The Tale of a Table: What is a Liberal?

What seems to have been a few centuries ago, when I was in college, in Law School at Lisbon University, I wrote an article in the Student’s Association magazine about the political spectrum. I was saying then that it was very difficult to maintain the idea of the left-right conflict of ideas. The Great Ideological War was waning after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The left won battles for Social Security, National Health Systems, the Union revolution, the assertion of the Principle of Equality, etc. But it lost the battle over Capitalism. Overall, a Great Compromise seemed to have been established. What we feel since then, though, is not really a void or a peace situation of some kind. No, we’re seeing the exact opposite: the emergence of old foes and the confusion of terms and ideas. Look at a term as ‘Liberal’ for instance, which means left-wing in the US but right-wing in Europe. What does it really mean? Is it really another way to say Socialist? Or, as in Europe, another way to say free-trader or Capitalist extremist? And what about Social-Democrat – a term so well established in Europe and so absent in the US? And what to call these so homogeneous and like-minded populists that have spawned throughout the world in the last few years? Let me speak a little bit about this.

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As I’ve written here, the recent populism wave makes me nervous. It is based on out-dated and dangerous principles Humanity has tried several times and which have failed miserably, leading to almost unimaginable catastrophes. National-Traditionalism, as we may call it, is trying to get back to the times before the Liberal Revolutions and to a Universe where progress, equality, the Rule of Law, and many other concepts we now hold dear were seen as myths.  These dangerous people believe in Nationalism, Culture Wars, Religious foundations, isolationism, ancient traditions,  and, curiously enough, in the Aristocratic Elites. They scorn most of the incredible and profound developments of the last few centuries and bank on the stupidity, the fear and the confusion of a mass of disillusioned who feel left behind by the evolution of Mankind.

Over two hundred years ago a wave of Liberalism swarmed the Western hemisphere. From the French Revolution to the creation of Italy or the independence of Brazil and other Latin American countries, the people were demanding a set of rights inspired by the thinking of the likes of Rousseau or Montesquieu. And then, in the late 1700’s, an amazing experiment came about in the Americas and a rising people wrote a few documents that established in stone the basic pillars of Liberal thinking. These were documents as The Constitution of the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, etc. They established that ‘All men are created equal’, ‘Liberty and justice for all’, and that we have rights as the Freedom of Expression, the Right to Vote, the Freedom of Religion, the Right to a Fair Trial, the Right of Association – and many other Liberal Principles. This, my friends, the thinking behind the Constitution of the United States, is the Liberal Agenda.

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In my view, Liberals believe in one thing first of all: that Freedom is the basis of Happiness. That is what I believe as well. I believe Happiness comes from a sense of purpose, a sense of Meaning, and that Meaning depends on Choice. For that, we need Freedom. And that’s why I’m a Liberal. Now, according to the works of John Rawls, people don’t really feel free or happy unless they guarantee a certain amount of things: as a roof over their heads, food, or basic justice. So to some Liberals, the State could/should invest to assure a certain fairness of opportunities, liberty and justice. I take issue with many of Rawls concepts, but in a sense, I believe that he brings to light undervalued positions, as the ideas of decency and reasonability of a society based on how we treat each other.

Now, Conservatives prefer a more structured reality. They seem to believe that progress must be reigned in and that Happiness is impossible unless we protect some values, many times based on Religion, but also in a sense of Family and structured Community that allows people to assert their initiative and their economic power in society.

Then we have Socialists. The ones that survived the Cold War are not hardliner communists and pro-Soviet ideologues. Modern Democratic Socialism survives and thrives in Europe these days, and even if it believes the State to be the central guarantee of Equality and Happiness of individuals, even if it is still suspicious and defiant of Capitalism, even if it prefers to put the collectiveness above the individual, it no longer believes the State to be the source and the guarantor of all-things-Good.

Now, I personally always felt a little bit ‘out-of-the-box’ politically. I couldn’t fit into any of the designations of political movements in Europe nor to any of the parties that rule my country Portugal. So instead of classifying myself as a member of this or that movement, I have for a while tried to evaluate my beliefs and analyze my attitudes and behavior. As the terminologies and the political tendencies evolved, I held my baring by putting a set of values in a table and comparing the different parties and political programs according to those values. I can now say with confidence that I am a Liberal, even though only recently (at least in my mind) did this terminology gained a more unified meaning. So, for you who are still confused with the different factions now in play (especially in the US where some of the terms are very mixed-up) here is my latest table (I’m sorry for my untalented design):

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This is not a scientific analysis – it’s the analysis I make for myself. It’s designed to give a bit of perspective. Some of you might think I’m wrong about this or that. Some might think themselves as Socialist and still believe in some sort of Capitalism, for instance, or be a Conservative and still believe Climate Change is happening, or that the State should somewhat regulate the market; and many Modern Socialists believe in International Institutions (like the UN, NATO, IMF, WTO, etc), even though many more, I think, are critical of them. But I’m going for broad categories – for what seem to be the main positions of most people in those political movements or best describe them, so please be gentle with your criticisms. This table is a simple tool. If you want, pick up the Belief items on the left and decide for yourself if this or that political movement is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But this is the way I view them and judge them – and the line by which I figure out my own placement.

