13 December 2009

Propaganda...is it still evil when we use it?

In this age of technology, when a million archives and libraries rest virtually at our fingertips, we may have a tendency to become jaded and cocksure. Access to information that would have remained unseen, unheard, and unlearned in decades past, coupled with the opportunity to read, hear, and see opposing points of view for virtually any topic, has led us to a moral and logical relativism. This certain uncertainty, this new world where nothing is beyond question and no absolute acknowledged, has ironically led to what one might deem a tyrannical arrogance that resides in the collective unconscious.

In this day and age, no matter how thorough the research, no matter how reasoned the position, no matter how politic the presentation, someone stands ready to mock, deride, and discredit both the presentation and the presenter from concept to conclusion. "Truth" has become the purview of the listener, and personal opinion is our societal deity. The ego has become the proctor and standard for all knowledge, and the "expert" is now merely a tool to be used when deemed convenient to support presuppositiomn. "Ad hominem" has become status quo, and the old chestnut about the only absolute being the non-existence of absolutes has never rung more absolutely true.

Of course, another side of this circumstance is the fact that societies with greater access to information and dissenting opinion are arguably much more difficult to control (this is very debatable, but that is a subject for another blog.) The tyrant must now face the fact that every decree and edict will be vetted in the court of world opinion and fact-checked by the collected minds represented by the internet within hours.

Access to the aforementioned archives and libraries of the world also allows us a chance to perform a sort of social archaeology, where treasures and artifacts of the past can be exhumed from physical storage and digitally reproduced millions of times within minutes, all for the edification and entertainment of the masses.

One such little gem came to my attention today. The artifact in question being a short propaganda film produced by Disney to "educate" American families about the evils of Nazism, and (ironically) the brainwashing of the Nazi propaganda machine.

This film is unquestionably Allied propaganda, carefully designed to convey clear messages via physical representation and a not-so-subtle use of exaggeration.

This raises some interesting questions.

WWII has of been raised as an example of a "just" war. Here in the West, we have been taught that the Axis was "evil," the Allies were "good," and that the Axis was deceitful and untrustworthy, while the Allies were honest and true. This is all debatable, but this blog is not the appropriate context for that debate. I raise this point because here we have a video made in an Allied country and for the purpose of justifying the Allied cause, that could be termed "deceitful," if for no other reasons that the caricature and exaggeration that form the vehicle for the message.

But what if the message is true?

Does the use of a dishonest means of communication negate the virtue of communicating an honest message? If the "good guys" use the same tactics as the bad guys, but use them for good, are the tactics still bad?

We are also led to ponder if such a film could be produced today. What if such a film were made about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda? What if animated representations of Moslem extremists were shown to be doing the very things that Moslem extremists are doing in poverty-stricken nations the world over? Would a cartoon showing the Taliban instructing children that the greatest glory is to die while killing Americans and Israelis be countenanced in modern American society?

I submit that it would not. The mere mention of such a project would bring dire threat of legal action from anti-defamation groups across the nation and from the far corners of the earth. Pundits would flood the news channels with dire accusations of racism and demand unconditional apologies. Activists would use the furor for leverage to advance the cause of those who claim offense. America would censor itself in a contradictory orgy of guilty apology and self-righteous indignation.

Meanwhile, propaganda far more cancerous than this is being shown to children every day in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and across the "Arab World." Those who doubt my claim need only go to a video site and look up "Farfour" or "Hamas Children's TV."

So is all propaganda evil by nature? Was the anti-Nazi propaganda wrong? Would anti-Moslem-extremist propaganda be wrong now? Is their anti-Western propaganda wrong? Is the use of deception to communicate truth ever justified? Is the simplification of a complex issue properly deemed a deception?

If it's right and proper to censor ourselves while our enemies disseminate hatred and deception with unfettered freedom, will our position on the moral high ground accelerate our physical downfall?

Maybe we'll never arrive at comfortable answers to these questions, but it's about time we started thinking about them.

03 December 2009

Rendering Honors

Today a Fallen Hero returned from Afghanistan.

I don't know his name. I don't know his rank. I don't know how he died. I don't know how old he was.

All I know is that he was in the Army, and he was killed in action not long ago.

We were sitting around the office at the hangar today when we got the news. A Fallen Hero was returning within the hour, and we were to stand along the route of the procession and render honors as the procession passed.

All of the joking ceased. Everyone became somber, and the attitudes adjusted to pure professionalism. At that moment, we were Marines and Sailors, with personalities faded to the background, and ready to pay our respects to a fallen brother.

After a briefing, we lined up along the main road through the base, the road that was to serve as parade route for the funeral procession. As we made our way to the street, I was shocked to see how many people were joining us. Every uniformed serviceman and service woman, and more than few civilians were lined up from the landing site to the main gate. Over a distance of almost two miles, there were maybe a few hundred feet that weren't lined with military personnel. Officers and enlisted, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, all were joined in one accord this day.

