Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Enrique’s Journey: A trip into an ethical dilemma

Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey is an intriguing tale. Nazario is an effective writer, clear and readable. More importantly, she is an outstanding storyteller. Enrique’s Journey is the common book for Henderson State University this year, and I must say that it is far superior to the last two, although both of those received at least as much (if not more) national and international press. Nazario is a Pulitzer Prize winner and perhaps quite deserving.

I had the privilege of listening to Nazario speak recently. She spoke briefly about the book and some of the difficulties that presented themselves both in the research and the writing. I would be the first to stand up and say that she is one of the braver people I have ever met. Further, she raises to national and international consciousness several issues surrounding the amazingly inconsistent policies and often cruel realities of illegal immigration. I won’t address those here – rather, I commend to you the book itself. I will say that Nazario presents a much more balanced assessment of public policy than I would and a much more centrist view of the problems of illegal immigration and illegal immigrants than I hold. Again and again, I found myself left of the author’s view.

However, one issue that I must address here (to a much more limited audience than Nazario has and had). The issue is one that has faced many in the media. One of the most poignant and powerful cases was that of a photographer in Vietnam and his picture of the girl running toward him, burning with napalm. He received many angry comments asking why he took a picture rather than helping. His response, it seems to me, was right – he saw her coming, took the picture in an instant (almost an autonomic response), dropped the camera and helped her. But, the phenomenon gets to the point. What is the role of an observer?

Here is Nazario’s view as presented to us. In one case, she was doing a story on drug use and abuse and was profiling and interviewing a crack-addicted mother of a nine-month old girl. On a couple of occasions (at least), she witnessed the mother leave the little girl alone in her dilapidated home to go out and score more crack and then, having gotten it, get high and pass out. No other adults or older children were in the home. She didn’t call Human Services or the police because it would have changed the story that she was witnessing and then she wouldn’t have been able to write it.

With Enrique, there were times when she didn’t involve herself in what was happening – for example, he needed to make a phone call and couldn’t come up with the 50 cents for a calling card. Meanwhile she had her cell phone in her pocket. She didn’t offer it to him because she would have involved herself in the story and thus been unable to write it.

One of the students asked a very good question. He said, now that the book is out, have you gone back and helped some of those people you would have liked to have helped but didn’t because of involvement in the story? She said that she hadn’t really, but that when HBO approached her for the rights to the story and when Lifetime had offered to pay her to be a consultant, she had said that some of the money should go to Enrique and his mother. However, while she is in regular contact with them, she hasn’t aided them with money or the like because she may want to write another book.

Here’s my dilemma. I hear this sort of thing from news people a lot. But, let’s misuse the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (or properly use the Observational Interference Principle [yes, there are Prime Directive concerns here too, for my Star Trek fans]). The fact of observation changes that which is observed. This is true in the physical sciences, oddly enough. It is inescapably true in the social sciences. The very fact that Nazario was present changed Enrique’s story. So, it seems to me that the claim that helping out (maybe not with the calling card, but definitely with the nine-month old) would alter the story is spurious because the mere fact of observing altered the story. Further, it’s not that the people being observed didn’t know they were being observed. They did. Hence, the “non-interference” was causal of even more issues. Here, the cell phone issue becomes problematic. Enrique, knowing that she has the cell phone, also knows that she refuses to help. This cannot help but affect the relationship and the interviews and the like. So, I suppose what I’m going on about here is that the notion of non-interference is a figleaf that ultimately fails rather miserably.

Do my colleagues and friends have justifications for “non-interference” that I’m missing?

A Case of Business "Ethics"

So, friends and neighbors, let me pose for you a question. Please respond, if you desire, in the manner required by my Organic Chemistry professor, Dr. Robert Schmidgall. Years and years ago, he required that we write essays about balancing equations “in illuminating detail.”

A man has a Personal Investment Plan portfolio as part of a 401(k). The method for receiving distributions from this PIP is to fill out the required paperwork and wait 5-10 business days. One day, the man gathers the paperwork (it’s all sent to him, after all), fills it out, places it in an envelope, addresses the envelope, and sends it on its way. The materials arrive and the investment managers remove the paperwork and manage to fail to scan all of the documents into their system. The policy in the event of an incomplete distribution request (and let us assume for the sake of argument that there are 8 pieces of paper in such a request) is to notify the person requesting the distribution by phone or email immediately. Now, add this to the mix. The request is incomplete because one of the eight pieces of paper is not on file. All were sent, but one has gone missing. Thus, it is incomplete. Let us assume that the sender made a mistake and only sent seven pieces of paper. Still, it would be incomplete. So, whether the error was at the sender level or at the manager level, the file is incomplete. Thus, the policy kicks in and the sender should be contacted immediately by phone or email. Time passes……

Time passes…...

Time passes……

Two months pass. The man calls the managers’ offices and asks for an update. He is told the file is incomplete. He receives an email with the paperwork to be filled out attached. He fills it out (and, just so that we have some numbers to play with, let’s assume that the figure is $15,000). He faxes it in immediately (indeed, the same day). Time passes…..

Time passes…….

Twelve days after the call, he notes that the distribution has been made. For $11k. He calls back. The very nice person on the line takes the story and looks at the file. The phone worker at the managers’ offices then becomes very apologetic because the policy doesn’t appear to have been followed. He connects the man with his team leader. She is very nice and is even more apologetic and promises that it will never happen again. This is obvious as the distribution has cleared the account and so will never happen again. The man asks if there is something that might be done about the error to make it right. He gets the following story.

We are very sorry for the error, but there is no way we could rectify it. It really is our mistake and we made a very bad error and we are very sorry, but we can’t fix it. The markets are volatile and we couldn’t go back and figure out how we could change the error so we will try to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Now, friends. Responses?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Top Twenty List - Western Philosophers Division

Let the controversy begin… (Okay, so it isn't "Gentlemen! Start your engines." But, it's the best I've got.)
So, okay, here goes. A Top 20 Western Philosophers. In 4-part harmony. With 8 x 10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, to be used as evidence against us….

Let's start with the criteria. In the earlier email, I used "influence" as the primary (read, "only") criterion. However, I've rethought that a bit and changed it up. There are now four.

1. Influence on Western Thought subsequent to his/her contribution. (It would be quite hard to measure influence prior to his/her contribution, yes? Or maybe not. It should be "zero," right? Though, not according to one of my students some years ago who, in response to the question, "What is the Socratic Problem?" said, "Socrates's problem is that he asks too many questions. If he had just accepted Jesus, he wouldn't have had so many questions." For those curious as to the oddity here, check a timeline….)

2. Making/marking a significant shift in philosophical world view – e.g., marking the shift between Ancient/Classical philosophy and Medieval philosophy (e.g., Augustine).

3. Ranking shall not be limited to those known strictly as philosophers (thus, Darwin gets a hearing). For a pretty good place to find a list of potentials, see www.epistemelinks.com. All of those suggested here are found there, too.

4. Left a body of work (this rules out Socrates, for example. And, Jesus, for those presidents who might be interested in philosophical matters… hahahahahaha)

Here's the list.

