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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: June 2013


People who come close to near death experience often recall images of a long dark tunnel with a white light at the end. But are those images real? What if the brain, in a desperate effort to cope with a previously unknown situation, frantically fires up random synaptic connections in order to find a way out from what it must perceive as an emerging emergency. Maybe it tries to open some sort of previously untapped panic room possibly hidden in the deep recesses of the cranium. We know that even under normal conditions our brain has a tremendous potential to create its own illusions. After all, that is what dreaming is all about. It is thus entirely imaginable that in the case of a looming catastrophe, our intellect is capable of mobilizing much larger banks of such resources.

Many teachings and philosophies (especially those of Eastern provenience) ask you to liberate yourself from the objective reality and seek solace in the vast expanses of your inner space. In it you can create your own little Universe and enjoy the streaming happiness on your own terms. The interior may seem black and empty at first, but once your eyes get used to the twilight zone luminosity, you may discover a complex non-material world which taps directly into your brain's spare capacity. That is basically what Nirvana is - an asylum for jaded senses. No wonder that many gurus advocate immersing yourself in the spiritual self discovery in order to reclaim these deeper layers of your being.

I can see their point, too. Molding the cacophony of sensory inputs into a coherent image is an uphill battle. It feels like composing a giant jigsaw puzzle while your peers - your friends, your relatives, your roommates, your coworkers - keep messing with the pieces on your table. It is so much more convenient to just shut the outside door and succumb to the vertigo of your spiraling mind - or slightly worse - to sniff some nasty chemical and stone yourself beyond the Kingdom Come. But if focusing our energies into the unfathomable depths of our soul is the answer then why not give up on improving this world altogether? Well, if you think of it, there would be global consequences. If we all thought that way, the world as we know it would not really be here. We would never have invented the wheel and the printing press, we would not have built pyramids and the Panama canal, we would not have time to design an electric bulb or a smart phone. We'd all be smoking our little weeds somewhere in the Neanderthal Valley, floating contentedly on cloud nine and eating grubs. Literally.

I think life is a constant struggle between the perfect inner and imperfect outer reality. Every day you have to get up and make a choice where you want to draw the separating line. Do you navigate your anxiety ridden raft through white waters of assorted social regulations, often under unfavorable conditions, or do you steer it onto the smooth surface of an underground lake on which you are the supreme ruler and where you can live free of inferior desires and petty greeds. In this mortal's opinion, it is all about the balance. On the one hand, we need our inner world as a safe haven we can return to if it rains too hard on the outside. On the other hand, we should acknowledge the existence of that pesky outer reality which we share with others and use it as a vehicle to improve this little planet. And maybe build bigger and better pyramids while at it.

But what do I know? It is entirely possible that we don't even see the true reality anyway. What if our reality is but a projection? Kind of like a silhouette of an oriental dancer swaying on a whitewashed tavern wall. However accurate the projection is, it still does not accurately portray all the attributes of the real world, or even all the relevant entities acting in it. Despite the successes of modern sciences in explaining our world, it may still be just a shadow on the wall, a partial image whose full meaning is hidden from us. Imagine dogs were trying to figure out the purpose of a Superbowl. They have all the sensory input we have (in the olfactory department they probably have more) and yet watching the game would have to be utterly confusing experience to them.

We think of ourselves as masters of the Universe, but in the end we may just be dogs staring at the Superbowl. Yeah - it is tough to be a human trying to figure out what on Earth is happening out there. Especially when all we can see is a vague spray of light tiptoeing into the dark cave of our ignorance.



71 years ago, on June 10, 1942, Nazi troops surrounded the village of Lidice and assumed positions to carry out one of the worst massacres on the Czech soil. Billed as an exemplary punishment for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, and justified by a flimsy pretext of alleged harboring of the conspirators and their collaborators, scores of the Ordnungspolizei members in polished boots marched into the village and erased it from the surface of the Earth literally within hours. Men were summarily executed behind one of the barns, houses were burned to the ground and women and children were hustled into buses and sent into concentration camps from which only a handful returned.

Making a movie based on a crime against humanity is not an easy task. Trauma kisses slowly. It can take generations for a nation to extricate its judgment from the quagmire of open wounds. The chronicler of this act of vengeance might easily be tempted to delve into a moralizing etude culminating in a vindictive stampede of high horses. Or slip into a black and white storm of available trivia, unleashing a dry dream of every war historian. The 2011 movie of director Petr Nikolaev simply titled "Lidice" managed to avoid all the obvious pitfalls and delivered a straightforward, but compelling testament to the fragility of our social order. In the process, it also gently reminded us that we are connected to the magma of human existence through our own scars. Whether we like it or not.

