability too. Really. I know I do. It used to be much simpler. It wasn't easy, but you knew where to apply your effort and had faith that with enough effort applied to eternal truths, fair and reliable results would be achieved.
Today it seems that effort has nothing to do with results, doesn't it? It looks as though people have forgotten about the value of effort altogether, as if no one wants to take responsibility, no one sticks to it, no one has loyalty. It looks as though a bunch of lazy, irresponsible looters have burst into the factory, destroyed all the machinery, had a party in the wreckage, and now wonder why the factory doesn't work any more.
But here's the thing. Looters didn't destroy the factory. The owners did. Not because they're especially greedy or shortsighted, but because they're just about as greedy and shortsighted as you and me. The factory was built to self-destruct when a certain set of variables reached a certain level. No one knew exactly what the levels were or when they were reached, but in retrospect, it seems they led to a rapidly accelerated rate of change which, as we know from chemistry, is just another way of saying BOOM.
Now, some people look at an explosion and say, "Shit. Look at all that stuff we had that just got blown up." Other people say, "Awesome. Think of what we can do with all that empty space." And a very few others think, "Excellent. I had the insurance policy on that." Then they all turn to each other and say, "Fuck you." But what we need, as with any great loss, is to grieve, retrieve and move on.
And here's the other thing. Your leaders have failed you. They are keeping you from taking the first step of grieving the loss of stability because they hold the insurance policy. And as long as you stay focused on denying your loss and pain and grief, that policy will pay and pay and pay. I'm not saying they're to blame. I'm just saying, they are interested in keeping you in an angry, blaming, crazy state. I say this as a friend: Snap out of it. We desperately need your help and you're not helping. This is not about blame, but the first move is all you. Look at the insanely contradictory, illogical things you're being asked to believe. You know that can't be right. But you won't be able to see it until you are willing to feel sad.
Believe it or not, I'm here for you. We don't share everything, but we do share a lot. Most importantly, we share this sense of loss and the place where it has happened, is happening, will continue to happen. It isn't going to stop. I know that your natural tendency is to conserve, but the thing you're trying to conserve is inherently unstable. You can't conserve small business and small government in a global, densely connected world. At least not the way things are currently set up. And you can't conserve economic freedom and religious uniformity. Their logic and consequences lead to deadlock because of those eternal, nice and not-so-nice truths about human beings that your older relatives were constantly going on about. They weren't wrong.
But your current leaders are not going to tell you that. And they're certainly not going to help you grieve so that you can shake your angry melancholia and see it for yourself.
C., this one is on you.
Yours in heartfelt sympathy,
Most Awesome Bad Movie Ever.
I have to agree with the Pope on this one. Though his concern over nature worship seems a bit overblown coming from an organization currently paying out billions after covering up and continuing to minimize truly shameful, hypocritical, exploitative behavior for centuries. Maybe if the mote in his eye were 3D, he would notice it.
You've probably heard by now that Up In The Air is a very good*, thoughtful movie starring George Clooney as a man who fires people for a living and who mostly enjoys the muffled and disconnected life afforded by a life of constant travel and frequent flyer benefits. You may have also heard that American Airlines and Hilton Hotels are all over the movie, but provided only production services rather than a product placement fee. In general, the public response to the tie-up is that both American and Hilton got a great deal. I'm not so sure.
The heart of the story (originally written long before the current downturn) is about individual isolation versus connection. And I appreciated that the benefits of isolation were not simply dismissed as neurotic, sad and destructive. (At least not initially. This is Hollywood, after all, not Sweden.)
But the wintery setting of mass layoffs conducted with bland, technological efficiency by companies constantly chirping "We Value Your Loyalty!" is obviously not irrelevant. And it's here that I wonder what the PR people were thinking. Each of Clooney's business trips is tattooed by quick portraits of laid-off workers responding to the news of their firing. Some are angry. Some are tearful. Most are simply stunned. (And these are for the most part not actors, but real people who were recently laid-off, recounting their exit interviews. Their performances are astonishing.)
And between each of these moments of despair, the thread along which they are strung, is the word AMERICAN in big red letters: on the planes, on the nametags of desk clerks programmed to greet Mr. Clooney with "personalized" Platinum Club attention and on the flight lounge posters that also say (of course) "We Value Your Loyalty!" when loyalty is the Holy Ghost of the movie, present by its overwhelming absence. These moments were made possible by American Airlines.
There are a number of other digs in the movie (as when Clooney, moonlighting as a motivational speaker says, "Whether you own just a studio apartment or a two-bedroom home..." Ouch. Even the AMERICAN dream has been downsized.) But again, it's nothing new to see movies taking a shot at big business. What's interesting is that American didn't see that they're part of the target in this one. Reebok sued when Jerry Maguire made them look soulless. But maybe that's the best airlines can hope for at this point.
*Though not everyone agrees. Here is an hilariously obtuse review from the conservative American Spectator.
I cannot imagine a better title than There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. Really, how could that not be interesting? The book leaped the synapse from shelf to hand with immediate, chemical certainty. And the stories inside live up to the title's promise.
Like Borges, Grimm and Chekov combined, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya compresses almost everything I like about art into morbid, hopeful, magical, bleak, gentle, ambiguous little fairy tales that catch the light of human character embedded in the grim slag of Soviet Russia. And while the stories are infused with Russian tone, history and specifics, the rock weight of suffering and alienation squeezing out scary sparks can be found everywhere.
I was looking for ways to fit in more gushing adjectives: exquisite, condensed, onyx, They-Might-Be-Giants-esque. But you get the idea.