Martin C. Winer

This is what happens when Martin gets tired of sending mass emails.

Some have accused the Toronto Sun of sensationalism regarding their request of the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, Brian Beamish, to release Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) suicide statistics for coverage by the media.  The very accusation of sensationalism reveals a double standard in the way that media outlets deal with issues of mental health.  This past February of 2009 no one accused any media outlet of sensationalism when they carried the story of a TTC fare collector who nabbed a disturbed individual who had pushed several youths on to the tracks. (http://www.cp24.com/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20090216/090216_ttc_collector/20090216/?hub=CP24Home)  There was no fear of copy cat pushing incidents in their coverage nor was their any need to appeal to the Freedom of Information act to secure information.  If you have the misfortune of being pushed on to the tracks, you can at least derive some solace in the fact that your city and your local news outlets will deem the story newsworthy.

If on the other hand you have the misfortune of being thrown on to the tracks by your own hand, rest assured that when you rest in peace, the story will be buried with you.  Officials of all stripes will claim that, for the good of the community, reports of suicides need to be silenced lest you invite copy cat attempts.  The TTC in its press release cites a Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention Media Guide (http://casp-acps.ca/Publications/MEDIA%20GUIDELINES.doc) which suggests that in order to: "discourage imitative or copycat suicides, it is important to avoid or minimize: Reporting specific details of the method".

Beamish, after having reviewed reams of clinical research, concluded that

"The evidence provided … establishes that news coverage which provides details of methods used, uses the word “suicide” in headlines, romanticizes suicide, or provides prominence to a particular death or attempt could reasonably be expected to result in harm. This is in contrast to the simple publication of suicide statistics which do not focus on the details of a particular death." 

(http://www.ipc.on.ca/images/Findings/MO-2466.pdf)

He went on to cite a Center For Disease Control report which found, conversely, that the

"reporting of suicide can have several direct benefits. Specifically, community efforts to address this problem can be strengthened by news coverage that describes the help and support available in a community, explains how to identify persons at high risk for suicide, or presents information about risk factors for suicide."

(http://www.ipc.on.ca/images/Findings/MO-2466.pdf)

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On August 26th, while driving on the DVP, listening to the traffic news, trying to navigate the infernal Toronto traffic, I heard of an attempted suicide off the Millwood Ave overpass.  Later reporting of that same event would only discuss a ‘police investigation’. (http://cp24.com/servlet/an/local/CTVNews/20090826/090826_don_mills/20090826/?hub=CP24Home)  When the reporting changed to a ‘police investigation’ I knew that the attempted suicide was successful and that the media had changed its tune for our protection.  However, it didn’t take a PhD in psychology to know that ‘police investigation’ meant suicide so I wondered who the media were protecting?  The vulnerable?  If so, they only succeeded in protecting the most naive of them. 

Still, you won’t hear of any ‘police investigations’ regarding the Bloor St. Viaduct because a suicide barrier was put in place there in 2003.  As the result of some official sounding reports and official sounding thinking, some City Hall bigwigs decided that suicide was a ‘spur of the moment’ type of thing and their spurious research suggested that barriers would be an effective countermeasure.  Suicide is in its final moment, perhaps, a rash moment, but that ignores the often months and years of prodrome before a person takes their life. 

In the wake of this recent TTC report, there is again discussion of the erection of barriers.  Barriers take a Not In My Backyard-Bridge approach to suicide; simply shunting the problem elsewhere.  The Toronto Sun has acted courageously in their coverage of this taboo topic.  I hope that other media outlets to follow suit with panel discussions of social measures that can help troubled individuals deal with their issues in a respectful and dignified manner.

In 2001 Alan Greenspan at the Fed (Federal Reserve) lowered the interest rate to try to rejuvenate the economy after the fallout of the .com bubble burst. History will record that Greenspan went from the sublime to the ridiculous when he cut the interest rate to 1%. This set off a spate of irresponsible borrowing and lending the effects of which are still being dealt with today.The banks took advantage of this by starting to offer mortgages to subprime borrowers. Subprime borrowers are borrowers with a poor credit rating (specifically a FICO (credit) score of < 620). Typically these are individuals who habitually are unable to make credit card payments, or those who have suffered a foreclosure or bankruptcy. In the past they wouldn’t be able to get a loan, but thanks to the low interest rate, some could now afford the payments. With great fanfare out went the ads: “Send us your poor, your homeless, your great creditless masses!” Lured by the prospect of home ownership and lulled by the chimera of ‘buy now, pay later’, loans were issued as fast as the printers could print them.

