Sunday, November 22, 2015

Oration 1 (2015)

(Gets up on soapbox. Clears throat.) 

"There is only one war, the war from which all others are derived,and it will likely continue as long as humans live on Earth. 

"We've been indoctrinated - by political, religious, cultural, economic and scientific ideologies - into believing our side will be victorious. Imminently. Decisively.  

"Thing is, there is no side in this conflict; there only the savageness of our species, and a more ephemeral, less tangible notion of what it means to be human; a quality that brings with it aspects of sentience that many animals exhibit - loyalty, sociability, adaptability, intelligence. Let's call it 'soul'.

"These aspects are not differentiated, not discreetly separated within us. But all have felt the tug of these impulses, of savageness and soul.

"The savage part - pure survival instinct - is the product of evolution (or 'change over time'.) 

"Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans evolved a suite of traits to cope with the brutal challenges life in the wild presented. These instincts comprise essential characteristics of the species, but are often maladapted to 'civilized society'. 

"'Fight or flight' is an example of such an instinct; this is the part in animals - humans included - that retreats, resists and attacks. Self-preservation is the priority. 

"Savagery seeks power for power's sake; not to benefit others, but because some animals - humans included - feel good when they are powerful, and badly when they're not. Savagery doesn't share. 

"Soul is a product of 'change over time', too. it's the part of us that recognizes the value of human life - and, at some level, all life. It intimates the symbiotic relationship between the Earth and the microbes like us who are just along for the ride.

"Soul is the voice that whispered to humanity's pre-conscious ancestors when they looked at the remains of the dead, saying 'this will happen to you...someday.'  

"In time primordial, soul recognized that the best path to preservation of finite human creatures is not the survival of any one individual, but the continuance of family, tribe and species, which are longer lived. 

"Soul shows itself in symbols, language, art, engineering, the ability to aspire and inspire; in mourning and celebration, in long-term planning, pattern-recognition and the scientific method, to name but a few examples. 

"As with savage qualities, all animals express qualities of soul, of sentience - (I'll use the terms interchangeably now) - but human animals are uniquely prolific in this respect.

"Human sentience reconciles intuition, intellect and instinct, allowing us to tell stories about our world, and how everything in it came to be. 

"Soul knows there is no power more potent than the power to let power go. Soul forgives, shares, loves.

"The Earth - as we perceive it - is where savagery and soul find expression. Yet the impulses begin in us, and so tell us little about how the world is, and more about how we are.  

"Human individuals - by definition - are incapable of permanently embodying a state of savagery or soul exclusively, unless madness is the aim. 

"Nobody is one thing, all the time. 

"Still, prayer will not absolve us if we fail to defend human life against the violence of people who have lost sight of life's value. Conversely, prayer will not absolve us if we lose sight that value ourselves, and become the very people we claim to oppose.

"From its origin in Ancient Greece until now, western civilization has become something the world has never known in recorded history - a global, pan-cultural society. 

"But it faces challenges, as it has in the past, from motivated enemies who embrace dubious doctrines and tactics; callously giving and taking life in the name of gods, states and security.

"These enemies are within and without; at home and abroad. 

"They walk corridors of power in Brussels and Washington, Moscow and Beijing; They survey Syria's ruin; plot to explode planes filled with tourists; shoot cartoonists and music fans to further their fanatical agenda; order drones to drop their payloads on whole families, just to kill a single man.

"Pointing fingers isn't enough, though. Despite what anybody says, people have the power to change the tide. 

"In the west, the electorate still sways the vote; consumers can marshal their considerable buying power; and the Internet offers the disenfranchised and the dissident a chance to organize and create networks of support. . 

"Violent revolution is not the only way to change the direction of a society, and often replaces one despotic regime with another. I believe human institutions can always be improved - and improved immeasurably - if the will and imagination to do so exists.

"But the real war - the first war I spoke of - is distinct from that noble task.

"It's a common observation that most animals - even some highly sentient ones - can't recognize their reflection in a mirror. 

"Lacking a unique sense of self identity, it's thought that these animals - which included humans at one time - don't perceive themselves as differentiated from their environment. 

"An animal exhibiting such a state of pre-consciousness might be described as 'being at one with their world' - if they could conceptualize of what 'one' actually meant. 

"Abstract, symbolic thought of that sort - the kind that uses complex languages as a proxy to describe material and intellectual realities - isn't possible for a pre-conscious mind, embedded in its environment. Just imagine a fetus trying to describe its mother.

"Unlike those pre-conscious animals, modern humans have differentiated from their environment, making ourselves the locus of a sentience once ascribed to the whole universe.

"Now humans are the caretakers, the managers, the custodians of an objective, objectified world, filled with exploitable resources and wondrous natural phenomenon, but no discernible intelligence. Humans have taken that quality for themselves.

"In part, this is how we are unchanged from our primitive ancestors; in the same way pre-conscious animals fail to recognize their reflection in a mirror, modern humans fail, or at best struggle, with understanding how their consciousness is reflected back at them by the world. 

"Our senses evolved over eons, in tandem with the ability to perceive in a physical, three-dimensional universe. And the more humans perceived over that time, the more our senses evolved. 

"There's a profoundly intimate relationship between sense and perception, akin to the relationship between animals and their environment, which provides air, food, oxygen.       

