This is a pretty gosh darn appalling cable from the negotiations during the hostage crisis in 1979. I’m not quite sure why it was classified until today, but that’s for another day.
INTRODUCTION: RECENT NEGOTIATIONS IN WHICH THE EMBASSY HAS BEEN INVOLVED HERE, RANGING FROM COMPOUND SECURITY TO VISA OPERATIONS TO GTE TO THE SHERRY CASE, HIGHLIGHT SEVERAL SPECIAL FEATURES OF CONDUCTING BUSINESS IN THE PERSIAN ENVIRONMENT. IN SOME INSTANCES THE DIFFICULTIES WE HAVE ENCOUNTERED ARE A PARTIAL REFLECTION ON THE EFFECTS OF THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION, BUT WE BELIEVE THE UNDERLYING CULTURAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL QUALITIES THAT ACCOUNT FOR THE NATURE OF THESE DIFFICULTIES ARE AND WILL REMAIN RELATIVELY CONSTANT. THEREFORE, WE SUGGEST THAT THE FOLLOWING ANALYSIS BE USED TO BRIEF BOTH USG PERSONNEL AND PRIVATE SECTOR REPRESENTATIVES WHO ARE REQUIRED TO DO BUSINESS WITH AND IN THIS COUNTRY. END INTRODUCTION. ¶3. PERHAPS THE SINGLE DOMINANT ASPECT OF THE PERSIAN PSYCHE IS AN OVERRIDING EGOISM. ITS ANTECEDENTS LIE IN THE LONG IRANIAN HISTORY OF INSTABILITY AND INSECURITY WHICH PUT A PREMIUM ON SELF-PRESERVATION. THE PRACTICAL EFFECT OF IT IS AN ALMOST TOTAL PERSIAN PREOCCUPATION WITH SELF AND LEAVES LITTLE ROOM FOR UNDERSTANDING POINTS OF VIEW OTHER THAN ONE'S OWN. THUS, FOR EXAMPLE, IT IS INCOMPREHENSIBLE TO AN IRANIAN THAT U.S. IMMIGRATION LAW MAY PROHIBIT ISSUING HIM A TOURIST VISA WHEN HE HAS DETERMINED THAT HE WANTS TO LIVE IN CALIFORNIA. SIMILARLY, THE IRANIAN CENTRAL BANK SEES NO INCONSISTENCY IN CLAIMING FORCE MAJEURE TO AVOID PENALTIES FOR LATE PAYMENT OF INTEREST DUE ON OUTSTANDING LOANS WHILE THE GOVERNMENT OF WHICH IT IS A PART IS DENYING THE VAILIDITY OF THE VERY GROUNDS UPON WHICH THE CLAIM IS MADE WHEN CONFRONTED BY SIMILAR CLAIMS FROM FOREIGN FIRMS FORCED TO CEASE OPERATIONS DURING THE IRANIAN REVOLUTION. ¶4. THE REVERSE OF THIS PARTICULAR PSYCHOLOGICAL COIN, AND HAVING THE SAME HISTORICAL ROOTS AS PERSIAN EGOISM, IS A PERVASIVE UNEASE ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE WORLD IN WHICH ONE LIVES. THE PERSIAN EXPERIENCE HAS BEEN THAT NOTHING IS PERMANENT AND IT IS COMMONLY PERCEIVED THAT HOSTILE FORCES ABOUND. IN SUCH AN ENVIRONMENT EACH INDIVIDUAL MUST BE CONSTANTLY ALERT FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO PROTECT HIMSELF AGAINST THE MALEVOLENT FORCES THAT WOULD OTHERWISE BE HIS UNDOING. HE IS OBVIOUSLY JUSTIFIED IN USING ALMOST ANY MEANS AVAILABLE TO EXPLOIT SUCH OPPORTUNITIES. THIS APPROACH UNDERLIES THE SOCALLED "BAZAAR MENTALITY" SO COMMON AMONG PERSIANS, A MIND-SET THAT OFTEN IGNORES LONGER TERM INTERESTS IN FAVOR OF IMMEDIATELY OBTAINABLE ADVANTAGES AND COUNTENANCES PRACTICES THAT ARE REGARDED AS UNETHICAL BY OTHER NORMS. AN EXAMPLE IS THE SEEMINGLY SHORTSIGHTED AND HARASSING TACTICS EMPLOYED BY THE PGOI IN ITS NEGOTIATIONS WITH GTE. ¶5. COUPLED WITH THESE PSYCHOLOGICAL LIMITATIONS IS A GENERAL INCOMPREHENSION OF CASUALITY. ISLAM, WITH ITS EMPHASIS ON THE OMNIPOTENCE OF GOD, APPEARS TO ACCOUNT AT LEAST IN MAJOR PART FOR THIS PHENOMENON. SOMEWHAT SURPRISINGLY, EVEN THOSE IRANIANS EDUCATED IN THE WESTERN STYLE AND PERHAPS WITH LONG EXPERIENCE OUTSIDE IRAN ITSELF FREQUENTLY HAVE DIFFICULTY GRASPING THE INTER-RELATIONSHIP OF EVENTS. WITNESS A YAZDI RESISTING THE IDEA THAT IRANIAN BEHAVIOR HAS