Banks noticed that the default rates were lower than they expected. This led them to think that there was an untapped market in subprime lending. They developed many products, of which 3 were common 1) Variable rate mortgage with a higher rate due to the risk, 2) An interest only loan where they would start paying off the capital after an initial period and 3) low fixed rate initially, resetting to market rate after a few years.

The people who took these loans did so for two principal reasons 1) they hoped their income/credit would improve during the initial period of the loans and 2) the housing market was so hot, they hoped to use the newly gained equity in their homes to refinance the loans with more agreeable terms. Regrettably, Alan Greenspan, noting the now uncontrolled inflation, agressively started to increase the interest rates in 2004 right back up to around 5% and beyond.

For people with loans of type 1) and 3) above, the loans were typically huge so these interest rate increases made the payments impossible to cover, leading to defaulting. Those with loans of type 2) were pushed over the edge when the capital component of their loan kicked in.

Now, were it not for the avarice of the bankers, this crisis would have ended there; that is, a large number of repossessions but no further economic upheavel. However, bankers are weasels and behind the scenes they were pulling more ridiculous stunts.

Behind the scenes, bankers were looking to mitigate the risk of this subprime debt and also to make more profit on profit by creating and selling subprime mortgage bonds. To accomplish this they pooled together all subprime debt. Next they broke the subprime debt into levels. Suppose there were 3 banks involved in a given mortgage. The banks that would get hit by a default first were put into the lower levels and the banks that would be hit last were put into higher levels. By doing so, each level bore a reduced amount of the total risk. Now, many financial institutions that cannot purchase subprime debt were able to get around this limitation by purchasing bonds in the higher levels (less risk) of these mortgage bonds. Now, subprime debt was distributed all around the world to various institutions in this masked mortgage debt trading instrument.

So when the debt hit the fan, the big institutions which normally make loans to one another on a regular basis to keep the economy rolling, suddenly mistrusted one another. No one knew who held what amount of subprime debt. As a result the overnight lending rate went sky high and the Fed had to step in to push cash into the economy to help stave off a liquidity crisis — a crisis where cash flow starts to freeze.

At the time of this writing (Dec 2007) we are beginning to see the end result of this crisis. The large financial houses are beginning to crumble under the weight of their own stupidity. Just yesterday financial giant Morgan Stanley reported its first quarter loss in its 73 year history. Even more alarming, in seeking to assuage their woes, not only are they turning to the US government for help, but have successfully enlisted the help of the Chinese Government.

What may not be obvious, but should have the reader seeing red is that as the result of the irresponsibility of US financial institutions, we’re witnessing a wide scale buy out of US assets and institutions. What’s more, who speaks for the countless duped masses who have lost homes, equity and security as the result of this mass irresponsibility? There can be only a partial answer in paraphrasing Herbert Hoover who said: “Older men declare war. But it is the youth that must fight and die.” In this situation it is the financiers who tinker with the economy. But it is the working class that must work and suffer.

Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (Canadian Link): http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/the-colbert-report/full-episodes/#clip174780

Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (USA Link):  http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/228190/may-19-2009/walter-kirn

Notes and Excerpts:

“Marine’s [Marine, Minnesota] elementary school was on a hill.  It was the largest man-made structure in town, one of the newest, and by far the ugliest.  Shape: rectangular.  Material: beige brick.  Constructed with tax money, it looked like tax money, a fiscal line item come to joyless life.  Even the playground equipment seemed bureaucratic: a stainless-steel slide and a set of iron monkey bars on which one could picture army recruits glumly sweating their way through basic training.  From the moment I entered the building’s long tiled hallway, its colorless walls inadequately brightened with red-and-yellow construction-paper maple leaves, I wanted out.  But out, I know, meant through. ” p.25

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“Certain questions which grown-ups deem unanswerable begin as answers which children find unquestionable.  For example: what is Death?  To me at eight years old, death was the signal for a person’s loved ones to cry and look stricken for a while and then begin dividing up his stuff.  What is Beauty?  The thing that made me like things when nobody was pushing me to like them. ” p.30

