Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A different "act of killing"

On first watching The Act of Killing I just wanted to know more. I watched the bonus features and listened to the comments, but I searched for additional material, and found some Youtube interviews. Those were good, but there was another clip that came up with a title that sounded like it might be related:

Well, not exactly. This was an interview with an author who had studied psychology and the military and violence. The interview was from 1996, so would have been related to his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, published in 1995.

I know some people will not appreciate his comments about movies and video games, and I didn't even notice that the first time through. What really struck me was the change in percentage of who was shooting to kill.

In past conflicts, a lot of people who participated in battles were not really trying to kill anyone. Some were, and succeeded, and with less advances in medical care they could be fairly effective, but still, a lot of people who probably thought they would be able to kill the enemy would get out on the battlefield and find they were wrong.

The military used operant conditioning and classical conditioning to change this. One example is that targets for shooting practice were switched from a bulls eye to a silhouette. That was an early change; there are more sophisticated ones now. It was an evolving process, and you can trace that evolution pretty well.

  • World War II - 15% shooting to kill
  • Korea - 55%
  • Vietnam - 95%
This reminded me of something, where I believe I may have been naive.

A few years ago I read Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. One thing it talked about was military rape, and it turns out that it was a lot more common for our soldiers to rape people in Vietnam than in World War II. (I don't specifically remember if she wrote anything about Korea.)

From reading, and maybe from my own extrapolation, I thought that it was because of morale - that because World War II felt like a just cause, and heroic, and Vietnam didn't, especially as more people turned against the war.

That may still have played a role, but now I wonder how much teaching people to devalue life effects everything else.

Then one of the books in the Media Module for Social Issues Through Comic Books was Nightly News, and I will review those soon, but one thing it talked about was working on upping the kill rate, and something it added was shooter games being developed for training and recruitment. It's a fairly paranoid book (on purpose), and so you might not be able to trust everything in it, but a lot of the things that it mentions that sound crazy are documented.

So, no, this interview was not connected to the documentary I watched, and in fact happened over a decade before the movie was released, and yet, it does relate.

It relates because although as humans we have a taboo against killing, we can be taught to get around that, and even to enjoy it, but successfully doing that does not take away the toll. Those who fought in Vietnam did have a high rate of shooting to kill, but they have paid a high price after because of the trauma. Today's soldiers are still facing high rates of suicide and PTSD.

The other way in which it connects to the movie is bringing things out. At one point Grossman talks about drafts being shared while he was still writing the book, and conversations being started, where people could "speak the unspeakable". We need that. We need it so that people can heal, and we need it so that we can be really honest about the kind of society we want to have.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing is a documentary from 2012 about the Indonesian death squads.

The first thing I need to say is that it was amazing. I will be writing about many things that happen, but I don't feel that they are spoilers, because viewing would not be spoiled. It is not knowing what happens, but seeing how it feels for those involved. Viewing is an intense experience, but recommended.

The director Joshua Oppenheimer had not originally intended to tell the story the way it went, but those who had been victimized during that time period were reluctant to talk, and the death squad members were eager to talk.

That probably ended up being for the best. Since they came from movie theater gangs and loved film, many are willing to reenact their past, using film techniques. A traditional approach could be very moving and educational, but what you get instead, seeing killers comfortable with their acts, and then bragging, and then maybe not so comfortable has an impact that you wouldn't easily expect.

It's a rather unique situation. It's not that there haven't been other genocides, but usually there is a general consensus that it was wrong afterward, like Post World War II Germany, or the perpetrators were Communists, where even if there is just as much tyranny as fascism resulting, there is this idea of the collective, and that is was for the people. (I'm not saying that the reasoning isn't fallacious, but that it does have an impact.)

Here the slaughter was against the Communists. Instead, the heroes were gangsters, and people refer over and over to how their word for "gangster" comes from "free man", so these are people who go their own way. It is the individual, and someone who is strong.

(Their word is based on the Dutch preman.)

