Category Archives: freedom

The truth and silver bullets

SB-300x300

There is no cure that is absolutely certain.

There is no perspective that is universally accepted.

There is no solution that will solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.

There is no fix that won’t lead to other problems down the line.

There is no way to foresee all problems.

There is no guarantee of happiness.

There is no Promised Land.

There is no Messiah.

There is no easy way out.

There are always unanticipated consequences.

Hard work is all we really have.

There are no silver bullets.

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, ideas, truth, truth hurts

10 years later, we remember

The Parkside School, Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago, I went to work early.  I was in the office before 8:00 am.  I taught political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and I hoped to get a lot of work done.  My wife was in St. Louis on a work trip, so I was on my own.  At some point in the morning, our Administrative Assistant, Jane, came running down the hall and ran into my office.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

We went to the seminar room and turned on the television.  Live coverage.  There was the building, with smoke pouring out of it.  Before I saw the pictures, I thought it must a be terrorist – but then once I saw the images I couldn’t believe it was a big plane.  So I thought it was an accident.  Maybe a small plane.  And then, as Jane and I sat there, gape-mouthed and gazing at the television, another plane came into the view and hit the second tower.  That was a big plane, and I couldn’t believe it.

After a bit, I went back to my office and put on the radio.  I was listening to NPR as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.  At this point, I thought we were under attack, at war, and I was terribly afraid of what might be next.  We didn’t know who was doing this, and it was very frightening.

I was able to talk to my wife later that day.  She was stuck at the airport in St. Louis for a day.  She was stuck but okay, and I was relieved to speak with her.  By midday, we knew what had happened, but it was still scary and hard to believe.  A couple weeks later, we found out that she was pregnant.  We were going to have a child.

Ten years on, I spent this anniversary of the attacks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  My son, Noel, had his first flag football practice today.  He’s been waiting for this day for a long time – he loves football and so wants to play.  He was incredibly happy, happier than I have seen him in other sports, and it was a joy to watch him play.

While the kids were practicing with Coach Marc, the other dads recounted where they were on September 11, 2001.  One worked just a few blocks from the towers and managed to escape the area as the towers were falling down to the ground.  The other had witnessed attacks from his apartment in Brooklyn, where he had a clean view of the events.  He’d been taking photos of the skyline that morning, and only later, upon developing his film, did he realize that he’d caught images of the second plane flying into the second tower.

I didn’t live in New York then, but I do now.  Noel was born on May 28, 2002, and I am raising him here.  New York – or Brooklyn, more precisely – will be the place he always calls home.  He has no memory of 9-11, though he knows what happened.  All his life, his country has been at war.  When I think about his life and my life, this post-9-11 world seems like a weird and different place, and this America is not at all the country I grew up in.  Yet this is his country, and on this day that I remember with somber feelings and sadness, he had a great football practice.  Later, we went home and watched the games on television.  Then I called my brother and wished him happy birthday, like I do every year on 9-11.

Notes and Credits

Photographs by the author.  The first is of the flag at half-mast at PS 130, The Parkside School.  The school is just next to the entrance to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Subway Station for the F and G trains in Brooklyn.  It’s where we live, and the site of an earlier post, Without the Truth, You Are the Looser.

The photograph of the airplane in the clouds was taken in Prospect Park, near the “dog beach.”  That’s where my son’s team was practicing this morning.  Prospect Park is beneath one of the main approaches to LaGuardia Airport, and you can hear the planes fly over every couple of minutes most days.  Today, it was cloudy, low clouds, and the planes could only be seen in the haze, rocketing over us on their way into the airport.  Fifty-one years ago, a plane crashed into Park Slope along that flight path.  It was one of the worst disasters in New York history to that point; 134 people died in the crash.  From 2004 to 2006, I lived on Sterling Place, the street where the plan crashed in 1960.  My neighbor, Ms. Phipps was a witness that day and had told me about it. You can find a photo essay of it here.

Planes and clouds.  It seems we have always lived under flight paths.  In Minnesota, we lived just under main approach to the Minneapolis Airport.  Noel’s first word was “airplane.”  As we were leaving Prospect Park after practice, we saw a man selling bubble-making kits for kids.  He filled the playground with bubbles as he walked along.

