Well-Written…. But…

On a recent trip, I read a book by an author I’ve known, on and off, for more than twenty years, a book that had gotten good reviews from a publication that seldom gives them. I’d never read the author’s work, but others I know have and thought highly of it. So I read the book.

The first thing I’ll say is that it was extraordinarily well-written. The language, the sentence structure, the revelations about the main character, the pacing… and I had to force myself to finish the work, although I did.

Why did I have such trouble reading to the end? Because it was about an extremely gifted and creative artist, who was intelligent and perceptive, often empathetic, and sometimes kind… yet also arrogantly and persistently self-destructive in pursuit of greater and greater “shock value” in the name of artistic creativity. The writer portrayed the protagonist brilliantly, and in a fashion that left little doubt about the writer’s understanding of the protagonist’s struggles, faults, and failures in dealing with the world, but primarily in dealing with other largely self-destructive and arrogant individuals. The book ends on a single upbeat note… with the absolute implication that the struggles, failures, and self-destructive behavior will continue past that momentary resolution and single grace note of happiness.

In some ways, it’s almost a masterpiece, and in some readers’ minds it likely is. It’s certainly true to life, because I’ve not only read about such self-destructive behavior, but I’ve also seen it and known individuals like that, particularly creative ones. I’ve also seen far too many painters, film-makers, writers, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and others attempt to perpetuate shock value for the sake of shock value while touting it as creativity. The book certainly raises the question of whether creativity and self-destruction are the two faces of the same coin, as well as the suggestion that there’s a darkness beneath the font of creativity, and to that last possibility I’d have to agree. With what I don’t agree is the near-absolute correlation the author suggested between extreme creativity, shock value, and self-destructive behavior, although there’s little doubt in my mind that there have been and likely always will be those highly creative individuals who are also highly self-destructive.

In the end, I could barely finish the book simply because I find that self-destructive behavior, and shock value for the sake of shock value by creative individuals is a waste of human potential and talent, perhaps a tragedy in the case of those who cannot help themselves, but all too often a failure to accept the fact that creativity is almost never fully appreciated by the majority of the human species and almost invariably is ranked well behind material sustenance and personal power, regardless of the greatness and excellence of that creativity… or the toll taken on those who create.

A book that portrays creativity as the path to self-destruction and near nihilism certainly represents one possible life-path, especially today, when the public value of any artist is measured primarily by the cashbox, and when all too often the excesses of shock value are highly rewarded. I just can’t praise a book so depressing, or find a character that unwilling or unable to turn away from the darkness worth either a mention by name or a read of subsequent adventures. Creating is hard enough and good creators scarce enough that reading about those who cannot deal with the pressures and the challenges of their own abilities [and turn to the dark side, if you will] is the last thing I want to read about. But sometimes, it takes just such a book to remind me of that.

Expectations

We all have expectations, pretty much about everything, and from what I can tell, that’s the “normal” condition for human beings. We also have a tendency to rate, judge, or assess much of life and its components by how well those people, items, products, books, movies, and even the weather meet our expectations. That’s also normal.

The problem with that “normal” behavior, however, is that our assessments, and thus, our expectations, may not be especially accurate or in accord with the expectations of others. If we’re reasonably accurate in our assessments, and so are all those with whom we associate, few are likely to question us, and those questions are easily dismissed.

But what if our assessments are not all that accurate, and we’re in agreement with most of those with whom we associate? The general reaction, from what I’ve observed, is, again, to dismiss contrary opinions as inaccurate and unfounded, and to re-affirm bonds with those with whom we associate. Sometimes those dismissals even take the form of “I expected better of….”

But when time and events demonstrate absolutely that certain expectations were wrong, how many people ever admit that past assessments and expectations were in fact inaccurate.

Again, from what I’ve observed… very few. Reactions range from denying that one ever had that opinion to denying that the facts and events even existed. Today, the Turkish government is busily denying that millions of Armenians were killed about a century ago, despite a wealth of absolute evidence. Millions of Christian believers deny evolution and some even deny the age of the universe, again, despite a massive amount of rather substantial evidence.

I do wonder what the rabid supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders will say when it becomes factually obvious that what those two promise cannot and will not be accomplished. Will they claim they were deceived by their expectations? Or will they blame the candidates? Or blame those of us who never had any positive expectation that they would accomplish political miracles? Or will they say, “I expected better…”

Conflict Management…

…might just as well be called dominance management, because conflict usually arises when two parties can’t agree with each other. The most likely results are: (1) one party gives in rather than deal with the conflict; (2) one party forces the other to give in through greater force of some sort, physical strength, financial strength, political strength, strength of personality, sheer endurance, some combination of those, or the threat of those; (3) compromise of some sort; or (4) total disengagement, which can range from polite and cordial agreement to disagree to absolute and continued hostility, either concealed or overt.

Most people, I’ve discovered, don’t think of conflicts in that way, but from what I’ve observed that’s the spectrum of responses to ideological, political, financial, or physical conflicts.

