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)

Triumph of the Imagination

Now that we’ve been in this lockdown for nearly two months I find myself wanting to get back to another world, one that I manifest through sheer will and can fully inhabit, maybe even share with others. I’m kidding, sort of. I’m just a humble writer with a humble new magazine. But I can understand the impulse.

It was the guiding impulse of Walt Disney’s life and career, according to biographer Neal Gabler, author of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

Inscribed in it’s opening pages is an excerpt from William Blake–one of our favorite poets–whose words hint as to where the rest of the book is going.

I must create a system
or be enslaved by another man’s;
I will not reason and compare:
my business is to create.

William Blake
“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

I don’t mean to spoil the ending, but Disney succeeded. I’m sure you knew it by looking at everything today that bears his name. Disney, the man who launched a groundbreaking animation studio that revolutionized motion pictures. Disney, who created a theme park that continues to dramatically influence American culture, for better or worse.

A sympathetic view might say that his creative legacy and the force of his imagination inspired the imagination and creativity in countless generations to come all around the world, while critics might insist that the legacy of his films, the parks and merchandise only glorify some childlike escapism, a tacky sentimentality and gross materialism.

I can’t lend much to the discussion either way, one that most people might have anticipated before even reading the book. How a person connects to the films and theme parks is their own business.  I only finished the book with a renewed perspective on a man far more complicated than I realized.

What I never expected to learn was how many times he failed. How ridden with obstacles, and miseries and all sorts of horrible anxieties that long road became, the road to his own utopia, the road that ultimately never ended.

Throughout the book I found myself revisiting one question in particular. One that I think is essential in understanding the nature of success itself, specifically in this country. To what degree did his achievements rest on the ingenuity of other people?

It’s the gray area of his life and career that proved the most compelling for me. The relationship between the big idea and the details. The back-and-forth from which, it turns out, most of his problems arose.

I wondered if he ever missed the old days when he started in mixed animation and live-action shorts, and only needed a small crew and a couple of friends to stand in front of the camera.

His talent was more in coming up with ideas, and less about the smaller details on how to realize them. Of course those details played the most decisive role in getting the task done, and so naturally a far greater deal of credit is owed to those with whom he surrounded himself.

Still, the more heads in the room, the more problems arose; and it wasn’t long before he suffered one of the most devastating disappointments in his career following the studio’s loss of it’s first original character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the rights for which were lost during a contract dispute with Universal Studios.

Walt standing in front of the Animation Building, the creative hub of the studio.

It’s worth noting that, shortly thereafter, Disney and chief animator Ub Iwerks created a new character that launched Disney and his studio to international fame and served as the creative foundation from which everything would follow.

Yet from that point on, he had a harder time trusting people, which only grew following the labor strike in the early 1940s, shortly after the success of Snow White and the subsequent financial losses incurred from Pinocchio and Fantasia, cemented as classics today despite nearly bankrupting the studio at the time.

It survived but was never the same. For a brief moment before the strike, the studio had served as the closest thing to Walt’s very own creative utopia, a community of visionaries operating at the intersection of art and technology, constructing worlds that broadened the public imagination and provided a psychological, emotional, even transcendent experience for anyone willing, if not just for the artist themselves.

Following years of creative stagnancy, Disneyland was the first project to resurrect that old vision. As he once did with the animation studio, he could regard it as a perpetual work in progress, something that was both a creation in itself and a workshop for continued ideas.

Creation was the guiding impulse of his life; and so by that measure, on a core level at least, Disney was an artist, first and foremost. While the scope of his creative vision is arguably unparalleled, his greatest successes seem equally linked to his ability to manage and lead other creative people in seeing that vision realized.

Walt introducing EPCOT for a promotional film

Shortly after the park’s completion and enormous success, he started planning a second and far more ambitious project that would serve as the apotheosis of his creative energies.

Where Disneyland had become the quintessential amusement park, this would serve as the quintessential city. The Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. Unlike the theme park and most of the innovations bearing his name, EPCOT would form a fuller synthesis between his own imagination and the real world, an environmentally sustainable community, free of pollution where people would actually be able to live and work harmoniously.