This mindset makes it not terribly surprising when you see a militia leader shaking down Chinese merchants for "donations" to his group, or a political candidate gleefully calculating how much money he can make by threatening building code enforcement, whether there are violations or not. He loses, not because of that, but because he does not give out enough gifts during his campaigning. It is a gangster society, built upon protection money, bribes, and corruption.

There are a lot of interesting things about the movie, and things that you can think about and wonder about a lot. One thing that struck me was two of the main killers, Anwar and Adi, visiting with a newspaper reporter. The reporter commented on how smooth they must have been, because he never suspected that these interrogations and killings were going on right above his head. Adi, with some enjoyment I believe, points out that it basically means he was a lousy reporter, because they were not hiding anything. Normally that would just make me think about failure of the press, except for the way the reporter's face changes when he is told that his boss was in charge. His shock is so personal, that it takes him from a frustrating failure of a journalist to a person coming up against something he was not ready for.

The conversations are important to have, and the movie has been facilitating many conversations, but I want to emphasize how important the "acting", and staging, ended up being.

First of all, things came out. Anwar ends up being the main character, and he is charming. You see him being very sweet and gentle with his grandsons and an injured duck. You also see him demonstrating using a wire to strangle people, because beating them to death was too messy, with blood all over the place and stinking if you didn't clean it up. And you see him doing a little dance talking about this, but then there is also a list of substances used that keeps getting longer, and you see it has taken a toll that has not truly been acknowledged.

A little later they are using a neighbor to play the part of a Communist facing interrogation, and as they are talking before he is smiling and laughing, but then he shares a story that maybe they could use, about his stepfather's murder. The feeling changes as they decide the story is too complicated to share, but there is a hurt that has come up, and as they act out the torture the neighbor is just a mess, but then after he is changed.

To me it felt like he had suppressed that grief and everything bad it had done to him for years, and now it was back. He will have to face it, but there was a hollowness before, and there can be something there now. It felt like he was going to come to terms with it. The film gave him a chance to speak about it, and it gave him a chance to feel what his stepfather and others might have felt, and he can move forward.

With greater involvement in the process, there is a greater effect on Anwar. As he takes on the role of someone interrogated and executed and beheaded, it becomes physically harder for him. His sidekick Herman is having a great time playing with the fake organs, but Anwar is looking ill. He says he could not do the scene again, and the end has him basically dry-heaving at the same spot where we saw him cheerfully talking about his killing methods and dancing at the beginning.

Before the physical breakdown, but after watching the scene where he "dies", Anwar gets contemplative, wondering if he did wrong, and saying he knows now how those men felt. This is one of the view spots where you hear Oppenheimer's voice, as he argues that Anwar knew it was pretend, but those men knew they were really going to die, and it was not the same. Anwar insists that he can feel it.

I am willing to believe that Anwar did feel something close. I believe the creative efforts of staging and acting unlocked the empathy which he had silenced at the time. I say that because of other results of creative expression I have seen, so it makes sense to me, but also because of seeing the weight upon Anwar grow.

It is a hard thing. He is responsible for so much death, and he has stature and respect for that. He is the beneficiary of a cruel and corrupt culture because of his participation in it. He is also a human, and it hurts him, turning off caring about the suffering of others because they "deserve" it is an important step on the road to genocide.

It's kind of like you are watching two movies. There are the scenes that the executioners stage, where it is film making, and there are costumes and effects and a script, but what we are really watching is the documentary about the people creating the other movie.

The other movie ends with a musical number with a waterfall and dancing girls and "Born Free" playing over the scene. In it, Anwar is thanked by two of his victims for sending them to Heaven and given a medal. It is telling that the ending he chose has to be one where it is okay that they were dead. Society has said that it was a necessary thing to get rid of the communists so they could have their freedom, but now he needs the victims to be okay too. That vision is not true enough, which leaves him on the roof struggling to get something out of him that won't leave.

It is horrible, but it needs to be seen and known. It needs to be talked about and felt for all the people who have shut it up inside. It needs to not happen again.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Band Review: Lando

There are two sections on the Lando Studio page. There are several tracks available through Myflashstore.net which seem to be available for commercial use. I am not sure how that works. Then, under "My Music" there are other tracks, most of which are available via iTunes as the album Never Meant To Happen.