CONSEQUENCES ON THE PERCEPTION OF IRAN IN THE U.S. OR THAT THIS PERCEPTION IS SOMEHOW RELATED TO AMERICAN POLICIES REGARDING IRAN. THIS SAME QUALITY ALSO HELPS EXPLAIN PERSIAN AVERSION TO ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY FOR ONE'S OWN ACTIONS. THE DEUS EX MACHINA IS ALWAYS AT WORK. ¶6. THE PERSIAN PROCLIVITY FOR ASSUMING THAT TO SAY SOMETHING IS TO DO IT FURTHER COMPLICATES MATTERS. AGAIN, YAZDI CAN EXPRESS SURPRISE WHEN INFORMED THAT THE IRREGULAR SECURITY FORCES ASSIGNED TO THE EMBASSY REMAIN IN PLACE. "BUT THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE TOLD ME THEY WOULD GO BY MONDAY," HE SAYS. AN MFA OFFICIAL REPORTS THAT THE SHERRY CASE IS "90 PERCENT SOLVED," BUT WHEN A CONSULAR OFFICER INVESTIGATES HE DISCOVERS THAT NOTHING HAS CHANGED. THERE IS NO RECOGNITION THAT INSTRUCTIONS MUST BE FOLLOWED UP, THAT COMMITMENTS MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY ACTION AND RESULTS. ¶6. FINALLY, THERE ARE THE PERSIAN CONCEPTS OF INFLUENCE AND OBLIGATION. EVERYONE PAYS OBEISANCE TO THE FORMER AND THE LATTER IS USUALLY HONORED IN THE BREACH. PERSIANS ARE CONSUMED WITH DEVELOPING PARTI BAZI--THE INFLUENCE THAT WILL HELP GET THINGS DONE--WHILE FAVORS ARE ONLY GRUDGINGLY BESTOWED AND THEN JUST TO THE EXTENT THAT A TANGIBLE QUID PRO QUO IS IMMEDIATELY PRECEPTIBLE. FORGET ABOUT ASSISTANCE PROFERRED LAST YEAR OR EVEN LAST WEEK; WHAT CAN BE OFFERED TODAY? ¶7. THERE ARE SEVERAL LESSONS FOR THOSE WHO WOULD NEGOTIATE WITH PERSIANS IN ALL THIS: - --FIRST, ONE SHOULD NEVER ASSUME THAT HIS SIDE OF THE ISSUE WILL BE RECOGNIZED, LET ALONE THAT IT WILL BE CONCEDED TO HAVE MERITS. PERSIAN PREOCCUPATION WITH SELF PRECLUDES THIS. A NEGOTIATOR MUST FORCE RECOGNITION OF HIS POSITION UPON HIS PERSIAN OPPOSITE NUMBER. - --SECOND, ONE SHOULD NOT EXPECT AN IRANIAN READILY TO PERCEIVE THE ADVANTAGES OF A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP BASED ON TRUST. HE WILL ASSUME THAT HIS OPPOSITE NUMBER IS ESSENTIALLY AN ADVERSARY. IN DEALING WITH HIM HE WILL ATTEMPT TO MAXIMIZE THE BENEFITS TO HIMSELF THAT ARE IMMEDIATELY OBTAINABLE. HE WILL BE PREPARED TO GO TO GREAT LENGTHS TO ACHIEVE THIS GOAL, INCLUDING RUNNING THE RISK OF SO ALIENATING WHOEVER HE IS DEALING WITH THAT FUTURE BUSINESS WOULD BE UNTHINKABLE, AT LEAST TO THE LATTER. - --THIRD, INTERLOCKING RELATIONSHIPS OF ALL ASPECTS OF AN ISSUE MUST BE PAINSTAKINGLY, FORECEFULLY AND REPEATEDLY DEVELOPED. LINKAGES WILL BE NEITHER READILY COMPREHENDED NOR ACCEPTED BY PERSIAN NEGOTIATORS. - --FOURTH, ONE SHOULD INSIST ON PERFORMANCE AS THE SINE QUA NON AT ESH STAGE OF NEGOTIATIONS. STATEMENTS OF INTENTION COUNT FOR ALMOST NOTHING. - --FIFTH, CULTIVATION OF GOODWILL FOR GOODWILL'S SAKE IS A WASTE OF EFFORT. THE OVERRIDING OBJECTIVE AT ALL TIMES SHOULD BE IMPRESSING UPON THE PERSIAN ACROSS THE TABLE THE MUTUALITY OF THE PROPOSED UNDERTAKINGS, HE MUST BE MADE TO KNOW THAT A QUID PRO QUO IS INVOLVED ON BOTH SIDES. - --FINALLY, ONE SHOULD BE PREPARED FOR THE THREAT OF BREAKDOWN IN NEGOTIATIONS AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT AND NOT BE COWED BY THE POSSIBLITY. GIVEN THE PERSIAN NEGOTIATOR'S CULTURAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL LIMITATIONS, HE IS GOING TO RESIST THE VERY CONCEPT OF A RATIONAL (FROM THE WESTERN POINT OF VIEW) NEGOTIATING PROCESS.