1. Plato ('nuff said)
2. Aristotle (yes, I know there is much debate here, but I'm leaving like this. Here's the thing… Without Plato, Aristotle is a half-rate collector of flora and fauna.)
3. David Hume (As Roman pointed out in an earlier blog, without Hume, Kant is adrift in a sea of dogmatic slumbering)
4. Immanuel Kant (which doesn't mean that he isn't absolutely and fundamentally important. Indeed, no philosopher since Kant can well make his/her way in the world without responding to Kant.)
5. St. Augustine (This is a bit of a promotion for him, however it is made in light of both of the first criteria. It is hard to argue that Augustine [Plato in drag] isn't the first philosopher of the medieval period – indeed, he is the philosophical tipping point from the classical period into the medieval.)
6. St. Thomas (Aristotle in drag and author of one of the most dizzyingly complex works in philosophy, Thomas is the medieval bookend to Augustine. And, as a Dominican [they who gave us the Inquisition, it is perhaps wise not to demote him further…])
7. Karl Marx (aka, he who makes Hegel something other than a minor footnote in philosophical history. And, as the underpinning of the spectre haunting Europe, I must agree with Roman here, too, and elevate the Karl)
8. Rene Descartes (There was some consternation at the lower ranking of Descartes. As Father of Modern Philosophy, he clearly makes and marks a significant change in the progression of thought. However, much of Modern philosophy is a diversion into a blind and stagnant channel – as the diversion into that channel, Descartes, despite my great affection for him, falls here.)
9. Marcus Aurelius (I still think that Aurelius is the preeminent representative of the Stoic school – especially since Mr. Spock isn't available.)
10. Leibniz (another entry from the Modern period, but Leibniz's contributions to mathematics, science, and philosophy of religion commend him to this place. The immense body of work left by this important philosopher is so vast that it has yet to be catalogued.)
11. John Locke (again, Locke's contributions to political theory [Thomas Jefferson, you get an "F" for plagiarism] and psychology [Blank Slate?!? Really?!?] commend him to this level. Actually, the blank slate bit probably should drop him a touch.)
[James - thanks for noticing the typo]
12. Freud (makes the list because of the influence criterion along with the third – not necessarily known as a philosopher. The thing is, in terms of critical theory, philosophy of mind, and calling the fundamental assumptions about sex and sexuality into question, Freud is definitely deserving. Okay, he was a very poor scientist, but how about this – a rationalist pshrink…)
13. Whitehead (influence far beyond philosophy, gentlemanly but devastating critiques of the Vienna Circle, utilitarianism, and Wittgenstein along with his profound influence on Einstein and the establishment of a framework for comparative philosophy/religion between East and West)
14. John Stuart Mill (Many might put Mill higher - after all, he "strode like a Colossus through the 19th century." Here's the thing - he's not even the best utilitarian of the 19th century - Sidgwick is the far greater utilitarian. Further, Whitehead killed Millian utilitarianism deader than a hammer. Mill's other contributions - The Subjection of Women, On Liberty - keep him in the top 20, but only barely.
15. Kierkegaard (The existentialist representative. Nietzsche doesn't make the list. Sorry, guys. Kierkegaard does some interesting stuff – although, the argument that he's not really even a true existentialist with the "utter dependence/absolute dependence on God" move, but at least he's not a derivative egoist who regularly violates the law of non-contradiction, Mr. Nietzsche.)
16. Epicurus (the hedonist without which we don't get Bentham or Mill)
17. Thomas Reid (with a bullet. The Scot is getting more and more good reviews – and, the thing is, they are completely deserved. Often overshadowed by Hume, Reid may be the most influential philosopher with respect to the Anglo-American developments in philosophy in the 19th and 20th century – particularly, the development of pragmatism)
18. William James (Reid advances beyond James, but James is gaining more and more status in my eyes. "The Will to Believe" has always gotten great reviews. His influence on psychology and philosophy of religion is unquestioned. He's ahead of Russell because he at least recognizes that ethics is part of philosophy.)
19. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (dropping down the list on my view. In fact, not sure he still belongs this high.)
20. Thomas Hobbes (Hobbes may well be the first Modern philosopher, although Descartes keeps the "Father" title. Hobbes has to be higher than Nietzsche – heck, so does Thrasymachus)
21. Michel Montaigne (Only here for two reasons. First, his version of the skeptical challenge can be argued to be THE turning point that marks the move from the Medieval to Modern philosophy. It is possible that he is the Father of Modern Philosophy. Further, his unquestioned influence on Shakespeare is worthy of mention.
Honorable Mention
Simone de Beauvoir
Jean-Paul Sartre
Isaiah Berlin
John Rawls

Top Ten List - World Philosophy Division

How about a list blog? A question by a student in American Philosophy led me to contemplate an impossible question. What are the top ten Philosophers of all time? Actually, there are all manner of questions and the topic is fraught with peril. And, it's a pretty meaningless question anyway. So, that's a pretty good reason to ask it. :)

Problems. What are the criteria for such a judgment? Influence? Obstacles overcome? The degree to which the philosopher gets it (what's "it"?) right?
The question wasn't actually about the top ten. Rather, it was whether or not William James, the pre-eminent American philosopher, belongs even among the top 20. My initial reaction was no. But, it got me thinking.

There's a less frivolous issue. My Intro text approaches the teaching of philosophy by using only a few figures and examining their work in considerable depth. Thus, rather than including 100 or more, mine includes 15. Incidentally, James isn't one. How did I make the choices I made? Influence on the the progress of thought. Even if the work is somewhat superceded (hotly debatable) Plato's work is unquestionably influential.

So, on to a top ten. I'd love to have commentary. (Roman, you can make the case for Rorty or Wittgenstein if you must).
1. Plato (this is controversial. Aristotle apologists can make the arguments here)
2. Aristotle (not with a bullet)
3. Hume
4. Kant (another controversial choice - Hume over Kant)
5. Confucius
6. Mencius
7. Lao-Tzu (the Socrates/Plato/Aristotle of the east)
8. St. Augustine
9. St. Thomas
10. The Buddha

Those just outside the 10...
Marcus Aurelius
James (the more I think, the more I am convinced I'm wrong about James - he's top twenty)

And no, Wittgenstein doesn't make the cut. Not even top fifty.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean and Philosophy

A couple of years ago, I taught a philosophy and popular culture course that focused, for the main of the semester, on Buffy, Harry Potter, and The Simpsons. It was a lot of fun, and I’m teaching it again this fall. The focus this year is on Buffy and The Wizard of Oz, with perhaps some Monty Python thrown in for good measure. But, that’s not what this is about – it’s about Pirates of the Caribbean.

That semester, I used Pirates as the final exam. With a full semester of literary critical and philosophical analysis of pop culture texts, the final was a viewing of the first Pirates movie followed by an exam that tested whether or not the powers of analysis of the students had matured a bit. The reason I used that movie was that, frankly, it’s both pretty easy to do the analysis if one has even a few literary frameworks at one’s disposal, and it’s got some very profound philosophical musings as well. Thus, whether one is rather a novice at pop culture analysis or a seasoned hand at it, Pirates of the Caribbean has something to offer.
There are questions of “keeping to the code” or not. There’s the psychological – “This is either madness… Or brilliance.” There are issues of friendship and of fairness and of identity – all tied up in a nice little swashbuckling bow.

Let’s start off with one of my favorites. Just out from Port Royal, Jack and Will have the conversation about Will’s “twice-cursed pirate father.” Will, you’ll recall, refuses to believe that his dad wasn’t an honest merchantman. He uses a variation of a line from his and Jack’s first encounter in Mr. Brown’s smithy shop. There, he accused Jack of cheating, to which Jack replied, simply, with upraised eyebrow as if to communicate the oddity of being accused of cheating, “Pirate!” In that one word, he tells Will that the “normal” rules of engagement don’t apply. Will doesn’t get it. On the Interceptor, he reiterates the “You cheated” and says that in a fair fight, he’d have killed Jack. To which Jack, apparently thinking the boy is thick (and perhaps rightly so) says, “Well, that’s not much incentive for me to fight fair, then, is it?” Swinging the yardarm around, he catches Will off-guard and tries to set the heretofore naïve Turner straight. Says Jack, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can't do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man or you can't. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you'll have to square with that some day. And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can't bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not?”