In view of this table, I’m a Liberal: I believe in Free-Trade, I believe in Fiscal Responsibility, I’m pro-Choice, I believe in a single-payer Health System, I don’t believe the State should own companies or intervene directly in the Economy except in very particular circumstances. I’m pro-World Order, I’m progressive about LGBT rights, I believe Climate Change is a real threat, etc. I also believe in Capitalism, as I wrote here.

Everything I’m telling you about you can find out by reading past posts of this very blog. Go check out. I have good reason to believe in all these things. Each and every one of them. Most of all, I believe in Freedom and I believe in the Liberal Agenda. Hope it helps that I point all this out and hope that it makes sense to you. See you around, my fellow warriors.

The Legendary Undefeated City

2This weekend I traveled North to the special and charming city of Oporto for the city’s Book Fair. My publisher had me come in for a book signing and there I went. The Oporto Book Fair is not a big event, we’re talking of about 130 exhibitors, but I’m certainly not one to complain, I’m happy to stage any book signing, of course – and don’t think many people came, I’m not that known of a writer. But still, I signed a couple of books and had fans come in with previous publications, happy to meet me almost as much as I was happy to meet them. I was also happy to return to this city, the one they call The Undefeated. Been there a few times and I love to go back.

Oporto is the second largest Portuguese city. Which isn’t saying much. It harbors around 1 million people overall. And it is a special city, completely different from Lisbon. Lisbon is built around seven hills, but they are low hills and the city is wide and the proximity of the sea and the wide exit of the Tagus have a peculiar effect on the light. Oporto is also built around hills, near the sea and next to the lovely Douro River. But it’s very different: the streets are narrower, the hills are steeper, the river is closer and narrower as well and the dark stones of the old streets and houses make it a darker city, somehow. And people are different – more gentle and well dressed, less urban. That’s part of the charm of Portugal: you just travel a dozen miles in any direction and it’s like you’re in a completely different country – beaches, mountains, deserts, old cities and new. You just have it all in a small piece of land.

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But here’s something I noticed as I walked through these streets: everywhere I went I picked up many different sounds and languages. I heard people talking in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, etc. I didn’t even need to walk. As soon as I opened the window of the flat I rented for a couple of nights I could hear the sounds of all around the globe – as if Oporto had become suddenly much more cosmopolitan than I remembered. This diversity, if you think about it, is a sign of progress, prosperity, evolution and even wealth. Think about it. When you imagine New York or London, or Ancient Rome or Ancient Beijing, or Napoleonic Paris or even Colonial Lisbon, you must imagine these places filled with all kinds of culture, languages, customs, diversity.

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It’s not just the depictions of a great metropolis as Rome in films like GLADIATOR or BEN HUR. In these pictures, it always seems that the diversity of every part of the Empire makes the city greater and more sophisticated. But there are other less… shall we say commercial views? See, for instance, the old painting of 16th century Lisbon, then one of the greatest cities in the world, called THE KING’S FOUNTAIN – see how it depicts knights and other African characters, as well as Jewish merchants and different artisans – they were part of the city’s regular life. Also, here’s how Marco Polo described the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century: «To the city also are brought articles of greater cost and rarity, and in greater abundance of all kinds, than to any other city in the world. For people of every description, from every region bring things (including all the costly wares of India, as well as the fine and precious goods of Cathay itself), some for the sovereign, some for the court, some for the city which is so great, some for the crowds of barons and knights, some for the great hosts of the emperor which are quartered round about; and thus between court and city the quantity brought in is endless.» As in other descriptions, diversity is mentioned as a sign of prosperity and wealth and significance.

Quiz_U.S.ImmigrationSo it’s easy to equate the phenomenon of immigration with progress and prosperity. It seems they come hand in hand. Actually, I remember meeting a Swedish professor that showed me how the USA had built its success around immigration. He said something like this: «If you emigrate to Sweden or Portugal or France, you will never be a Swede or a Portuguese or a French. Maybe your children, having been born in these countries, can have the chance of being considered native – if they’re lucky and they don’t have a different tone of skin or their names don’t give them up. If you emigrate to America, though, you can legally become a citizen after five years. You just become an American like any other. That’s the biggest competitive advantage the Americans have over everybody else.» A place where you can converge a vast amount of points of views, cultures and customs is a place of great learning and adaptation, becoming strong and sophisticated. Places that remain closed and homogeneous and bare eventually fall sick and poor and die.