Nikolaev serves his dish raw. His narrative is sober, unretouched, bitter, moving, grievous, unsettling, harsh, scathing, but also observant and understanding. Its central message is well supported by the subtly abrasive acting of the main protagonist Karel Roden. The low key tone and seemingly reluctant performance accentuates movie's dark tone better than any grandiose gesture. A mosaic of small and large slowly unfolds in front of our eyes - the trite and the profound melting together under the welding arc of the pan-european delirium, the futility and the sorrow, the weakness of flesh conjoined with the strength of character, the innards of conscience that were pecked out by the war and left a hollow cavity gaping under the lid of marble discipline. All you now need is a handkerchief for the blushing God. At the end of the movie you can almost hear His hot tears dripping on frozen oceans of forgiveness.

This film does not have a happy end. Icing sugar is not a recommended ingredient in movies dealing with Nazi atrocities. And that is just as well. Exuberant fireworks would not fit the bleak nature of the subject. Especially considering that for the Czechs, the end of the war wasn't really a joyous deliverance; it was merely a transit from the oppressive Third Reich straight into the hell of a Stalinist Empire. Hardly a cause for celebration. So the movie ends with an unresolved chord - a hesitant promise of continuance. A reminder that however painful the events were, we need to carry them in our memory lest we stray away on our long way from primates to decent human beings.

If the men and women from Lidice watched the movie from their high cloud, I think they would silently approve. They would appreciate that someone else felt their sense of anguish and helplessness and conveyed it onto the silver screen so faithfully. And after so many decades, they could even feel a bit of a closure. A soft touch of human hand on their shoulders. Barely perceptible - like flecks of a shredded mirror drizzling from the sky.

Country Life

Lyrics to one of the older Genesis songs contains the following piece of wisdom:

"I'd rather trust a countryman than a townman,
You can judge by his eyes, take a look if you can,
He'll smile through his guard,
Survival trains hard"

I think the central observation in this verse is that great outdoors require a different kind of man, a different kind of character and a different survival mode. In the countryside, if you need more food, you negotiate directly with Mother Nature, which is uncompromising, but fair. In other words: if you have more mouths to fill, you add extra land to till. Case closed. In the city, however, you have to deal with your fellow denizens and if you want to make more money - you need to outfox competitors. That hones a slightly twisted set of survival skills. Shredding credit card applications is a different experience than shredding beef.

The simplicity inherent in the country life also engenders certain moral clarity. That is probably why I enjoy talking to farmers more than to any other professional group. Out there in cornfields, there is no fast track, no inside game, no commercial jingle, no illicit bribery, no price fixing. Your sweat is your credit. Farmers know what labor is really worth and their general views are Earthy - which is just my little code word for pragmatic, rational and straightforward. Living off the soil creates a deeply rooted and intuitive system of values. You get out what you put in.

But there is more allure to the countryside than the more transparent form of subsistence. People who work off of the soil have one more advantage. They see more of the color which is like amniotic fluid for our fragile psyche - the color of the life itself: green. From mountain meadows to wheat patches, from the plush carpet of grasslands to the puffy hairdo of the forest foliage, its chlorophyll based hues soothe and calm our jaded existence. When you enter a woods clearing and see the crisp sprinkled light dancing among the green coppice you can sense your own recharging light go on. It is almost as if your soul just got hit with a second hand photosynthesis. Everything around you grows and you grow with it.

When we moved en masse to cities in search for an easier life, we gave up our instinctive sense of growing. Concrete structures around us don't grow - they stay put. Asphalted streets don't respire - they drain (provided that the sewage system works). The gray and beige tones of most man made structures is a poor substitute for green. And worst of all, we lost our link to land, and with it a natural gauge for calibrating our values.

Sometimes I cannot help thinking about a social experiment in which we'd institutionalize some sort of farm-based summer jobs for all young people at the onset of their productive life. Kind of like a mandatory military service, except we wouldn't ask our youngsters to carry arms, rather we'd invite them to carry rakes and pitchforks and work on the land for some period of time, say 3-6 months. They could upkeep a new forest, make hay on a meadow, fish on an open sea or work in the cotton fields. Learning first hand that the world is growing and breathing would bring fresh perspective to those who might otherwise lose it in the micro-cosmos of their highly specialized professions. Imagine that all our politicians would go through this kind of service. I bet the trust in Congress would shoot up immediately. Even wizards of Wall Street and Silicon Valley could deepen their sense of belonging to a larger entity. Heck, now that I think of it, it might be a worthy experience for all of us. Maybe we could repeat it every 10-15 years. It would be like a driver's license renewal. A periodic extension of our personal contract with Mother Nature.