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On losing a debate…
“I’d harmed myself the night before the match by staying up till dawn trying to walk off and bathe away the phosphorescent curlicues of dread lossed in my brain by a drugged cupcake I’d eaten with a teammate in her motel room.  I hadn’t fully recovered when I found myself battling a girl with close-set eyes and the excessively brushed straight hair of a virginal prodigy.  Here was a force I’d never faced before: the supercharged purity of postponed puberty augmented by early viola training.” p.62

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In an early computer class, no one seemed able to use the computer yet it was promised to revolutionize the future:

“That’s when we stopped touching the device and chose to regard it as an icon or a totem.  Our classes turned into speculative chats about the wonders the object might perform if instead of addressing it in COBOL or FORTRAN, we could interact with it in English.  To heighten the atmosphere of possibility, we kept the thing plugged in.  This warmed its obscurely coiled and bundled insides, releasing unappetizing chemical vapors. ” p.66

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Upon watching a younger talented computer whiz work the computer…

“The exhibition unveiled no technical mysteries, but it did help me understand the term “conservative” as I’d once heard it used by a friend’s father while he was watching the TV news.  A conservative was a person who stopped adjusting once adjustment brought him no vital benefits.  The commandment to us from kindergarten on had been to grow, to expand ourselves, to stretch, but there was another option too, I saw.  Once could let others cope with the novelty and concentrate on the familiar.”  p.68

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On a graduation night romp with two exchange students:

Skirts came up, pants slipped off, and legs made V’s that turned into X’s and shifted on complex axes that allowed for wonders of sidelong friction that brought forth fetching squeaks and grunty purrs and primordially bridged all language gaps.  Some new bond was being stirred in that car, some fresh form of international understanding that the Rotary Club, or whichever organizations sponsored the exchange program, might not have planned on but shouldn’t have been displeased by, so intimately did it shrink our globe. p. 73

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Kirn feeling he was a fraud while mourning the passing of John Lennon:

“”All the lonely people,” he began [singing].

The choice was a magical piece of luck for me.  Afterwards, spent, having sung with my whole rib cage and fully emoted on every memorized word, I felt the urge to cry for real — from gratitude.  Thanks to my gloomy second-grade music teacher, I’d managed to respond convincingly, in the company of a well-credentialed witness, to a historic cultural tragedy that would be revisited for decades.  My genuine tears flowed along with my false tears, as they did the distinction between them blurred.  I wasn’t ashamed of this.  My fraudulence, I was coming to understand, was in a way the truest thing about me.  It represented ambition, longing, need.  It sprung from the deepest chambers of my soul.” p.77

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Drug use was rampant, even for the lighting guy during the performance of one of Kirn’s plays:

“The lighting guy, who’d eaten a hash brownie which he’d sworn would wear off before the show, toggled at random between clashing colors, turning the stage into a cruise-ship disco…” p.91

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Discussing a conversation Kirn had about  ‘the divided brain’.  Kirn may be a victim of this divided brain, leading to the impostor syndrome which he suffers from greatly:

“The best conversation of my life ensued — one I could never have had in Minnesota and one that helped me forget my recent troubles by occupying me with cosmic issues of just the sort a place like Princeton should raise but so far hadn’t, at least when I’d been listening.  Julian taught psychology, he said, despite having no diploma in the subject, only a book he’d written as an amateur.  It had ground out of his reading of ancient literature and concerned, he said, “the history of consciousness.”  I asked him to explain but keep it simple.  He told me that he’d try.  The modern human brain, he said, was actually two brains functioning as one brain, but there had been a time, long, long, ago, when man’s double brain had operated differently.  It’s parts, its halves, had been separate then, divided.  In fact, they’d been virtual strangers to each other.  When a thought arose in one of them, the other one, acting as a receiver, processed the thought as a voice, an actual voice.  This voice seemed to come from another being, really.  But who was this being?  Who were these secret speakers?  Man had answered these questions in many ways.  He’d conceived of gods and spirits, angels and demons, trolls and fairies.  Muses.

“Back when, before the Breakdown,” said Julian, “before the gods and voices fell silent, writers truly believed in inspiration.  They experienced inspiration.  It was real to them. Tell me: did you ever feel, during the composition of your script, that someone else, not you, was in control?”

“Honestly?”