That is exactly the main strength of cities, as a matter of fact. Cities are in fact the most durable and resilient of entities, more resilient than countries or even civilizations and empires. Paris, for instance, has seen the rise and fall of different tribes, the Roman Empire, the Frankish Empire, and Nazi Germany and many others, and it still remains the City of Paris. Something similar can be said of Rome, London, Lisbon or New York. That happens because cities, those legendary undefeated entities, are the poles of diversity, they adapt and they integrate many different cultures and customs and races and culinary delicacies and colorful games and art forms. They are a phenomenon of integration and resilience.

Let me say as well that it baffles me that the very same people that are scared and dismissive of immigration are the same that deny the massive happening of Climate Change. Because, as many have been saying for years, Climate Change itself, if not addressed and faced, will definitely cause or is already causing massive migratory phenomena around the world. So facing Climate Change and working to stop it is a much more effective remedy for migratory ‘invasions’, real or imaginary, than any wall whatsoever.

wellington-landing-Lx-1809If you ever read Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow and/or Adrian Goldsworthy you might know that Oporto is a city where the brilliant general Arthur Wellesley, the Irish Duke of Wellington, and his red-coats faced the great armies of Napoleon and defeated them. As I crossed the Douro River on a train, heading back home to the South, I remembered those incredible battles fought by, among others, expatriated soldiers. Part of Wellington’s genius was the creation of integrated battalions, with both British and Portuguese nationals, and later Spanish, Dutch and Germans as well, if I recall. Diversity, he seemed to notice, make us all stronger. We should all notice it too. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

‘Chernobyl’ and The Metaphor of Radioactivity

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This week I watched another top-notch HBO TV show: CHERNOBYL. And scary as hell also! I still remember when I was young to have watched the news about the radioactive cloud coming in from the East (it never got to Portugal, of course), and being amazed by the concept of radioactive acid rain. I was born in 1971 so I still remember very well the Soviet Union and that horrible feeling that a nuclear war was always imminent. Just as today with Climate Change, nuclear war seemed in the ’70s and ’80s an inevitable end. Something completely out of our control. At any moment any crazy idiot in power could make a mistake and start shooting missiles and things would go out of hand. Remember that John Badham movie WARGAMES? With Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy? When a young hacker accidentally gets a computer to almost launch a nuclear war? We felt like that all the time. And it was awful.

The accident at Chernobyl affected half a continent for many years, and it is still affecting, with the city of Chernobyl itself and its Exclusion Zone still out of bounds. Radioactivity takes many life spans to vanish. Thousands of years. The series of CHERNOBYL, though, shows that the risks we took were actually much higher and that without the effort and sacrifice of many people and many lives, the consequences of the accident would have been almost unimaginable.

The performances in these five episodes were assured by the powerful Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson, and the very talented Jared Harris. Harris performed admirably as the dying King of England in Netflix’s THE CROWN, accounting for some of the best scenes in the series, and now was put to very good use as the Soviet scientist Legasov who was in charge of the efforts to contain the effects of the accident and then turned whistleblower and denounced the fatal flaws in Soviet civilian nuclear reactors. The extreme and frightening consequences of each and every human decision taken through those months should give us chills and nightmares. The whole series is cleverly written and it surprisingly starts with the explosion itself. The actual explanation of what cause it is left to the end, to the shrewd court scenes in the fifth episode – where most of all Legasov’s somewhat crude but intelligent testimony makes it very clear how everything happened.

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As (SPOILER ALERT) Legasov’s final conclusions point out, much of the problem rested in the way the Soviet Union itself worked. Even though it called itself a democracy, it settled on a centralized system of control and command that took to the extreme the very elitism that it claimed to fight against. The communist Soviet Union was a place where it was so deadly or catastrophic to question one’s superior that sacrificing one’s life seemed a better alternative. And as in every other communist country, it was the ruling elite that decided what was good for the people and what was the accepted and repeated narrative – the inferior mass was condemned to obey and lower their eyes as the Aristocracy of the Communist Party affirmed obvious lies and hid the contradictions of the system. The whole decision-making apparatus was fundamentally flawed by this illusion of control that almost dammed half a continent. It was cheaper to sacrifice lives than to tell the truth. Millions could have died from contamination and disease if it wasn’t for the bravery and the abnegation of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians. To all accounts, it seems that between 4,000 and 93,000 people ended up dying because of the accident in Chernobyl – the official Soviet count is 31. It makes us wonder how many casualties there were in the Nyonoksa nuclear accident a month ago – Russian authorities only counted 10.