To this point, Will has nibbled a bit at breaking the rules – he’s helped Jack escaped and commandeered a ship of the fleet. His justification would be that he’s trying to save Elizabeth. Jack’s little lecture, however, puts things in stark relief. It’s not a matter of breaking rules – there are only two to begin with. All the others are illusions.

So, the first question is, if we accept Jack’s statement as evidence of a philosophical view, what philosophical view is it that he holds. In one sense, we could suppose that there is an Hobbesian thread here – in a war of each against all, there is but rule (or two, or a rule and its corollary) – what a man can do and what a man can’t do. This is a statement of political and physical limitation. In one sense, it reflects a lack of communal solidarity – there is only what a (single, solitary, alone) man can do. Given the pirate code, as it is presented later, this is not surprising. When asked what the code to be kept to in the case the worst happens, Jack responds, that the one who falls behind is left behind. When Will suggests that this reflects a lack of honor among thieves, Jack defends the practice not by justifying it, but by suggesting that Will, himself, is well on his way toward becoming a pirate. This doesn’t answer Will at all.

One might suppose that it is easy to keep to the code when one is not the one left behind, that perhaps Jack might feel differently if it were he who were left behind. Yet, after the Pearl is made off with by Will and Jack’s crew, Jack reacts consistently with his early view – even though it is now his ox that is being gored. He says, “They done what’s right by them. Can’t ask for anything more.” So, it seems reasonably safe to conclude that the pirate view of the world is indeed an “each against all” world in which self-interest and leverage are the currency of the realm.

As a physical matter, the Sparrow Principle, shall we call it, addresses a sort of Machiavellian “might makes right,” as well. It’s not just physical strength – strength of personality, quickness of wit, etc., count as well. Indeed, Jack is a sort of Loki character, at times (a character sort that Depp was born to play). Returning from that brief digression, we know Jack can’t crew the Interceptor into Tortuga all by his onesies. Will is both deckhand and leverage. It is not clear that Will is much more than leverage for Jack at any point during the tale, but whether a friendship blossoms by the end of the movie or not, at this stage, Will is a pawn in Jack’s powerplay. Will, although significantly more naïve than Jack, learns quickly enough how the game is played and that either by strength of will or strength of body, he is both willing and capable of playing the game. It is a character that continues to develop into the next movies (e.g., rolling the bones with Davy Jones), but the focus here is the first movie, so I’ll say little else about that later development.

This is a reasonably nice segue into the psychological limitations as well. Clearly, there are limits on the quickness of wit, for example. Norrington could no more talk himself out of a dilemma than Jack could give up pirating his weasley black guts out. But, that’s not so much the psychological limitation to which I refer. Jack’s chiding of Will points out a truism that often goes unremarked. It’s not so much in the principle itself as it is in the explanation. Either Will can accept that his father was a pirate and a good man, or he can’t. To what extent is his mind capable of expanding to incorporate new realities and new perceptions of old beliefs? Can he face beliefs revealed to be false and not suffer mental breakdown, or can he not? If the latter, if he cannot face new challenges and obstacles, then helping Jack crew the Interceptor and serving as leverage is the extent of Will’s usefulness to anyone – including himself. However, if he can acquire a certain flexibility of mind and perceptions, then he just might survive, and might even thrive. Jack’s apparently simple observation provides considerable grist for the philosophical mill.

Another of his reflections does as well, although in a different way. What is a ship? What is a person? What defines identity over time? What is essential to a being, and what is merely accidental? Jack’s discussion with Elizabeth over rum about the nature of the Black Pearl is a wonderful jumping off spot for this discussion. You remember the famous line, I’m sure… “Wherever we want to go, we'll go. That's what a ship is, you know. It's not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that's what a ship needs but what a ship is... what the Black Pearl really is... is freedom.”

To some, it would seem that all a ship amounts to is the hull and rigging and deck, etc. Jack makes an important distinction – between a necessary condition and a sufficient one. All of those physical features are what are required by a ship. Similarly, blood, flesh, bone, brain – all of these are required for a human being to be a human being. But are they enough. Sparrow, perhaps a bit romantically, declares that the cold physical realities are insufficient for true identity. The Pearl is not only the sum of her parts, she is also the Eternal Object in which she participates – she is not freedom itself, but she points to freedom, she participates in freedom, it is her telos or teleological cause. Similarly, whatever a person truly is is not solely a matter of physical stuff, but of cause and purpose and aim and telos. It’s an intriguing jumping off point for philosophical rumination as well.

I’ve left off conversation of Governor Swann’s discussion with Elizabeth, where he says that even a good decision, if made for the wrong reasons, can be a wrong decision. I’ll say only this here and mayhaps we can return for further reflection. On a virtue picture of ethics, a person is a virtuous person if, and only if, he does the right thing at the right time in the right way and for the right reasons. So, simply put, if one makes what, in other circumstances and in another time might have been a good decision, it does not entail that it is currently. There is an interesting return to this notion at the conclusion of the movie, again in the words of Gov. Swann. Addressing Norrington, he suggests that there might be certain circumstances in which an act of piracy is even the right action. While Norrington accepts that for the moment, the fact that he later pursues the Black Pearl suggests that perhaps Jack was right earlier – one good deed is not enough to redeem a man, and may be enough to condemn him. However, Swann’s notion that even something that in almost all circumstances is wrong might, at one moment or another, be the right action suggests that a virtue model is what is ultimately at stake here, and, further, serves as an apt criticism of the rigid legalism that might be found in the Gov. Swann of the opening of the movie.

Whatever else the case, it is a fascinating movie with plenty of jumping off points for philosophical conversation. The notion of the code and a Kantian autonomy/heteronomy distinction is ripe for the plucking, for example. I leave with this – there’s what one can do, and what one can’t do.

Harry Potter 5 - Why it doesn't work.

It is rare thing when most of the critics agree about a movie, especially about a summer movie, much less the fifth in a series. Godfather 3 was a disaster after two great previous installments. Episodes 1-3 may very well tarnish the reputation of George Lucas forever. And, after the last installment of the Harry Potter series, one might well enter the theater with great trepidation as the Order of the Phoenix is a tremendously large and complex volume, a darker tome than the previous, and one filled with psychological battles that are the equal of any of those easily depicted in the actual world. For example, it is much easier to depict the Triwizard tests of Goblet of Fire (although they managed to fumble those terrifically) than the feelings of abandonment, rage, and defensiveness that Harry is subjected to in Order. In addition, after the best of the Potter movies in Prisoner of Azkaban, the director of Order is faced with trying to put the series back on a strong footing after the disaster that was Goblet. (Okay, that's a little strong. I rewatched Goblet last night and it turns out that it wasn't the disaster that I thought it was on first viewing, but I still find it to be easily the lesser of the first four movies, and by a considerable amount.)

Back to those critics. Everybody seems to be falling over themselves to praise this movie. I must say, I better understand Plato's view of the "lovers of sights and sounds" as they pranced out of the theater, momentarily having taken leave of their senses by the entertainments of the time. I must say, I cannot agree with the critics from Ebert/Roeper to the New York Times to NPR who have hailed this as the greatest of the Potter movies and a veritable tour de force. Nay, I must relegate it to the dank tarn of Goblet and perhaps lower.
Let us begin with the soundtrack. In Goblet, the soundtrack runs very much amok. The opening track barely resembles the Williams's score of the first three. In Order, the soundtrack is still not up to Williams's bar, but it is not terrible. Colin is my soundtrack wizard, but I can tell that this one will not find itself in his rotation.