“Of course.”

“Honestly, I feel that way a lot.  Down deep, in a quiet way, I feel it constantly.  And sometimes it shakes me up a little.  Should it?”

Julian shook his head, but not as vigorously as I would have liked.

“What was the ‘Breakdown’?” I asked him.  I had to know.  I had to know everything he did, suddenly.  Julian was a genius, I’d decided, even if everything he’d said was crazy.  And it probably was.  Because I understood it.” pps 93-94

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Jaynes

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_Syndrome

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Kirn is brought before the Honor Committee accused of cheating on his Spanish mid-term:

“Guilty or innocent? Yes or no,” Rob said.

I ate a pretzel and let Rob’s anger hang there.  I thought he should have to feel it in the air.  I thought it might force him to face his ugliness.  Then I said, “I heard this from a senior.  In France, there’s a critic, I forget his name, who teaches that antonyms, words that mean the opposite, don’t really mean the opposite at all.  They aren’t the only alternatives, that is.  There are other words between them.  And all around them.”

“Fascinating except this isn’t France.”

“You tell me to choose, but the words I’m meant to choose from — ‘innocent and ‘guilty’ — aren’t my only choices.  I chose another one.  ‘Uncovictable’. p.109

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Kirn discusses the ‘critical assumptions’ he’d made in reading.  Unfortunately, Kirn had done very little reading at all.

“With virtually no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas as though they were conclusions I’d reached myself. I’d honed these skills on the speech team back in high school, and l didn’t regard them as sins against the Honor Code. Indeed, they embodied an honor code: my own “Be honored” it stated. “Or be damned.” To me, imitation and education were different words for the same thing, anyway.  What was learning but a form of borrowing? And what was intelligence but borrowing slyly?” pg119

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On the unreadability of some of the supposed ‘Greats’:

“This suffocating sensation often came over me ‘whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a. collection of essays by leading theory people that l spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force.  Here is a sentence (or what I took to be one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume’s most prestigious name. “He speaks his mother tongue as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered windpipe-blocking ”heteronomous’ and ”invagination.” When I turned the page I came across- tucked in a footnote –”unreadability.”
That word I understood of course.” p.120

See: http://books.google.ca/books?id=igP67FXXQCEC

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction

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Kirn discusses the literary catchphrases for ‘hard’: ‘ semiotically unstable’ (referring to TS Elliot’s The Waste Land), hermeneutical, gestural, recursive, incommensurable. pps 120-122

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Kirn discusses his use of literary catchphrases to mask his ignorance of literature.

“The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery — honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhaps — left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted.  Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds.  We recognized one another instantly.  … We spoke of “playfullness” and “textuality” and concluded before we’d read even a hundredth of it that Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert.  In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors, … we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.”  p.121

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Kirn discusses how he used his confusion to his advantage:

“I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion.  The literary works they prized — the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusion — were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique.  The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example.  My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then.  We could say “incommensurable”.  p.122

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On feeling a fraud for learning to regurgitate professors opinions rather than truly appreciating the classics:

I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they too, were fakes. In classrooms discussions and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedentary study habits, and sense that confusion was something to be avoided rather than celebrated, appeared unsuited to the new attitude of antic post-modernisn – that I had mastered almost without effort.  To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and I — a born con man who knew little about great literature had every reason to agree with them In the land of nonreadability the nonreader was king it seemed.   Long  live the king.  p.122

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On page 122, Kirn holds a play of planters on a stage.  He watches in amazement as the audience waits for something to happen, which never does.  The play is titled: Planters and Waiters.  Double-entendre on “waiters”.

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On drug use at Ivy League schools:

“There is no drug scene like an Ivy League drug scene.  Kids can’t just get high; they have to seek epiphanies.  They have to ground their mischief in manifestos.  The most popular one around the veggie house held that drugs, especially psychedelic drugs — especially plant based psychedelic drugs — helped to break down the rigid inner partitions that restricted one’s full humanity.” p.124

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Kirn expresses a unique view on the relationship between literature and war:

“Literature had torn Tessa and me apart, or prevented us from merging in the first place.  That was its role in the world, I’d started to fear: to conjure up disagreements that didn’t matter and inspire people to act on them as though they mattered more than anything.  Without literature, humans would all be one.  Warfare was simply literature in arms.  The pen was the reason man invented the sword.”  p.145

This may not be as outlandish a suggestion as it may first seem.  If literature is based on pretence instead of substance, as it was in the case of Kirn’s education, then pretence needs to be defended by violence of all forms, military and otherwise.  Further if the great written works upon which the great religions of the world are based turn out to be not the writ word of God, they are then by exclusion, works of literature.  The swords that have been raised in the name of these literary works are well documented.

