Art: it’s what’s for humanity

My mother at Chicago Art Institute
My mother at Chicago Art Institute

My high school career had very little to recommend it, but one highlight was an art teacher named Bob Rock. Which is certainly one of the coolest names any teacher ever had. In the years since then, I have watched public schools march relentlessly away from everything human. There is less art, less music, less “shop”, less poetry, more keyboarding skills, more PowerPoint. Less making, less communicating. You understand, of course; budgets. That is, to put it mildly, a mistake.

When the work is done, students will be able to read an invoice and tell a robot to pack 300 cartons of frozen french fries on the truck, which will drive itself to its destination. Or come to think of it, the human may not be needed at all, except at the consuming end. If you are thinking there is a fatal flaw in that model, you are correct.

The lifelong work of being human

The Bean at night
Why are people drawn to art? A question that may forever elude marketing experts (but no one else)

I don’t know if art is uniquely human, but it is very human. For the most part we get up in the morning, brush our teeth, go to work, Do The Thing In That Place, go home, and consume art created by others before going to bed. That last part is good, but go beyond it. Make some art of your own.

When you sing in the shower, that is art. Draw a little cartoon on an envelope – art. Dance a little bit when you hear the music? Art again. Even take a selfie in front of a public sculpture? Yes that too, is art. It doesn’t matter if your work will never be on PBS or hang in a gallery; you are pushing back the cold and insensate, however briefly, and saying “Human being, here!” That habit is worth expanding, even in the face of derision.

Do a project. Write a poem or a story and post it on Facebook. Push back.

NOTES:

  • The woman in the picture above, my mother, was born before dial telephones were very common. She has just traveled from Seattle to Chicago to visit her son and to see the Chicago Art Institute. On the day before this picture, she had walked 2 miles, refusing a cab, refusing a wheelchair. We visited favorite art, and saw works that were new to us.
    Autofocus sometimes fails to work well. So this picture of my mother will never be bigger than 600 pixels. Even so, you can see her posture.
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Things We Used To Say: remembering the past or being condemned to repeat it

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Remember that saying? It’s something we repeat when we want to sound wise. And like most of those aphorisms, we should be ready to change our behavior. You know, to be wise, instead of just sounding.

Richard Nixon
“I am not a crook.” – actual quote from Richard Nixon

Did you know that Senator Richard Nixon, candidate for president, interfered in the international peace negotiations of the Vietnam war, undermining a sitting president, to get elected president himself? A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s a historical fact, confirmed by archives and FBI wiretaps.

As Nixon said, “mistakes were made”. Don’t talk to me about mistakes. Mistakes are as big as the results they cause. Besides, it was no mistake; it was a deliberate act. He set up teams to carry it out.

Think about the damage it did to our country. The war ground on for another 7 years. Twenty thousand more American troops died, while countless more were maimed or mentally destroyed for the rest of their natural lives. Nobody knows how many Vietnamese died. Nixon has an ocean of blood and a mountain of human suffering on his hands… and so does Kissinger. If that isn’t prison-worthy (and I’m talking life imprisonment here) then I don’t know what possibly could be.

Just this week, 47 US Senators tried to interfere with international negotiations with Iran, ten years in the making, to undermine a sitting US president, so they could recapture the White House. Never mind that their express intention is to foment war with Iran.

How much human blood, how much American treasure, would ever be too much for anyone who could possibly think that could be OK?

There’s no bottom to this ethical hole.

Jim Wright on the Second Coming of Richard Nixon
Jim Wright on the Second Coming of Richard Nixon

Go read what this retired US Navy officer has to say. He isn’t a chickenhawk, promoting war while staying as far away from it as possible. Read his thoughts on Nixon, and his open letter to the 47 Senators who wrote that Iran letter. It won’t fit in 140 characters; in fact most people will take about 15 minutes to read the whole thing.

Trust me, historical perspective is worth the 15 minutes.

NOTES:

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  • Nixon’s first vice-president, Spiro Agnew, had to resign in a plea deal to avoid prison. Nixon used the same dodge.
  • I remember Nixon ducking out of impeachment proceedings; I was working in an orchard and we watched the Watergate hearings during lunch breaks. He said he was worried about the trauma that impeachment would inflict on the nation. Only later did archives reveal he was trying to avoid anyone finding out about this.  As would surely have been happened in an impeachment.
  • Bonus question: how many countries has Iran invaded in the last, say, 100 years?
  • Things We Used To Say is a series I started on my old blog. At the top of the page is a link to the whole series on both blogs.
  • The first person who whinges about profanity in the linked post will be mocked, without mercy.

“Damn you sir; you will try”

It seems strange to ask; “What is Star Trek?”

Enterprise_phonewithstars
Starship Enterprise… phone; click to embiggen

At first glance, it looks like a campy science-fiction series about warp drive and aliens and phasers, and a very recognizable starship. And a certain cast ensemble led by a swashbuckling captain and a logical alien.

But those things are just the setting, not the gemstone. The gemstone is an idea. To be specific, Gene Roddenberry’s idea. Without that idea, you don’t have Star Trek, you have something else.