It would break down the long-standing walls between the fantasy worlds he helped create and reality, and challenge the long-standing critique that he was more preoccupied with escaping our world, rather than changing it.

Walt’s own sketch of the EPCOT project

An artist can stay true to their vision and hope others relate to it, but of course they have little control over that in the end. Disney learned as much through frequent creative disappointments that likely sobered his own perspective on the matter.

He passed away before EPCOT was ever approved, and today what stands in its place is a much smaller version of what he envisioned, a theme park only hinting at the community he had in mind.

One might dream ’till the cows come home, but when it comes to the big ones, it takes communicating to others, appreciating and counting on them to help make it happen. Recognizing the stake one person has in the other.

We could guess how well Disney understood that in the end. My guess is that he knew it, and that through every failure and subsequent success, he was always working on it.

I also think it’s no small thing how EPCOT as he saw it, represents that idea more directly than anything else he ever put to paper.

I hope someday we’ll see it realized.

Issue #4
Q&Co.

Facing Fear, One Page at a Time

One of the first things to come up in a Google search of Stephen King is that he “is an American author of horror, supernatural fiction, suspense, and fantasy novels.” Now, I’m late to the Stephen King fandom but I always associated the name with just horror, not supernatural fiction, suspense and fantasy.  Therefore I assumed he was just not for me, since I am not a horror fan, whether it’s books, movies, shows, etc. 

What is it about the horror genre that I dislike so much? It’s not so much the fear it invokes while watching the movie or reading the book. It’s the fear that pops up.  For example, during those middle of the night bathroom visits, when it’s pitch black and extremely quiet in my home. All of a sudden, my senses are heightened and my mind begins to think about all the scary things I’ve seen or read about before, making it that much harder to get back to sleep. 

You know that famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? I never even saw the movie before last year, and that scene haunted me for most of my life. Spoiler alert: it’s not even a scary movie. 

My boyfriend, on the other hand, is not only a fan of horror but a huge Stephen King fan, and for the last four years he’s been trying to get me to watch some of his favorite movies and read some of his favorite books…and I finally caved.

I started with the Dark Tower series last year and I zoomed through the first two books. Then I was told how much I’d enjoy The Shining.  I’d never seen the famous Stanley Kubrick movie, but after months of convincing I finally trusted that I might enjoy the book.  

If you’ve ever read The Shining then I’m sure you remember what an incredible story it is, and not so scary after all, at least not until the last third of the book.

The richness and complexity of these characters, and the development of the plot make you feel like you’re a part of this family, slowly being manipulated by the Overlook Hotel. One of my favorite parts of the book is that you empathize so much with each person; which, by the way, was something I felt strongly lacking in Kubrick’s adaptation, which I saw shortly thereafter, but that’s a discussion for another time.  The point is that I was enthralled by the story at every page.  I couldn’t put the book down and it led me straight to the sequel, Doctor Sleep.

Now, I don’t want to give away any spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read either of the books, but let me just say this is one of my favorite stories I have ever read.  I finished Doctor Sleep in about three days and was left in complete and total bliss. I cried at the end, felt so much joy and perfect closure for a story that I got to experience full circle. I felt like another member of the family I’d just spent so much time with and we just said a long and heartfelt farewell to each other. I highly recommend reading The Shining and then Doctor Sleep, back-to-back to get the full effect. 

I finished Doctor Sleep weeks ago and I’m just now starting to feel like I can start another novel. That is the beauty and magic of getting sucked into a phenomenal story, it’s something that stays with you and makes you feel like you were sharing these characters’ experiences because in a way, you were.

I never in a million years would have thought that a Stephen King novel could make me feel like my heart was left wide open in the best way possible. Needless to say, I’m a huge Stephen King fan now, and I can’t wait to read so many more of his books. I’ve realized that the stories and characters are so involved and detailed and that anything remotely scary is really more like an underlying factor.  

So on a final note: This my friends, is why you do not judge a book by its cover.  Or an author by his genre.

PS: Some Stephen King novels I’m looking forward to reading next are 11/22/63, The Stand, The Outsider and, the scariest of them all, IT.  Seriously, who am I?

 

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.