The title track was the most affecting for me. A minimalist soundtrack plays over a 9-1-1 call between George, calling in a kid in a hoodie, and following him, ending in a gun shot. I don't know if it is the actual recording, but it doesn't matter. The impending sense of doom builds until the final shot stops your heart, and there is nothing left to say.

It is followed by "If I Could Fly Back In Time" which gives different events that he would try and prevent, stopping tragedies, but then in the refrain going back and telling his mother he was wrong, balancing the social and the personal.

Maternal love is expressed more than once among the songs, which is why it is odd for me to hear the misogyny in "At It", the very next track. It seems like love and admiration for one woman should at least open up the possibility of respecting other women. That and the next track, "We Got The Game On Lock" were probably the worst for that.

The Flash files are generally more dramatic and synthesized than the other tracks, with "The Dark Child" being a good example. However, those elements are not lacking in the other songs. "Spinin'" has some accents that are reminiscent of Carl Orff.

Otherwise it is well done hip hop, with Lando's deep tones giving it a very distinctive voice.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Band Review: 40 Lohh

40 Lohh is the stage name of Chris Gibson, who is currently based in Kennesaw, Georgia, though he originally hails from Manchester, New Hampshire. He has several videos available for listening on Youtube.

His emphasis seems to be on hooks, but while listening a lot of the music seemed like it would work better as background, like he might do well scoring commercials or television.

There was an interesting mix of sources sampled, including jingles ("I'm Lovin It"), theme songs ("Everybody Hates Chris"), and contemporary songs ("Break Even").

I thought there might be a connection between how well I liked the original and how well I liked the 40 Lohh version, because I enjoyed his version of "Somebody That I Used To Know", and the Gotye version annoys me to no end. However, I am not particularly fond of Tom Jones' "She's A Lady", and I still found the remix jarring.

My favorite track was "Madness", which may be completely original, or just pulling from material that is unfamiliar to me. It is haunting, and builds intensity nicely.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

So tired

This is going up late. There has been a cold making its way through the household, and it appears to be my turn.

Even before that, knowing what I wanted to blog about did not feel great, because it feels so repetitive. I say the same things all the time.

It is true that this blog is for me. It helps me work out my thoughts, and keep them organized, and there is a certain amount of discipline involved in posting daily. All of that has worth to me, and I know I don't really have a wide audience, so I shouldn't be expecting to change the world anyway. I guess it just feels self-evident to me that there are changes needed, and that they don't happen is discouraging. I don't need to have a wide audience; the information is out there.

Clearly it must be time to do something lighter, like review comics again, but I do think I need to spend a few posts on The Act of Killing, and I am still going to try to make today's point again. I believe yesterday I promised a grand unified theory of things that annoy me.

There is a common thread between defending hip hop and hating respectability politics on Monday, and believing that there is potential in everyone, and that everyone has something to say on Tuesday, and even writing about how you need to not lose your feelings of love for people on Sunday. It is so common to make these divisions. We are gifted people and you are not. These are hard-working people and these are lazy people. Those are ignorant liberals but we know the truth. It's such a load of crap.

I can believe that their are instinctive elements in it, but there is a lot of conditioning in it too, and somehow the other group always ends up being less valuable in some way.

I believe that when some people hold on so tightly to prejudice and privilege, part of it is knowing that while they are not at the top, they are still above someone, and that feels like enough. I may not understand that mindset enough to really argue it. I do want to go back to this quote from Marriage For Moderns that I used in a different post:

"If a woman can find adequate self-expression through a career rather than through marriage, well and good. Many young women, however, overlook the fact that there are numerous careers that do not furnish any medium or offer any opportunity for self-expression. Besides they do not realize that only the minority of women, as the minority of men, have anything particularly worthwhile to express."

That attitude infuriates me. I know that when people start talking about limitless human potential it tends to be in a cult setting. Maybe that's just because so many people are selling something. That is probably a part of why I don't feel like I can do any ad-linking on my blog; I don't want to get corrupted.