In return we'd all get an extra supply of organic produce and much healthier society to boot.

Both physically and mentally.


Res Publica

Politics is the greatest theater known to man. There is no other area of human activity where appearances, signals and gestures plays such cardinal role. And for a good reason. If you are in a position where you have to heed multiple and often contradictory requests from varied population segments, you better be a certified master of smoke and mirrors.

We all have our views about how the society should take care of its public needs. But rather than using baseball bats as a means of persuasion, we have devised a grandiose transmission mechanism for the power generated by people's mercurial and often finicky wants - the political system. That venerable if byzantine structure in which human representatives mull over political pressures (people's preferences about the directions which the society at large should follow), then ponder the consequences, set up priorities and, finally, create and maintain an apparatus to enforce the outcomes.

Resolving the political pressures into actionable pieces of legislature is not an easy task and each representatives handles it differently. The inherent diversity of motivational factors is one reason why game theory is not easily applicable to politics. Every player has a custom made "cost function". As far as I can see, the incentives for public servants - and with them the tactics and strategy - can come from at least three sources. The first one rests in a straightforward execution of what the electorate wants. In this variant, a politician is but a giant cog in the implementation of the perceived public will. The second group shamelessly propagate their own agenda and the agenda of those that fill their campaign coffers. They are in it for the money and power. Rhetorical skills and connections are assets; spine, character and personal integrity big liabilities. Finally - there is a small group of individuals I would describe as visionaries - people who act on behalf of common good. They are the true statesmen who can see into the future and lead the nation in the direction of long term prosperity. Needless to say that this group is the rarest of them all.

Such categorization is an oversimplification though. In real life, politicians are amalgamation of the three prototypes and their motives evolve over time. Many dreamers have no choice but to become pragmatists if they are to survive in the brutally competitive system. And the system itself evolves in time too. It morphs, it reacts, it gets eroded or rebuilt, and sometimes it crumbles completely. Once upon a time, in the Greeko-Roman cradle of our civilization, a democratic system of governance was conceived and honed, but like all magnificent ideas, the efficiency of the system fell prey to human nature. The daily wheelings and dealings of the many constituent parts eventually undermined the noble design of Plato and Cicero and the meaning of large words like liberty, honor, freedom or justice was frittered away in the labyrinth of palace intrigue. One personal squabble at a time. Call it death by thousand cuts if you will. We are mere mortals and the ability to push buttons of other mortals and control their livelihoods at the same time just seems too much to resist for some of us.

These days politics is a fine balancing act. For every imaginable move, there are many who are pleased and many who are not. To complicate things further every potential political issue yields different set of winners and losers. Navigating such environment is like playing multidimensional chess game in which the rules of the game are created on the spot by spectators. Or by sponsors - if you are of a more cynical disposition. Survival under these conditions can be an extremely tricky business. You have to find the right balance of alliances and enmities for your goals and keep in mind that every new alliance will create some enemies and vice versa. You have to position yourself correctly for the prevailing winds and learn how to pin unpopular policies on your opponents even if you directly benefit from them. And above all, keep in mind that short term pain for a long term gain may be a death sentence for your political career. So kicking the can successfully down the road - in the hope that the eventual catastrophe will fall onto someone else's shoulders - should definitely be in your toolbox.

In an ideal world, a slim and efficient government with an eye on a sustainable growth would be the desired outcome of this game. But we don't live in an ideal world. The unrelenting barrage of recent revelations coming from the DC is a bitter testimony to that: the IRS targeting allegations, the NSA surveillance scandal, the AP monitoring rumors, the fast and furious fiasco... Our national affairs seem to be managed by an overgrown multiply redundant organization which spies on us, uses public funds to slander and besmirch their political opponents, bails out selected private businesses, and puts regulators in bed with those they are supposed to regulate. The founding fathers would probably fidget nervously if they had to watch the Sunday morning shows. In lieu of public servants, we got a constantly bickering hypo allergic crowd, looking for a slightest excuse to rain brimstone and fire at those who hold an opposing view. The engine of democracy which should be roaring with confidence barely sputters.

So that's where we are. Governing the society effectively is indeed trickier than herding an army of cats with multiple personalities. Let's hope we get the plumbing of checks and balances right some day. In the absence of enlightened monarchs, we don't really have much choice.

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