Considering Tyranny on Independence Day

The founding fathers did something special when they designed the United States of America, with its branches of government designed to keep one another in check and protect the personal freedoms of individual citizens. For many Americans, though, the Constitution is something of a magical document, and the ideals of freedom and justice amount to some mighty magical thinking. For many Americans, oppression, corruption, human rights atrocities and war are things faced by other people in other countries — here in the USA, we’re protected by that magical document. We’re exceptional. We’re safe.

Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, would like you to consider that this magical notion of safety is nonsense, which you may entertain at your extreme peril. On November 15, 2016, Snyder wrote on Facebook, “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.”

He’s right.

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

In his book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Snyder presents the expanded and fleshed-out versions of the 20-point list (from that much-circulated Facebook post) of ways free citizens can protect their liberty and each other in politically unstable and frightening times. This slim volume is packed with ample reasons why we should care about doing so, and chilling, cautionary illustrations from 20th century history.

This 4th of July, as we take a day off to meditate on what makes our country special, let’s also consider how we can keep it. On Tyranny offers grim warning alongside essential hope.

One of Jasper Johns “Flag” paintings, 1960-66.

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An Artist Date with ferocious flowers

I haven’t been strictly following the weekly structure, but in my own haphazard and meandering way, this year I’ve been happily working and playing through Julia Cameron’s classic book, The Artist’s Way. By that I mean, I’ve been reading it here and there, writing my Morning Pages when I feel like it and sometimes even when I don’t, and whenever I’m feeling “stuck” or uninspired, I turn to the exercises and ideas contained within. I highly recommend this, whatever type of artist or human you happen to be.

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Review: The limits of “Grit”

Grit is considered a “must-read” by many in my professional circle. For good reason – it’s an engaging, thought-provoking book. It’s useful and satisfying for its clear explanation of the core concept of grit (which is essentially: passionate perseverance) and its many inspirational stories. It’s also frustrating as hell for the nuance it lacks.

On the surface, this book is about the power of effort, and how deeply, mistakenly, undervalued the power of personal will is in our society. Modern people tend to romanticize and over-value “natural talent” and under-value sustained effort – to the great disadvantage of many.

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Review: Political Fictions

political fictions book coverI experienced a large range of low emotions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election: disbelief, shock, anger, indignation, confusion, revulsion, despair, depression, anxiety.

This book was a necessary choice for this moment at the end of this particular year, in part, because I wanted to settle back in to Didion’s exacting language after enjoying two of her books so much, and because I was seeking some political and historical perspective.

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Review: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

While a bit repetitive and about 100 pages too long, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” holds definite value for people searching for ways to be more effective and at peace with their choices.

“Essentialism” as advocated by McKeown is a personal philosophy of making deliberate decisions about where to spend one’s limited and precious time. It’s a mission statement aimed at reducing psychic clutter, regrettable personal commitments and extra “stuff” that ultimately does not matter in the greater scheme of one’s life.

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Play games

Today, as I sat waiting for my plane to New York to take off, I had a moment of witnessing one of those strange cultural assumptions in action that make no sense to me.

I heard a woman seated in the row behind me tell a young kid, presumably her son, that he could watch two movies on our flight, but she wouldn’t want him to play video games for five hours. To my surprise, the kid readily agreed. Ok, he said, as though it made any kind of sense. Since it wasn’t not my kid, and this didn’t exactly constitute an abuse worthy of an intervention, I kept my mouth shut, but here’s what I would have liked to ask her.

image via qui.
[image via qui.]

Why would you not allow your child to play video games for a few hours during a flight? Can you think of another way to more fully engage the mind? Do you know that games are one of the most effective teaching tools? Do you know that games can help people learn everything from new vocabulary and languages to quick reaction times, decision making and reasoning skills? Do you know that today’s games are incredibly complex and sophisticated, that a few hours of playing a game might help your son level up in Spanish or Econ?

Why would you prefer that your son passively watch idiotic movies for five hours? Current mainstream cartoons and children’s films generally have a low level of sophistication and emotional intelligence. Most mainstream kids films serve only as vehicles for product placement, embedded advertisements, mindless catchphrases, toy tie-ins, and the relentless reinforcing of insulting stereotypes about gender, race, age, class, etc. Would you truly rather subject your kid to five hours of passive brainwashing as opposed to five hours of engaging interactive play? Isn’t the possibility of interactivity and creatively always better than passive viewing?

When people over 40 say the phrase “video games” they tend to call up a set of sinister stereotypes: pointless numbing violence. Don’t get me wrong, plenty of popular video games are full of violence, as well as the endless sexism, product placement and so on that I just accused kids films of peddling. But games at least offer choices, decisions, the activation of the brain.

It always surprises me when I hear people discuss games as inferior to films or books, as though one format of content delivery could be objectively inferior, and that games were that inferior format. To use violence as an example: If a similar level of violence is present in a game or a film, do gentle parents prefer the film because their child is not pulling the theoretical trigger and is therefore less complicit in the violence, less responsible for their consumption of violence? I’d argue that passive consumption is almost always the “inferior format” if such a thing exists.

Play games, kid. Play lots of games.