So, poison pen in hand (after all, since Rita Skeeter was a no-show in this one, somebody's got to wield it), I disagree with the critics. Here are the points at which this disagreement is held.

1. Beginning with the end. The scene with Dumbledore and Harry in which Dumbledore explains why it was that he has ignored Harry for so long and treated him so shabbily is short and inadequate. When Harry says of the prophecy, "It means that one of us must kill the other," Dumbledore simply says, "Yes." The whole scene takes less than a minute. In the book, Harry is beyond angry - he is devastated. Here, he is put out, but he is not the grief-stricken and enraged young man that he is in the book and has every right to be. Why not? Several reasons come to mind. More importantly, why would people not think this scene was horribly inadequate? Because the Sirius character is not fully developed. The relationship between Sirius and Harry is not fully developed. It is one dimensional. Which brings us to....

2. The fight scene. Excuse me!?! What was that? Because they made the decision to essentially make the scene one of heavy-handed good/evil symbolism with the Deatheaters and the Order swirling around as black and white smoke. It makes the battle difficult to follow. Perhaps this is because they wanted it that way. The battle is a profound one in the book. There is a possibility that Hermione might be dead. When the blast hits her and she gasps a bit and crumples, I can remember feeling an adrenaline shot in my heart. I had heard all the rumors that someone important to Harry would die in Order and for just a moment, it seemed it might be Hermione. That it wasn't was a relief. That the viewer of the movie never had a moment to have such a fear was a disappointment. The battle failed on pretty much every level. Dumbledore was not so much avenging angel, completely in charge of the battle at the end as much as he was an old man incapable of truly matching Voldemort. As I said after Goblet, this is the only wizard that Voldemort ever feared?!? Please. Without Harry, Voldemort couldn't have pulled it off. Which reminds me of a problem in Goblet that resurfaces in Order.

3. Love. In Goblet, Voldemort goes on and on about how it is love that has protected Harry. That's really a revelation that Dumbledore makes and points out that Voldemort can't possibly understand. Even in Order, it is the case that Voldemort can't understand why Harry was able to fight back. Which brings us to the very end of Order. Harry has come to resolution that the only way he can make it is with friends, that friends are what it's all about, and that he has them solidly behind him. This is a way too happy ending. They are about to fight a huge battle, Voldemort is not only back but now we know that death is looming like the sword of Damocles. This is not a happy ending sort of place - it is a foreshadowing place. Order just drops the ball horribly.

4. The story makes no sense. It is a disconnected set of scenes. I found myself, at several points, saying to myself, "Self, it's a good thing you read the book, because you couldn't possibly have followed that transition." With me at the movie were James and Mary. I was quite glad to have them there and to bounce thoughts on them after. As one who hadn't read the books, but one who has quite significant critical skills, it was illuminating to ask how much she caught. Fortunately, quite a lot, but there were questions. And, it was concluded that had one not read the book, it would be a daunting challenge to keep up with the subtleties. For some further thoughts on this, see a blog of a great friend and solid literary critic - http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=84041594&blogID=286721308&Mytoken=1CADCC5E-1533-49C4-99C11571B5BA811279838748

5. This has been hailed as a coming of age story for Harry. It is. Only, why is he so pissed off? Opening as the movie does, it is hard to understand exactly why he is so upset. Especially after Goblet ends with all of the protests of the ways in which Ron, Hermione, and Dumbledore will keep in contact with Harry. However, we do not know that those contacts have gone unfulfilled, that Harry has been all summer without news, without contact; that he's been completely cut off from the only place that gives him solace. Harry is abandoned. Even Dumbledore admits in the very moving scene at the end that he has made a terrific mistake (only, that part's not in the movie) and so, the viewer is left completely outside of the true Harry Potter-verse.

6.The taking of the O.W.L.s is poor. There is just the one, administered by Dolores Umbridge. Problem. In the book, the O.W.L.s are one of the ways in which Umbridge gets her comeuppance and further, they figure rather prominently in the next movie. However, they cannot without further disconnect for the viewer. In the O.W.L.s, another mistake occurs - the departure of the Weasley twins. The devastation that the Weasley's wreak upon Umbridge and her ilk is phenomenal. However, the resistance of the faculty is downplayed entirely. McGonagall is completely absent. However, her snide remarks are each little moments of glee heaped onto the head of Umbridge and Filch. In that same vein, the entire resistance of the faculty is absent. McGonagall backs down in her one encounter with Umbridge and Dumbledore just tells Dolores that Trelawney can continue to live on the quarters. His appointment of Firenze, a march stolen on Umbridge in the book, is absent. So, while Umbridge comes across as truly evil (and the evil of banality and blind loyalty), the faculty, including Dumbledore, are nearly collaborators. This is not the Hogwarts of the book. Indeed, it is not Hogwarts of which Voldemort should have fear.

All in all, the cuts from the book are poorly made and the result is a glorified slide show that can serve as a visual companion to the book, but truly nothing more. It is a magical visual moment (with a couple of notable exceptions) that is poorly conceived, poorly executed, and unfaithful in powerful and irrevocable ways to the book.

Indiana Jones Jumps the Shark and Lands in the Temple of Doom

Would someone please take George Lucas's typewriter/word processor/computer away from him before he really hurts someone? Please? The man who almost single-handedly ruined Star Wars and the memory of Episodes 4, 5, and 6 with those horrific reshoots and then with whatever that was that passed for Episodes 1, 2, and 3 (only Samuel L. Jackson escaped unscathed and since he went on to do Snakes on a Plane, that's not a sure judgment either). Please, George, let someone else write – you just keep coming up with cool ways to do special effects and we'll all be better off.

The primary writing credit for Indy 4 is George Lucas (not surprising). Actually, I think Lucas is a very good story imaginer – that is, he comes up with amazing yarns to spin. It's just that he can't write dialogue to save his life. Okay, neither can I. I'm about the worst dialogue writer ever. Every time I've tried to write fiction, it turns out to be half-baked mystery novels with hackneyed dialogue. But, see, here's the thing – I don't write dialogue for a living, nor do I foist it off on an unsuspecting public (yeah, okay, so we should be the "suspecting" public by now, but still…). Lucas was the primary writer for Temple of Doom and we saw what a disaster that was. Frankly, folks, thinking back to Star Wars, it wasn't just that Mark Hamill couldn't act (well, he couldn't, but that's only an exacerbation of the situation), it's that the dialogue was weak. The story managed to thrive in spite of that, but the dialogue was poor. So, when the story doesn't have the punch to save the dialogue, the whole thing becomes a mess. Crystal Skull, my friends, is a mess.