If Bob Woodward were a superhero, his special power would be invisibility. No modern writer better understands how to get out of the way of a good story and let the events unfold like Woodward. His new book, Obama’s Wars, is an attempt to inform the reader about what it was like to be part of the decision making process for a President during wartime. He has a genuine love for detailing the way that decisions get made and it shines through in all of his work. Woodward disappears into the fabric of the story leaving us in the fascinating position seeing the story unfold before our eyes.
Obama’s Wars is a story about process. The book details Barack Obama’s system of decision making during the ongoing Afghan War. Obama is surrounded by human beings with differing agendas, egos and belief systems, all of which have an impact on the course of the war. Obama himself is presented in a very human way. The reader is given a first hand account of a person making critical decisions that may well affect the fate of the nation. If you didn’t like him before you read the book you don’t like him after, if you liked him before you read it you probably still do. It’s not a book about judgment; it is a book about explanation. You get to be a fly on the wall for a major event in history.
Obama’s Wars is not a political book in the modern sense. The writing is devoid of any clear political, social or economic agenda. The audience is never clear on how Woodward feels about the war. Woodward’s commitment seems to be only to the art of journalism. He wants to get the story as correct as possible based on the insights and beliefs of the people who were there. Woodward has access to all the major players and gives them room to tell their story. They confess their mistakes, laud their own triumphs, admit their petty dislikes and acknowledge their most base desires in a shockingly candid way. At the end of the book, the reader is left with the distinct impression that they are being governed by real, imperfect people who struggle to make planet altering decisions in a way that best serves their picture of reality.
Words are powerful and elusive things. We are given words as a method of conveying experience to other humans. They are not perfect tools. They give some insight to the human experience, but they often fail to capture the vivid, richness of emotion and feeling that encapsulates one’s humanity. TS Eliot perfectly captures this idea in Sweeney Agonistes when his protagonist exclaims in frustration “I’ve got to use words when I talk to you!” We tend to believe that we have shared definitions of words so that when we make a statement the listener can have some idea as to what we are experiencing. However, there are words in our language that I believe have such a different definition from person to person that it is nearly impossible to discern what on earth they mean. One word that would fall into this category would be the word cruelty. I can honestly say that after years of trying to understand it, I still have no clue what this word means. This is troubling because the word cruelty has a remarkable power in our culture. It is a word that can define whether another human or animal is worthy of the ability to continue to live. The word can save one creature from inhuman punishment while sentencing another to horrific torment. But what does it really mean?
