Saturday, July 26, 2014

Politics as usual: The Francis Underwood Syndrome

Kevin Spacey staring at you in House of Cards

What is politics like? I often wonder especially when watching news footage of politicians. There are many cases of corruption and scandals that make the headlines so one wonders can it be the cradle of the worst people? Is it because politics attracts those kinds of people or is it because politics simply corrupts? Is this how the game is played, the unspoken and unwritten rules of the game?

When we look at elections in North America, we notice that those who play the honest cards end up not winning. It seems that nice guys tend to finish last, that is, if they finish at all (I use the word “guys” since politics tends to be sexist, and women, if elected, need to be perceived as tougher than men, see “Iron Lady”).

A successful politician needs to not only get his hands dirty but also be ambitious and ruthless about getting there. No half measures are accepted, while honesty is a sign of weakness and will put the candidate at a serious disadvantage. (By the way, these observations can be basically applied to any higher or lucrative position of any company and is not just limited to politics.)

Why is it so? It seems that the game is simply designed or rigged this way. First of all, you need votes. In order to get votes, you need to be popular. Those who tell he truth are not. People usually vote for those who tell the most convincing lies.

In order to be perceived as popular, you need good press. That's where the media kicks in. The media can spin your image anyway it wishes. You can turn from a loser to a hero overnight, and vice versa. Such is their power. They are the ultimate spin doctors of today's world.

You can get good press by doing heroic deeds, but that would be too difficult for some of our politicians. So what do they do instead? They use big money from major corporations and companies, a process known as lobbying, to get the news they desire. It can be done in both directions. You can either increase your own positive notes and characteristics or blemish the reputation of your rival, or a combination of both.

To talk dirt about your opponent, you can dig up dirt from his past, quote him out of context, or simply fabricate lies about him. The information then may or may not be based on the truth, but once it is out in the media and inside the public's head, it is difficult to retrace steps and erase that impression come voting day.

Those are the self-help steps to get elected. Now to get to the top of the chain of command, we can ask our "frank" friend Francis Underwood for some guidance. The series House of Cards (both the British and the US version) is so popular because we feel we are dealing with an evil character straight out of a Shakespeare play. But at the same time, Francis Underwood is also a prototype of a politician: ambitious, ruthless, and thoroughly and relentlessly Machiavellian.

I was surprised and shocked actually to realize that Francis Underwood - or Urquhart for that matter - is not driven by ideology or convictions. In fact, it is a case of tabula rasa, pure blank sheets with him. It had been my impression that people enter politics because of a cause dear to their heart or because they want to change the world or alter how the system is running.

None of that applies to Francis Underwood. He simply wants to get to the top by any means necessary. He lies to people, including friends (in fact these people do not and cannot have any friends with their attitude and demeanor); he creates factions and conflicts between people to serve his own benefits, and he does not shy away from actually eliminating people from the surface of the earth (I hope the latter part is merely fictional, but I would not be surprised if it actually had kernels of truth in it).

Power for power's sake is what it's all about. It is not money that drives Underwood. I do not think politicians make that much money in comparison with private firms. But through lobbying and strategically redirecting funds, one can increase the bottoms of one's pockets too and can retire with the promise of a stable position in the eminently affluent private sector.

The series House of Cards is great in showing us the political process. Politics becomes a matter of negotiating votes. It is as if everyday you are experiencing life as a car salesman. You sell and exchange votes for other votes or for past and future favors and promises. I get you that bill, if you vote for mine later, quid pro quo.

Nothing seems sacred; there is no idealism here. What suits the politician best at the time is what needs to happen. And politicians line up to wash each other's backs or stab each other in the back. And the line between the two outcomes is so finely drawn.

One might say that the scenes and situations depicted in the popular series are grossly exaggerated and do not reflect the truth, that it is not unlike Homeland, which has gotten off the rails with some of its highly implausible scenarios. That may be true, but one must not forget that the writer of the series, Michael Dobbs, was a British conservative politician. He must have known the ropes, and perhaps he is communicating them to us in an entertaining albeit somewhat fictional manner. Or perhaps this is merely a case of politics as usual.

