Archive for October, 2010

Transformational… Reflective…?

In response to one comment on a recent blog, I noted that vocal music had changed over the last forty years, and another commenter made the point that languages evolve… both of which raised in my mind the question of the role art plays in societal evolution. Put bluntly, does art lead such transformations, or does it merely reflect them?  Or is it the usual mix of a little leading, and a great deal of reflection?

While I’m no art historian, it does appear to me that changes in the predominant or critically acclaimed styles of painting do not follow a pattern of gradual change, but occur irregularly, and at times, at least, preceded significant societal changes, as in the case of the rise of the impressionists, or the modern art movement of the 1950s.  Such changes also do not appear to be primarily gradualistic.

Music historians have placed classical music into periods, but how does one analyze the changes from one period to the next?  Were giants such as Bach and Mozart so dominant in their mastery that they forced the composers who followed them to innovate?  Beethoven’s great Ninth Symphony, which is unlike any other of its time and, for that matter, unlike any of quality any time soon thereafter, was composed at a time when the “old order” had been restored.  Was he reacting to the currents of past revolution, or anticipating the changes to come?  It’s easy enough to say that such questions were irrelevant to Beethoven, except that it’s unlikely that any creative soul is impervious to the environment, especially in Beethoven’s case, since the currents of politics swirled around Vienna during the period, especially after 1800, when his most daring works were composed.

Popular music, especially in the United States, underwent radical changes in the 1960s, and significant societal changes also occurred.  Did they occur in tandem, or did the music reinforce the impetus for change?  Can anyone truly say?

Science fiction aficionados often like to claim that SF leads the way into the future, but does it?  Isaac Asimov did foresee the pocket calculator, but the success record of the genre is pretty weak, either in predicting or inspiring social and technological changes.  Almost 40 years ago, in my very first story, I predicted computer analysis and economic modeling, somewhat accurately, as it turned out, and cybercrime as well, and while cybercrime has indeed become a feature of current society, I never predicted the most predominant type.  I did predict institutional cybercrime of the general type that caused the last economic meltdown, and, so far as I can tell, that story was one of the first, if not the first, to suggest that type of crime, but… somehow… I don’t think my little story inspired it.  I just saw where technology and trends might lead.

But, of course, that leaves open the question… how much do the arts influence the future?

The Resurgence of Rampant Tribalism

Several pieces of archeological “trivia” clicked together for me the other day.   First was an event in the early history of the United States, during the time period when the Indians had had enough and decided to push the English out of New England – in a conflict known as King Philip’s War, named for the young chief of the Wampanoag Indian tribe. Despite differing religious beliefs, the English colonists were united, while the Indians were fragmented into more than half a dozen local tribes, two of which, the Pequot and the Mohegan, supported the English.  On top of that, at a point when the English colonists were having great difficulty, the neighboring Mohawk tribe, rather than support King Philip, attacked the Wampanoag.

The second piece of informational trivia was the recollection that one of the contributing reasons for the Spanish success against the Aztecs was that tribes conquered by the Aztecs united with the Spaniards.  The third was an article in Archeology revealing recent discoveries about the ancient Etruscans, one of which was that, despite their initial control of the central Italian peninsula and a higher level of technology than the Romans, in the end Rome triumphed, largely because the Etruscan cities could never form a truly unified nation.  Greece is another example.  The ancient Greek city-states never could form a unified nation – except briefly in short-lived alliances and then under the iron fist of Alexander and, despite their comparatively advanced technology and civilization, ended up dominated by the Romans.

The largest single difference between a nation and a collection of tribes is that a nation is held together by an overriding set of common beliefs.  The United States began as a “tribal” confederation, but succeeded in unifying what amounted to regional tribes through the idea and principles of a federal republic… for a period of little more than sixty years before the beliefs of the southern “tribes” resulted in rebellion.  One of the contributing factors to the defeat of the South was the lack of cohesion between the “tribal states” of the southern confederacy, a lack exemplified by the fact that some southern railways had different gauge track systems from others – and it does get hard to move supplies when you have fewer railways and they don’t interconnect.

While history does not repeat itself in any exact fashion, patterns and “echoes” do, and one of the patterns of history is that large and unified countries almost always triumph over nations that are or resemble tribal confederations or over smaller nations.  Another pattern is that confederations or unions seldom endure.  They either merge into a nation of shared values, as did the United States, or they fragment, as did the former USSR.

