Big Little Lies

I recently attended a debate in central London hosted by Intelligence Squared entitled ‘Identity Politics is Tearing Society Apart‘. The panel boasted an editorial director of BBC news Kamal Ahmed, and novelist Lionel Shriver among others.

Identity is defined in Oxford Bibliographies,

as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orientate social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition.

Vasiliki Neofotistos (2013). “Identity Politics”Oxford Bibliographies. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 27 October 2018. Retrieved 9th June 2019.

Arguments in favour of the motion focused on the fact that identity politics has in fact fueled a backlash of populism, bringing alt-right figures to the fore, destroying society’s broad sense of the common good, and increasing antagonism and fragmentation in our society.

Upon entry and upon exit the audience were polled for their agreement or disagreement with the debate title, and the majority 55% left the debate in agreement that indeed, identity politics was tearing society apart.

I, however, did not agree.

Recently I completed the 7 episode first season of ‘Big Little Lies‘ a HBO original series, produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. The American drama television series, based on the novel  by Australian author Liane Moriarty, premiered on February 19, 2017, and follows the lives and relationships of four women in Monterey, California, The women are united around their children who share a grade one class at the local school.

Their community is socially and economically homogeneous. The women are white Americans, upper middle class, heterosexual, well educated, and nice people. While there is an African American character, she is a vegan, yoga instructor who is socially and economically their equal. One character is single and working class but she is soon brought into the fold by the other women through shared experience. Under the surface of this idyllic beach-side life, where women share expansive homes with their handsome, domesticated husbands lies violence, lies, betrayal and hatred. Each character has layers, motives, jealousies and wounds which drive them through the story arc, Shakespearean at times in range and depth. It’s clear that this society is being torn apart yet – identity politics does not play one note the pain and violence which exists.

Surely there is something deeper than identity that tears our society apart?

Judeo-Christian theology, upon which our western society is based, teaches radical love and service to the ‘other’ most emphatically, the ‘other’ who is powerless, stateless, and voiceless. As such, duty bearers and power-holders have a mandate to identify with and support the recognition of the group who would otherwise be excluded from rights and privileges. Judeo-Christian theology is the very basis of ‘identity politics’.

So why do good, moral, people, feel identity politics has gotten out of hand, tearing at the fabric of society? Why does identity politics get the fall for the violence and dissolution of society?

A quick perusal of any history text shows that every generation of society has been riven by racial, geographical, class and religious wars – each tearing society apart in different ways. The 18th and 19th centuries were defined by class political wars, and the 16th and 17th centuries were defined by religious political wars. Earlier centuries were marked by ethnic wars and indeed the annals of history stretch back into time immemorial to tell of countless epochs of bloodshed.

It begs the question whether it in fact something deeper, something more human which is the enemy to human peace?

If it were identity which bred violence, one solution for humanity may lie in what the Buddhists teach as the denial of identity, the absolution of any ego-attachment to self or otherness and the blissful nirvana of non-being. It can be captures in the lyrics of the late-great John Lennon – ‘imagine’ a world where no countries, religion, or possessions exist, where humans live in peace and ‘as one.’

The challenge with such a philosophy is that it negates love which from the ground of self engages the ‘other’ and gives of self to the other.

In ‘Big Little Lies’ no one escapes the narrative to be ‘good’ or ‘ethical’. Everyone has their story, their motives, their depths. It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote:

But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 

It is not the negation of self that brings about peace, nor is it the eradication of ‘identity politics’ which will be the solution to our social ills or the healing of our social fabric. It is only when we address the violence that exists in the human heart that we can begin to find true and lasting peace.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus [Ἡρόδοτος] was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus in the modern-day Turkey in the fifth century BC (c. 484–c. 425 BC). As a contemporary with Socrates, Euripedes and Aeschylus, he lived during what is known as the Golden Age of Greece.

He is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he broke from Homeric tradition of mythologising events and treated his historical subjects with a method of investigation. The Histories, the record of his “inquiry” (ἱστορία historía)—was the result of  his collection of eye witness accounts and other materials and his systematic and critical arrangement of them into a historiographic narrative.