If it is so, then I am thoroughly disappointed. Not that I have any plans to go into politics. Even on good days I could not handle the stress and paranoia, the fact that the press and others are constantly watching you waiting for a faux pas or gaffe to report on or a cherished secret to expose. Not that I have that many cherished secrets to brag of either, but gaffes can happen when one accidentally says something one did not mean to say, especially in the mornings before one had had sufficient coffee in the system or when remarks are taken completely out of context.

It would become a life of constant rehearsal where one needs to weigh one's words very carefully before one utters them since in politics a bad day could mean the end of one's whole career. As an idealist, politics is simply not for me.

I would have perhaps accepted the honor and duty that comes as a Roman senator, where the affluent saw it as an obligation to put forward the principles of the state and not get paid for their work. Although even then, you could be stabbed by certain brute politicians or be forced to commit suicide for your mishaps. No, I would rather have something worth pursuing, more like the philosopher's stone in lieu of fleeting things like power and money.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why reason is undervalued and overrated

Tao sign on mosaic

It seems a strange paradox that reason is used constantly in our lives but at the same time it is not used enough. Many people pride themselves on their reasoning and analytical skills, but it takes a simple remark to throw them off kilter and make them burst into angry flames. Reason is put on a pedestal, be it the Age of Reason or scientific thinking, and yet people overlook what makes them fully human or spiritual beings.

To make things clear from the onset, I am a strong supporter of reason and think it is overall not practiced enough. In my daily life, I have to use analytical skills whether at work, for shopping or any other endeavor that entails decision-making or weighing the pros and cons of a situation. And so it should be.

Imagine if we did not control our behavior or temper it with the edge of reason. To begin with, we would blurt out what we think (honesty is a relatively good thing but purely impulsive behavior is not) to our colleagues, or mates or even people standing next to us on the bus. It is our reason showing us the possible consequences of our actions that makes us keep our corrosive emotions in check.

The fact is our emotions are based on a number of complex interactions and reactions, and we might accidentally say what we do not mean and spoil a relationship or opportunity because of it. Words then may become double-edged swords that cut both ways. In contrast, our reason is not as short-sighted, but sees things from a healthy distance and with composure.

If we were always led by emotions, we would go bankrupt since we would buy the first thing we see and would never be able to save up any money. It takes restraint and discipline fueled by the reach of reason not to fall into temptations (to which one could easily include those of sexual nature as well, which may exchange momentary pleasure for a life of regret).

Reason is also a useful tool in conflicts and communication. Generally, the person who has reason on their side is right and will prove the other person wrong. An argument or debate is won not by how loud you can shout or how much you can insult the other person but by the strength of the reasons presented. 

Nonetheless, it is frustrating when you are in the right, but the other person fails or refuses to see it that way and insists on their own perception or way of “thinking.” Those people seem blind and impervious to the words of reason.

Looking at modern society, we may notice a general lack of reason and even common sense. People believe in all sorts of wacky theories, (intelligent design being one of them), and such belief systems can eventually undermine progress for a society or country. Decisions will be made not on the basis of what is needed and best for the times, but rather on superstitions or erroneous beliefs. In this sense, reason is undervalued and underrepresented in current society.

But reason is also overrated. There are cases where people profess to reason and end up demonstrating worrisome behavior. It is interesting that apostles of reason can show you all the benefits and beauties of logical thinking and the next moment flare up in anger over insignificant issues. Even those who should know better will fall into the trap of irrational behavior.

If we look at scientists, they may be brilliant in their work, but there are many who also have irrational traits, such as vanity or even worse, narrow-minded views (sure nobody's perfect but they tend to believe their reasons and evidence make them superior). By not accepting flaws or (purposely?) overlooking crucial evidence to the contrary, even a scientist can become something of a bigot in certain circumstances.

For instance, I applaud that more and more renowned scientists have come out in support of alien existence, something that used to be a quack theory (though I am not so sure about alleged abductions). Scientists modest enough to accept that they are or may be in the wrong or that there is always room for doubt are true scientists in my books.