The problem facing the United States, and the world, today is that tribalism is again becoming rampant, if more in the form of values, largely religious, that are increasingly intolerant of those with other values.  This tribalism, instead of seeking common ethical and practical grounds, manifests itself in demanding that those with other beliefs be repudiated, if not exiled or exterminated, and often demonizes those with comparatively minor differences in beliefs.

More than a few political scientists have theorized that this trend could conceivably, if unchecked, result in the political fragmentation of the United States into several nations.  While I’m not that skeptical, I do see that this tribalization has resulted in a growing failure of society and government and an increasing inability to deal with critical national problems, ranging from failing infrastructure to financial overcommitment and endless wars around the globe.

And… as another symptom… is it that surprising that one of the top-rated media shows is the “tribally-based” Survivor series?  More tribalism, anyone?

Beliefs… and the Future

Superficially, human beings differ to some degree, with variations in hair, eye, and skin color, as well as moderately differing musculature and size, but those external differentiations are as nothing compared to the differences in what we believe.  Here, too, there are degrees of variation, generally, but not always, based on culture.  That is, for example and for the most part, belief structures within Anglo-American culture fall along a certain spectrum, while those in Middle-Eastern Islamic cultures fall along another, while belief structures in East Asian cultures follow another general spectrum.  Obviously, the beliefs of any given individual may be wildly at variance with the culture spectrum or norms of where that person lives, but by definition, as a result of cultural development, in most cases either a majority or, where no majority culture exists, either the largest or the most powerful minority tends to dictate cultural norms and beliefs.

One area of belief in which there is little variation among human beings is the belief that “what I believe is the ‘right’ belief, and everyone else should believe as I do.”  There is little variation in this internal dictum because thinking organisms who do not innately have such a guide tend to die out quickly.  The difference among humans does not lie in the first part of that dictum, but in the second, in how much tolerance an individual or a culture has for the beliefs of others.

Now… obviously for any society to survive, there has to be a shared set of values… or chaos and societal dissolution, or revolt and disaster, will soon follow. But the question facing any society is what values are absolutely necessary to be shared and how will that sharing be enforced. Historically, such “belief” domination/values sharing has been established not just through cultural and religious pressure, but through force, including, but not limited to, war; genocide; economic, political, legal, and social discrimination.

In addition, those groups who see their values threatened have a tendency to protest and oppose the loss of such values, often with great violence.  Today, much of the Islamic Middle East feels enormously threatened by the secularistic, less-gender-role-driven, and materialistic western European value structure. In the United States, in particular, fundamentalist Christian faiths clearly feel threatened and angered by beliefs that run counter to their views on such issues as abortion and marriage, and one well-known writer has gone as far as to suggest he will oppose any U.S. government that creates a legal definition of marriage counter to the “traditional” one of a man and a woman.

This “need” for values domination has often been carried to extremes by individuals, groups, and even governments who have happened to believe that the world only belongs to the “chosen people” or  “the master race” or “those who can afford it” or some other exclusive definition… almost always with disastrous results and extremely high loss of life.

Enter technology.  Technology requires certain shared values.  It also creates great dissemination of knowledge, as well as being an extremely effective tool for indoctrination and communication.  These factors, as well as a number of others, threaten many “traditional” values.  At the same time, the higher the level of technology, the greater the need for certain core shared values, that is, if one wants to keep that technology operational in a world that is getting smaller and smaller.

The additional problem today is that, like it or not, small groups, and even individuals, and certainly governments all have the power to create large-scale disasters, with violent societal and physical disruptions, either to impose their values, or to rebel against the imposition of other beliefs and values.  Moreover, as recent studies have begun to indicate, as such disruptions escalate, another group of individuals enters the dynamic, what one might best call “opportunistic terrorists,” who either use similar tactics for commercial profit, such as the Latin and South American drug cartels, or for personal fame or just because they enjoy the acts of terrorism.

In my view, and it is only my opinion, human society as a whole faces three possible futures:  (1) technological collapse because the values conflicts cannot be resolved; (2) the gradual imposition of  shared values through indoctrination and commercial and political pressure, as is happening in China today, and to a lesser degree in western cultures; or (3) greater understanding and cooperation in working out a “core values” framework that will allow a range of differing beliefs around the world.

The way matters are going right now, it appears options one and two are fighting it out, because no one wants to compromise enough to give option three a chance.