“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
– Gene Roddenberry

GeneRoddenberry - photo from TrekCore.com Roddenberry had a lot of restrictions on him. He fought to have black crew members. He resorted to bookkeeping trickery to keep Nichelle Nichols on the bridge. The show couldn’t have been made at all if it weren’t somewhat an artifact of the visual conventions of its time. But in all that, he pursued this idea about humanity. That we don’t have to hate. That we don’t have to kill… today. That our differences may actually be a good thing, if we learn to look at them the right way.  We can learn from each other.

We can choose to be better than we have been. We can value intelligence and logic, over aggression. The fact that we have not done it yet, doesn’t mean we can’t do it. Star Trek is US, imagining what it would be like. There were some silly episodes, yes. Some driven by network executives. But everywhere, the idea.

If you have only seen JJ Abrams’ hyper-amped-up action films* of the same name, you might not realize that in Roddenberry’s vision, Captain Kirk was fully qualified to be in command of the flagship. The Enterprise was a powerful ship, a ship of consequence. To make decisions with that kind of power, Starfleet needed a captain who was absolutely obsessed with ethics. Many episodes revolved specifically around the captain wrestling with some ethical conundrum. Or on occasion, his failure to do so.

When Kirk needed an external conscience, (which was fairly often) his officers were a rare kind. Especially Spock. A misfit in both his father’s and mother’s cultures, he has no real home, except on a ship. He is the voice of science, of peace, of logic. He valued life, pondered ethics, and calculated risks.

The crew checked each other. Even Spock went wrong sometimes.

All fiction begins with “What would things be like if they were different?”

Roddenberry asked us all to imagine: How far could humanity go, if we could stop killing each other and work together? He had no illusions that this would be simple or easy. In fact, by comparison, war-making is easy.

Seriously, how hard could it be to get young men stirred up, and engineers interested in weapons, and politicians to posture over some conflict that will look trivial to our descendants? We’ve been doing it for our entire recorded history. It is the well-explored path. It’s like a play we don’t how to stop performing. We know exactly where it ends up, over, and over again. Except we’re always sure this conflict will be different.

But Peace? Now, THAT’s the Undiscovered Country. We’ve barely begun to think about it as a challenge worthy of our existence. Peace is more than the absence of war. It is more than cold war; it is more than keeping our enemies more frightened of us, than we are of them.

The hardest things require thinking in a new way. We would need to overcome fear. In effect, to master ourselves. In Roddenberry’s world, waging peace was a lot more complicated than just disarming Yes, there were dangers, so the Federation was no pushover. But waging peace requires seeing things from the other person’s point of view. It means playing the long game, as many steps ahead as you can possibly muster.

“But what if it doesn’t WORK?!” cries our war-conditioned amygdala. Well in that case, we fail, and maybe even die. But those things can happen in war, too. When you care about something, you take risks for it. The universe doesn’t give a damn one way or the other what we do, but we can try. We can goddamn well try.

Roddenberry was optimistic enough to create a universe where the Federation grew by acting on these principles, not by wars of conquest. And even though the stories were told from a human point of view he credited meeting the Vulcans as the historical turning point of our species. Vulcans had had enough of the passions that led to war. In the Trek universe, we didn’t become like them, but we were inspired by them.

There’s enough cynicism and despair in the world already. Star Trek is almost unique in its optimism. I can think of no reason not to adopt it in the real world.

If we fail to do better, it isn’t fate; it’s a tragic and stupid choice.

Space_shuttle_enterprise_star_trek-cropcast

NOTES:

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  • This post was prompted by the passing of Leonard Nimoy. I always knew I liked him, but my own grief at his passing took me by surprise. I really teared up, and realized his life had affected mine in unexpected ways. And certainly the lives of many other people. Read up on him; that was a life well-lived, and we are all richer for it.
  • Jon Stewart speaks for all of us to JJ Abrams for the mess he made of Star Trek. *My response is a lot more visceral: When JJ Abrams says he didn’t like Star Trek because it was “Too philosophical”, I can only say to him: Screw you. Go create your own goddamn franchise, you unoriginal hack.
  • While I was writing this post, Lance Mannion wrote “Fascinating.”: Random thoughts on Leonard Nimoy, Mr Spock, the romance of Jim Kirk and Carol Marcus, and J.J. Abrams’ plot to ruin Star Trek.
  • Leonard Nimoy was a mensch.
  • Bonus points if you know where the title quote of this post is from, and how I’ve intentionally misapplied it.
  • Enterprise_Phone_Talking
    Pretending to talk on the Enterprise phone.

    The model of the Enterprise shown above, is actually a telephone that someone once gave to me. When it “rings”

    Enterprise_PhoneOnStand
    Enterprise phone: click to embiggen

    (Bridge hail sound) you pick up the saucer section and talk into it. The nacelles don’t light up; I retouched the photo a bit for that effect. In the photo at left, you can see the RJ-11 phone jack. It’s actually way too fragile to use as a phone, but it’s a nice model of my favorite spaceship.

  • Some other time, I’ll write about other Trek captains. Suffice to say, I’m a big fan of Picard and Sisko.
  • IO9: Why Star Trek Voyager Meant The World To Me
  • Strange Horizons; Freshly Remembered, Kirk Drift. An outstanding deconstruction of the popular remembrance of Kirk as being anything like Zapp Brannigan, or even worse, the Kirk in JJ Abrams’ films. An hour-long read that touches as well on the same phenomenon as it applies to other literature including Charles Dickens and Helen Keller.