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More evidence of the theme of detachment.  Kirn seems detached from his inspiration.

“Tessa’s poems focused on harrowing emotions grief, self-loathing, panic while mine were concerned with grander matters Such as the creeping loss of ”personhood” in an era of technological change. How I’d hit on this theme I wasn’t sure, but the more time I spent on it the more convinced l grew that I’d borrowed it.   I invented an alter ego, ”Bittman,” and in my poems I stretched him on the rack of   mechanization and macroeconomics In class, Tessa praised my poems as “Kafkaesque” but I could tell she didn’t like them.” p.140

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More on the impostor/fraud theme:

“Out of shame for this hypothetical failure and hoping to break through to intimacy, I confessed that my poems were all a sham and that Bittman was a hybrid version of Elliot’s Prufrock and Berryman’s Henry, two famously beleaguered characters from the North anthologies.” p.144

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Kirn had ongoing conversations with “V.” – an exchange student who “represented the best of the best of [his] entire country”.

“I felt in his company, as in no one else’s, that my bullshitting was a defensible activity, a circular approach to enlightenment.  And I felt flattered when he listened to me.  Here was a young man who represented the best of the best of an entire country — of an entire people, as I saw it — and I was holding his attention.” p.168

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The pains Kirn went to in order to write collegiate essays after he’d lost his fulfillment in so doing.

“For a few weeks I was still able to write, but it was a punishing, grind, self-conscious labor. l began most of my sentences with ”the.” Then I went looking for a noun. “The book” was often the result. Next, I seemed to remember, should come a verb. “Is” is a verb. It because my favorite verb. I liked it for its open-endedness — the way it allowed for a wide range of next moves. ”The book is always . . .”  “The book is thought to . . .”  “The book is green and . . .” Impermissible. Yes, a book might be a certain color, but starting an essay with the fact wasn’t what college was all about. What was it all about? It was about making statements that weren’t obvious for people who made such statements professionally. “The book is a gestural construct possessed of telos.”

There I could rest.  I’d done it.  An hour’s work.” p.178

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Kirn develops a regime for deprogramming him self from his college ‘undereducation’ and pulling himself out of a resulting depression.

“My alarm clock woke me every morning at five, and for the next three hours I’d lie in bed, with my reference books propped open on my stomach, and repeat aloud, in alphabetical order, every word on every single page, along with its definitions and major synonyms. The ritual was humbling but soothing, and for she first time in my academic career I found myself making measurable strides, however minuscule. “Militate.” “Militia.” “Milk.”  I spent as much energy on the easy words as I did on the hard ones — my way of showing contrition for squandering my high-percentile promise. And in truth, they were all hard words for me by then.” p.183

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Reflections on having been awarded a post at Oxford.

“I’d soon be off to Oxford as a result.  “result” was not exactly the right word, though, because it suggested that logic governs destiny.  But now I knew otherwise.  Imagination does.  And though part of me had always suspected as much and certain teachers had coached me in the notion (“Image that you can be anything you want”), what I hadn’t understood at all was that our imaginations don’t act alone.  One’s own imagination is powerless until it starts dancing with another’s.

Imagine having been imagined.  Imagine.” p.205

Kirn’s summation of the book:

“… I discovered the truth — of words like “truth” mean anything.  Ad even if they don’t perhaps.

Pause in your knowing to be known.  Quit pushing — let yourself be pulled.  Stop searching, frantic child, and be found.

Some call this Grace.

I called it Marguerite.”  (Margerite Keasbey established the Keasbey Prize which Kirn received (enabling him to go on to Oxford)  after being denied a Rhode’s Scholarship). p 205

See: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2008/02/08/19971/

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Towards the end of the book, it is revealed that Kirn’s Uncle Admiral — a childhood mentor — was Robert W. Knox RADM USC & GS (Ret.).  Here is a brief biography:

http://www.history.noaa.gov/cgsbios/biok4.html

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Kirn’s second, broader conclusion:  Reflecting on a friend Karl who was self-taught and well read and wanted to meet up with after Kirn graduated Princeton.