However, if there is a tendency for there to be profit motivations behind most messages, that's worth looking at too. Because maybe black males get a self-esteem boost for not being black females, and maybe Asian-Americans get a boost from not being African Americans, and maybe poor white males get to look down on all of them, but no one is getting the boost that corporations get from having candidates who will do what they want because they keep getting voted in by people who are voting against their best interests. No one racial group is getting the benefits that gun manufactures are getting, or pharmaceutical companies, or Fox News.

Normally my argument against these kind of things is just that it's wrong. The hierarchy that we have in place causes so much pain and suffering, and then hearing people who are fine with it because they have bought into these divisions is sickening. That should be enough, but apparently it's not. So, it's probably worth pointing out that it is also financially stupid. Living standards go down, health goes down, free time and family time go down, everyone gets brought down together except for the very top.

Someone on Twitter had made a point about how the GOP got us to this current state of polarization, because there are things bearing fruit now that were planted in the Nixon administration. The next logical question was what the liberal strategy was, and I don't think there is one. If you care about people, it feels like that is basic human decency, and it should be self-evident, that some things are wrong and must be stopped. Well, no, there's no evidence that it works that way.

And I know that all of the things that I normally write about self-care, and gratitude and relationships, are true. I haven't really given up on humanity yet. You will know when I do because there will be no more band reviews and songs of the day and travel blogs, because there will be no point. I'm not there yet. But I am kind of discouraged, and only part of it is the cold.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing and talent

Yesterday I wrote about getting defensive about Hip Hop on August 21st. On August 22nd I got defensive about writing. They go together in a way that I will probably bring together in a grand unified theory of things that annoy me tomorrow.

It started simply enough with Charles Bivona, poet and writing professor, tweeting about how writing isn't born, but is taught and developed. He pointed to the main common denominator between various great writers was great suffering. As they came to terms with that, perhaps trying to find words for their feelings was the path that led them to being great writers.

It sounded reasonable enough, but it drew a lot of fire. Initially the discussion was simply reminding me of something I had already written about, where there is this kind of snobbery about writing that nothing I have seen bears out.

(That post covers a lot, and is lengthy, so I will link to it at the bottom.)

Let me go back to reviewing music for a moment. My biggest complaint is usually a lack of depth. They play their instruments well, and they are enthusiastic, so there is nothing wrong with it, but there is also nothing new. The bands that do have a unique voice, and can say different things in different ways, are the ones that truly stay with me.

Sometimes I feel like a band is young, and they will get more interesting just doing what they are doing. With others it feels like maybe they need to take six months off to dig wells in Africa or help at an orphanage in Central America -- just something to give them a bigger view of the world. And there are others that I sense will never grow; they are content the way they are. Who they are comes out in their songs. This is even more true for writers.

There is room for a lot of disagreement on who is a great writer. There are writers who write well, but whom I do not enjoy, often because of how much they seem to hate people. I won't begrudge those who do love them. I have my own.

One nice piece of symmetry was that Bivona referred to neuroscience and later that day my new Psychology Today (October 2014) had an interesting Q&A with Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist who has come out with a new style guide, The Sense of Style, because one important part of writing is understanding how your reader thinks. (Another article brought together Leo Tolstoy and Mischel's marshmallow test, so that was kind of fun as well.)

A good sense of empathy might be helpful for writing, in that without studying the cognitive processes you could still have a sense of your reader. Depth and experience helps. Certainly a good vocabulary helps, but it can also hinder as some writers end up with a prose that is too dense to be effective. I do remember learning that if a writer is making a few different mistakes, correcting one tends to resolve the others as well, because it changes how they think. That sounds like writing is something that can be taught.

It really did seem like for some people who cling to a belief in innate writing talent it was because they needed to feel gifted and special. I don't have a lot of patience with that in general, but what really angers me is that it might hold someone else back.