His work meditates on the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars which occurred one generation before his life. While prone to some fancies and inaccuracies, his work played a significant role in establishing a framework for later historical writings.

 

You can view this and other TED-Ed videos HERE.

Game of Faiths

The HBO series Games of Thrones aired the final episode for Season 6 last Sunday to an epic 9 million viewers. The fantasy drama is  based on a series of novels by George R. R. Martin, which currently number 5 in a potential series of 7 books, and form the greater compilation entitled,  A Song of Ice and Fire.

With nods to J.R.R. Tolkien, the epic fantasy novels are set in a parallel world which shows many cultural, sociological and literary similarities to Medieval and Renaissance Europe and the Near East, with added mythical beasts and magical cults.

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Darker and more blood thirsty than Tolkien, the books and now TV series have incited consternation for the frequent demise of major characters.

‘Why the appeal?’ one may well ask!

To early impressions, the stories can seem amoral. Many of the “good” characters get axed [literally] quite quickly, while the wicked prosper. All manner of vices proliferate on page and screen. Terrible inequalities emerge between owner and slave, between men with power and women without, between kings with money and armies and peasants without, and so forth.

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While unsavoury in nature, this portrayal of the world bears more likeness to true human history than other romantic epics of literature, Tolkien’s works included.

One cannot read much history without encountering the same gruesomely bloody and immoral acts portrayed within Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin, based much of the political machinations at the heart of the books on the British events of the Wars of the Roses. Some of the alarming and brutal customs including Cersei’s public walk of shame through the streets of the capital, or Tyrion’s ‘trial by combat’ come straight from Medieval history.

Moreover, the island of Westeros bears much historically in common with the British Isles with its long elaborate history of settlements, invasions and skirmishes between the Celts, Britons, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.

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History is brimming over with brutality. One reads of the Egyptian dynasties in which incestuous marriages were not uncommon, or Roman dynasties in which inbreeding created maddened rulers, cruel and drunk on power. Of course there were Persian rulers who impaled prisoners or crucified them publicly to deter dissent. One cannot read much of the most revered texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition,  the Old Testament, without encountering brutal accounts of parricide, polygamy, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, attempted genocide and more.

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And so, the world of Game of Thrones portrays life as cheap, hard and subject to the power plays of ruling elite. Caught in the midst of these power plays are the vulnerable – the women, the disabled, the illegitimate and the lesser born. And why shouldn’t it be so, for this is in fact the pattern of history is it not?

Here lies an interesting differential between history and poetry. While most often written from the vantage point of the victor, history is (at least in name) concerned the “what” and “when” of events past. On the other hand, poetry addresses the “whys” of human affairs. Poetry is unapologetically biased, adding layers of meaning, morality, and destiny to human accounts, straying into the metaphysical.

We look to art and narrative to provide a reprieve from the random patterns of brutality that make up life.

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It’s interesting then to revisit the claim Martin’s narratives seem amoral or without redemption. In fact, the stories are framed by an epic quest of cosmic proportions. The stories embody a narrative of redemption, ironically while religions within the stories function like any other element of an intricate socio-political universe.

In Martin’s world pagan Druidic beliefs exist along side the the established religion, the Faith of the Seven. George R.R. Martin, a catholic in upbringing, based the Faith of the Seven on the Medieval Catholic church, replete with inquisitions and political machinatons. Further afield, mostly originating in the east are other faiths including worship of  The Faceless God, or god of death, The Horse God of the Dothraki,  and of the Red God, or the Lord of Light, a religion based on Zorastrianism.

These religions form part of the fabric of Martin’s world and provide characters with agency. For example,  Cersei uses the Faith of the Seven and its adherents for political advantage, but is later caught in her own trap and manipulated in return.

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Behind this however, Game of Thrones paints a background of a cosmic battle between the forces of death and of life. Beyond the petty doings of human men and women, with their iron suits, gold coins, wicked hearts and political ambition, lies a massive army of  evil undead which threaten to wipe out all humanity and bring an unending winter.

Game of Thrones stretches beyond history and religion, and reaches into poetry; it sings a song of salvation.

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This song is familiar to us all, since it follows the pattern of every Hero Journey.

