Tag Archives: The American President

Fill in the blanks

Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods?  Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.
Electrostatic discharge or weapon of the gods? Lightning #3, Benjamin Stäudinger, Creative Commons license.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with another writer on Twitter; it was one of those fairly inconsequential, “let’s one-up each other with wisecracks” exchanges until something relatively innocuous happened that has stuck with me since.  He mentioned his dog, and I countered with a response that assumed the canine in question was a he, only to find it was in fact a she.  And I wondered why my brain had made that automatic leap.  Surely I was aware that dogs are manufactured in both male and female varieties, so why did I default to the presumption that this particular dog was a boy?  It reminded me, not in a good way, of the old riddle that starts with a father and son being involved in a car crash.  The father is killed instantly and the boy is critically injured.  He’s taken to the hospital where the doctor on call looks at him and remarks, “I can’t operate on him – he’s my son” and you are supposed to be left scratching your head at the impossibility of the situation – that is, if you’re living in 1952.  In 2013 you know right away that the doctor is the boy’s mother, or that the boy is the child of a same-sex couple.  So, while I wasn’t going to wrack myself with guilt about misjudging the gender of somebody’s dog, it did leave me with larger questions to ponder about how we perceive the world, and the assumptions we use to make the world make sense, if only for a moment.

Human beings have an aversion to ambiguity.  You see this often in the movies we flock to – stories that resolve their plots in a neat and tidy manner with a clear delineation of the good guys and the bad guys.  Nuance here is not a virtue.  Whereas the artier films, while revered by critics and intellectuals, leave larger audiences cold and dissatisfied, to the point of wanting their money back, as if for the investment of that piece of their lives, they feel entitled to a satisfying conclusion.  Ambiguity in these cases is the front door to the house absently left wide open after you’ve left for the day, an insect bite when you don’t have any lotion to put on it and you’re miles from the pharmacy, the missing puzzle piece you swear was in the box when you opened it.  We have an innate need, as Amanda Palmer reminds us, to connect the dots, and when we can’t, it bothers us.  So we provide our own answers, even if they are wildly incorrect.  At least they are answers, the blanks filled in to a satisfactory point for the time being.  Sometimes, those answers prove more creative than the truth, and it’s possible that the aversion to ambiguity is in fact one of the greatest wellsprings to storytelling.  A mystery demands examination and explanation.  Life is like a series of questions on an exam that you must complete regardless of whether or not you’ve studied.  Show your work for full credit.

Despite the willingness of a great majority of us to believe without question in supernatural beings directing both our collective and individual fates, that too is an example of needing an explanation for life’s mysteries, without, ironically, taking things on faith.  Yet even an atheist must, at times, marvel at the sense of imagination revealed in some of these extrapolations, like the richness of the mythology of ancient Greece spinning essentially from an attempt to figure out what lightning was and why it had a tendency to appear along with thunder.  If the Greeks had been okay with lightning just being there and had never bothered to question it, would we have had Zeus, Athena, Aphrodite and the great legends that gave us the Iliad, the Odyssey and so on?  Would said pantheon had arisen had they been able to look up lightning on Wikipedia (or the ancient Athenian stone tablet version of same) and seen that it was “a massive electrostatic discharge between electrically charged regions within clouds, or between a cloud and the Earth’s surface”?  Not sure about you, but Percy Jackson and the Electrostatic Discharge Thief isn’t quite as compelling a title.  There is magic lying hidden in the unknown, the unscientific, the story.

Assumptions in ambiguous situations can of course be wrong, and terribly so.  When we leap to conclusions about a group based on the traits of a few, we’re falling into the trap of the closed-minded, the ostrich with its head buried in the sand.  (Enough bloody human history has been written because of this tendency.)  The ideal approach to any unknown is to enter without preconceptions or expectations and let the details fill themselves in on their own.  But the instinct to grasp at conclusion, while occasionally troublesome, is part of what drives our curiosity about the world, our desperate need to understand why things are a certain way and not another way.  It is what makes us turn pages faster or even peek at the end to find out whether or not the butler did it.  And if the last page has been torn out, we’ll invent our own ending where it was the beautiful scheming mistress of the victim’s cousin’s former roommate.  As long as the mystery remains unresolved, someone will want to posit a solution.  And when the truth is unsatisfying, alternate interpretations will be suggested.  For nature abhors a vacuum.

