Books: On Tyranny

It’s been about 80 years since western democracy was threatened by the wave of fascism that swept across Europe and led to the most devastating military conflict in human history.

For young people today, particularly here in the States, the story of World War II is one we’ve heard so many times that our basic understanding of it seems almost second-nature. The history reads like legend the older it becomes, a cataclysmic event made increasingly (and comfortably) distant by a growing number of years, even as we continue to memorialize it in our monuments, holidays, films and books.

And yet less than half of Americans bother to vote in presidential elections, while the number is even less for mid-term and local elections.  That alone seems enough to argue that appreciation for our democracy seems mostly rhetorical.  

We haven’t faced the blatant attacks to our political and personal freedoms that so many around the world have long endured; and that privileged lack of experience has enabled us in taking democracy for granted.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

-Wendell Phillips

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder explains why democracy requires constant vigilance by its citizenry, how even in a land like America, so famed for it’s checks and balances and its democratic institutions and individual freedoms, a government can still be perfectly vulnerable to the same forces that spread through Europe once upon a time, forces which are beginning to creep up not-so-discreetly again.  

Democracy is precious, and this book is a valuable resource for anyone looking to more deeply understand and remember why, a book we all ought to read and keep on our shelf–to be read and re-read perhaps every Memorial Day. 

Here’s an excerpt from the book we found particularly noteworthy, regarding the above quote.

Thomas Jefferson probably never said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," but other Americans of his era certainly did.  When we think of this saying today, we imagine our own righteous vigilance directed outward, against misguided and hostile others.  We see ourselves as a city on the hill, a stronghold of democracy, looking out for the threats that come abroad.  But the sense of the saying was entirely different: that human nature is such that American democracy must be defended from Americans who would exploit its freedoms to bring about its end.  The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips did in fact say that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." He added that "the manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten."

-Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny (2017)

Blowin’ in the Wind? I think not.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the song Blowin’ in the Wind.

Like many millions of people, when I first heard it I was moved; and I appreciated the depth and meaning in every line, every question posed by the author, each one pertaining to a fact of human history consistently revealing itself for each new generation.

I couldn’t help but be a little disheartened by the fact that these questions are still so relevant, so many years later.

Yet in the years following my first encounter with the song—for all it’s undeniable eloquence and power—the chorus still struck me as frustratingly flat.

To ask questions like “How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” only to say that the answer is blowin’ in the wind, felt a little bit cheap, as though each of us might as well throw up our hands and just say ‘oh well.’

It was the only thing about the song that bugged me.  However, lately I’ve been looking at it differently.

Bob Dylan w/shades and hat, Copyright © by Daniel Kramer

Maybe I’m just slow and people have been hip to it all long, or maybe I’m taking shots in the dark and totally inserting my own meaning into the song, but that chorus means far more to me now than it did before.

What I think now is that if it feels underwhelming and flat to the listener, then that’s a good thing, because it should feel underwhelming and unsatisfying.

The song was never about spoon-feeding us the answers to age-old questions anymore than it was pointing its finger at any one group of people.  If it’s pointing its finger at anybody, then it’s doing so at everybody.

The real subject of scrutiny isn’t any one country or group or individual, but something deeper and typically more silent, something to which all of us are vulnerable.

Apathy. The very thing that bothered me about the song might actually be the main point of the song in the first place.

The answer, actually, is not blowing in the wind. If it is, it’s only because we’ve given into the same apathy, hopelessness, bitterness and fear that convinces people to throw up their hands and give up right from the start, and leave it to some unseen force outside of their control.

In the last verse, Dylan writes “How many times must a man look up before he can see the sky?”

There could be a lot of ways to interpret that line, but for me, it’s the one time throughout the song in which the author winks at us, as if to undermine that seemingly disappointing chorus.

As far as we know, there is only a sky above us, and it seems to care little if at all about the affairs of men and women. It will provide no answer to our problems, beyond the possibility of serving as a mirror. One that allows us to recognize that the answer to these questions is in our hands. It always has been and always will be.

To me, that’s a timeless truth. Elemental as the wind.

When is Enough Enough?

There are those who will simply not listen, who will try and talk over you, shout at you, and maybe even say something ugly to you before they’re willing to even consider whether they are wrong.  In all likelihood, it stems from their own insecurities.  I don’t think you have to be a psychoanalyst to see it.

Granted, some voices out there will encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.  If you think you can do that, then by all means go for it.

But if you find that continuing conversations with those people is adding stress and sadness to your life, people who continually put up a block and care more about being right than the egoless pursuit of truth, then is it still a good idea?

What about with family?  At what point should we decide that enough is enough?  And how should we navigate our relationship with these people considering our different points of view?

Of course, there’s no clear answer because how much of it we’re willing to endure is something only each of us can know.  And while I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to part ways over differing points of view, I do wonder whether it’s more practical to part ways with people who are either unwilling or unable to listen, especially when it’s bringing you pain and eating up both time and energy that could be invested elsewhere.