When trying to understand the moral dimensions of a word the law can be a good guide. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution includes this word when it says that “excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” The Supreme Court has interpreted the part about “cruel and unusual punishment” in countless ways. For our purposes, we are not going to discuss the “unusual” part of the phrase because that simply means it is uncommon or rare. If any cruel punishment happens often, it is no longer unusual. If every murderer were punished by being covered in honey and attacked by bees it could still be outlawed by the court as being a cruel punishment even though it was happening all the time. The key to understanding the Amendment is the word cruel. The Court seems to be trying to distinguish cruelty from non-cruelty in its rulings in this matter.
The Court dispensed with several “cruel” punishments back in 1878 in Wilkerson vs. Utah when Justice Nathan Clifford wrote in his majority opinion that beheading, disemboweling, dissection, burning someone to death and other barbaric methods of torture were not acceptable. It would be hard to find many people who would make the case that those things were not cruel. However, Clifford’s holding was that being executed by firing squad for a crime was not cruel and unusual and, therefore, was Constitutionally permitted. This holding is extremely confusing. Being ripped apart by bullets is not cruel, but being beheaded is cruel. It is quite possible to be shot and to not die immediately, but to linger in pain for hours before perishing. What is the distinction?
In 1951, the Court has begun to move away from other types of punishments. In the Trop vs. Dulles case, a non-death penalty case focusing on the government’s ability to take away a person’s citizenship for deserting while in the army, the ruled that taking someone’s citizenship away was, in fact, cruel and unusual punishment. This is a monumentally significant ruling that called into question many punishments that were being used throughout the country. Justice Earl Warren wrote in his majority opinion that the Eighth Amendment “must draw it’s meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This phrase is particularly important because Warren seems to be making the point that as our society evolves it is becoming less cruel and the Court should reflect that. These words have pushed the law away from certain punishments that were once accepted. Death by firing squad, once a relatively common punishment, has been eliminated. The Court ruled in Coker v. Georgia (1977) that the death penalty was not acceptable for rape. The Court has stated that executing someone with an extremely low IQ is not permissible (Atkins v. Virginia 2002). The Court has also mandated that those under the age of 18 cannot be murdered for committing a capital crime (Roper v. Simmons, 2005). All of these punishments are considered cruel.
The fascinating part about Trop v. Dulles is that while it holds that taking away someone’s citizenship is cruel and unusual, executing someone is not. This is inconsistency is nothing short of bizarre. Justice Felix Frankfurter pointed out the absurdity of this idea in his dissent when he asked whether the words of the Constitution were “so empty of reason that it can be seriously urged that the loss of citizenship is a fate worse than death?”
Unfortunately, this absurd inconsistency does not only reside in the halls of the Supreme Court. It is everywhere you look. In the early days of the War on Terror, we were regularly subjected to surreal debates over why beating someone was cruel while water boarding someone was not. Is it cruel only if the punishment leaves lasting physical scars? Do our standards of cruelty change based on where someone was born?
The American news media brought horrific pictures of the tortures taking place at the Abu Ghraib Prison but has paid scant attention to the thousands of Iraqis (civilian and military) who have been killed during the war. Being threatened by dogs and placed in stress positions is cruel but being killed by an advancing army trying to take control of a city is not?
During the trial of Michael Vick, many stunned Americans stood aghast that a man would injure and punish animals in such a cruel way. Yet our culture is so committed to the idea of murdering animals for food that we have holidays based around consumption of animals. According to a USDA study from 2000, the average American consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat per year. Killing animals for food is so widely excepted in our culture that one is not astonished to see pictures or statues of smiling, dancing pigs on the wall of a barbeque restaurant. Americans often seem completely blind to the pain and suffering inflicted on animals, until a football player decides to torment dogs for fun. Is it cruelty because the intent was solely to harm animals? Had he eaten his dogs after killing them would it have not been cruel?
Watching news reports about the horrendous cruelty of dog fighting followed by a Wendy’s commercial for a hamburger that features enough bacon on it to clog the arteries of the Mississippi River is enough to confuse anyone who is paying attention. How could one person’s massacre become another person’s feast?