Indeed reason is not all there is. Even Descartes who was a strong proponent of reason did leave some gaps of reasonable doubt in his philosophy. In this way, I believe that reason is overrated because we expect reason with science as its outspoken collaborator to give us all the answers. In due time, this will happen, the reason supporters tell us. But it seems that reason in its narrow meaning is trying to forcefully edge out our emotions and spirituality, making us also bland and predictable. We then become indistinguishable from computing machines.

There are many decisions that should not rely on reason alone. Say, if you decide on a partner. You can weigh your pros and cons as much as you like, but if there is no chemistry, no emotional connection or attachment with the other person, this relationship, looking so good on paper, will fail in epic ways.

There are indeed moments and situations where analysis will stagnate us and where we simply need to listen to what is known as our intuition. Supporters of reason often mock or at least diminish the relevance of intuition. But my most successful decisions have come about because I followed wacky instincts of mine and made choices that would not cross the mind of a reasonable person. I have a number of “superstitious” beliefs that I have come to embrace despite and even against reason.

Perhaps reason is the grounding effect, the mooring of our thoughts and behaviors. But we also need to lift the anchor now and then if we want to move or find new shores. In other words, reason is undoubtedly beneficial but merely on its own it is rather limited. We need to balance things out and know when it is right to follow our analytical ways and when we ought to listen to those pesky feelings.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Historical Perspectives and Hidden Truths: An Oliver Stone Talk at the Vancouver Biennale

When I heard that Oliver Stone was coming to Vancouver, I was excited to see him. He was showcasing and promoting his latest work, a ten-part documentary series entitled The Untold History of the United States. Although I have not watched it yet (it has been on my watch list ever since it came out), I was curious to see what his views were on a number of topics, in particular current political events, and no better way to find out than to have him explain his ideas in person.

The event was organized by the Vancouver Biennale, a non-profit organization that has as its mission to immerse us with art in all its forms, from sculptures to the digital medium. Some of their work and sculptures displayed in the city are quite good, some of them not so, but as usual those matters are in the eyes of the beholder. Yet one thing is for sure, they do elicit a reaction from people, and in that sense, their art is wholly successful.

The evening of the talk was beset with some difficulties. I had to battle a migraine and general un-well being, while a block-and-a-half long line-up for ticket-holders did not help much to alleviate my pain. The music inside the theatre, a selection of Buena Vista Club confused me slightly in my legally drugged state and made me wonder if I had not erred on the date or venue.

Various minutes later than scheduled, we got a glimpse of Oliver Stone as he was given a lifetime achievement award, and it was needless to say (yet the presenter said it anyway) that everyone stood up and received him with applause. Oliver Stone said he would be back in a bit to discuss his show, and we got a screening of his final episode – but only after some bungling on the part of the organizers where they first could not locate the episode and then managed to play five minutes of the wrong episode.

Again the highlight of the evening was when Oliver Stone hit the stage with a moderator to discuss these weighty political matters. I must say that I am a bit skeptical of the choice for moderator since he seemed not to have the necessary skills to engage Stone in meaningful conversation. His questions and comments lacked spark and in moments like these, I imagine, in my arrogant mind, that I would have made a much better host up there had I been given a chance. Well, perhaps next time.

Anyhow, Oliver Stone explained his reason and motivation for this whole series as a desire to educate people on the selective lies that one is exposed to on a regular basis. In a way, this series might also be a culmination of all his previous political work, and since it has been fact-checked involving thousands of clips, it took much more time (and perhaps effort) than planned. Yet overall, despite the fact that it most likely was going to lose money (but the sponsors were rich to begin with in Stone's own words as his defense) it was mainly a labour of love.

Now last time Stone presented us with a labour of love, it was the much maligned Alexander (2004). During this talk, he referred to him once - the individual not the movie - claiming Alexander wanted to be a "citizen of the world." He was a conqueror who did not rape and pillage but let the inhabitants continue with their own religions and traditions, an open-minded attitude that generally eludes conquerors since they are either bringing - via force - religion (i.e. ideology) and / or democracy to the occupied people.

What was most remarkable throughout this talk was Stone's overall knowledge on the issues as well as his humour. At one point, he stated that the Civil War was a mistake and that they should have let the South simply go their own ways and look for an alliance up north with Canada. Coming from someone who used to be a conservative Republican in his youth, this is definitely controversial, apart from being humourous.