It is Jon Snow who demonstrates he is a true leader, one worthy of this cosmic battle. He sacrifices for his men and gains their loyalty and trust. He is betrayed at the hands of his friends and murdered, but he returns from the clutches of death to prompt the Priestess of Light to declare him  Azor Ahai, the one prophesied to bring balance between light and dark, to end the Great Battle with the forces of darkness and death.

Jon Snow is a humble man, over-looked by nobles and princes, one willing to give his life for his friends, one betrayed by his closest brothers, one who returns from the dead, reborn with a unique mandate-  to restore peace and harmony to a broken world.

 

Others

 

George Martin’s study of history and religion within the greater context of mythology and poetry, informs us how modern and post-modern teachings have impoverished western culture. In an effort to encourage objectivity and tolerance in increasingly diverse political and religious melting pots, western tradition has eliminated any meta-narrative or song of salvation.

Martin, like Tolkien reasserts a grand narrative, an epic hero story, one which echoes with the same themes and motifs of all epic narratives throughout the generations.

How Fiction Can Change Reality

In another great short clip, TED-Ed provides a summary of how fiction, shapes perception.

The video explores how fiction can spark debate, challenge norms and shape cultural evolution.

 

At Bear Skin, we concur !

For more videos such as these, you can go to www.ed.ted.com

The Ring of Gyges

Herodotus tells the story of Gyges, King of Lydia in the 8th century BC. He was the founder of the third Mermnad dynasty of kings of Lydia descendents of the gods, Zeus and Hercules [Herakles] and forefather of Croeseus.

Croeseus was a king of unsurpassed wealth and power, but the last of his line and the one who succumbed to the Persian Empire.

In Herodotus’ tale, Gyges was bodyguard to the king Candaules, who suffered “uxoriousness” or extreme love of his wife, believing her to be the most beautiful woman on earth. The king persuaded Gyges to hide in his bedchamber to observe his wife disrobing, that he too may appreciate her unsurpassed beauty.

Gyges protested but the king insisted.

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The Queen discerned she had been observed when Gyges left the room later that night. She did not say a word to her husband but she summoned Gyges and gave him the ultimatum, that he may suffer execution for what he had seen, or kill her husband and take the throne and herself to wife.

Gyges agreed to assasinate the king and take the throne. With the Queen’s help he succeeded and managed to quash the resultant civil war and hold the thone by sending tribute to the Oracle at Delphi in Greece.

With rich tribute to the oracle he inquired if he were the rightful king of Lydia, to which the Oracle replied he was, but his dynasty would only last for five generations.

By the 6th century, the King Croesue went to battle against the Persian army, believing himself to be invincible but was overpowered. Thus Herodotus accounts for the fall of the Lydian kingdom and accounts for the rise of the Persian Empire and her later assaults on Greece.

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Plato, writing in the 5th century,  recounts the myth of Gyges with a different emphasis. He tells of a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates in which Glaucon poses a moral dilemma.

Glaucon tells the story of Gyges, a mere shepherd in the service of the ruler, Candaules of Lydia. After an earthquake, Gyges discovers a cave in a mountainside near where he was feeding his flock. He enters the cave and discovers that it was in fact a tomb with a bronze horse and the armour of a giant. The giant’s corpse wears a golden ring, which Gyges pockets.

Soon discovering that the ring gives him the power to become invisible, Gyges then arranges to be chosen as one of the messengers who report to the king on the status of the flocks. Arriving at the palace, he uses his new power of invisibility to seduce the queen, and with her help he murders the king, and becomes king of Lydia himself.

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In Republic, Glaucon asks whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered. Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, the source of which is the desire to maintain one’s reputation for virtue and justice.

Hence, if that sanction were removed, one’s moral character would evaporate.

Glaucon posits:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.
Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.
For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.
— Plato’s Republic, 360b–d. 

Though his answer to Glaucon’s challenge is delayed, Socrates ultimately argues that justice does not derive from this social construct: the man who abused the power of the Ring of Gyges has in fact enslaved himself to his appetites, while the man who chose not to use it remains rationally in control of himself and is therefore happy. (Republic 10:612b)

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Glaucon’s story show interesting parallels with Tokein’s epic narrative “Lord of the Rings” taken from Norse and Scandinavian myths. Both accounts pose the question of morality in the presence or posession of great power.

