American Sniper, Groupthink, and Freedom From the Tribe

I remember when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out and there was a lot of controversy.  I felt like I had to see it, because it was a big part of the conversation of the country at the time.  I also didn’t want anyone to make up my mind for me. I wanted to be able to decide for myself if it was good or not.  When something takes off there is usually some kind of hive mind that takes over the better senses of a lot of people.  I didn’t like it.  Not because of the violence.  Mel Gibson’s equally violent Apocalypto is one of my favorite films.  I didn’t feel the film was anti-Semitic, as I felt like Gibson was using the crowd, although Jewish in the film, as a wider judgment of people in general.  I also didn’t mind seeing a religious film, even though I’m not religious.  I felt like in dwelling on the death of Jesus and how horribly he was tortured, the general message of Jesus, to love one another, was lost.  There is probably some poor soul in a third world shithole right now this minute that is being barbarized. There is nothing ennobling or unique about cruelty.

Right now American Sniper is taking off in box offices around the country.  The film could be great or it could be terrible.  I have no idea, not having seen it.  I remember there were many on the left, and my politics are left, that were up in arms about Zero Dark Thirty.  I wanted to see it to understand its place in the conversation and to see if there was validity to the claim that it was a pro-torture film.  Maybe I need to see it again, but I didn’t view that movie as pro-torture for reasons that would be too long to go into here.  (And I am one that definitely thinks that it was a disgrace that we tortured people and that torture is a warcrime.)

At some point I’ll see American Sniper and make up my own mind about it.  Even though I know Clint Eastwood is a moderate Republican, I also know that the movies he directs usually have a degree of complexity to them.  He doesn’t strike me as a propagandist.  If I have any problem with what is going on, which isn’t with the movie itself having not seen it, it is the idea that one can’t be critical of soldiers.  Soldiers are just people, same as all of us, and are capable of good and evil and everything in between.  Just because someone signs up for the armed forces doesn’t make them immune to criticism until the end of time.  This sounds like common sense to me, but reading certain comments in the press makes me think that is not so for everyone.  That being said soldiers should be judged differently.  In civilian life killing someone would be murder.  In war, it is part of the job description.  Therefore, what matters is not the act, but the manner and way in which those killings were carried out.  Were innocent people killed?  If so, was it on purpose or a legitimate accident in the fog of war?  Anyone that has read the slightest amount of history or seen any number of war movies knows this.  I would bet any amount of money that most soldiers would tell you the same thing.  So why is it that so many view a criticism of one soldier as an attack on all soldiers?  It’s a tribal thing.  And if freedom means anything it means freedom from the tribe.  Freedom from the kind of group think that is common in more primitive societies.

Authenticity and Doubt

Although I have been slacking off lately, I read a lot.  If there is anything that I have learned through learning, it is that there is so much I don’t know.  It’s unbelievable the amount of stuff that I see or hear about on a daily basis that makes me think to myself, “Jeez, I don’t know much about that do I?”  The world is an infinitely complex place.  At any one time there is more that we don’t know than we do know.  That’s why I respect people that are unafraid of doubt.  I also respect people that are authentic.  The two things go hand in hand really.

When I write here I try to be as authentic as possible to what I’m feeling in the moment.  However, don’t confuse being authentic with being right.  I try to “tell it like it is”, but there are times when I am acting on incomplete information, and other times when I just might be out and out wrong.  However, in trying to be authentic I believe there is value for the thinking person.  If you read enough of what I write, if you know my background, my biases, and so on, you can use what I write as a measuring stick against what you have read, and what other sources are out there.  It is only by comparing and contrasting many different things that we can even hope to get at the truth of a matter.  Everyone’s knowledge is incomplete.  However, for even this to succeed you need to hope that your multiple sources are authentic, in that they are at least trying to get as close to the truth as possible.  Someone that is trying to spin something or sell you on something is of no value whatsoever.  You see these kind of people all the time in the media.  If someone loves everything Obama has done or hates everything he has done, you can pretty much guess that they are not to be trusted, as an example.

Someone that I used to like to watch on TV, that I rarely agreed with, was Pat Buchanan.  Now I’m not vouching for his career in politics, but only on how he came across a couple years ago on MSNBC when I used to have cable.  (Although surprisingly he was friends with Hunter Thompson, who was a great bullshit detector.)  I couldn’t be more different in political thinking than him most of the time, but he seemed authentic.  He had enough sand to admit when he felt his own side was wrong.  You couldn’t necessarily predict his opinion just because he was on the right.  He seemed to be thinking through each issue as it came in front of him, instead of arriving at a preordained belief that was the result of groupthink.  Meanwhile when you watch a lot of political pundits you can pretty much guess where they are coming down on something, and you have no sense of what they really believe.  You can’t intellectually work with that.  Someone might as well be blowing fart noises in your ear.

I think if you want to figure out what is going on out there you shouldn’t look for people that just toe the line of what you believe, unless they seemingly get there by thinking through each issue.  But you should also try to read or watch or listen to people that have different beliefs as long as they are being authentic.  If they come from someplace true you can measure comments that they make against what they have said in the past.  And anyone honest knows that there are times they don’t know what the fuck is going on.  If someone can’t admit to having feelings of doubt at times, then don’t trust them.  Not for a minute.

Corporate Education

Chomsky On the Big Business and Universities

I will shamefully admit to having never read anything by Chomsky other than the above article.  I know that he is a polarizing figure.  I think the above article is very interesting and insightful.  It is about how the universities are being run more and more like corporations and how that is adversely affecting education in this country for the worst.

Key quote:  That ought to be the purpose of education. It’s not to pour information into somebody’s head which will then leak out but to enable them to become creative, independent people who can find excitement in discovery and creation and creativity at whatever level or in whatever domain their interests carry them.

When I went back to school over a year ago I remember feeling deeply disappointed in the education I was receiving, despite the fact that I was technically going to a better school than the one where I got my first degree.  It seemed much more worker bee oriented.  The first time I went to school, in the late 90’s, I was young and naive and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I did not make the most of my education.  This time around I thought it would be different because I have developed a true love of reading and learning.  I expected heady discussions and challenging ideas.  For the most part I found group work, silly projects, and peer to peer learning, instead of being pushed to think and question things by professors. This is not true across the board, but it seemed to be more the case than not.  I spoke a lot with my girlfriend about having a similar experience in the same timeframe.  My mom was a grade school teacher and my Dad is a college professor.  We constantly talk about how education is moving further and further away from critical thinking.  Critical thinking seems to be low in this country in general.  In a democracy having a population that can critically think is the most important thing to having a government that works on behalf of the populace and not just for those in power.  If you feel troubled by the events unfolding in the world, but can’t quite put your finger on it, my first response would be to start going to the library.