In Praise of Poetry – True Poetry

The other day I was reading a well-known “literary” periodical with large circulation… and I noticed something… and then I read another periodical of the same ilk – and I noticed the same thing.  So I went back, both through the various magazines, as well as my memory, and realized that, no indeed, my memory was not playing tricks on me.

And what was it that I noticed?  I’ll get to that… in a moment.

But first… poetry.  According to A Handbook to Literature, “The first characteristic of poetry, from the standpoint of form, is rhythm…”  The rather lengthy definition also notes that poetry is “characterized by compactness, intense unity, and a climactic order,” expressed with the vital element of concreteness and noting that one of the strengths of Shakespeare’s poetry is that almost every line “presents a concrete image.”

Many years ago, both when I studied poetry and later published some in long-vanished small magazines, there were still poets who believed and worked along those lines, who regularly wrote sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and other strict poetic forms and who understood and could work with a range of metric forms and rhythms.  And because I tend to appreciate the beauty of language and form, those are the poets whom I read and praise… and the kind that I still seek and seldom find.

That most of what is published as poetry today, even by many publications with literary credentials and pretensions, is what one critic [whose name I can’t recall, or I’d cite him or her] called “greeting card free verse,”  devoid of strict (or even loose) metrics.  And much of the popularity of current so-called poetry rests on the spoken presentation of the work, rather than upon the structure and the words themselves.  Great poetry should not require a great speaker, but should sound great and shake the mind when recited by anyone of average intelligence and speech.

This trend toward greeting card verse and emphasis on presentation rather than substance is certainly why I take out my well-worn copies of William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and William Shakespeare, among others, when I wish to read poetry.  And yes, when I go to various bookstores, I do browse through the “current” poetry sections… and carefully replace the books I’ve perused on the shelves.  Now… I won’t claim that there’s no one out there who’s actually writing full-fledged poetry, but I will claim that, based on a fairly wide reading habit, there certainly aren’t many “poets” who are published today that merit the title in terms of the standards of the past.

As for what I noticed in those “literary” publications… it was that none of what was published as poetry in the issues I read or could find in recent months would have been called poetry until the last half century or so.  Robert Frost once made the observation that writing so-called free verse was like playing tennis with the net down.  Almost anyone could do it and call themselves a poet.

And that is why I praise the great poets who could and can encapsulate vivid images and meaning in rhythmic, rhymed forms without sounding stilted or forced and with words whose sounds, allusions, and connotations stir the mind and soul.

Those who can do all that… they are true poets.

English… Please

There’s a growing, if underground, backlash against bilingualism in the United States, against the proliferation of directions and instructions in languages other than English, against ballots printed in Spanish, against ATMs with foreign language options.  Yet, from what I’ve observed, while I do believe that the legal language of the United States is and should remain English, so many of those who demand action or legislation to reinforce this are missing the linguistic boat.

The United States is indeed a nation of immigrants, and all too many youngsters today seem to have lost some of the skills of their parents.  For example, fewer and fewer of them can write adequately the language written and spoken by their parents.  This wouldn’t be such a loss… except the language I’m talking about is English, American English in particular. And I’m also not talking about those young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  I’m referring to the vast majority of white Caucasian high school graduates from “good” urban or suburban high schools.

This linguistically disadvantaged majority – and actual tests of proficiency in English reading, writing, and comprehension show clearly this lack of ability – does not know basic grammar, basic spelling, or the construction and use of their native tongue. This spills over into everything, from essays to business correspondence, from newspaper and magazine articles even to headlines, not to mention blogs and advertisements. The number and percentage of grammatical and spelling errors in publications has increased dramatically.  I’ve gone back and checked older publications, and such lack of skill and care either didn’t exist or was caught by editors and proof-readers.

The same lack of precision in language permeates popular music – assuming one can even decipher the abysmal diction of most singers in order to suffer through grammatical inaccuracies and debasement of a once-proud language.  In point of fact, it’s amazing to realize that the music once considered almost degraded and backwoods-derived – country music, to be exact – is perhaps the only form of current popular vocal music where the majority of the lyrics can actually be understood.

Yes… a small percentage of Americans continue to write well and skillfully, but that proportion is declining every year, paradoxically at a time when recent studies show that the mastery of language equates directly to the mastery of thought and ideas.  Might it just be possible… just possibly… that the decline in the ability of Americans to articulate and understand the complexities of our society lies in the decline of their linguistic abilities?  Mastery of language is not merely the knowledge of vocabulary, but the ability to construct sentences that are clear and logical, and to understand those that are logically complex.  In short, clear thinking requires a good command of language, and there’s definitely a shortage of clear thinking today.