For one thing, if they’re unwilling to listen, then what kind of relationship is it?  And if they go so far as insulting you, then how responsible are you really for continuing any sort of conversation?

Anyway, what I’ve noticed about these people is that they’re typically the kind who can only work things out themselves, in their own time and their own way.  Besides, maybe there’s a lot more going on with them than you realize.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe they just don’t want to listen.

Either way, the reasons are mostly–if not entirely–out of your control.  So unless you’re a congressman or lawmaker, if you find yourself giving up on trying to talk to them, don’t beat yourself up over it, because it’s better to save your energy for those who have the mind and the courage to hear out a differing point of view.  And there are plenty of those people who exist, by the way.

One of the greater problems in our society is that many of us are convinced otherwise, as we automatically assume that the people with whom we disagree are hopeless and unreasonable.  It’s a myth, in my humble opinion; one that is encouraged by the manner in which so many of us access information–mainly through social media and the big cable news networks.  But that’s another topic for another time.

Anyway, can we maintain a relationship with people while avoiding certain conversations?  Again, I think it depends on the standards we each set for ourselves, on what we essentially want out of the relationship.

No matter what we decide, I think what’s more important is making the decision not to judge them, or spend any more of your time and energy resenting them or being angry.  Mostly because it’s not going to make anything better.  In fact, it’s only going to damage your own well-being.

Ultimately, what another person believes is their business.  Perhaps what’s most important then, is knowing when it’s time to get back to yours, and seeing to it that your voice is heard.

No matter how we decide to do that, it ought to begin with respect.

A respect that translates into listening.

A sketch…a world in flux

It’s a near-complete circle, unfinished at the bottom where the shape begins and ends, as though painted in one swift, smooth brushstroke, left barely disconnected by the painter without any second thought.  I’ve seen it a lot over the past year, as I’ve consistently thought about projects still unfinished, not quite realized. 

‘This Is It’ by Thich Nhat Hanh

Last night I was thinking about sketching.  The first drawing, the rough outline for what’s to come.  The more I think about it, the more I learn to appreciate it; and the more I realize that conception, for better or worse, has always appealed to me more than completion. 

That end result has always been less exciting to me, which I guess is ironic.  Here I am pursuing something and yet—maybe subconsciously—I’m not even in a big hurry to get it.  Maybe it’s a weakness, but it’s one that I embrace.    

There’s nothing like that initial moment where something comes right out from my head and onto the page.  The sketch is raw, still in motion and only just being born.  It’s breathing and you can feel the pulse, as Jude likes to say.

Meanwhile when something is complete, it’s complete.  Done.  It’ll be hung up on a wall, put on record, published in a printing house and maybe admired and talked about for ages to come, or it might be forgotten no sooner than it arrived, but either way it’s finished. 

It might take on a life of it’s own after you and that’s a beautiful thing, but even so, it’s a life that’s separate from you.  The sense of finality isn’t always comfortable, but probably necessary. 

There are only a few things that ever seem to remain constant in my life, anyway.  Like the people I’m lucky to call friends and family, and certain fundamental understandings of life and the universe. 

In my beginning is my end…
In my end is my beginning
-T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”

A friend once told me the only thing consistent in life is change.  The sketch, at best, reflects that fundamental truth.   It’s still in flux, still being made.  It’s future unknown. 

Open to possibility. 

Issue #4
Q&Co.

Little Dragon

by Sam D. Lyons

His passion might have been in the martial arts, but Bruce Lee’s most constant ambition was to achieve worldwide superstardom in films. That surprised me to learn, though I didn’t know much about him anyway before reading the book by Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: a life.

I knew only that his fame as a fighter was nearly matched by his reputation as a philosopher; and so I guess he always struck me as being too far above the pursuit of something as egocentric as fame and global superstardom.  But then, it turns out he was a pretty egotistical guy, and this ambition might have been every bit as attributable to vanity as it was practicality.

For one thing, yes, he had a lot of swagger and bragged often.  In fact, it’s a character trait that took center-stage recently in Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in a scene where Bruce Lee challenges a stunt man, played by Brad Pitt, to a fight after Pitt’s character raises doubts about whether Lee could defeat Muhammad Ali.  Seconds before, Lee had insisted that he could make Ali a cripple.  

The film sparked controversy among Lee’s fans, as well as friends and family, who regarded the depiction as distastefully over the top, while further citing Bruce Lee’s deep admiration for Muhammad Ali. In an interview for The Wrap, Polly himself weighed in on the scene.

“Bruce Lee was often a cocky, strutting, braggart,” Polly says.  “But Tarantino took those traits and exaggerated them to the point of a ‘SNL’ caricature.”