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Filed under conflict, danger, death, fathers, freedom, life, New York, Park Slope, playing, politics, sons, struggle, toys, truth, war, youth

The truth and grace, 2: Beneficence

Macha Chmakoff, "Paul"

This is the second of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through different aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Road to Damascus

A few years after the death of Jesus, a Jew named Saul of Tarsus, who was also a citizen of Rome, became a Christian and changed his named to Paul.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted the Christians.  As Paul, however, he became the greatest apostle of the early church, moreso than St. Peter or the others who were with Jesus in his lifetime.  Working tirelessly until his own execution at the hand of Rome, Paul established numerous churches throughout the Greco-Roman Mediterranean.  Paul’s letters to these congregations provided definition for the faith and are a critical part of the Christian Bible.

Paul could not explain the change in his heart that occurred on the road to Damascus one day, when he was struck blind and heard the Lord speak to him.  He had to accept this as an act of radical, unsolicited, and unreasonable beneficence.  This he called the grace of God.

“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Cor 15:10)

The grace of St. Paul is a divine beneficence that is unknowable and without a cause such as we can recognize.  To understand grace is to find a place in between the rigid certainty of dogma and the despair of Roquentin.  With grace, we accept that good things happen for no reason that we can understand.  In deeming God the author of grace in the universe, goodness is given a source and it is made relatable.  Without needing to explain beneficence, one must simply accept this:  You are loved, for no reason that you may know or understand.  But you are loved.

Flannery O’Conner wrote stories that often dealt with the consequences of grace for proud people.  They were crushed by grace.  They could not bear beneficence.  To a friend she wrote,

“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

Let it Be

Grace presents a challenge:  to live up to its goodness.  This is a challenge to act freely, for one must choose to live up to the goodness one has been given, even when that goodness was given freely and with no good reason for it.

For Ruby Turpin, the protagonist of O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” recognizing grace caused her to crash on the shoals of her own hypocrisy and bad faith.  Mrs. Turpin was a well-(enough)-to-do woman in the Deep South whose Christian piety propped up her sense of racial superiority.  She was self-righteous in the most ungenerous sort of way.

“If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!… Oh thank you, Jesus, thank you!”

The story is set in the reception room of a local doctor’s office, where Mrs. Turpin is telling all this to another woman in the room, a woman of similar class and beliefs it would seem, whose college-aged daughter, Mary Grace—a name well chosen—begins to seethe with each word out of Mrs. Turpin’s mouth.  The climactic moment comes when Mary Grace finally boils over in rage and throws a book at Ruby Turpin, telling her quietly, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  After the incident, back on her farm, Mrs. Turpin sinks into filth and despair, overcome with a sickening sense, much like Roquentin when he discovered that his world wasn’t ordered the way he’d imagined it to be.  As she slops her hogs, she has a revelation of the righteous ascending to heaven with her and her husband bringing up the rear at the very end of the pack.

For Saul of Tarsus, the recognition of grace provided a reason to change for the better, to set aside violence, hatred and pride.  Writing to a different friend, O’Connor commented,

“There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.”

The nausea demanded of Roquentin that he become the sole author of his own life, but it also demanded a kind of surrender.  To be author of own’s life was not a Promethean charge to become a god. Quite the contrary, this freedom was “rather like death” at first, until Roquentin realized that in this freedom he gave away precious things (his sense o right and order) in order to take up a different, ultimately more rewarding, task. This is a theme Sartre visited in later works, most notably his play, The Flies, in which freedom leads to persecution and hard choices about breaking laws or traditions in order to do the right thing.

Grace demands the humility to accept that we may neither deserve nor benefit from the goodness we receive.  “There but for the grace of God go I,” as the saying runs, paraphrasing the English Protestant martyr John Bradford as he sat in jail and watched other prisoners being taken for execution.

Grace demands the humility to surrender, to “let it be.”

Notes and credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful. This work is called Paul, and it is one of her many Biblical paintings that are beautiful and stunning.  I have never seen these works on the canvas, up close; I have only seen them on the Web.  Her use of color and muted, vague definition seaks to me and touches me.  Ms. Chmakoff and I have struck up a friendship over her paintings and my writing, and that, too, is an element of grace that I am thankful for.

For the early Christians, the time of Christ through the few decades after his death was a time without reason.  They believed, Paul along with them, that the world would end soon, in their very lifetime.  They believed that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead, and that all those chosen by God would be taken to heaven with him.  In the face human law, persecution, the might of Rome, and the weight of the old Jewish law, Jesus’ teachings tore down all conventions and laws that had come before.  Jesus remade the world for these believers, and like Perpetua and Felicity in Carthage in 203 AD, they went to heroic lengths to demonstrate their faith.