Usually, in my reviews, I try not to ruin the movie by not revealing things. But, friends, I can't ruin this dog. It's ruined now. Whether or not you've seen it already or not, trust me, it's dreck. Playing the role of the bad guy Nazis from 1 and 3, we have the Russians. Only, they are cardboard cutouts. There's nothing there that really fires the animus, even as they chop through the rainforest with no regard whatsoever for it. There's the psychic mumbo jumbo from Temple of Doom; there's Area 51; there's Roswell; there's yet another "here's where the aliens are from" bit. It's all derivative and uninteresting. The things that weren't stolen from the Indy franchise and rehashed were stolen from Independence Day, X-Files, hundreds of bad Saturday morning cartoons and fevered fanfic about what lurks in the desert. That the lost city of gold of the Mayas or maybe Aztecs or maybe Incans turns out to be a space ship with thirteen crystal alien skeletons, all but one with heads (how did the one head go missing?), guarded by aboriginals who break out of the walls (how did they get in there?) and which sits in a chamber that includes stuff from every ancient civilization (that was already done in National Treasure, George) and departs to leave a huge crater lake is just several too many sharks jumped. Indy 2 was a shark jumping bonanza. If anything, this one was even worse. There are so many times when disbelief is supposed to be suspended that it becomes impossible to count. I should remind Lucas that the phrase is the "willing suspension of disbelief," but even if willing, I'm not sure it is possible. For Lucas, Raiders and Last Crusade were great; Doom and Skull were disasters. Hopefully, he will figure out something original, get someone who can actually write dialogue (Joss Whedon, perhaps), and turn out something to save the Indy legacy. It has been cheapened with this dreck. It ought not be so. Unless Indy 5 is in the same league with 1 and 3, I shall treat 4 the same way I treat the Matrix sequels – they simply don't exist.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

M*A*S*H - Father Mulcahy

I've watched a lot of M*A*S*H lately. Part of that is because I've been laid up with Influenza A - though, I must say that Tamiflu lives up to its billing (as does the flu shot). I haven't been nearly as sick as the last time I had the flu. But, that's all just backstory. While laid up on the couch, I've had the opportunity to watch my favorite all-time show, with the possible exception of Buffy. Actually, it depends on the day which of the two I prefer.

One of the episodes that has always been a powerful one for me is the episode where Father Mulcahy bucks all of the powers that be in declaring the mess tent to be a santuary. The synopsis goes something like this. The soldier has just gotten a letter from a friend back home congratulating him on the birth of his daughter. The blessed event took place three weeks previous, apparently. Now, the conflict here is this - the young G.I. has been in Korea for more than a year. You can do the math more quickly than Hawkeye and BJ could... At any rate, while the folks are in the weekly services, conducted by the Father, a lieutenant comes to arrest the kid for being AWOL. Mulcahy declares the mess tent a sanctuary, and even when the Chaplain-General overturns his ruling, he stays with it because he thinks it is what is right. Of course, the lieutenant tries to take the young G.I. and the threatened young man takes his rifle and levels it at Mulcahy, after firing off a couple of shots. Mulcahy defuses the situation and disarms the young man. Then, as the young man breaks down, Mulcahy comforts him and does all he can to get him the help that he needs.

That was rather a long excursus. But, here's the thing. Mulcahy is an impressive figure. He's not impressive because of his great skill as a preacher - he's comically inept and boring. Heck, during the service, Potter has clearly nodded off and in the few lines of the sermon that we hear, the audience is nearly put to sleep. Mulcahy doesn't normally stand out. Except, here's the thing. He may be the best example of the church and the faith that I've seen on TV. Sure, there are more "religiously" oriented shows than M*A*S*H. But, no character stronger than Mulcahy. Here's why.

Father Mulcahy doesn't do what is expedient. When the orphans need something, he's the one who procures it - even if it does involve Klinger and stolen bibles from a hotel in Seoul. More to the point, he is completely committed to being faithful - and, here, "faithful" does not mean "believing the right things." Mulcahy is faith in action - and, more to the point, he is goodness in action, he is justice in action. When confronted with Army regulations that seem to run completely counter to the good of the people in his care, he does not go along just because it would be expedient. He puts his own life, career, and reputation at risk to do the right thing. Further, the "right thing" is not some hard-line, dogmatic, and likely esoteric piece of text - it is rooted in profound empathy for the underdog, the oppressed, the hurting, the shafted. He does not suffer injustice to others, and endures considerable injustice to himself in the interim. Father Mulcahy is the opposite of the showy, substance-less religious windbag that has become the prevailing model for so much American Christendom. He is a man whose quiet faith and firm commitment makes a difference in the lives of people.

I am not at all convinced that there is much of a home for the Father Mulcahy's of the world in today's church. And, it probably needs more of them. Before I rant too much, let me point out that a couple of my very good friends are chaplains - one in the army, one in the navy, and one with the state police. They are all very solid men - and none of them will ever advance very far in the hierarchy because they are very solid men. That's the problem. Today's church puts a premium on glitz and showmanship and Elmer Gantry-like prosperity gospel drivel. Now the emphasis is on bigger churches, showier TV shows, and high production values in the PR. And, while we're on the subject, let's talk about two things Father Mulcahy exemplifies that the institutional church fails so miserably at - justice and compassion.

Today, the hierarchy of the church is much more concerned with political grandstanding than justice. If the church was truly motivated by the call to justice, it would be doing a lot less arguing about whether or not Bush is right about the war in Iraq and a lot more living out a call to love one's enemy and do good to those who persecute. An emphasis on justice would, I'm sure, have had a much more lasting effect the Middle East than the political grandstanding. For example, what would happen if, rather than propping up oppressive dictatorships that are politically expedient in the short term (the Shah in Iran, the Saudis royalty), we aided the people who are actually oppressed and meet their needs? What would happen if we had opposed the Taliban in 1995 when they began brutally repressing women rather than waiting until 2001? To have moral authority, one actually must act with justice - and justice is not supporting the powerful simply because it is politically expedient.

This ties in with the compassion move. When the young soldier took up the rifle and pointed it at Mulcahy, he was indignant. He pointed out that a faith of convenience was a poor faith indeed. Then, after disarming the young man, as he collapsed under the weight of what he had done, Mulcahy hugged him. He didn't play the "well, now you're gonna get what you deserve" card. He actually showed love for the guy. This was true compassion. When the church turns its concerns to zoning laws and parking lots for its megastructures and ignores the people, it isn't showing compassion. When hoity-toities turn up their noses at the poor and assume that economic distress is solely the fault of the economically impoverished, that's not compassion. When the church spends six and seven times more money on itself and its glitzy self-promotion than on actually meeting the needs of people, that's not compassion. Father Mulcahy, the church needs your example. Not that it's gonna listen or learn...

Chernobyl Spring

The kernel of this blog was originally written during the Spring of 2006. The other pieces have been added in the Spring of 2007 and 2008. It’s an ongoing reflection, after all… Yes, this is really about Spring and not summer, but consider it the product of reflection that can serve as a harbinger for the year that is to come...

I have a new phrase for academia. It happens every spring. Without fail. Like death and taxes and young men's fancies turning to thoughts of love, you can count on it. Let's call it "Chernobyl Spring."

Everybody handles the meltdown a little differently. Some take to baking and we are greatful that the product of this sort of stress response issues in banana bread and cupcakes and muffins and the like. Some lose themselves in various and sundry substances, licit and otherwise. Some become self-destructive. Some develop nervous ticks. Some witness their adhd and ocd natures run wildly out of control to the point that while going over a paper in their advisor's office, he/she will straighten the advisor's pens ans sort his markers by type and color. Some chase the party and drown themselves in avoidance. Some explode on friends and unleash barely controlled tirades. Some eat. And some shut down and hide. But every year, it happens - Chernobyl Spring - let the meltdowns begin.

In truth, most of these people have been me to one degree or another, though lately, it's been the ocd and deeply self-reflectiveness (issuing in not banana bread but procrastination) that have marked my own meltings. However, some have seen the full brunt of my wrath - not directed at them - but at situations and harassments and the like. But, I have had the position of observer for the last little bit, and, yeah, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, so April and early May brings apocalypse.

T. S. Eliot is famous for the line, "April is the cruellist month, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain." Not quite "April showers bring May flowers," is it? Here's the thing. He's right. Consider.