It may indeed be easy to observe Lee’s cockiness and vanity and think less of him for it.  I’ll admit that I did too while reading the book, until I began questioning whether it said more about me and less about Bruce.  This book is not just the story of Bruce Lee, after all, but a compelling portrait of ambition, and devotion to oneself and self-actualization.

Bruce Lee from his unfinished film ‘Game of Death’

I think it’s safe to say our relationship with ambition has proven complicated over the years, at least in America.  On the one hand, we celebrate it as an integral component of success, something that neatly ties into the more traditional, individualistic values of the American Dream.   On the other hand, we relate to it with an equal degree of skepticism, a wariness of how easily and suddenly it can morph into selfishness, ruthlessness and greed.

Lately I’ve come to identify two seemingly separate value systems at the heart of that ethos, counterbalancing eachother in a continuous drama playing out in the mind of the individual, and by extension, in the whole history of mankind: service to oneself and service to others.

Now in reading Bruce Lee’s story, it might be easier to assume that he most definitely took the more individualistic route.  For example, at first glance, someone who frequently brags about how great they are might not seem like the most likely person to prioritize other people’s needs over their own.  He also took virtually no interest in social and political issues or the larger news of the world.  But in true Bruce Lee fashion, examining this a little further leads to larger, more philosophical questions.  Chief among them, to what degree does self-devotion translate into service to others?

It’s another question probably better suited for another time.  The book makes no claim to know the answer, and I won’t either.  Like so many of the best questions, there may not be even an ultimate answer that can be applied to every situation. 

Still, in pursuing that ambition, Bruce Lee left an indelible mark on our culture, revolutionizing the film industry around the world and popularizing martial arts into a global phenomenon and respected institution. 

It’s important to understand because it suggests Lee’s own awareness of the more practical benefits of achieving fame; that while he might have been as keen as the next guy in simply seeing his face and name all lit up on the silver screen, he knew full well that those same benefits extended far beyond himself.

Starring on screen as a strong, confident Chinese man with attitude, acting not in some peripheral, subservient ‘butler’ role–the kind that was typically given to Asian actors next to their white co-stars–but as a leading man with more wit, charisma, charm and sophistication than any action movie star before or perhaps since, Bruce Lee left an incalculable influence on the collective consciousness for millions of people around the world, certainly for the continent of Asia, and most specifically for the Chinese, who for centuries had long suffered under the stigma of being labeled the “sick man of Asia.” 

Bruce Lee’s fame shattered that image, and his influence continues to empower generations of people, young and old, navigating their own paths to self-empowerment, in the continued realization of who they are, and what they want to be. 

Still, it seems that same ambition cut his life tragically short.  At age 32, he suffered a cerebral edema and died shortly before the release of Enter the Dragon, the very film which would catapult him into fame and set that future influence into motion. 

While the precise cause of the edema is still met with some uncertainty by medical experts and biographers, Polly makes a strong case for heat stroke/hypothermia caused by overexertion and sleep deprivation during the production of the film.  Enter the Dragon was his first starring role in an American movie, and he was very much aware of it’s potential impact as the perfect platform to introduce both himself and his philosophies of self-empowerment to the world. 

The Man Himself

With the film’s success, Bruce Lee had finally achieved much of what he envisioned, only posthumously; and as he paid the ultimate price, we might question whether it was even worth it.  The author makes no overt claim to know one way or another, though he does conclude that his death was not a tragedy because, as he writes, Bruce Lee’s life was a triumph.   

“Even though I, Bruce Lee, may die someday without fulfilling all of my ambitions, I feel no sorrow,” he once said.  “I did what I wanted to do. What I’ve done, I’ve done with sincerity and to the best of my ability. You can’t expect much more from life.”

Issue #2 / Quinby & Co.

 

 

a billion dollar question

by Sam D. Lyons

The New York Times sat down with each of the 2020 Democratic candidates a few months back and asked them the question: “Does anybody deserve to have a billion dollars?”

Deserve might be a strong word, but still, let’s say that person is an extremely virtuous, all-around beautiful human being with a heart of gold who does nothing but wonderful things. That person might deserve all the money in the world less because their moral character calls for a reward and more because it indicates what they might do with their acquired wealth.

I think, in theory, anyone deserves the money for which they’ve invested the time and labor; but that leads to the second question of whether that person actually worked for all the billion dollars they have. To what degree did their fortune depend on precisely that: fortune, or luck, or the ingenuity and sweat of other people?

Practically speaking, a billion dollars could be too much for any one person to have especially when it would likely be spent on the acquisition of things, which they’d pursue simply because they can and not because they actually need those things. How much of the fortune, conversely, would be invested in something that could make society better or more prosperous, like environmental causes or public infrastructure?

Might the ultimate measure, then, of whether someone deserves a billion dollars be what they plan to do with it? Would it be spent in such a way that would reflect their stake in others, or in a way that would serve and simply reflect their own ego?

Issue #1
Q&Co.