I don’t propose to know how to make the world any less cruel. Human behavior has always mystified me and I certainly have no clue how to change it. However, the poorly defined nature of the word cruel allows people to stand on a moral high ground that is not deserved. We are a society that has laws against forms of cruelty while tacitly accepting other forms as normal behavior. How can we distinguish what is and isn’t cruelty? I believe that the first step is coming up with a definition for the word that is clear so we can honestly distinguish it. Granted, definitions are never perfect, but when one is defined in a way that is so completely unclear it can warp the sensibilities of a culture to the point of absurdity.
A simple but effective definition of cruelty would be any act that causes harm or suffering to any living creature. This removes the artificial boundaries that have been created and allow us to call things what they are. When the word is defined this way we are not able to make abstract distinctions between who is worthy of cruelty and how much pain they should be allowed to endure. It simply is what it is and we must then cope with it for what it is. This definition no longer allows us to display cruelty while hiding from behind a moral facade. If we choose to claim we don’t know any better we are not exonerated because in the eyes of the person or animal that is suffering that distinction is meaningless. Cruelty need not be a willful act, it must only be something that causes suffering or harms another. I am not naive enough to believe a revised definition of a word can end human cruelty, but there should be a price for the pain that we inflict or allow on other living things and that cost should be the truth of what we have participated in.
Back in May I got the opportunity to attend a basketball coaching clinic at the Harrah’s Casino in Tunica. The clinic featured some of the top college coaches in America including George Mason’s Jim Larranaga, LSU’s Trent Johnson, Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg and the one and only Robert Montgomery Knight (his friends call him Bobby). Myself and about 1,000 other coaches were herded into an auditorium converted into a gym for three days in order to find out the secrets of how to lead young men and women towards becoming championship caliber athletes. Anyone who has ever been to one of these clinics before knows the drill…coachspeak followed by coachspeak followed by the occasional substantial and interesting point followed by more coachspeak and more coachspeak. By coachspeak, I mean the repeated uses of expressions like “the short corner” or “attacking the elbow” which are meaningful to most coaches but come across like some mysterious hybrid of Swahili and Mandarin Chinese to the uninitiated. The one astute point in the midst of the coachspeak is often fantastic, which is why I highly recommend these clinics to other coaches, but the hours upon hours of coachspeak can take it’s toll on even the most fervent hoops junkie.
I am not a very good note taker, but I decided I was going to try to get down as much of what was meaningful as possible. This worked for the first 5 or so hours. I have lovely, detailed sketches of out of bounds plays and wonderful points about how to properly position my post players when they are down on the block. After a certain point, I began to drift away from the land of normal coaching thought. Too many things that were not basketball began to assert themselves into the clinic. The words character and discipline began to rear their ugly heads. Coaching has developed an odd fixation with these ideas over the years. They are somehow indicative of the deeper meaning of sports. If you are a good coach, your team wins. If you are a great coach, your teams win and develop discipline and character. You cannot win without discipline or character. You will be tested; under these circumstances discipline and character will show. The pantheon of great athletes all had discipline and character. Blah, blah, blah. My problem with this formulation is that there is very little discussion over what these terms actually mean. We are just supposed to know.
My mind was spiraling out of control. I had been reading a ton of Descartes and had recently listened to an incredible online course on Death by Yale Professor Shelly Kagan. These thoughts were ping ponging around my mind. They had begun to merge with my notes. Here is the mental chaos that ensued:
(For the sake of time and not boring the noncoaches out there, I have removed all of the traditional basketball and have all left the weirdo philosophical stuff basically untouched)
1. What is character and discipline but the denial of the self? Why must the self be removed or fought for someone to play the game well? Is the self such an albatross that it must be obliterated in order to achieve “greatness”?
2. Does the self even exist? How is it possible for the self to exist as something different from the body? Are there two of us in here? Am I the Ghost in the Machine and if so, who is that in here who keeps telling me to not do the things I want to do? Why am I so committed to not letting the Ghost play?
3. So…does the self exist? It must because we are asked to deny it. Discipline asks us to deny the self, so something must be asking us to deny the self. It must be the self. It is a similar formulation to Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. There must be a self otherwise what is there to deny the self. The question then becomes, why on earth would the self ask to deny itself? That is a bizarre idea that must lead to a good amount of confusion when someone first enters the “Church of the Winner”.