So, back to the original premise:  why did I assume that the dog was male?  Because it fit the joke I was making, the story I was trying to tell in that place at that time.  It was my interpretation, my truth, in the moment, for the moment.  I recognize, in a most deliciously contradictory manner, that in examining the human relationship with ambiguity, I haven’t fully answered the question.  Instead, to paraphrase a line in The American President, I’ve kinda just left this thing hanging out there, for you to draw your own conclusions.  A propos, however; given the subject matter, it couldn’t really end any other way.  So, your turn.  Fill in the blank: _______________________

Hey you, get your damn hands off her

I was standing in the express lane at the grocery store, waiting to purchase dinner, tapping away on my smartphone.  Three places ahead of me in line was an older couple who were quite exasperated with the cashier, for reasons difficult to ascertain; something to do with the amount of change being incorrect.  The cashier, a young kid no more than twenty, was doing his best to be accommodating – this did not impress the older man, who decided at one point to slam his hand on the conveyor and yell at him.  Giving the older guy the benefit of the doubt just for the moment, he could have reached the end of his tether after a rotten day.  But that was no reason to take it out on the kid, who was not being rude, or dismissive, or in any way belligerent.  What surprised me most about the whole affair was how my stomach turned at the old guy’s outburst.  You know that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, having undergone the brainwash of the “Ludovico treatment,” starts heaving with nausea at any example of violence?  That was me.  It was this peculiar mix of revulsion and paralysis.  I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few weeks reflecting on this and wondering where it came from, trying to contextualize it in terms of my overall personality.  And the conclusion I have come to is this:  I hate bullies.

Liberals aren’t supposed to be hateful.  We are supposed to be the compassionate and empathetic turn-the-other-cheekers who look at the world in endless shades of nuance and complexity.  Yet I can summon no sympathy or understanding for anyone who preys on the weak; who tries to get their way by intimidation, smears, threats and the perpetuation of hatred and fear.  It isn’t that I just want to see bullies stop bullying, I want to see them humiliated and utterly destroyed.  I am positively gleeful at the thought of the arrogant asses of the world sobbing in the corner.  I see it as justice and fair retribution for the torment they have inflicted on other people.  And it frustrates me that what seems on the surface to be wishing only for karmic just desserts makes me no better than they are.

When the news broke of Andrew Breitbart’s death yesterday, I was appalled at my initial reaction, which was, essentially, good riddance.  This man devoted his life and career to spreading hatred of the things that I believe in.  But at the same time, he was somebody’s father and somebody else’s son – a man with a young family and kids that now have to grow up without their dad, a situation I can understand all too acutely.  Andrew Breitbart’s children don’t deserve that, and at the same time, he doesn’t deserve to not be around to watch them grow up.  Maybe that is what makes liberalism such a challenging philosophy to uphold – the need to be able to look deep into the soul of one’s opposition, into the recesses of the ugliness that repels us and tears at our most cherished tenets, and locate the mutual humanity.  As Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) puts it in The American President, “Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”  And to that say, Namaste.

What did I want to do in that moment in line?  What would have sated those intense feelings of anger and hatred simmering inside my gut?  Did I want to take a swing at the old man?  Did I want to excoriate him in a Sorkin-esque blaze of wit and erudition and Gilbert & Sullivan references?  Which of those options would have made it better?  The answer is, neither.

The perfect illustration of this dilemma, for me, is the climax of the first Back to the Future, when George McFly, thinking he’s playing out a scene to win the affections of Lorraine, realizes to his horror that he is in fact throwing down with his lifelong nemesis Biff Tannen.  Biff is such a detestable character, embodied memorably by Thomas F. Wilson, that everyone who watches the movie can’t help but smile when George finally decks him with one powerful left-handed haymaker.  But the crucial point of the moment is not the defeat of the bully – it’s George’s embrace of the confidence locked away inside him.  Biff doesn’t really learn much of a lesson or even stray very far from his bullying ways – it took two sequels to finally defeat his ilk once and for all – but George is forever a better man.  When we see George at the end of the first movie, he has no trouble dealing with Biff, and again, not because of one bloody nose, but because he recognizes Biff’s failings and pities him.  One can never be threatened by someone for whom you feel pity – it is an irreversible triumph, because it is a triumph of the soul.

Eventually the cashier and his manager were able to address the problems of the old couple and send them on their way – a happy ending for all concerned.  The rotten feeling I had inside, however, lets me know that I still have work to do on myself – I’m not George McFly at the end of the movie just yet.  And it remains ever difficult to find that pity in a time when bullies run rampant in our governments, our banks, our schools, tearing with greed at the very fabric of our civilization.  Yet ours too is a powerful flame, one that should be stoked constantly to ensure that our collective humanity shines on.  Our lasting impression upon history can be exemplified by the best of us, and those are the people I’d rather stand with.