When the procession left the tarmac and entered the roadway, Gunny called us to attention and gave the commands to render honors. We brought up slow salutes in unison, and every member of the platoon stood ramrod straight, eyes forward, and held those salutes in respect of our fallen brother until the very last member of the honor guard had passed.

As professional and somber as we were, we were not unaffected. When the fallen soldier passed, our thoughts were of honor, and duty, and sacrifice. When his family passed, our thoughts--or at least my thoughts--turned to empathy for his family. Watching his mother, grandmother, sisters, and other relatives crying and thanking us through the car windows, I felt a pain for their loss, and a sense of pride that they would know their son was not forgotten.

I think many of us also stood aware that "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

I know that I can't convey what we felt on this day, and I'm not trying to type some sobering reminder to "think about the cost of freedom," or anything like that. I just wanted to share, and I wanted you to know that heroes are real, and their sacrifices are real, and though they have given all, they are not, and will not be forgotten.

13 October 2009

Time to address this "Columbus Day" foolishness.

I lead an admittedly insular life. I spend my waking hours in the presence of the Marines I treat and one or two other Navy personnel, or if I get to go home, with my wife. I may exchange pleasantries with a neighbor or a shopkeeper now and again, but I'm rarely a part of the general hustle and bustle that defines the life of the modern man. If I read the news or hear about a story, it's almost always via the internet on a news website or a social networking site.

I say all of this to illustrate the point that if I come into contact with an idea, it's probably well established in the mainstream culture.

Thus, it was somewhat surprising when I encountered several articles and read multiple comments yesterday about the assorted evils of Christopher Columbus, including, but not limited to, his introduction of European "rape culture" to the Americas, his "looting" of the riches of the Caribbean, and his murder of "peaceful, innocent natives." The crux of the issue was the very existence of "Columbus Day," and the propriety (or impropriety) of our national holiday celebrating his voyages.

I'm not going to debate any of that. Much of history is a matter of perspective, and if your perspective is that Christopher Columbus was the leering, drooling, insatiable, lecherous, 15th century incarnation of Molech, then far be it from me to disabuse you of that notion. As one of my former co-workers would say, "whatever floats your boat and finds your lost remote."

Instead, I'd like to address the notion that the actions of Christopher Columbus, and indeed that the character of the man himself, are somehow significantly more detestable than the actions and character of any other scout or explorer in history.

In examining this premise, it helps to consider the history of humanity in terms of philosophy and migration.

Throughout human history, and in fact as far back as our earliest records, people have been divided into two groups.

"Us," and "Them."

"Us" is anyone with whom the individual or group identifies and associates. Historically, this has taken the form of family, clan, village, tribe, nation, or other cooperative collective. Sometimes, "Us" was just a small cluster of people. Rarely, it was an empire. Sometimes there were subgroups within "Us" that identified as "Us" on a more intimate and bonded level than the "Us" that defined the larger group. But in the end, everyone, sedentary or nomadic, tribal or familial, voluntarily or of necessity, self-identified as part of an "Us."

Of course, every "Us" had a "Them." "Them" was anyone who wasn't "Us." More significantly, throughout most of recorded history, "Them" represented a group that is very likely to kill, rape, and possibly eat "Us" if given the chance. Even in instances where trade and commerce happened between "Us" and "Them," it was out of the necessity born of the fact that neither "Us" nor "Them" had the power to take what one wanted from the other by force. "Them" was a group to be feared and mistrusted, and if possible, wiped out, to secure more space, more resources, and a better standard of living for "Us." Sometimes "a better standard of living" simply meant "taking away the shiny things that they have so that we can have them." So it has always been.

History is a great patchwork of groups that constantly shifted according to desire, need, and ability. Groups displaced and annihilated other groups, only to be displaced and annihilated by yet more groups over time. Groups grew and shrank, moved and settled, killed and gave birth, connived and schemed, and generally took whatever actions seemed to benefit the "Us" with which they self-identified.

It is an indisputable fact that if you are alive and reading this today, you come from a succession of groups of "Us" that out performed, outnumbered, outlived, and indeed wiped out an attendant succession of groups of "Them."

Furthermore, it is a folly beyond belief to think that any group in history had a unique genesis in a certain land and lived in peace and harmony with one another, forsaking all conflict and living in tranquility. People need resources to survive. Those with resources survived until those without resources or those with greater resources displaced them. Even acknowledging the occasional famine or outbreak of disease that eliminated a group and freed up some resources, the vast preponderance of historical evidence shows that the primary means of extinction for self-identifying groups of humans is the violent action of other groups of humans. In short, every group that had something worth having, obtained that something by wiping out another group.

Doubt this premise? Consider this. There is a reason why teachers like Ghandi and Mother Theresa stand out in history. The ideas that "we're all just people," and "everyone matters," and "we should always treat others with the love and respect that we normally reserve for ourselves" are revolutionary ideas. They are revolutionary because they contravene human nature. These ideas are revolutionary because people have not thought or lived according to these ideas in any statistically significant numbers or for any significant amount of time. They stand counter to the biological imperatives that undergird the "Us vs. Them" paradigm that defines human history. These ideas are not now, nor have they ever been, normal.