"But the essential truth of this insight is that humans, like all animals, cannot perceive the world without their senses; nor comprehend sense data without a way of perceiving it. too.  

"As a wise teacher once said, 'we do not see things in the world as they are; we see them as we are.'

"This is the true battleground, and the sole front in the only war that matters; a quiet, all-consuming war fought by everybody - with themselves, and then with each other - where victory and defeat are measured by subtle gains in understanding, yielding - in time - greater compassion, acceptance and love.

"'Be the change you want to see in the world,' Ghandi said, and it's sound advice. 

"When injustice or dishonesty seem to abound, have the strength to deal with issues in your own life where you are complicit in deception or power-struggles. 

"Help the less fortunate and be charitable to people you don't know; not because it's mandated by religion or society, but because it's a kind - very human - act, and you would want others to treat you the same way, if situations were reversed.

"Should a 'new world order' conspire to keep you down, look for positive ways to govern yourself and seek peace in your beliefs, instead of agitation.

"Own your perceptions and your perspectives. Be responsible for what you put into the world - as far as attitudes, values, beliefs - and for what you take away.  

"There was no right or wrong, good or evil until humans perceived the world, and imagined those qualities to be there. 

"Every idea any person ever had about the world - including the ones shared here - are just dreams; conceived by a species of sentient featherless bipeds called humans, now only half-sleeping and half-awake in the dawn of their understanding."

(Gets down from soapbox. Walks on.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Don Draper's Progress

At the center of the recently concluded AMC television series Mad Men there is Don Draper, an enigmatic character possessing unique genius and a penchant for self-destruction.    

During the course of his life, Don comes to know – and be known by – people in various social classes, from his impoverished rural upbringing and his time in the army, to rubbing shoulders with powerful business leaders in his role as creative director at Manhattan ad firm Sterling Cooper.

In fact, the adaptability, resilience and commitment to ‘progress’ that defines so much of Don’s character is the lynchpin to the dynamic of Mad Men as a whole. As often as Don’s restlessness gets him into trouble, it’s also a sign that he is “busy being born”, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’.   

For example, by the end of the series, Don - like many young and middle-aged Americans in the 1960s – had embarked on a journey to ‘find himself’. In the final few episodes, this quest for identity took Don across the country, east to west, during which time he shed successive skins like a snake, engaged in a metamorphic process that ultimately leads him to a spiritual retreat-commune in California. 

The skins are easy to see as they peel away – the abandonment and persecution issues played out with the mysterious, seemingly unstable waitress from the New York diner. 

The drunken confession of the circumstances of his military service to inebriated army vets, and their violent assault on him; his punishment for the crime of another man, and his gift to that man – a grifter - of his automobile, a symbol of American independence, ingenuity and freedom. 

When the haze finally clears, Don has landed at the archetypal (or stereotypical, depending on a viewer’s level of cynicism) 1960’s spiritual retreat-commune. Here, Don sheds his final skin - that of his original identity, Dick Whitman - the man who went the Korean War and who returned as Donald Draper. 

Dick Whitman – the nothing, the cipher - who built his life from a lie, and then sold that lie to New York’s advertising elite and, by extension, America. 

“I took another man’s name and I made nothing of it,” Don tells Peggy Olsen during a desperate phone call from the retreat, calling into question the entire meaning of his life’s work.   

Yet within every lie is a kernel of truth. Don’s truth is finally uttered during a group therapy session by Leonard, a man who is facing his own midlife crisis. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone,” Leonard says, articulating in one simple sentence Don’s own fears about his family, his job, and his place in life. 

Leonard goes on to describe his own situation like he’s a piece of food in the refrigerator, shut away from everybody else until he’s needed. It’s a metaphor that speaks to Don the ad man, but it’s also a pathos that gets to the heart of his existential trauma. 

A minute later, Leonard is in a state of lacrimosa, and Don has crossed the room to embrace him, having heard in the confession the unmistakable echo of his own life experience. 


So what to make of the final scene? Don Draper - initiate - meditating at a commune on the Californian coast followed by the iconic Coca Cola commercial about teaching the world to sing? 

One interpretation is that the sense of the ineffable, the forgiveness, the freedom – indeed, the love – Don so desired could not be found anywhere but within himself. He finally realized there was no way to run fast enough or go far enough to escape his own shadow (in the Jungian sense of the word), so he stopped running.  

Certainly, Don had arrived at the end of something and the beginning of something else. After family, work, money, booze, women, travel, the successes and the failures, he needed a fresh perspective to make sense of his experiences. Until that point, his creative work (and alcohol) had satisfied such a purpose. 

Spiritual transcendence and understanding human desire are not antithetical concepts. For Don – a man capable of articulating the unspoken wishes of the masses and stoking public need – one state of mind led necessarily to the other, and vice versa. His ideas as an advertiser came from a creative place, a spiritual place, a place overshadowed by Mad Men’s glamorous veneer.

Did Don find god in a bottle of Coke? Did he return to New York to work the soda giant’s historic ‘teach the world to sing’ ad campaign? The finale itself was, in the end, only suggestive. But whatever Don discovered in California, it’s a good bet it was closer to the real thing than he had ever gotten before in his life.