“We had a great deal in common, Karl said.

But we didn’t, in fact, or much less than he assumed, and I didn’t know how to tell him this. To begin with, I couldn’t quote the transcendentalists as accurately and effortlessly as he could. I couldn’t quote anyone, reliably. I’d honed other skills: for flattering those in power without appearing to, for rating artistic reputations according to academic fashions, for matching my intonations and vocabulary to the backgrounds of my listeners, for placing certain words in smirking quotation marks and rolling my eyes when someone spoke too earnestly about some “classic” or masterpiece,”       for veering left when the conventional wisdom went right and then doubling back if it looked like it was changing.

Flexibility, irony, self-consciousness, contrarianism. They’d gotten me through Princeton, they hadn’t quite kept me out of Oxford, and these, I was about to tell my friend, were the ways to get ahead now–not by memorizing old Ralph Waldo. I’d found out a lot since I’d aced the SATs, about the system, about myself and about the new class that the system had created, which I was now part of, for better or for worse. The class that runs things.” p.210

Walter Kirn on The Colbert Report (Cana

dian Link):

There is much debate of late as to who is the patent holder on the term ‘Marriage’. Conservative heterosexual monogamists have put their moral stake in the ground claiming that ‘Marriage’ is their intellectual property. The proponents of a traditional definition can be subdivided into the religious, who claim divine rights to the word, and traditionalists that appeal to the naturalistic fallacy that the definition is as it ought to be, proven and tested by time.

First, let us set things straight. What is the traditional definition of marriage? The short answer is: one woman, one man, for life. Yet, is this the definition that both proponents of the traditional definition truly espouse?

Those religiously minded who claim a divine definition for marriage point you conveniently to the Bible. Yet, weren’t many of the biblical greats polygamists?! Clearly some historical modification of this divine lexicon has occurred.

The traditionalists have also modified matrimonial definitions over time. As recently as 1997, Ireland legalized divorce, reducing the certainty of the ‘for life’ part of the definition. Throughout most of recorded history, divorce was simply, ‘not an option’ yet it seems that societal needs have forced us to alter that definition.

So what the proponents of a traditional definition of marriage present as an immutable and timeless definition, turns out, upon closer inspection to be a shifting definition which is a product of the defining times.

Having knocked the moral ascendancy of the conservatives down a peg, we move on to possible solutions to this problem. Most people believe in homosexual marriage-style rights, leaving the word used to describe this solution as the only sticking point to be debated. They turn to homosexuals and say: what’s in a name? Wouldn’t ‘a marriage by any other name be as sweet?’ They give them the rights but just wish that they’d stay out of their lexical backyard.

Same sex marriage proponents contend this would be tantamount to the tenets ‘different but equal’ and point back to the inequalities such thinking created in civil rights history. While they have a point on this issue, I believe that the semantic battle for the word ‘marriage’ is a bid to gain popular acceptance and I believe that their opponents see it as such. I would like to see advocates for the broadened definitions of marriage speak to why homosexuality should be accepted in general. In dealing with the issues at the core of the debate they have the best chances of evoking understanding, hence change.

The main points at the core of the debate as to whether to accept homosexuality are: 1) is it natural 2) is it evil and 3) is it a choice or endemic? We’ll examine each point in turn.

First what is natural? There are two aspects to natural, first the examples taken from nature around us and next the notion that the way things are, even in the human (not natural) world are the ‘natural’ way they should be. Looking to nature we see some examples of heterosexual monogamy in say, the Bald Eagle. However, more often we see examples of harems (polygamy) and loose monogamy (infidelity, or pair bonding for only a few mating seasons). While the traditional definition of marriage does exist in the animal kingdom, it is a minority player amongst many other definitions of bonding. Further, in nature we see examples of homosexuality amongst, say, male mice who often make female sexual displays in high population densities. Thus to say that heterosexual monogamy is nature’s way is tunnel sighted and uninformed.