I'm not going to start throwing around arguments about "revisionist history," or "cultural sensitivity," or even "tradition," because all of that is at best tangential to the point. Those are inflammatory phrases that people like to use as an excuse to get all riled up and maybe bask in the warm glow of a little self-righteousness now and then.

The point is this: If you want to apply modern cultural mores or idealistic moral standards to one individual or group in one era of history, you need to apply those same standards to all individuals and groups throughout all eras of history. And when we start doing that, well...everyone ends up with a hefty share of skeletons in the historical and cultural closets.

So why not leave the high horses at home, put the indignation and self righteousness in the mothballs for a while, and just take the chance to enjoy another holiday? There's no point in arguing over who "discovered" what unless we're willing to discover a little something about ourselves in the process. Besides, I'm all in favor of anyone who discovers a reason not to go to work on a Monday.

01 October 2009

The Renaissance of Ottership Down

Welcome, one and all.

This is my first entry since I joined the Navy, and it won't be much of an entry at that. In the months since my last entry, I've entered the Navy, trained a fair bit, gotten a promotion, moved to California, adopted a dog, fed many, many, many hummingbirds, made some new friends, joined facebook, and abandoned myspace.

Leaving myspace eliminated my previous venue for blogging, and the deletion of the account deleted a great number of blogs that were probably no great shakes to begin with. I cannot promise that future entries will be any more worthwhile and/or interesting than previous entries, but I can promise that you will continue to have access to the raw, unpolished rantings and musings of the Yankee you've come to know and...well, know.

I haven't reviewed the entries that were copied and pasted from myspace a couple of years back, but if you read them and should find reason to take offence, please let me know. I may not do anything about it, but I will at the least learn from the experience. Contrariwise, if you should in any way enjoy one or more of the previous entries, please let me know that as well. I may not do anything about that, either, but then again I may just take some pains to cater to the readership now and again.

Thank you for your time, and I do hope you enjoy reading these as much as I will enjoy writing them.


(whom you may also know as Matthew, Damn Yankee, or Billy Yank)

16 February 2008

Since people have been asking...

I haven't been blogging or commenting much because I've been really busy and really exhausted getting ready for some new and different challenges in life (related to joining the Navy.)

I'll let you know more when I have more concrete information.

Until then, just know that I have only slightly more information than you do.

Later on,


01 February 2008

Git along, little blogies...

My blog is moving here, possibly on a permanent basis, depending upon a number of different issues. For those who were/are fans of my myspace blog, have no fear. Many of the entries that I have posted on myspace over the past year will be transferred to this blog. Some of those entries won't survive the transfer, but that's the way things go sometimes. Following the transfer, new entries will be made on this blog.

Thanks for your time and patience,


Some of the "why" behind my decision (January '08)

In the past 12 hours, I have gotten a TON of feedback about my decision, and while 98% of this feedback has been positive, most people have asked me "why?" in one way or another.

I'll try to avoid being as verbose as usual, and instead aim for some rare brevity.

Of course there is the usual sense of duty to my fellow man and the honor of service and all of that, but most of my reasons were more personal.

My family has been represented in the US military in some form almost since my various ancestors arrived in this country. My great uncle has a Navy pilot who had a destroyer named after him (Ohio State football fans might be interested in knowing that the first commander of this vessel was Woody Hayes!) My great aunt was an Air Force surgical nurse who helped develop an open heart surgery procedure that radically increased the survival rates of surgical patients (a procedure still in use today.) Another great uncle was a UDT, and I believe at least one of his sons became a SEAL. One set of grandparents and one set of great grandparents worked on The Manhattan Project. My father was a career Navy officer (he enlisted, but mustanged), and two of his brothers were in the Navy. My generation is the first generation that was not represented in the military (until now.)

I have grown up with great health care, banking, and insurance benefits because my father was in the Navy. I would like to make those same benefits available to my wife and (if we have them one day) children. I could sit here and type out all the details, but I'll summarize by saying that the Navy takes very good care of its people and their families. In this case, the Navy can provide what I could not otherwise provide.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, there is also the issue of long term-joblessness and the hopelessness that comes with having a degree that nobody takes very seriously. I tried a lot of things out before I went with this option, from bouncing to work with a television program that will be aired this year. Nothing panned out as a viable long term option. I needed stable employment, or the education to get it. The military has always represented a path to education and employment for people that would otherwise be out of luck. I looked into other avenues for education, but when all was said and done, nothing came even close to what I could get by joining up. The education I will be getting in the Navy translates directly to a rapidly growing civilian job field. That's a good feeling.

Finally, there is the fact that I've always wanted to go into the medical field. I dig helping people, and what more tangible way to help people than healing them? There is also the fact that helping wounded people is pretty morally unambiguous, even in the most heinous of conflicts (and I'm not making any political statements here, I'm just saying that helping people is good stuff no matter what.)

I'm a little scattered at the moment, as I think of all that I have to do in the next couple of months before I leave (sell a car, return some things, see some folks, etc.,) but if you have any questions, just ask away...