Every April, without fail, the budget at every university I have ever been around is found to be in crisis, necessitating draconian measures, lest we die. More relationships get devastated in April and early May as tempers fray, pressures build, worries mount, stress increases, deadlines loom, and doom hangs heavy in the air. And, for students and faculty alike, the pressure can cause oddness. The Fall doesn't seem to have this sort of effect. Maybe it's because the Thanksgiving break serves as a steam valve in a way that Spring Break, falling closer to the middle of the semester rather than the end, cannot be. Maybe it's because the Christmas break, even for those who do not celebrate it, just has an inescapable cheeriness. Also, the end of Fall does not really see so many life changes. True, there are lots of December graduations, and the interviews at APA and MLA and AAR can have an apocalyptic feel to them. But, in truth, they are only the furst set of interviews. There are still the early and middle Spring regional meetings where those not successful at the winter meetings in securing a job can still strike it big. Too, there is the Spring semester to look forward to and May seems a long way off in December. But, as the end of the semester draws nigh and the stack of papers mounts and the full effect of procrastination becomes clearer, April showers turn into torrential downpours of unrelenting stress.

I can still remember finishing my qualifying exams at OU in the Spring and then thinking, "You know, I still don't have time to breathe." Writing the dissertation over the course of an entire graduate program and giving myself until the August 15 months after I finished coursework to defend was one of the best presents I ever gave myself. But, I well remember the days spent staring at Buffy because I couldn't bring myself to face another blank computer screen.
Chernobyl Spring. It claims some every year. Today, I walked into my Ethics class and knew that 4 students would be missing for various reasons. In a class of 16, Koji and Robert were present. The three student presenters? I heard from one by email.

Chernobyl Spring. Letters of rec are out and each day, students come by and tell me that they still have not heard from graduate school or law school or job interview. Papers are due and not done. Friends fighting with each other, giving in to insecurities and imposter syndromes and inferiority complexes and lashing out or blaming or whatever.

I don't have any answers for Chernobyl Spring. If I did, I certainly would have made a lot more money than I have and endured a lot less heartache - self-imposed and otherwise - than I have. But, friends, let me say this. Several of you have heard me say that you can make it. This is just one of those things that you have to fight your way through and hope that the other side doesn't arrive with much devastation in your wake. So far, the worst effects of this Chernobyl Spring for me are too many pieces of wonderful banana bread consumed, some icing on my pants leg, watching a young colleague bouncing off the walls like a hummingbird on crack, and a hopeful moment when I realized that some of our young colleagues-in-training are actually going to make it through this one and press on to face the next. D.H. Lawrence and TOB couldn't drag you down.

It was an intriguing moment of clarity when I realized that "Chernobyl Spring" was the right term for academia's cruelest season - late April to early May.

Addition 1

I've gotten some very good feedback on my coining of the phrase "Chernobyl Spring." This blog isn't about that. Rather, it is a request for suggestions about two other features of this time of the year that need cool names. I come up with an interesting title about once every lifetime, so Chernobyl Spring is probably the best I'm gonna do. Let me describe the two phenomena and please, if you have a name for either, I will definitely give credit where it is due.

Phenomenon 1: This phenomenon can sometimes be mistaken for a Chernobyl Spring. However, it is different in important ways. Every semester, and it doesn't matter if it is a Fall, Spring, or Summer semester, there is a crash. It's not a meltdown, either stress and/or self induced (although it can contribute to one if not managed well). Rather, it is a hitting of the wall. Here's what it feels like - steadily over the last couple of weeks of the semester, the adrenaline builds. Work gets done, sleep is less necessary, and things come together. Then, finals are finished, graded, grades turned in and then, wham! Throat hurts, allergies run amok, and it feels like every bit of energy has been insta-sucked out of the body. The only remedy is sleep, and lots of it, and your body refuses to take "no" for an answer. Is it a malaise? It's definitely a wall impact. And, at least from my own experience, it happens every semester, and not just in the Spring. Thoughts...?

Phenomenon 2: Every single year, the drama comes out to play in the Spring. This is definitely a spring occurrence. You can just about set your calendar by it. The budget will be in a horrible mess, Chernobyl Springs being suffered by people will put lives in a mess, but that's not really the happening here. They may be symptoms, but it may be more sinister than that. Oftentimes, politicians (especially those in power) will release information late on Friday hoping to slip it by people without the regular news cycle getting its grubby little paws on it. Maybe it's just because the end of the Spring semester is so close to the end of the fiscal year? Maybe it's just how it works. But, it's not just a Henderson phenomenon. Emory wasn't too bad about it, but OU experienced it, Ok-State did/does, pretty much everywhere. And, it's not just higher ed. The public schools may be even worse - at least in higher ed, there is a nominal faculty presence to keep an eye on things (ineffective though it may be) during the summer. Not so, really, with the P-12 world. The last week of school is kinda like the Friday of a weekly news cycle - and the summer is a long, long weekend during which things can be forgotten. Thoughts?

This Spring’s Addition

It's that time of year when the hedge blooms, the allergies fly, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love, and the bodies of skunks begin to pile up alongside the road (their thoughts turned to love, too, just before they met their maker on the road).

What time of year is that? Well, here're the signs. If gas prices are going through the roof, if budgets are strained and budget makers are offering lame excuses that smell more than the skunks, if tax day has come and final exams are coming, if the order of the day is drama in the workplace, home, school (any and/or all), then just as surely as the swallows return to Capistrano and as surely as God made little green apples, you know it must be Chernobyl Spring.
The time of year when folks melt down, that's Chernobyl Spring. Irrationality is the marker, lasting radioactivity in job, scholarship, relationships is the aftermath. It's Chernobyl Spring again, friends. Try to dodge the fallout.

China 2008

There are times when it is appropriate to repeat oneself. This is one of those times. China is a place of amazing contradiction. There is state of the art technology and the average family income is something south of $2000 per year. There is gentleness, strength, and generosity of spirit and a cutthroat, deceptive, and aggressive set of business “ethics.” It is a nation with cities orders of magnitude larger than New York City and yet there is a smallness and something resembling an inferiority complex that drives the intensity. There is great attention to form, less to function. For example, in the late early Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Navy was among the greatest in the world. Within 20 years, it was reduced to a bare police force. There was first a move to be a world power; then a retrenching toward extreme isolationism. This back and forth continued until the Opium Wars in the 19th century.

I could go on and on about Chinese history, but rather I will do what I made the students do – list the three most impressive things that I saw on my journey. What’s amazing is that the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City (second on last year’s list) don’t make the top three. So, here we go – from three to one. However, let’s begin with the honorable mention – first, the sites that I want to see in future (apart from the top three, to which I would gladly return). The Memorial of Sun Yat-Sen. Sun Yat-Sen was born just as the War of Northern Aggression (aka, the American Civil War) was ending. Intriguingly enough, it would be Dr. Sun Yat-Sen and Yuan Shi-kai who would lead the overthrow of the Qin dynasty and depose the last emperor, Pu Yi, in 1911. The memorial to Sun Yat-Sen is in Guangzhou is Southeastern China. His is an amazing story and one I would love to explore further.

In Guangzhou, also, is the tomb of the Southern Kings. The tomb, rediscovered in 1983, dates to at least two hundred years BCE. The tomb is the final resting place of King Wu of the Southern Han dynasty. The king was buried in a suit of jade armor. The suit is comprised of thousands of squares of jade, sown together with silk thread. It weighs literally thousands of pounds. It’s quite an impressive sight.

So, in Guangzhou, there is an interesting juxtaposition on ancient and contemporary – the city was the ancient capital of part of China roughly contemporary to the rise of Julius Caesar and was the modern seat of the end of the Chinese dynastic period just under a hundred years ago. That the tomb of the King Wu went undiscovered for two millennia is absolutely breathtaking. With this discover along with one in the top three, we can begin to conclude that we know (and are learning) more about ancient Chinese history than any of our ancestors from that day to this. That’s rather a mindboggling thing to grasp.