Why are simplistic political or commercial sound-bites so successful?  Is it because the euphony of simplicity appeals so much more readily to those who are linguistically disadvantaged?  Or because those whose language skills have atrophied or were never developed have difficulty in understanding anything more complex?

Whatever the reason, the English-only partisans seem unwilling and unable to understand that they’re well on the way to losing their battle… and they’re losing it from within.

While citing history is usually doomed to failure, because so few understand its parallels, or want to, I will point out that Latin was once the language that ruled the world.  As it became debased, so did Rome… to the point where Latin is a dead language, and Italian bears but a passing resemblance to the language it replaced… and… oh… Italy couldn’t even reunite itself until more than 1,900 years after the death of Julius Caesar.

The Cult of Self and the Decline of Manners

Last weekend, we went to a party, one that marked a significant set of dates in the lives of some friends and one to which we were invited with a large engraved invitation.  I did note a phrase at the bottom which read, “Cocktail Attire.”  Now it may be that I come from a very conservative background, but to me that suggested a coat and tie at the very least, and apparel of a similar nature for my wife – which indeed we did wear. The event was catered and featured an array of excellent foods, from appetizers to deserts, and a range of beverages from water to expensive liquors and champagnes.  Each couple, or individual, was given a set of wineglasses with the dates and the symbols in gold lettering.

But frankly, I was appalled at what many of the guests wore – faded jeans and polo shirts, women in beach capris.  I will admit I didn’t see any tee-shirts and short-shorts, but that was more likely due to the fact that the temperature was in the high 60s than to the taste, or lack of it, on the part of some of those attending. At one point, a famed and world-class pianist performed… and almost no one listened or moderated their conversations, even after the host asked for quiet.

What was even more surprising to me was that none of those attending would have been considered less than substantial members of the community.  The guests included doctors, lawyers, accountants, university officers and professors, prosperous ranchers, business professionals, and the like.  Exactly what did perhaps a quarter of those attending fail to understand about “cocktail attire”?  And if they did not wish to dress for the occasion, there was no need to attend.  It certainly wasn’t even an indirectly compulsory event.

This sort of behavior isn’t limited to events such as these.  Even after warnings that cell phones, cameras, texting, and the like are prohibited at local concerts, there are always those who still persist in electronic disruptions – or other disruptions – of  performances, and despite stated policies against bringing infants to performances, there are still would-be patrons who protest.

All of these instances, any many more, reflect a lack of courtesy and manners.  Dressing appropriately for an event equates not only to manners, but also to respect for those giving the event.  Being quiet in an audience is a mark of respect for the performers.

So… why are so many people – especially those who, from their levels of education and professions, should know better – so ill-mannered and often disrespectful?  Part of it may be that, frankly, their parents failed to teach them manners.  Mostly, however, I think it is the growth of the cult of self – the idea that each person is the center of his or her universe and can wear what he or she wants whenever he or she wants to, can say what they like whenever they want.  Yet these same individuals can become extremely bellicose if anyone ever suggests that their behavior infringes on someone else’s freedom to speak, etc.  The parents who insist that their children be respected by a teacher are all too often totally disrespectful of the teacher. Then there are the citizens who demand that law enforcement officers be civil and respectful under the most trying of circumstances, but who are anything but that when stopped for traffic or other infractions.  Or customers who would bridle at the slightest hint of frustration by a sales clerk, but who have no hesitation about berating those clerks over matters beyond the control of the salespeople.

This goes beyond personal interactions as well, so that we have a political arena filled with name-calling, misrepresentation, and hatred.  I’m not saying that we should all agree, because we never will on all matters, but we might well have a more livable world if we remembered that not a single one of us is the center of the world and that shouting at someone is only going to make them want to shout back.  Manners were developed in order to reduce unnecessary conflict and anger, and it’s too bad that all too many people seem to have forgotten that.

The Arrogance of Religious Leaders

On Sunday, Boyd K. Packer, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, thundered forth against the “immorality” of same sex attractions and declared that the only marriage was that of a man and a woman and that such marriage was one of “God’s laws.”  Packer went on to equate this “law” with the “law of gravity” by stating “A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. Do you think a vote to repeal the law of gravity would do any good?”  While some members of Congress might well try that if they thought it would get them re-elected, I find Packer’s statements not only chilling in their arrogance, but also typical of the ignorance manifested by so many high-profile religious figures.