Yes, in nowadays Russia we see an effort from Vladimir Putin and his cronies to go back to a sort of the Soviet Union of the past. Putin himself named the fall of the USSR as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century – as if Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Verdun or Chernobyl itself weren’t far more costly, cruel, violent and absurd events. Putin’s clinging to the past and fear of democracy is the fuel that feeds his dictatorial stance and his rampant lying. An elitist lying Government is the pillar of this system and it is a system that Putin is trying to replicate in the USA itself, through the brilliant cyber-political warfare that has been growing since 2015 – and following the success in the 2016 Presidential Elections.

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The main metaphor of CHERNOBYL is the Radioactivity of Lies. Nuclear devices are incredibly dangerous and scary machines. Radioactivity is relentless and almost unstoppable. As with Climate Change, Humans play with it as if we were giant toddlers in a china shop. We are enthusiastic and prolific creators of dangers we do not understand, moving with great energy through fragile corridors without full dominion of our own legs and arms. We destroy with ease and destroy even more when we try to correct what we did wrong before. We are one-eyed ghouls unaware of our power, our weakness, and our ignorance.

But much worse than that is the abject lies that cover this weakness and this ignorance. Mistakes are hidden and the truth is manipulated. This manipulation is corrosive and deadly – it’s radioactive. And, as Legasov puts it in the series, it boils under the surface until it becomes unbearable and explodes. The illusion of control is only that, an illusion. The irony is that the will of the people, so acclaimed in the Soviet Union and yet so missed, when energized in a real democracy has the same effect as radioactivity and truth: it escapes control and becomes unstoppable. Putin knows this – as a KGB agent, he witnessed as the people of Germany rose up to level down the Berlin Wall in 1989. And it scared him. It probably still gives him nightmares similar to what the radioactivity of Chernobyl must have given many many people all those years ago.

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We cannot control everything in our lives. I spoke about it here. What we can do as small individuals in a world of billions of others and a Universe of billions of stars, is very limited. But it is not nothing. Our decisions matter. Our rising up matters. Each one of us. Because many years ago, democracy wasn’t even a choice, and now it’s here. And facing the truth, as hard as it can be, is what assures our freedom and our meaning of life. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

The Narcissistic Epidemic: Oedipus, Tennessee Williams and Orson Wells

We are living through a long and dramatic narcissistic epidemic. There is ample evidence of that. Look it up. Narcissism, that disease of admiring oneself and of viewing the world through the need to be admired, has been increasing considerably as generation after generation lives enthralled in the possibilities of technology and freedom. Freud, of whom I spoke here, thought we all suffered from some sort of narcissism and a lot of it could be traced to the Oedipus Complex. This concept, to which Freud believed much of our neurosis was related to, was recognized by the Austrian in Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX – maybe you know it. Sophocles tells us the story of prince Oedipus of Thebes. When he was born, an oracle told King Laius and Queen Jocasta that the baby would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. Terrified by this prospect, the King and the Queen sent the baby away, ordering a shepherd to kill him. Oedipus, however, was saved and grew up and returned to Thebes. Ignorant of whom he was, he ended up killing his father and taking his place as king, marrying his mother in the process. When he found out what he had done, he took out his eyes and wandered around the world as a beggar.

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Freud recognized in this story something he saw in many of his patients as well: this burning desire to love our mother and overcome or father. This is so intense in our psyche that it becomes very scary for most of us, which also led to powerful resistance to Freud’s theories when he described them and through the years. Still, there are a lot of interesting characteristics and possibilities that can be understood under the shroud of the Oedipus Complex – not only developed by Freud but also by his successors. Actually, when we think about the story, Oedipus wasn’t guilty of any particular sin in the first place. His decisions, if we see it through his eyes, were not wrong – he didn’t know what he was doing. The ones who made the most cruel and sinful and conscious decision that led to the whole tragedy were his parents when they tried to have him killed. All he did was to survive and try to overcome his abandonment – and as he did that, as he tried to make himself important and overcome the sins of his parents, he doomed himself and all around him. That, in a nutshell, could be seen as the root of narcissism: that need to be important in the face of unloving and abandoning parents.

