Thursday, October 28, 2010

Where has intellectual challenge gone?

As I sat waiting in the temporary labor office, I was flipping through the various old magazines and free newspapers that had collected there, and one column jumped out at me.  It was in a free "what to do in Vegas" newspaper, under the theater section.  The columnist wrote that the idea of political correctness seems to have stripped the theater of it's ability to slap patrons across the frontal love with thought patterns outside their own.  For example, he longed to see a script, set in 1940's Germany, told through the eyes of an enthusiastic young German wrapped up in the exploding National Socialist movement, and seeing why the character believed so fully in Hitler's vision and rhetoric.  Not a "wait to see the conversion at the end of the story" play, but a "challenge the audience's way of thinking" play.  You know, the way plays like Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair did back in the day.  Other suggestions  were scripts that examined characters Christian faith (ones that aren't simply aimed at the converted) as a counter point to the numerous attacks on believers seen on stage, and even ones that examined the mindset of the pro-segregation crowds from the Civil Rights movement days.  I found it very interesting that the author laid at least part of the blame for this tunnel vision on the typical profile of the modern playwright, young to middle age, a loner, a liberal and an agnostic.  Those very personality traits are supposed to be the people who are open to all possibilities, willing and wanting to expose themselves and everyone else to many different paradigms, and who desire their art to be provocative in the effort to shock viewers into consciousness and open-mindedness.  The columnist even went so far as to suggest that someone should write an anti-gay play.  Not one advocating violence or any other such nonsense, but an open and honest exploration up on stage of why some of us believe that being gay is not normal, without being portrayed as the villain of the tale or as just an ignorant stereotype.  Personally it was rather refreshing to me to see this kind of pining for intellectual and philosophical challenge from any entertainment field, especially when that pining wasn't simply calling for stirring up controversy with the same old "tear down the Judeo-Christian morals and mores" that passes for depth in so much of the art world.
The whole idea of genuinely testing our worldviews seems to have become foreign to many these days.  Especially those groups who claim that they are the most open-minded.  How many liberals sit down and listen, honestly listen to Rush Limbaugh or Neal Boortz?  How many atheists or antagonistic agnostics read through the Bible?  Neither with the intent to find errors or launch personal insults, but simply to absorb and hold what comes to them up against their own paradigm?  Personally I enjoy engaging in debate with people who don't subscribe to the same ideas I do, be it political, religious or less heady topics, simply because the engagements make me defend the ideas that are in my head, both to my opponent and to myself.
The recent wikileaks military document releases is a case that has generated a lot of internal debate in my head, some of which has yet to be resolved.  My first trip to college was as a newspaper photographer, and I have a deep-set respect for the freedom of the press.  At the same time, I know that war is hell.  Sick, sad things happen in war, no matter how much we try and prevent them, which is a prime factor in wanting to avoid war when ever possible.  Unfortunately, sometimes it simply isn't possible to avoid or at the least in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, simply leave.  Muddying the waters further, I realize that in this day and information age, or even before, and in the type of war we are dealing with, the military can't simply announce everything it's doing, nor can it always announce when those unfortunate things happen, because such events quickly turn into propaganda for the enemy.  Keep in mind, in this case we are dealing with an enemy that has no issue killing innocent civilians with suicide bombers in crowded markets or with roadside bombs that don't discriminate between military and civilian either, or shooting at soldiers from residential buildings, done intentionally to generate civilian casualties.  Of course, as we have seen with the video and information that has come out from this event, not reporting events is used as propaganda by other not so friendly forces as well.  Should wikileaks have released all those documents?  Should the press?  Should the military have released them before this?  Would I have acted any differently placed the situation of those soldiers, those commanders, the leaker, wikileaks, the reporters? I still can't answer those questions.
(A fascinating aside, evidence of how many viewpoints can come into play in a situation, and a likely answer to why many people don't want to challenge their brains with such issues, the hacker community has gotten involved in the situation, for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that many of wikileaks documents are discovered by hackers.  A person in the hacker community was told by a soldier who is accused of hacking into military computers and giving the hundreds of thousands of documents to wikileaks.  This person chose to inform the military of what happened.  Because in this case there are names and faces to work with, the man in charge of wikileaks is not entering America now for fear of arrest, and the informant is the target of much hatred from the hacker community.  At the hacker conference The Next Hope, a wikileaks representative gave a keynote speech explaining why wikileaks believes they are in the right releasing the documents, and the informant took part in a panel discussion on informants, explaining why he thought he was right for revealing who leaked the documents to a rather hostile audience.  You can download and listen to both talks here, scroll down the list to "Informants Heroes or Villains" and "Keynote Address: Wikileaks".  Just these two discussions show how much is touched on by a single event, from feelings about the military-industrial complex, the wars in the Middle East, narcing people out, hacking, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, are secrets needed in a society... the list goes on.  Anymore, we like nice simple solutions and fortune cookie answers, and this is an exemplary case where there are no easy answers, no matter what side of the spectrum you are on, at least not if you are intellectually honest.)
Back on track, personally I take up the challenge to my worldviews.  Rush and the rest of the conservative talk radio crowd are not my sole source of world news.  I pull in information from several sources, such as the links to left leaning reports that people post on the various corners of the internet that I frequent, be it facebook, twitter, or any of the various message boards I'm part of.  Off The Hook, the radio show from the same folks who organize the aforementioned HOPE conferences every other year and also put out 2600 magazine, gets downloaded and listened to just about every week.  It's not exactly news, but they certainly aren't raving right wingers.  I noticed a while back that several of the writers and writings that are the foundation of communism are available for free on Project Gutenberg.  Since I've been getting quite a bit of reading done lately, those text files just might make their way onto my phone for perusal and dissection. 
If we don't test our ideas, how do we know it is we believe?  How do we know our worldview holds water if we never pour any into the bucket?  So I challenge you to go forth and test.  If you are one of those aforementioned folks who think Rush Limbaugh is the devil incarnate, sit down and listen, honestly, openly listen to his words for a while.  Find solid, intelligent arguments against those words.  Not angry personal insults, but genuine arguments.  If you think Obama is the anti-Christ, do the same to him.  One of two things will happen.  Either you will strengthen, solidify, and better identify your own ideals, or you may find that you have built a house on sand, and you need to go pour a new foundation.
The columnist's name that inspired all this is Anthony Del Vale, and he writes for Las Vegas Review ( I figure he deserves a plug for all this spilled digital ink.

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