4. What is discipline? The self wants, the self says no. Why would it deny what it wants? Denial of short-term gratification for deeper long-term fulfillment. Losing the self in the team. But why would we want to lose the self?
5. Why does the self imagine? What set of circumstances would make it want to wish for more or different?
6. Here is a list of the things that have been labeled acceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Victory over other selves
Destruction of other selves in other uniforms on the path to victory
Adulation of other selves if the correct function has been performed correctly
Greed as long as it stays unadmitted
Here are the things that have been labeled unacceptable by coaches at today’s clinic:
Gluttony (in terms of food or comfort, but not in terms of success)
Destruction of other selves wearing the same uniform as you
Adulation of other selves when the correct task has been performed incorrectly
Adulation of other selves when the wrong task has been performed correctly
Obvious greed for the wrong things (cars, status among the wrong people, “bling”)
7. Here are the rules when attempting to gain victory over other selves:
A. Winning at athletic contests can show the superiority of the self that denies the self (but doesn’t admit it)
B. Cheating is wrong because it skews the game, thus defeating the illusion of the level playing field. How can we determine which self is better if we haven’t deluded ourselves into thinking that we have triumphed over another self in a fair set of circumstances?
C. Hard work represents a self more able to deny the wants of the self. Pope Jordan the Ascetic.
D. In work matters, the self that can deny some of the wants of the self (rest, gluttony for the wrong things, comfort) and can nurture other wants of the self (the unspoken enjoyment of adulation, greed for money or status, appearance of a lack of the self) will get almost none of what the self wants, but more than the self that doesn’t.
E. Terminology is the coin of the realm. Terminology is a tiki mask of legitimacy. It is the short cut to proof that one is the self that can deny the self. If I understand these absurd terms, I must have spent hour upon hour of self-denial in learning these hollow metaphors that make very little sense. My commitment to irrational details shows how willing I am to obliterate the self for “greatness”. The more the metaphor rings hollow, the greater the proof of the self that has given up more immediate opportunities for gratification in order to learn them. The sheer absurdity of the basketball cliché has a normative function.
F. Emotional and physical discomfort are goals to be aspired towards. The more we pretend we are experiencing them, the more we will be ready when they show up. A champion is one who has vowed to spend his or her entire life mired in this sort of discomfort so that when the moment of real discomfort arises, they will have a lifetime of awful experience to draw on…and then they can put the round ball in the round hole one or two more times than the self in another uniform who hasn’t put him or herself through as much pain.
G. Creativity is something that is both an expectation and a curse. One is expected to think thoughts that fit into a neat box, but in a slightly different way than the other selves. When a self creates something that doesn’t fit in that box and loves it enough to share it with others, the self will be ridiculed or snickered at for the heinous crime of self-indulgence.
8. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) feigns praise for the creator but really respects and admires the editor, the salesman and the promoter. Creativity requires a complete exposure of the unfettered self. The self that denies the self (and claims not to) is appalled by pure creativity because it is a reminder of the dull rituals it is shackled to in the hopes of further denying the self.
9. ”Deny! Deny! Deny!” -a coach stressing the importance of defense.
10. If the self that denies the self (and claims not to) conquers other selves, it feels a momentary sense of relief and the joy of not being conquered and being exposed as a self that doesn’t deny itself. This is followed by a horrific realization of the more than 6 billion predatory selves that may be lying in wait; hunting for the same moment of relief and joy.
11. How does the conquering self know the difference between itself and the conquered self? The self needs an Arbiter in order to know it’s worth. Without the Arbiter, the self cannot tell the difference between Pyrrhic victory and a miserable defeat. So, an Arbiter is created. The Arbiter (a scoreboard, an official) is declared real in our minds (except for most of the time). We often declare the Arbiter wrong (the refs hosed us, the final score doesn’t reflect how the game went, etc.). Who even knows who conquered whom?
12. Many of us long for a time (long ago) when “the rules meant something” and could give us a longer period of relief when we conquered the other selves. We think that this time existed and that somewhere along the line the losers rose up through the sleight of hand of a group of morally relative sycophants who took our comfort in winning away. We no longer even feel like we can enjoy the illusion we have created.