Writing, as part of communication, is one of the most important skills we can have. To be able to tell your story, so that all stories get told, is vital. We have enough of a problem as society getting people to even consider the possibility that something outside their experience can be true; we should at least make sure that we aren't doing anything to block evidence.

Writing is not just how we learn to understand each other, but how we learn to understand our selves. Sometimes I know that the writing I am doing is to figure something out, but it has helped so many times when it was not even deliberate. People need that, and they will become better for developing it, if they aren't discouraged.

I joke that I have no fast twitch muscle fibers. It is true that you can be genetically more likely to do well at sports, and that my genetics do not seem to lead that way. However, if in grade school, when we were running laps, someone had talked to us about proper form, and building up lung capacity, that would have been good to learn then instead of now. If someone had explained how to use legs on the rope climb, maybe I could have done it. I have to go through a lot of work now on reconnecting with my body because it seemed to be a hopeless case at a very early age, and no one told me any differently.

The teenagers I talk to now are so quick to give up. They don't think that they can draw or write or learn an instrument. I do think the constantly connected instantly updated culture is a part of that, but it is vital for their happiness that they do learn to try more than once, and concentrate, and persist. Therefore, someone who will tell them that innate talent is a necessity for any kind of success has just made an already difficult situation worse.

And they get an easy out, because if the beginner does persist, and gets really good at it, then they can always just assume that person must have had innate talent.

But maybe, really what you have is a person developing their humanity, looking inward and reaching outward, because writing can do that.

Don't discourage that.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Reconsidering Hip Hop

In case this brings any new visitors to the blog, I'm going to give a little background. I write about two music reviews a week (Thursday and Friday). Shortly after getting on Twitter, a lot of bands started following me. This is a common practice as bands try to get new listeners and build up a fan base.

I had been doing some writing about music anyway, and the reviews seemed like a natural extension of that. I have since reviewed 168 bands, with about 70 more on deck, so I don't anticipate stopping any time soon.

I hate giving bad reviews. By the time I write about a band we have been following each other for a few months, and I have often developed an affection for them. I won't give false praise, but I try and focus on what listening to the band is like, and who might like them, and be balanced in what I say. I think that is why the bands usually don't seem to hate me after a lukewarm write-up, but I still stress over it. Because of this, I cringe a little every time I get followed by someone hip hop. I usually don't like it.

I had thoughts about that, because I would think, okay, it's just not my thing; I can still listen objectively. That sounded reasonable, except then I would listen to De La Soul after not listening to them for a while, or "Rapper's Delight", and they would be so good. (I'm 42; of course I'm old school.) When the music is well done I do like it.

This weekend I found myself defending hip hop, and I read someone else defending it, and it kind of came together.

Shaun King was tweeting about hip hop on August 21st. It is not the most important thing he has tweeted about recently, but he was writing about how church music didn't fill all of the needs, and how anger needed to be expressed, and it made sense.

My defense happened because someone re-tweeted Lecrae:

I had never heard of Lecrae before, but the quote about how what's in your songs means you can't demand social justice is pure respectability politics and it is a lie. It is a lie that makes people who are already getting a raw deal have to jump through hoops, when in fact the reason they are getting oppressed is because it benefits other people.

Let me be really clear, much of my bad reaction to hip hop comes because of the misogyny and the profanity. It does offend me. There is room for improvement. It is also often speaking truth. If it is an ugly truth, that is not merely the responsibility of the speaker.

The thing that suddenly came through for me (and a completely different Twitter thread, that we will get to tomorrow, helped) is that I realized part of the beauty of hip hop is its accessibility.

The rock bands who start seeking followers have found other people to play with. Occasionally there is one person with just an acoustic guitar or a keyboard, but they have still learned to play those instruments.

For hip hop, it may just be someone with a phone, or with a computer program. Yes, that means some of them probably haven't tried as hard as they could, but there is still an outlet available, even if they can't find any like-minded people, even if there is not a way to obtain instruments and lessons, there is something.

I believe in the importance of creativity and self-expression. It has to start somewhere. I have not given proper respect to hip hop as a starting point. I will try and listen better now.

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