Like it or not, same-sex attraction has been around so long as there have been human beings.  The same behavior pattern exists in numerous other species of mammals and birds.  What Packer fails to grasp, or willfully ignores, is that laws of nature aren’t violated.  The universe does not have large and significant locations where gravity [or Einstein’s version of it] doesn’t exist, and there certainly haven’t been any such locations discovered on Earth.  Were the heterosexual behavior that Packer extols actually a “law of nature,” there would be no homosexual behavior, no lesbian behavior.  It couldn’t happen.  It does.  Therefore, the heterosexual patterns demanded and praised by Mormon church authorities are not God’s inflexible laws; they’re codes of behavior created by men [and except for Christian Science, pretty much every major religious code has been created by men] attempting to discern a divine will in a world where there is absolutely no proof, in the scientific sense [regardless of the creationist hodgepodge], that there even is such a supreme deity. God may exist, or God may not, but actual proof is lacking.  That’s why religious systems are called “beliefs” or “faiths.”

Thus, to assert that a particular code of human behavior is “God’s law” is arrogance writ large.  For a Mormon church authority to do so, in particular, is not only arrogant, but hypocritical.  Little more than a century ago, the Mormon culture and beliefs sanctioned polygamous relationships as “God’s law.”  Well… if God’s laws are immutable, then why did the LDS Church change them?  If the LDS Church authorities recognized that they were wrong in the past, how can they claim that today’s “truth” is so assuredly God’s law?  What will that “truth” be in a century?

While Newton’s “law of gravity” has been modified since its promulgation centuries ago, it still operates as it always did, not as men would have it operate, unlike so many of the so-called laws of God promulgated by men.  Since time immemorial [human time, anyway], humans have exhibited a range of sexual attractions and practices.  Like it or not, those suggest that the laws of nature, and presumably of God, for those who believe in a supreme deity, not only allow, but require for at least some people, differing sexual attraction.  Societies may in fact need to, and should, prohibit cruel and depraved practices, such as those involving unwilling participants or children… but to declare that one set of sexual customs is the only acceptable one, under the guise that it is God’s law, remains arrogant, ignorant, and hypocritical.

The Leadership Problem

Political, organizational, and corporate leaders are  either outsiders or insiders.  Insiders who rise to leadership positions almost always do so by mastering the existing structures and ways of doing things.  In short, the best of them do what has always been done, hopefully better, while the worst cling to the most comfortable ways of the past, often rigidly enforcing certain rules and procedures, whether or not they’re the best for the present times.

On the other hand, outsiders who become leaders of established organizations or institutions are generally far more open to change.  In addition, such leaders carry with them ideas and practices that have worked in other settings.  As a result, as I’ve observed over the years, both in government and business, “outsider” leaders all too often impose changes without any understanding of the history and processes that created the practices and procedures that worked in the past for the organization…and that still do, even if not so well as the leader and those the organization serves would like.

Like it or not, there are reasons why institutions behave the way they do, and a leader needs to understand those reasons and the conditions that created them before attempting to make changes.  Also, at times, the environment changes, and the impact of those changes affects behavior.  One of the greatest changes in the political environment in the last century has been the combination of the electronic information revolution with the pervasiveness of the media.  The end result has been to make almost any sort of political compromise impossible, as witness the recent electoral defeats of politicians who have attempted or supported compromise.  While “purists” attack and condemn any politician who even attempts a compromise political solution, governing is difficult, if not impossible, without compromise, since most nations, especially the United States, are composed of people with differing interests.

Thus, a political leader who wishes to hold on to power cannot compromise, at least not in any way that the media can discover, but since actual change requires at least partial support from those with other views, any leader who manages change effectively destroys his own power base.

In the corporate world similar factors play out, with the major exception that a corporate leader is under enormous pressure to maintain/increase market share and profits.  So is every division head under that leader, and, as I’ve observed, time after time, subordinates are all too willing to implement changes that benefit their bottom line but increase the burdens and costs on every other division/part of the organization.  Likewise, I’ve seen so-called efficiency/streamlining measures imposed from the top end up costing far more than the previous “inefficiencies” because all too many organizational leaders failed to understand that different divisions and/or subsidiaries had truly different cost structures and needs and that “one size does not fit all.”

In the end, a great deal of the “leadership” problem boils down to two factors: lack of understanding on the part of both leaders and followers and the unwillingness/inability to compromise.  Without understanding and compromise, organizations…and nations… eventually fragment and fail.