The other honorable mention has to be the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven is the place where the Emperor would come each year to pray for good harvest. As China was nearly an entirely agrarian economy in the early 1400s, it could have been quite unfortunate for the Emperor should the harvests turn out poorly for more than a couple of years at a time. The complex is laid out in such a way that there is a single avenue that runs from the Forbidden City through the Temple of Heaven and Hall of Good Harvest to the Center of the World. The Forbidden City complex was constructed beginning around 1406 and was completed nearly three decades later. All of the emperors of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty occupied the Forbidden City until 1911. It was the center of power and the center of Imperial religion, a mixture of Confucian, Buddhism, and ancient nature religions. As we discovered again this year, one must “walk with purpose” to get from the southern gate all the way to the northern gate of the complex.

When one enters the complex, one notes that the wall is square – this signifies earth and the world. It is a foundation upon which all the world is built. Thus, the center of the earth (a complex in three rings with a slightly raised place in the exact center signifying the center of the world) is close to the southern gate. Each of the three rings symbolizes a different ring of reality. The bottom ring is the underworld, the middle ring is the ring of earth, and the final ring is the ring of heaven. Passing through the center of the earth, the walls become a bit more rounded. One is moving from earth to heaven and the entirety of the architecture conveys that physical and metaphysical journey.

After a brief detour to the Pearl Market and a bite of lunch at a noodle shop – amazing food again this year (another blog will deal with the culinary delights) – we began our journey to Tiannamen Square and the Forbidden City.
Back to the Top Three list. The Honorable Mention list is complete – The Tomb of the Southern Kings; The Sun Yat-Sen Memorial and Museum; The Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City. Any trip that included only those would be sufficient and breathtaking and enough to tell everybody back home that they need to see. However, they only make the HM list. On to the top.

May we have a drum roll, please? Okay, that’s unnecessary. Let’s start with number 3. Number 3 was number 1 last year. And, what’s even more impressive is that this year, the haze was gone – it was a beautiful, sunny day. We rode the cable car up to the top (I walked it last year and I figured that I didn’t get to see enough of the expanse of the Great Wall because it took so long to walk up and down). From the cable car to the toboggan slide down the wall (that was a blast, too), was about a mile and a half. We covered that mile and a half in a little over an hour – but, that’s quite impressive. In parts, it goes straight up and straight down; the stairs are uneven – some about two inches high and maybe six inches out followed by a step that’s about two feet high and 18 inches out followed by another short one, etc. But, the view is amazing. It is truly impossible to capture the scope with a two-dimensional photograph, but I’ve given it a whirl.

The Great Wall is an amazing failure and an equally amazing success. In all of the ways it was intended, militarily speaking, it failed. As you can see from the pictures, it is totally unassailable by contemporary 15th century (and maybe even modern) forces as it snakes through the mountains. Indeed, the Mutanyiu section never fell. Nor did the mountain passes at Badaling (the other major tourist site of the Wall just outside of Beijing). But, part of the reason they didn’t fall is that they didn’t come under assault. Would you try to climb thousands of feet to assault a well defended wall? Or would you bribe the guards in the valley and enter there? If you picked the latter, then perhaps there is a job in the armies of the north for you… The wall never succeeded in halting the invaders. Much like the Maginot Line, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, and every other major “we’re gonna keep them out by building a wall” wall in history, the Great Wall (or the Long Wall) failed miserably. However, the Long Wall did something most successfully that no other wall has done. It unified a nation of feudal kingdoms into a single nation and it continues to be one of the most unifying symbols of modern China. Even the latest Chinese national soccer team has the Great Wall stylized into their red and yellow jerseys. It is the single most identifiable feature of the nation. The history of the Great Wall is one of arrogance and pride (again the odd juxtapositions). It is both the longest cemetery in the world and the one structure most intimately tied to a nation’s identity imaginable. It’s construction was borne of the arrogance of power; it’s building is a symbol of national power, unity, and pride.

It is interesting, I suppose, that the Great Wall (last year’s number 1) is this year’s number 3. That’s because the top two are so breathtaking that it is hard to even begin to express their magnificence. Let’s go to #2.

Inside the outer limits of the quake zone in central China is the ancient city of Xi’an. In ancient times, the city was known as Chang’an and it was the capital of the first emperor of a unified China, and the beginning of the Qin dynasty. The Qin dynasty, initiated by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China in the third century BCE and began the most impressive funerary project perhaps ever. However, soon after Qin’s death (within a couple of months), the huge burial complex was raided and buried and for the most part, forgotten. In 1974, a farmer was digging a well and stumbled upon one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. The terra cotta warrior army of Emperor Qin have captured the world’s imagination ever since. Xi’an went from a sleepy city in central China with vague memories of the emperor and the successive Tang Dynasty to one of the central tourist cities in the world.

The warriors are life size (and some life-size plus). There are literally thousands and the site is a life archaeological site. Tourists come in to see it from about 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., and then the archaeologists descend upon the site to continue unearthing and piecing back together the warriors. There are at least 500 pits, but only three have been excavated – and these, only partly. The main tomb has not been excavated, but reports have it that a fiber optic cable has been used to assess its state and found it pristine. Given that it is completely sealed (and has been for two millennia), the work of excavating it is extremely delicate – having been sealed for so long, the remains and relics would be most sensitive to the atmospheric makeup of today’s air. If you’ve seen the latest Indiana Jones movie, when he opens the conquistador’s wrappings, the conquistador is brilliantly preserved – and then nearly melts and crumbles before their eyes. Such would happen to the tomb of Qin Shi Huang upon its opening if the most stringent precautions are not taken. Thus, the work continues on the terra cotta warriors – and the tomb remains undisturbed.

Which brings me to Number 1. The trip this year went to Hong Kong. I was looking over the map and realized that we were not going to the Tian Tan Buddha on Lan Tau Island (where the Hong Kong airport is). I really wanted to. Thus, a small expedition – me, Mary, James, Michael, and Daphne – braved the Hong Kong subway (and, sidebar – I have ridden subways across the world and I must say, the Hong Kong subway is the quickest, most efficient, and simply best I’ve ever seen). After a 30 minute ride to the island, we found the cable car up to the Po Lin Monastery.

The cable car was, at points, nearly 800 meters above the bay. Yes, that’s the airport off to the left in the second picture. It’s amazing to watch the planes start to reduce their ascent and still be below you. At one point, we were watching the hawks circle – BELOW our car… Those afraid of heights would have a bit of difficulty – but it was completely worth it.

The Tian Tan Buddha is massive. That’s not even close to accurate. There’s one picture here for perspective – notice relative to the size of a person. And, of course, since the picture is taken from below, it makes the Buddha looks smaller than it is. Breathtaking.

The Po Lin Monastery, then a symbolic center of the world both lay in the gaze of the beatific Buddha. Honestly, I don’t really have words to describe this experience. I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves (the picture of the Po Lin Monastery is taken from the feet of the Buddha with a zoom lens – so, too, is the center of the world).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Slayage 3 is complete

Well, Slayage 3 has come and gone. The jangled nerves are finally settling down a bit. The office may never be clean again (yes, I know it was never very clean to begin with, but when you put all of the remainders of things in it, it becomes nigh impassable). The sleep debt has begun to be repaid. There is still a bit of paperwork that lingers – books to be closed and bills to be paid and the like – but, I must say, I’m as proud of the people who helped pull this together as I have been of anyone in my life. Since I have had many reasons to be proud of folks in my life (quite fortunate in that), it’s saying quite a bit to put the buttons-bursting pride I have in the people who put this together at the very top.