What complicates such conflicts is usually, but not always, the assumption by one or both of the parties of some form of superiority, either moral, intellectual, or physical, which can make any form of real agreement difficult. And when one party is forced to agree to or to accept the terms of the other party, the result is almost inevitably anger and resentment, particularly when the party forced to agree believes fervently in his or her moral or intellectual superiority, which is all too often the case, or that they’ve been wronged in some fashion.

That also means when someone is coerced/forced into agreement against their will, such agreement will only last so long as the “superior” party can enforce their will.

All of which is a reason why the United States eventually “loses” wars and conflicts in places like Vietnam and the Middle East, because we don’t want to pay the price for continuing to enforce our desires on others, which is what is necessary when the belief structure of the majority of the people of a country is at odds with our belief structure. In places where we have “won,” it has taken generations of occupation to shift belief structures, and, in the case of our own southern states of the Confederacy, one could make the case that even 150 years later, those “old south” belief structures still persist in a large number of people.

That doesn’t mean the United States can always avoid using force, but if we don’t want to spend or bleed ourselves dry, most use of force should be restricted to simply stopping the worst of what we can stop, without attempting to force ideological/political change on other cultures.

On the domestic front, we’ll also end up locked in an exhausting and debilitating deadlock unless we return to the basics of the “civil society” envisioned by the Founding Fathers, that is, a society based on a compromise over what should be legal and what should not be, because with more than a fifth of the country now identifying themselves as non-religious, and with very differing core beliefs between evangelicals and other faiths, any attempt to impose religion-based strictures on the entire population will only fuel more conflict… and that’s the last thing any of us need in these troubling times.

The No-Action Default

Philosophers have debated what is a good or moral action for thousands of years, but from what I can tell, there’s one aspect of the problem that I’ve not seen often debated – and that’s what constitutes an act or action.

This might be illustrated by the “runaway trolley” dilemma. An empty trolley breaks loose and is heading down the track toward a group of five unsuspecting workers. A bystander sees a switch and realizes that she can throw the switch and divert the trolley onto another track, where there is only one worker. Should she turn the switch?

If she does, one argument goes, she has taken an action that will kill one person, and that death is by her act. If she does nothing, the trolley does what it would do, absent intervention, and kills five, but the bystander did not cause those deaths.

Now, speaking frankly, I think the reasoning here is absurd, but it’s clear that there’s a school of thought [the intentionalist school] that believes that it’s somehow less moral to throw the switch because that’s an affirmative act that causes a death. The results school of thought, of course, simply says that one death is preferable to five.

To my way of thinking, the problem with the intentionalist view is that it doesn’t recognize that the failure to act is in fact an action. Deciding not to act should be judged on the same grounds as acting is.

Yet more and more I see people deciding not to act, or not to get involved, because they see all courses of action, particularly in politics, as immoral or unethical. All too often, they’re correct about the perceived courses of action, but what I don’t think they’re correct about is that not acting, i.e., participating, discussing, voting, even running for office, is also an immoral action, because it abdicates responsibility for the outcome to those who are willing to dirty their hands, particularly since, in this day and age, those willing to speak out long and loudly, and vote, and persuade others to do so, seem to be those who represent the extremes in civil dialogue and politics.

Today, in a political sense in the U.S., we’re facing a form of the runaway trolley dilemma, and part of the dilemma occurred in the past when fewer and fewer non-extremists decided not to get involved in grass-roots politics, either through inertia or through the misguided belief that political involvement was immoral.

Failure to act is an act.

Terrorism

Currently, it appears as though terrorism is almost everywhere in the world in some form or another, and while Islamic/Jihadist terrorists seem to be the most visible and active, they’re certainly not the only ones.

What tends to get overlooked both in dealing with terrorists and terrorism is the long-term result of such activities. The immediate result is, of course, hundreds and thousands of deaths and injuries annually, and a great deal of anger and fear. For all of the so-called idealism or religious fervor of the Islamic terrorists, the goal of their terrorism isn’t to inspire the creation of some great Islamic state. It’s to disorganize and destroy civil society, to create chaos and unrest, and to demonstrate that civil society cannot cope with terrorism. Once such chaos exists, the only way to restore order is through absolute force – and in the Middle East in particular the only unified forces that exist are largely based on some version of Islam.

But what gets overlooked in all of this is that terrorist acts and murders don’t in themselves destroy civil society. Popular reaction to those acts does. Moreover, the popular reaction is almost always the strongest in countries and societies that already have the most authoritarian and repressive societies. It doesn’t matter that the Taliban might be even worse than the Afghan warlords; the warlords are so oppressive and corrupt that there’s already little love of the civil society, especially in a land that still remains tribally fragmented. It also doesn’t matter that ISIS is even worse than the Syrian government… and so it goes.

This kind of scenario is scarcely new. In a way, the Russian revolution followed a similar path, as did China, and much of southeast Asia… and the groups that had already gathered and mustered a monopoly on force were the ones who ended up governing.

A strong civil society is the greatest bulwark against the long-term effects of terrorism, but for a civil society to remain strong requires that the great majority of people support it. In turn, the greater the degree of oppression, perceived inequality and discrimination, and the greater the perception that there is no hope of advancement and improvement for most people, the more likely terrorism will be effective in fragmenting a society… which is the first step to revolution or social chaos and break-down.

Does that sound at all familiar?