Though Tolkein’s epic shows that humble creatures such as Hobbits can partially resist the seductive powers of the ring, ultimately the ring holds an intractable force that will corrupt any living creature.

 

myth of gyges

In Herodotus’ history, the rise of the Persian Empire and the fall of the Lydian kingdom was due in part to the foolishness of Candaules and the lust of Gyges centuries prior. Though a good king, Gyges usurped the throne immorally, sowing the seeds of the demise of his own Empire generations later.

Moreover, the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, questions whether justice is a social construct and whether humanity can resist enslavement to their appetites and retain a moral compass, Glaucon and Tolkein both disagree.

What do you think? If not, what indeed is the hope for humanity?

Frodo

Tolkein’s narrative closes with Frodo unable to destroy the ring which he has carried into Mordor. Its corrosive powers had consumed him to the point where he no longer posessed his own powers of reason.

It was only another, more lustful than he, so obsessed by the ring that it was willing to throw itself into the flames to possess it, that finally brings about its destruction.

And allow peace and reason to reign again.

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There is another story, one I’m fond of retelling, in which a humble man holds ultimate power in a small vessel – himself. It is only destruction of this power, by those more lustful and obsessed by having it, and the destruction of the vessel and so the man himself, that peace and reason are permitted to reign again.

Recapitulation, narrative and memory

April 25th for us antipodeans is a sacred day.

This year marks the 100th year memorial of the doomed,  Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) storming of the Gallipoli peninsula, a rocky stretch of Turkish beach and cliffs during World War I.

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The bloodshed on those battlefields, was greatly increased by mistakes and ineptitude a by British commanders far away. Young Australians served for freedom of King and country however the war forever changed the national identity. It’s the time when the British colonial outpost of Australia, grew up and became a nation in its own right, despite Federation 14 years earlier.

Every year on April 25th, at memorials around the country and at parades through city streets, the battles are remembered. Diggers, or more accurately, their descendants honour the fallen; servicemen and women pay their respects to those who sacrificed their lives in the war.

These small ceremonies are repeated year after year with the same catch-cry,

“Lest we forget.”

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This is what memorials are, the enactment of a story, the recapitulation of a narrative reminder of what was and what should never be again. War memorials are not enough to stop us ever going to war again, but they serve as a solemn reminder of the truth,

Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it – George Santayana [1905].

Ceremonies are a kind of sacrament, an embodiment of a kernel of truth. They point the participant back to a truth while pointing them forward to live life with the knowledge of this truth.

Sacred stories have always been important to communities; they shape a people conscious of the past and capable of facing the future.

Sophie’s World and the power of Questions

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

The novel “Sophie’s World” follows the events around Norwegian school girl,  Sophie Amundsen’s 15th birthday. She mysteriously receives letters addressed to a girl called Hilde Moller Knag and typed pages containing a short course in western philosophy.  When Sophie befriends an elderly professor Alberto Knox she learns that it is he who is instructing her in the course on philsophy. Their journey takes stranger turns however, as they both seek to identify the elusive Hilde Moller Knag and the author of the post cards, Albert Knag.

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Alberto delivers to Sophie, a course in  western philosophy spanning from pre-socratic philosophy, to modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. She journeys with Alberto through Hellenistic philsophy, Christian thought, the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, enlightenment and romantic periods of western thinking. The Norwegian author Gaarder, addresses an important lack in modern western education- instruction on thought. Sophie’s journey to learn “wisdom” [sophism] becomes our journey.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

When Sophie has dreams which are fulfilled, she and Alberto begin to suspect some greater mischief is afoot. Gradually they begin to learn that they are part of a story themselves, written by Albert Knag to his daugher Hilde for her 15th birthday. Confused and perplexed at this thought, that the world they inhabit is but the imagining of a superior author, they seek to rebel and run away from he story itself.  Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being and even then, despite the knowledge that they she is imaginary, Sophie and Alberto deterime to find a way to escape.

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“A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.…We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a book within a book. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder’s imaginary characters but for US. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points.  Gaarder presents Philosophy as an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers …………………………

“… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World