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We could see this phenomenon in many stories all around. For example, in Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. In this excellent play, and subsequent excellent movies, the secret intimate core of the story comes from the fact (SPOILER ALERT) that the all-imposing figure of Big Daddy lost his loving father as a kid – which led him to build everything on his own and thrive by his own sweat and guts. Big Daddy is as the Sun, with everything revolving around him – and even though he hates mendacity, what he really wants is to be loved – even as he is unable to love others. Richard Brook’s movie is one of my favorite movies of all time – Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives as Big Daddy and an underestimated Judith Anderson as Big Mamma carry this great work and move me every time. But is also an essay on narcissism and the Oedipus Complex, showing the difficulties of loving and being loved. In that incredible scene in the basement at the end, we can see Ives and Newman supreme in their art and we can also see the center of all evils in the lost love of father and son. Brick, Newman’s character, is immersed in self-loathing and disgust, the face of guilt that echoes the guilt of Oedipus himself. On the other hand, Maggie the Cat, Taylor’s character, is almost the only adult in the room, almost more a mother than a loving wife – herself abandoned and unloved.

Another movie that leans on this subject is Orson Wells’ CITIZEN KANE, deemed by many the best movie ever made. The movie describes the life of Charles Foster Kane and the way he built himself to be one of the richest men alive (based on the likes of magnate William Randolph Hearst, who tried to kill the movie when he saw it). Wells himself perceived the origins of these men’s narcissism and we can see in the last scene how his lost love for his parents was the engine and the tragedy of Charles F. Kane.

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On the other side, movies like REBECCA, PSYCHO or SUNSET BOULEVARD show how loving one’s mother can also lead to doom.

I cannot end this week’s post, off course, without making some parallels to real life. We see in some of our leaders, many of whom were gathered this week in the G7 meeting, the same woes that plague these oedipal characters. We can see in particular the so-called Leader of the Free World trying to feed his greedy and hellish black-hole of importance with fantasies of bending China to its knees, of nuking hurricanes, of wishing immigrants out of existence, of being the King of Israel, the Chosen One and the Second Coming of God. We could even pity him, but as King Oedipus brought the plague to Thebes and destroyed the ones around him, so the King of Towers is also able to doom us all and lead us to despair.

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I’m sorry he wasn’t loved by his parents. But he needs to let us love ours. And our children. Children are not free when they can do what they want. They are free when they know we care.  See you around the next campfire, my friends.

‘Mindhunter’ and the Root of Good and Evil

mindhunter-serie2-1024x500I haven’t binge-watched a TV series in a long time, but this weekend I devoured the 9-episode second season of MINDHUNTER, a brilliant Netflix series on the development of the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI – a unit focused on the psychology of serial killers. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, the BSU started by interviewing incarcerated serial killers to understand what moved them. That led to a quantum leap in serial killer understanding and apprehension. The story is absolutely fascinating and the series is top-notch, with the notable participation of the amazing David Fincher. Some of the scenes on the interviews are incredible, including the riveting performances of Cameron Britton as Edmund Kemper, the ‘Co-Ed Killer’, and Damon Herriman as Charles Manson.

mindhunter-trailer-co-ed-killer-e1550784698111This last particular interview, on the 5th episode of the season, made me think about the root of Evil, arguably the theme of the whole series. The argument apparently made by Manson’s character, that we are all prisoners of an oppressive system and that true freedom comes from releasing the chains we feed in our minds, seems a common thread in the speeches of violent criminals, be it Adolf Hitler’s pseudo-Nietzchian arguments or the Unabomber letters portrayed in another interesting TV series: MANHUNT: UNABOMBER, with Sam Worthington and Paul Bethany. I’ve talked about this illusion of freedom here. As I said, rebellion is just another immature bind – rebels are another manifestation of our reaction to the Names of the Fathers, the prison of ancestry, the idea of a ‘civilized society’. So much so that society itself already plans for it, expects it, molds it and controls it. We can see it in the way drugs are manipulated, in the opioid epidemic, in the institutionalization of rebellion in Easter Parties and teenage alcoholism, in the systems of punishment in schools and other organizations, etc.

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Actually, if we think that we could simply do without the Superego parts of our mind, those parts that regulate social behavior, I would argue instead that that would lead us to a kind of jungle scenario, a non-state country, a Somalia, a type of zombie post-apocalyptic world we can find in the likes of THE WALKING DEAD. The Superego makes us able to live in community. More so in a super-tribe environment, as we live in groups of people that actually don’t know each other at all. If you go to a large city as New York or London, and you walk through 5th Avenue or Oxford Street, you will probably walk by thousands of people that, by and large, are complete unknowns to you but don’t pose a particular danger. By and large, you are much safer in those environments than in the African savannah where Humanity started its journey and where a lot fewer individuals of different species actually cross your path. That is the beauty of Humanity’s social behavior. Our ability to live with each other which allowed us to climb the ladder of Evolution and overcome Neanderthals. You can argue, of course, that we have an excess of Superego in our lives, that it inspires a judgmental and oppressive atmosphere where the liberty needed for a meaningful and happy life becomes difficult. I would agree with that. Tolerance, compassion, and balance are underrated qualities. But still, our Superego is a vital part of our standards of living and of a free society.