In 67 AD, Paul was beheaded by the Roman Empire, an execution given him due to his Roman citizenship, less painful and drawn out than the crucifixions of Jesus and St. Peter, or the wild animals and soldiers who killed Perpetua and Felicity in the arena. The Frontline documentary, “From Jesus to Christ,” provides a robust discussion of the historical Jesus, the early Christian Church, and St. Paul’s role in defining the church and spreading the faith across the Mediterranean world.

The first Flannery O’Connor quotation, “All my stories …” I discovered on the blog Cage Wisdom, a site dedicated to the flms of Nicholas Cage.  The second Flannery O’Connor quote, “There is a moment …” is from an essay by Patrick Galloway called “The Dark Side of the Cross,” which can be found here.

St Paul’s writings are foundational to the Christian Church.  Differing interpretations of Paul were used by clerics and theologians on all sides of the Reformation, though by and large it’s possible to say that Reformed Protestantism is more singularly grounded on St. Paul than on the other letter writers of the New Testament.  That is to say, branches of Reformed Protestantism represent a Pauline purism, while Catholicism balances St. Paul with the other traditions evident in the early church.  As I am finishing the second part of this essay on grace, I am thinking of a fourth essay on St. Paul’s grace in modern Christianity.  Perhaps it will come, but for now, I leave it out of this essay on grace, because my understanding of grace is more personal (and larger than) Christian theological traditions.  My references are Christian because that is what I know, but I hope the notion of an unaccounted for, unexpected, superfluous experience of beneficence is something in the human experience that can stand apart from specific religious of philosophical tradition.  Indeed, gratuitous beneficence is something any culture needs to understand.

In The Flies, Sartre uses the Greek Electra myth dramatize the proposition that people freely determine their own lives through their actions.  Fleeing from responsibility for one’s actions, or from the consequences of those actions, is to flee from the truth.  In the story, Electra’s brother Orestes must assume must assume responsibility for killing his mother and stepfather in Electra’s defense.  She is too weak to do so, but in the act of assuming responsibility Orestes becomes fully human, finally showing throwing off the chains of self-denial and self-abnegation that Zeus and the gods used to keep people compliant and quiescent.  Now free, Orestes walks into the future pursued by the Furies (giant fly-like beings) who peck at him and torment him.  Such is the price of freedom.

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, life, literature, truth

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

The truth and magic: One Hundred Years of ‘Tude

The magically-unreal story of how it all began …

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, whose right to shoot him was protected by the second amendment, Colonel Aureliano Boone was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover books.  At the time, America was a village of McMansions built on the bank of a river of polluted water that ran along a bed of stones polished to unearthly brilliance by chemical waste, petroleum fertilizers, and random sewerage, all of which made the children look like fat prehistoric eggs.  The world was so recent that many things lacked names, for nothing lasted longer than the attention span of an 8-year old pointing his stubby, French Fry fingers at things he could not understand.  Every year during the month of March a family of ragged right-wingers would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would create new radio shows.  A heavy gypsy with an untamed ignorance and limp, fist-fucking hands, who introduced himself as Rush Limbaugh, put on a bold demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Kansas, where scientific knowledge had peaked around the time of the Scopes trial.  He broadcast from house to house, his ideas attracting every angry white racist, bigot, gun owner, know-nothing dipshit, and ditto-headed idiot who had been lost for a long time, dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Rush Limbaugh’s magnetic charm.  “Freedom has a life of its own,” the gypsy proclaimed with a nondescript Midwestern accent.  “It’s simply a matter of waking up its soul.”

Notes and Credits

Photograph of Glenn Beck at the Rally to Restore Honor from Wikimedia Commons.  Parody of Gabriel Garcia Marquez courtesy of satire.

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The truth and criticism: origami boulders (memo re: November 2)

Susan Sontag famously wrote, “Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”  Those were fighting words in 1966, among a certain (probably not so large but then again much larger than it would be now) crowd.  “Even more,” she continued, “It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.”

True enough, but what is the case when art itself becomes the revenge of the intellect upon . . . art?


Thus Origami Boulders, an experiment in creative expressionism that emphasizes the bridges between satire, infrarealism, hyper-realism, post-modernism, modernism, and plain old-fashioned mockery.  It is not subtle.  In an age when hyperbole has become truth and irony just means “bad luck,” Origami Boulders promises a return to simpler truths.  What-you-see-is-what-you-get.