13. The odd thing about this belief is that I’m not sure that this magical time of the primacy of rules ever really existed. Maybe all there ever was were a group of selves pointing backwards trying to find new a clever ways to conquer other selves.
14. Consume in the name of the past, in the name of progress, in the name of protection, in the name of peace, in the name of whatever allows us to remember to forget or forget to remember what we are.
15. ”Why do we think of offense and defense as different things?” Great point, coach! Better than you even know.
An Inconsistent Truth: A Psychological Review of The High Art Museum’s Showing of La Moustache 11/5/10
“No one who has not experienced how insubstantial the pageant of external reality can be, how it may fade, can fully realize the sublime and grotesque presences that can replace it, or exist along side of it.”
-R.D. Laing “The Politics of Experience”
It is truly frightening to be in a room full of people who are laughing and not get the joke. I don’t just mean not get the punch line, but not get the words, the meaning or anything else. To feel as if one is from another planet and has landed here with a cursory knowledge of the English language and a two-day session on the lives and mating patterns of human beings under his belt, only to have to listen to two voracious baseball fans discussing the importance of the infield fly rule. Maybe I missed something; maybe something was never there.
I walked into the High Art Museum at about 9:30 at night and was greeted by one person in a fake moustache, then another, then another. I was overwhelmed and confused. Apparently this was the theme of the evening. Moustaches, moustaches everywhere. I had heard that at some point in the evening some men who had real moustaches were going to shave them off. It was one of those hipster rollicking good time things that I’m sure would have really impressed me back when I had rollicking hipster intentions.
The main purpose of this whole thing was to show Emmanuel Carrere‘s surrealist film “La Moustache“. Because of this, I decided to leave my house on a Friday night for the first time since Carter was in office. I love the film. It is a deceptively simple story of madness and personal alienation. A man shaves his moustache and no one believes he ever had one. That’s really all of it. In spite of its insane story line, it manages to come across as a remarkably realistic picture what it is like to experience genuine confusion. For some reason, I had it in my head that seeing the film in a theater would be even better. What I didn’t really get until the lights dimmed was that seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre is a unique experience because you have an opportunity to see special effects that were meant for a big screen. Seeing a yuppie French couple arguing over the husband’s bizarre personal grooming fantasies is not anymore enjoyable around a bunch of popcorn chomping film fans. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty damned depressing.
The woman who introduced the film was some former film critic from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who really didn’t know very much about the film or the writer or the director or French cinema or how she got to the building in the first place. She kept saying over and over that this film was “funny…really, really funny.” This set a monumentally bad tone for the evening. The crowd immediately settled in, ready for a French yuckfest on par with the work of Johnny Knoxville. I have to tell you, I’ve laughed at a lot of thoroughly inappropriate things in my day, so I guess I had this evening coming to me. I nearly got tossed out of the Phipps Plaza Theater some years back for nearly laughing myself into straightjacket for the last 15 minutes of the faux horror classic “The Devil’s Advocate”. I spent a good portion of my younger years telling horrendously insensitive jokes about everyone from Mother Theresa to Ted Bundy. This night was my punishment for many a sin against good taste. Hopefully, this will count as my confession and I will be absolved of further mental floggings.
I sat there for a good hour and a half with blank expression on my face. The audience exploded with laughter over and over again at the most inopportune times. Marc, the main character played by Vincent Lindon, wanders through the film slowly losing touch with everyone he knows and loves. He begins to doubt the very fabric of reality, becomes a stranger in his own body and disappears into a blinding fog of regret, scorn and loneliness. Hysterical stuff! Marc sifts through the trash, trying to find any proof that his experience is real, that he is not living an unexplainable fantasy and that his mind isn’t decaying. Stop it, my side is hurting!
Truth be told, this is a horrifically sad movie. So many wander through life trying to catch up to the world, trying to understand an endless series of in jokes and references that fly by them, hoping to understand what the world means while being handed self-help books and truisms about “being yourself” and “trying your hardest”. Our personal realities often do not mesh with the world. Our truths are often only true in our minds. One minute’s certainty is the next minute’s mirage. There are nearly 7 billion of us blindly groping for a light switch in the dark only to be handed an octopus. This is the message of The Moustache. To take this film as a lighthearted romp is to miss a wonderfully genuine explanation of what it is like to be a human. Or maybe I just don’t get it.