With a functioning Superego come somewhat balanced feelings and emotions of Guilt and Shame. We feel Guilt and Shame as we perceive a given behavior to be Wrong. To be contrary to a Good Life. In particular, a Good social life. Those feelings (along with Disgust and Repulsion, for instance) are some of the alarm bells that tell us that we are Wrong, or that somebody else is Wrong. What we seem to systematically find in psychopaths and sociopaths and, in fact, in serial killers, is a dysfunction in these feelings. They seem to normalize abhorrent behavior or, at least, they seem to be attracted to abhorrent behavior – to be ignorant or oblivious to a sense of Wrong or to be attracted to this Wrong. They don’t feel Guilt and Shame and Disgust and Repulsion the same way we do.

What is curious though, I believe, and scary is that we are not safe from those kinds of imbalances. We can, and sometimes we do, tolerate, normalize and assimilate abhorrent behavior. That’s why we send soldiers to war, to kill the enemy, and we don’t call it murder – in spite of the similar degree of violence of their actions. No wonder many can’t take it lightly.

I also read last week, an article on the American Border Guards of the detention centers for kids. The article spoke of a guard who was a good father to his toddler and who was disturbed by his children’s cries, but who at work would ignore the desperate cries of the infants in his care. The conclusion seemed obvious: if he cared, and feeling incapable of improving the situation, he would become unable to do his job. Being able to stop caring, being able to ignore the cries of the immigrant children, became a working ability that made him competent in his job. An ability that enabled him, ironically enough, to keep a job to feed his children. He forced himself, as I guess many others would, to compartmentalize his Guilt and his Shame to make his own behavior normal and tolerable.

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Actually, we all have done something of the kind with the likes of Trump himself. He is now able to insult the disabled, attack the press, offend foreign dignitaries, praise dictators and murderers, purge immigrants, ignore the legislators and the judiciary, lie and deceive with such impunity and a sense of normalcy that it seems that it is our feelings of Shame, Disgust and Repulsion that are out of place.  The bar of what’s normal is systematically, constantly and relentlessly lowered more and more.

We should be careful, though. This is not an original phenomenon. It has happened before. This is the phenomenon that Hannah Arendt called The Banality of Evil, and it is one of the main pillars of totalitarianism.  It happened in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia and in Maoist China. For the people to be able to accept and integrate extreme violence and Evil ideas as the ones leading to the Holocaust, the bar of normalcy was systematically and relentlessly lowered in those societies over a period of time. It became normal for the inferior to be outcasted, and for the communists to be persecuted, and then for the disabled to disappear, and then for the Jews to be blamed and downgraded, and then for the deportations to occur. And it all seemed more or less normal as it was happening.

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For a long time I didn’t really believe in Good and Evil. For me there were Good deeds and Evil deeds, but there wasn’t something completely Evil, for instance, or completely Good. I changed my mind about this sometime ago. Even though I still believe that our Moral Compass is what makes an action Evil or Good, I now believe that this compass can actually be completely corrupt. What makes a difference is our ability to respect our Moral Compass, to Think and to Think Morally even through difficult times, or especially in these critical times. We cannot tolerate the intolerable. Or all is lost. Our compass will just stop working. And then the worst happens.

That’s all I have to say today. Until next time.

Blind Spots and Deep POV Development: To Show or Not To Show?

The_Malady_of_DeathToday, I’m still dwelling on Character Development. One area that comes up from time to time is choosing and developing a POV – see here. Most people choose between the First Person and the Third Person POV, but there are others and with nuances between them. Some of Marguerite Duras’ texts, for instance, worked beautifully in Second Person POV – where the writing works as if the narrator is speaking to somebody else. And even in Third Person, the narrator can be omniscient, knowing everything that’s going on, or just follow closely the thinking, knowledge, and actions of the characters. For me, as I said here, the main reason to choose one POV or the other is most of the time what I want to show and what I want to conceal – and how it will work for the story. Blind Spots are a major tool for a writer and the better we can manage them the better we can create suspense, surprise, and excitement within the story. Having studied the field of organizational behavior and team dynamics, I came across a couple of interesting concepts that actually help me develop and manage Blind Spots in my writings. So let me speak a bit about them.