Fine enough, you might say, but where do you draw the line between “simpler truths” and fascism?  This is a good question, since much of what is considered fascism is founded upon simple truth.  At the same time however, it’s also true that only about ten percent of all simple truths are, in fact, fascistic.  The problem is that that ten percent can foreseeably find the backing of an incredibly disproportionate amount of a country’s wealth and power.  Here is the linkage between the artist, the slacker, the Tea Partier, and the hipster, “who in fact aligns himself both with the rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.”

Dear heavens—but the Origami Boulders were meant, in fact, to smash the conveyors of convention, to drown the purveyors of propriety, and to derail the fornicators of formality.  How is it that such a bold experiment could so quickly become turned upon itself until it was nothing more than the opposite of what it intended?  Much less than a hollow statement of artistic meaning in an artless world, the Origami Boulders, it would appear to the untrained and unwashed, are little more than tools of their own opposition, indistinguishable in effect from the contemporary Democratic Party.  As the man on Ellis Island said to my great-great-grandmother (not that) many years ago, “Welcome to America.”

Pray this shall not be the case and that the stony weight of the Origami Boulders will come crashing down to Earth on November 2, 2010, raining like meteorites and asteroids on the dinosaurs, bringing to an end the rule of claw-toed, semi-feathered metareptiles and giving way to the rise of little birds and all the brilliance of avian plumage and delicacy.  Sigh.

America, it seems, has become the revenge of the anti-intellect on democracy.  Can we throw more than paper boulders in our defense?

Notes and Credits

Photographs of origami boulders and the artistic process by the author.  This work, like everything else in America, is for sale.  Please email guidry_z [at] hotmail.com for a price schedule and list of options to tailor Origami Boulders to your specific needs.  The fact that there is printing on one side of the sheet of paper used is indeed a meta-critique of Western Society itself, leaving no stone unturned in the artist’s quest for antihistorical self-actualization.  I am grateful to Rob Vanderlan, fellow political science graduate student at the University of Michigan, for introducing me to the joys of origami boulder sculpture in 1989.

For a fuller fleshing out of the meaning of irony, see the “urban dictionary” and not, under any circumstance, Alanis Morisettee.  For the “hipster” quotation, see Mark Greif’s article in the November 1, 2010 issue of New York magazine.

Susan Sontag’s famous quotation from Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966).  I tend to agree with her, so much so that I once paraphrased her statement in a cover letter for an academic position, alleging that social science is the revenge of the intellect on people.  Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), I was never called back on that one.  Then again, I also think that Origami Boulders so deeply challenges the very fundamentals of both Eastern and Western artistic traditions that Camille Paglia should invite me to her house for cocktails, though that would be too close to my heart.  I’ll keep buying lottery tickets for the better odds.  In retrospect, it seems like Sontag’s statement is oddly prescient of Fox News.

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The truth and stones

With relation to stones, we observe two kinds of people:  those who cast them and those who collect them.  Of those who cast stones, some do so from fear, while others do so strategically.

The fearful cast their stones either from glass houses or at glass houses.  The former are the hypocrites, while the latter are self-righteous, and both are equally insufferable.  The fearful cast their stones in reaction to something and not because of a belief in something, less from the solidity of their own convictions than from a nagging sense of their fragility.  The fear that causes these stones to be cast comes from inside the throwers and, like the stones they throw, is projected outward into a hostile and alien world.

The strategically inclined cast their stones either from a position of strength or at a position of strength.  Both tend to claim truth as their ally, and the truth tends to flee equally from either, for the truth is seldom on the side of casting stones.  Truth, being what truth is, can win its battles without stones, or in spite of them, because all positions of strength are time-bound and predicated on illusion.  The emperors will never wear clothes.  Their castles will all be made of sand—and glass, as we know, is nothing but sand.

The collectors of stones are mainly of two kinds.  They are either martyrs or future throwers of stones.

Of martyrs, there are two types, the situational and the pure.  The former are those who, upon being showered with stones, simply die because they are overcome.  They die because nothing else is possible, regardless of the degree or intensity or their fervor.  No one can prove whether situational martyrs were committed to a cause, or if they just happened to be in the way of an angry mob.  Situational martyrs die in the right time at the right place before they can get bored or do something that would cast aspersions on their martyrability.  A great many narcissists have achieved sainthood this way.

Pure martyrs collect stones in order to cleanse the world and remove hatred so that the rest of us can live in peace.  While their service to humanity is well-recognized, in life most of them are indistinguishable from narcissists.  The pure martyr is only revealed in death, for in death their purity is preserved.  Die young, stay pretty. Pure or situational, martyrs are the scissors-carriers of the world.  Yet as our mothers told us, running with scissors will be no escape, for those with scissors will always be crushed by those throwing stones.