Before I go on much further, let me say that this blog is more about the behind the scenes part of the conference and less about the conference itself. I, unfortunately, didn’t get to go to any of the papers, but I have heard magnificent things about them and the reviews have been outstanding. Several folks will be receiving emails from me in the next days asking for copies of the papers so that I may indulge my academic interests in the conference at my leisure. The one presentation that I got to hear in full was Nikki Stafford’s keynote at the banquet. Fortunately, she has already posted the text of it on her blog at http://nikkistafford.blogspot.com/. She also has some very nice things to say about the conference and Arkadelphia and Henderson. I must say, we led with our strength. All of the keynoters were housed at the Captain Henderson House Bed and Breakfast. Like I told Matthew Pateman as he was departing, when you lead with that, either everything else pales in comparison, or, if you’re lucky, it sets everything in just the right context. Given that Clark County is dry, thus limiting the ability to imbibe a pint of Guinness at a local pub (we really must work on that), and given that it is the summer doldrums (first summer term had just started, but HSU and Arkadelphia are dead during the summer), things went pretty well. Nikki seemed to capture the feel of the place in only a couple of days – indeed, she captures much of the local sentiment – affection mixed with frustration and bemusement – quite well.

There has been quite a lot of interesting press about the conference. Out of the blue, CBS National Radio called me on the Friday morning of the conference and I got to do a 15 minute on-air interview with them. No sooner had I finished that then KUAR (the local NPR) station called. Within 15 minutes of that, the Arkansas Radio Network called. Several people have called, emailed, and/or written that they heard the interviews. I kinda hope that somewhere they are saved as I haven’t gotten to hear them. All of this, I suspect, was inspired by an AP Wire story that went out and was picked up everywhere. On Whedonesque.com, the coverage was called “ubiquitous.” http://whedonesque.com/comments/16529. That kinda made me smile. There have been some amusing misidentifications, as well. As my faithful reader(s) knows, there is an actor with the name “Kevin Durand.” The most amusing thing of the weekend was the befuddlement about how the Canadian actor could also be a philosophy professor at a small, liberal arts school in southwest Arkansas. The E!online message board was brought to my attention: http://boards.eonline.com/Insider/Boards/message.jspa?messageID=2184987. The neat thing about the coverage is that it has focused on the academic side and the scholarly bona fides of the conference. There were some amazing discussions outside of the sessions and I look forward to perusing some of the papers.

All this is getting ahead of the story, though. That Slayage 3 came to Henderson at all is an amazing thing. I’d like to take all the credit, but that would be so very false. In 2004, I thought, “hmmmm, wouldn’t it be neat if we could do something like that at our place?” But, I really wasn’t sure whether the conference had legs or would survive after the demise of the twin shows that made up its engine – Buffy and Angel. Then, in 2006, when the conference was at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia, I thought to myself, “Self, Gordon is smaller than Henderson (in size, though roughly equivalent in student population). We could pull this off.” At the banquet, I talked with Rhonda and David about tossing our name in the hat. They said that seemed reasonable, but there was already a likely site for the 2008 conference (I don’t really know where that was and didn’t ask). About two months after the 2006 conference, I got an email asking if Henderson was still interested and whether we could do it. I jumped at it.

One of the things that I knew we’d need was a shuttle system from the airports and from the Caddo Valley hotels. And, I knew just who to recruit for oversight of that system – Brent Linsley. I’ve known Brent for years and two of his essays will be in the book, Radical Interpretations: Reading the Buffy Text. Within moments of mentioning the possibility to him, he said definitely yes and we were off. I remembered from the Gordon College experience that there would need to be someone who could be the point person for people to send in registrations and the like and that that person shouldn’t be me. Enter Kathryn Zawisza. Knowing how feeble my mind is and how desperately necessary efficient organization was going to be, I recruited another dear friend, Mary Leigh, to serve as my brain. She’s not the biggest Buffy fan in the world, but she’s brilliant at keeping people inspired, on track, and calm. Thanks to her, my brain did not explode.

After the central functions were handled, it was time to round up the best people I know and press them into service. This sometimes involved begging. At times there was pleading. But, Melanie Wilson, LeaAnn Alexander and Ashley Parker made the souvenir area run so smoothly that there was no need to even consider micromanaging them. I did micromanage the shuttles, but only a bit. Jeremey Beasley, James Leigh, Michael Bell, Ryan Dickson, and Stuart Bailey were brilliant. Without exception, they made things run smoothly (with great leadership, again, by Brent). As schedules shifted and morphed and we had to monitor and adjust, Mary kept a steady hand on the wheel while I raced about and did problem-solving with rooms, the A/V, the chairs, the food, and the like. Hayley Miller floated for us, but one of her contributions was simply amazing. She had already worked up the cover art for the book mentioned above, but she graciously allowed us to use it for the program. Speaking of artwork, the poster that David Stoddard worked up was easily the best poster of any of the Slayage Conferences. Easily the best. Tommy Cash and Erica Ash were a pair of late volunteers who did absolutely phenomenal work and were always up for anything we needed them to do.

It’s unclear where Slayage 4 is going to be. At least two universities have made mention that they are interested. Here’s my advice to them (I’ve given it directly, but I offer it here as well). Make damn sure that you have a large, capable, and dedicated team of people. You can do the conference with a team of 10-15 people that you can absolutely depend on. You can also do it with 100 folks who will flake on you. But, it’s better to have that dedicated cadre of people. We had that and because of that, Slayage 3 worked.

I should take a brief moment to mention the only downsides. I got one email (of Friday night – after the AP story had run like wildfire across the newspapers of the world from Germany, England, Canada, the U.S., Australia, and Taiwan). The email said something like this – the is proof positive that academia has too much time and tax payer money on its hands? (Yes, there was a question mark at the end of what was clearly a sarcastic statement – but, the sender of the email was a dimwit to begin with, so, as my grandmother once said, “there’s no medicine that can cure stupid.”) I got a call on Monday afternoon (waking me from my nap, incidentally) from the PR folks at Henderson. They had gotten a call from the newspaper in Chattanooga, Tennessee asking how many tax payer dollars had been used on the conference. As the answer to that question is a big, fat ZERO, it was kinda fun to nip that in the bud. But, geez, people. Get a life. Let me point out that Plato was fond of the theater. Indeed, part of my argument in “Canon Fodder” (yes, there’s only supposed to be two “n”s in “canon”) is an application of one of his arguments in the Phaedrus. Plato wasn’t fond of those who interpreted plays and the like without systematic and analytic thoroughness. However, the popular culture of the day was perfectly good grist for the academic mill. So, much as Plato used the work of Homer and Aristophanes, so we can use the work of Whedon and Plath and Baum to do much the same thing. The questions remain the same – what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live a good human life? What is the nature of good and evil? The insights, however, can be striking. So, take heart those of you who are true scholars of popular culture, there is a good historical foundation for our activities laid out for us.

Enough of that soapbox. The Slayage folks – the folks I’ve met at earlier ones and who are some of the leading scholars in the field (David Lavery, Rhonda Wilcox, Stacey Abbott, Matthew Pateman, Lorna Jowett, Bronwen Calvert, Janet Halfyard – just to name a few) are kind, generous, and witty. Additionally, they are brilliant scholars. It was amazing to have so many truly gifted scholars on our campus. Mayhaps other conferences and scholars will come our way…

It was an amazingly hectic weekend – my nerves were frayed from the beginning and only began to knit themselves together sometime on Sunday. And, it wasn’t until the last of our merry band found their ways through security at the Little Rock airport on Monday, that it hit me – we pulled this thing off. Celebrations began with a latte. They have continued with basking in the glow of its completion. Here is my sincere and eternal thanks to all who made this conference such a rousing success.