One model I learned a long time ago is a table made up by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham called the ‘Johari Window’ Model. The concept works like this (please see picture): there are four types of things in your life – 1) The Arena or Public Area – Things that you know about yourself and which others also know (like the color of your hair); 2) Hidden Area or Façade – Things that you know about yourself but which the others do not know (like the dream you had last night, or a secret of some kind); 3) The Unknown – Things you don’t know about yourself but which the others also don’t know (like the dreams you don’t remember); 4) Blind spots – Things the others know about you but which you don’t, you are unaware of (like the way you blink every time you talk about the girl next door).

johari-model

Now, try to apply this to your character. The character is ‘you’ and the others are ‘the readers’. Imagine you are applying this to a First Person POV: 1) things that are in the Arena are easy to talk about and to think about and to act upon – the characters know about it, the audience knows about it, it’s easy; 2) things that are in the Hidden Area can be talked about, but maybe the character will also keep them from the audience for a while – but you have to have a good reason for that – an advice: foreshadow it, make it known there is a secret somewhere or give clues to the facts hidden, build the revelation up; 3) Things that are Unknown are unreachable when you’re in First Person POV, you just can’t talk about them or you will have to make up a device to do that – like a flashforward to a moment when the narrator finds out about those things and they become Public. If your story needs to show a lot of things that are in the unknown area, you might want to opt for a Third Person POV – that will allow you to control better the flow of information. For instance: in a theater of war you want to show to the reader, constantly, the strategy and the roll-out of the general’s plans – but you want to experience the war through a private’s eyes on the battlefield – you might want to use Third Person POV, or multiple First Person POV (the private on one chapter, the general on the other, for instance), or you might work with flashforwards and flashbacks and have the private years later in his retirement home explaining the general’s plans. But always keep in mind that what you want to show and what you don’t want to show is a major foundation of POV selection and development – and can greatly influence your style and the story itself.

Bruno_Martins_Soares_K (1)But the real fun comes up when you think about 4) the Blind Spots. Blind Spots are things that others (readers) may know but you (the character) don’t. I love to work on these things because it’s a lot of fun to imply this or that without the characters actually realizing it. For instance, you know when you pick up that two characters are in love with each other but the characters themselves don’t know it yet? This may be easy to show in Third Person, but it’s a lot more fun to create in First Person. I did the same thing a couple of times with leadership, for example, in THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES – the MC didn’t know he was becoming respected by his crew for all he was able to do and say, but we could slowly see it in the actions of his team. Also, the MC was constantly annoyed by another character, but we could see they were becoming good friends.

You can also use Blind Spots to frame the whole story. Remember Cameron’s TITANIC? The whole first 20 minutes were a presentation of the way the ship would crash and sink – so when we followed the story of Rose and Jack, we knew what would be happening even though they didn’t, which made us suffer for them as we saw them fall in love. Using Blind Spots in clever and sophisticated ways will make your characters and your stories deeper and more interesting to the reader.  It’s, of course, easier to do that in Third Person – by for example interweaving plotlines, as I explained here, so that you follow one character and then another which gives you more information of what is going on. In THE DARK SEA WAR CHRONICLES I actually do it by intertwining two different POV’s – I have Episodes narrated in First Person and Interludes narrated in Third Person – exactly to create Blind Spots and/or to show information the MC would never learn.

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There several types of Blind Spots. Consultant Barry Oshry developed a view of organizations and systems where he described several kinds of Systems Blindness – and it’s fun to use them in the context of plotting and character development. A) Spacial Blindness – You are able to see what is happening in one space but blind to what happens in another space. B) Temporal Blindness – you can see what happens in the present, for instance, but you cannot grasp what happened in the past or the future. C) Relational Blindness – you are unable to understand the whole aspects of the relationship between two or more people. D) Process Blindness – you cannot see or understand the whole parts of one process, only a few – see for instance in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN the way the Rangers didn’t understand how/why they had been sent to find one man in the middle of the war; and the general staff seemed not to grasp what they were asking of the Rangers. If you can play with these types of blindness you can create a wide range of Blind Spots you can use at your pleasure.

Remember, Blind Spots are a very useful and entertaining tool. Learn how to create them and use them and your writing will improve exponentially. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

 

Freud and the Deep Core Character’s Motivation

I re-read recently my post on Antagonists and Protagonists (you can read here) as I replied to another comment about Conflict and Motivation. Even though I truly believe what I wrote then, that the main pillar of the Conflict in a story is the mere incompatibility of the goals of Antagonists and Protagonists, it’s true that psychoanalytic motivation gives a sense of profound meaning to a story. My life changed completely when a couple of decades ago I met the works of Freud and psychoanalytical thinking. It is still at the core of my thinking about life and death and it improved not just my life but the understanding of my characters. So even if the motivation of a Protagonist or an Antagonist can be as simple as the need to eat and/or survive, as in JAWS or ALIEN, it’s useful to understand some of the deeper core motivations of characters. So here are a few nuggets about Freud – a genius who is, in our day, in my view, critically undervalued.