The future throwers of stones are the paper carriers.  They cover stones and rocks to avoid martyrdom.  For more than a few, not coincidentally, throwing stones is a second career taken up after re-assessing the limitations of an earlier vocation to martyrdom.  They cover the stones that have been cast at them, but then they tear away their paper covers and cast those stones back again.  Thus we observe the cycle of stone-throwing and fear in which victims recycle what has happened to them, joining the ranks of oppressors and casting off the stones they once hid beneath paper.  Write what you know, as the saying goes.

It is thus that we arrive at the central problem facing humankind:  In a world of human conflict, no one will win.  Neither the throwers nor collectors of stones can vanquish the other.  Neither righteousness nor evil will win the day, which may be some comfort for those who wish to avoid evil but not so much for those who wish to achieve righteous glory.  This is because victory by either side—stone throwers or stone collectors—would require settling differences among adversaries in ways that are not possible to achieve.

The stone throwers face each other in glass houses, which before long will lay about their feet in shards and pieces.  Of those who collect stones, the paper carriers who are the future throwers of stones will allow the stone throwers to crush those with scissors, who in martyrdom provide the narratives and scripts that give the rest of us hope.  Yet once all the martyrs are gone the future throwers of stones will become simply the throwers of stone and new martyrs will emerge with sharper scissors to cut the old paper into bits.

The fortunate thing is that we are defined not only by our relation to stones, conflicts, or disagreements.  We are bigger than this.  Our world is increasingly one made of glass in which the things we wear and say and claim dissipate around our bodies like lost auras or the blinding penumbrae of lives best viewed through smoke-colored glasses.  Seeking truth in this haze is both a worthy and a necessary endeavor, though a thankless and quite possibly never-ending one as well, whose value lay more in the seeking than in the finding.

Notes and credits

The photographs of rocks and stones and scissors were taken by the author.  The photograph of Philip Johnson’s  Glass House is from the Wikimedia Commons and is available for common usage.  The Sandcastles are also courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Rock/paper/scissors—RPL as it is commonly known —is a game of strategy, cunning, and skill. Or so the World RPS Society would have us believe.  Apparently, RPS has been used to resolve disputes for hundreds of years, supplanting dueling and other more barbarian forms of conflict resolution.  If only Alexander Hamilton had known.

The math whizzes at PlayRPS.com have devised a simple playable RPS game that allows anyone to use the method to resolve their disputes.  To the naive, this could be very useful, for example, in the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, greatly facilitating Hillary Clinton’s job.  The only problem is that while on average RPS tends toward random distribution of the results (i.e. on average rock, paper, and scissors even out over time), in any one instance the odds are overwhelmingly that one outcome will have more wins than the others.  For example, the odds that the results after 99 efforts will be 33-33-33 are slimmer than the odds that it will be unbalanced and favor someone.  Level results happen only if the total number is divisible by 3, which further narrows the odds.  Any odd number of games (and any idiot who agrees to play with an even number of games deserves to lose) that isn’t divisible by three guarantees that someone will have more wins than the others.

RPS actually exemplifies the perfect mathematical expression of the futility of human design and intentionality:  It is a conflict resolution device almost perfectly designed to engender more conflict.  RPS is more elegant than “Murphy’s Law,” which operates by way of categorical affirmations and a priori givens, without any justification or proof whatsoever.  While offering the masses a palliative notion of conflict resolution, RPS actually encodes the perfect mathematical explanation of why conflict resolution is almost completely impossible. It’s like politics in America rendered in a way that both children and adults can believe in.  Randall Munroe demonstrates this in his XKCD comic strip, “Improvised,” in which RPS doesn’t do Han Solo much good in figuring out how to reply to Princess Leia in a famously tight moment, though in Han’s defense this is not the kind of proposition that is easy to deal with even under the most relaxed of circumstances.

At least one financial analyst has chosen to analyze our current economic crisis as a relationship between currency and gold as one of rock (gold), paper (currency), and scissors (economic turmoil).  And the television show Big Bang Theory just made it all seem silly, as it does with most things.

The Rock-Paper-Scissors playing glove is a technological innovation that serves at least two purposes.  It should help indecisive people make decisions in crucial moments.  It is also something that Senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell of Delaware might find use in helping people to avoid masturbating by giving them something useful to do with their hands.  (Scissors and masturbation?  Oops.)  If the mathematical logical I outlined above holds, the glove will keep them playing forever, thus ensuring the inavailability of the hands for other, more profane purposes.

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