Yet Stone strongly believes in the importance of history to explain who and what we are today. History, he claims, gives us perspective. But the problem is that not unlike Orwell's 1984 we have people in power who change the facts of history and also offer us doublespeak to change our way of thinking and, at its worst, to brainwash us.

Stone did not spare anybody in politics. He called Truman as narrow-minded as someone like Bush and went into details how the New World Order is something that has had its deep roots in the neo-conservative thinking and outlook. Wallace, a rather easygoing but definitely more moral and caring alternative to Truman, was someone who would never have given the green light to the Bomb, but unfortunately the higher ups did not see eye to eye with him.

Ironically, at one point during the question period, Stone was confronted, not physically but with words, by a peace activist. Considering the supposedly abundant evidence that the September 11 attacks may have been an “insider job,” why did Stone lack or fail to mention this in his series. Did he lack the guts or was it merely an example of self-censorship when dealing with the establishment.

This was a key moment for me in his talk as I had waited for such a question and was curious to see his reaction. Stone was smart by evading the matter, but still giving it a certain substance. He said that it is possible that it was a conspiracy, but that was irrelevant in this matter since the outcome ended up being the same, the neo-cons taking full advantage of the situation to propagate their own beliefs and ideology. So in a way he neither said yes nor no. That way he keeps himself out of trouble either way, and we do not know what he really thinks about the matter.

The discussion did also touch upon Obama, whom Stone called smart and persuasive, but unfortunately, this president did not follow up on his words or keep his promises of change and hope. Obama continued with the same stands on the economy by giving incentives to the rich who had supported him during the elections. Stone said it was a pity because Obama should have simply run without any financial ties to major organizations and won on his own terms, which would have been possible considering how the Republicans had run the economy into the ground.

But another point was the issue of terrorism. This is something that has been hyped up constantly by the media making the US constantly alert and at the point of war. Obama needed to make sure that no such event happen under his watch so he had to agree to continued surveillance. Come to think of it, this was not something that posed such a significant threat as was played out in the media. For example, more people die from gun shots and traffic accidents than terror attacks, but the media is so good at inducing fear and distorting facts and realities.

One final interesting and enlightening bit I took away from his talk were his comments on Cuba and Russia. First off, Stone said that the US policy on Cuba including today is dumb and that Obama was kind of forced to go along with it because Florida is such an important swing state in elections, and he needs to constantly woo its citizens. Stone hopes that Cuba can be at least preserved as an “amusement park” a pristine place that has eluded the capitalism and logo-spattered surroundings that have taken over most of the world.

In terms of Russia, the issues are much more sophisticated than presented. The Ukraine incident is more complex than the media cares to portray. There have been deep-seated differences and conflicts there since World War II, when some, in fact, supported the Germans. But also during World War II it was the Russians who shed the blood of millions of their people to win this war and the thanks they have received from the West has been negligible. In fact, the West turned on them right after and proclaimed them as the evil communists with whom they would be at war for decades to come. Then when Gorbachev wanted to reform the Communist system, he was met with resistance from the West, which preferred its annihilation.

All in all, one should at least listen and take in what Stone is telling us regardless of one's own ideology or beliefs. He offers an alternative view on historical as well as current events. At best, he may be right, and we need to come up with a world that is based on truths instead of accepted lies. Stone does not say that all our history is wrong, but that we are presented with the Disney version without the blemishes and the stains. The US needs to take a good look at itself in the mirror to accept its previous mistakes and make good on them for the future.

At worst, he may be wrong, be controversial for controversy's sake; simply someone who is stirring the pot for no particular reason. Even so, one has not lost anything by listening to what he has to say and to feel free to dismiss his points of view. I personally stand more on the first side because as a superpower the US has also great responsibilities. There are many instances where personal profit and gains have overridden human rights and freedom. Considering that the US started as such a free and democratic country dropping the yoke of serfdom from the British, it is rather a shame that they are becoming imperialist themselves and not fulfilling on those promises and hopes that once rested on the shoulders of this glorious nation.