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Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian doctor, was a very clever man who studied hysteria in the barbaric 19th century. At that time, people were convinced that only women suffered from hysteria and one of the main treatments for the condition was the removal of the uterus. Freud was not particularly keen on that kind of therapy so he studied another path: hypnosis. He was a pioneer in hypnotherapy and had phenomenal success. Through hypnosis he was able to uncover the origins of the traumas that led to neurosis and hysteria. As he brought these traumas to the conscious mind, he saw that the patients soothed their symptoms and felt more at ease. Unfortunately, though, this therapy had a side effect: the patients got dependant of the therapist. As soon as the hypnotic sessions were terminated, the symptoms seemed to come back. But Freud started to notice one other thing: he was hired to take patients to a sanatorium in the quiet mountains and between sessions of hypnosis he would engage in massages and conversations with the patients – as he did this he started to pick up that these conversations were as valuable as or even more valuable than the hypnosis itself. And thus was born the Talking Cure – Psychoanalysis.

Two of the main discoveries that made Freud famous were the so-called Two Topics. The First Topic said something like this: our mind has three basic parts – the Unconscious, the Conscious and the Pre-Conscious (Subconscious). Think of it as a computer. Conscious mind is the program you are using at the moment – I am using MS Word at the moment and writing a text – I am perfectly conscious that I am doing that. The Subconscious are the programs and applications that are minimized: I can quickly activate them by clicking on an icon and opening a browser, for instance. The Unconscious though, is much deeper within the software – it’s the Operating System – that mass amount of software that is running under the whole workings of the computer and which is much more difficult to access. Think of it like this: if I ask you to tell me what you had for dinner last night, you will probably remember by accessing your Subconscious mind. But if I ask you what you had for dinner a year ago, you will probably have more trouble remembering. It’s possible that I could use hypnosis to make you remember, it is there in your memory somewhere, but we would have to access your Unconscious mind – the part of your mind where more than 90% of your thinking occurs. Freud discovered that the Unconscious works with Symbolism and that our dreams are a gate to the Unconscious. And that’s also the source of our Fantasies. And our love for stories. Stories, in a way, are the perfect way for our Unconscious to learn – as they also work through symbolism. That’s why the deepest narratives are the ones that resonate with the chords of our Unconscious – not necessarily the most complex.

Now, Freud’s Second Topic is more controversial. Freud said that there are three parts of our mind that are constantly in conflict: the Id is our pure animal – focused on egotistic needs, feels and wants. It’s very basic: hunger – eat; thirst-drink; pee-release; anger-violence; etc. The Superego is the social, disciplined self: it obeys the rules, it inspires feelings of guilt and shame, and other social impositions. And finally the Ego: the diplomat, trying to balance the Id and the Superego and Reality – looking for comfort and to overcome the conflict. In Freud’s view, this main basic Conflict between the parts of our mind is the pillar of every conflict and every neurosis.

293854793_c9fe5ea6b5One important source of this inner conflict is the Oedipus Complex. This complex represents the conflict between our fundamental inner needs, Id needs, towards our parents – love, sex, hate, violence – and the Superego that idealizes and defines a «normal» relationship with our parents. Our Ego must be able to reconcile both these parts of our inner mind and Reality, which is never ideal, and that’s why most people’s relationships with their parents is never perfect.

If you want to render profound motivations to your characters, then, the relationship with the parents is always at the core and your knowledge of psychoanalysis becomes a major resource. Here are a few examples:

In STAR WARS, Luke’s father, Darth Vader, represents Evil and Obi Wan is the Grandfather who rivals that Evil. Luke’s oedipal relationship with his father is the main source of this story’s conflict – as well as Vader’s oedipal relationship with Obi Wan.

In GODFATHER, the main inner conflict of the story is Michael Corleone’s desire to leave a life of crime while still being unable to separate himself from his father’s figure.

 

godfather

In CASABLANCA, Rick’s inner conflict is between his love for Isla and his love for the principled and mature course of action represented by Victor Lazlo’s father-figure.

I will not analyze each of these cases one by one, as it would take a whole post and require much explanation. I just wanted to alert you, as fellow writers, that if you want or need to engage in the deeper meanings of a story, Freud’s theories and thinking seem to me a very good place to start. See you next time, fellow knights.