Next we look to the idea that homosexual marriage is not natural since the heterosexual definition has been the prevailing one across the centuries. This is a classic example of the naturalistic fallacy which says that the way things are, is the way things ought to be. If we subscribe to the belief that the way things are is the way things they ought to be then we are forced to conclude that the world we currently live in cannot, and/or should not, be improved upon or changed in any way. Imagine if we all had subscribed to this belief, as many did, when it came time to review our ways in the face of slavery. Imagine again telling many suffering couples that they were stuck together for life because the definition of marriage was the way it was meant to be. Yet today we tell homosexuals that marriage is as it ought to be and if you want your rights, well then fine, but go do it on another page of the dictionary please. If we want the rights of deep, fulfilling, long term relationships to be extended to all humanity, heterosexuals must not drink the stupefying elixir of a ‘natural’ definition of marriage, because no such definition exists.

Is homosexuality evil? Well first, what is evil. To the religiously minded, they say evil is what God says is evil as given in the book of absolute truth. I’ve found that people who believe in absolute truths usually do so only because they are absolutely wrong. I admit that I have little respect or patience for those who derive their definitions of evil from a book and thus outsource their thinking. I dismiss them quickly for the same reason I scrape cold peas of my dinner plate, because they are cold and uninteresting. For those who are prepared to think about what good and evil really are, we come to the notion of utility. Good things serve a purpose and bad things do harm. This categorization is relative to a certain frame of consideration.

The ‘packages’ your dog delivers on the neighbourhood park are not good for you to eat, yet are gourmet meals to the community of flies. Thus the truth to the statement: “doggy packages make good eating” is relative to whom is speaking. In a thinking world, to show that homosexuality is evil, we must demonstrate that it is evil in one of two frames. We must prove harm to either homosexual individuals or to society as a whole.

To homosexual individuals, the main harm done to them by being homosexual is the lack of acceptance they receive. Many heterosexuals quickly point to the often ‘sad’ lives some homosexuals end up living. However, to borrow from the poet Andrew Lang, they do this “… like a drunk leans on a lightpost, for support instead of illumination”. The truth is that heterosexual intolerance of homosexuality is the cause of the ‘sadness’ they observe. Still, as acceptance slowly increases, we see many more homosexuals today live productive and successful lives. They do not necessarily live reproductive lives, but either do all heterosexuals.

To our society at large, homosexuality may have a reproductive impact, but on a planet of 6 billion, is this really an issue? If we really would like to have a discussion about harm, let’s talk about the harm of subverting this ‘evil’ impulse to be homosexual, only to have men live in a traditional marriage unhappily, hurting both himself, and his wife and perhaps children. Thus aside from the heterosexual discomfort it causes, there is no harm caused by homosexuality and hence it is not evil.

Finally, is homosexuality a choice? Why ask the question? We ask because if it is a choice, we can ask them to make a different choice. Well, homosexuality is a choice but only in the same way heterosexuality is a choice. Heterosexuals could choose to be homosexual if they really wanted to. What we refer to in common speak as a choice actually has two components, first a pressure and second a pure choice. When faced with an oncoming freight train, we have a tremendous survival pressure to move. Still we have a pure choice as to whether to move or not. Most of us would move. In the case of our sexuality there are pressures given to us by our environment, genetics and evolution and in the case of heterosexuals there are no other pressures which would cause us to use our pure choice to override this strong evolutionary pressure. In the case of homosexuals, societal pressures can cause individuals to use their pure choice to over-rule their evolutionary pressures. The fact that the natural pressure can be overruled does not suggest or imply that it should because most such individuals live lives with the constant stress of juggling conflicting priorities and are never truly at peace.

In order to determine the existence and severity of this pressure to be homosexual, being unable to jump into the minds of others, we need to empirically observe the effects. The empirical proof comes from asking: Why would any person willingly join a historically persecuted group if the pressure wasn’t strong to do so? Throughout history homosexuals have been shunned and forced to lead marginalized lives. This fact is common knowledge, thus it is impossible to state that homosexuals became or become homosexual on a flight of fancy.

So are heterosexual monogamists the patent holders on marriage after all? Why do homosexuals want the word so badly, even if they’ve already got the equivalent rights? Homosexuals want the word for the same reason that heterosexuals want the word, because of its meaning. It represents a deep, long-term, and socially recognized relationship between two people. Heterosexual monogamists claim to be the patent holders on marriage because tradition, the bible and nature have provided immutable and clear definitions of marriage that conveniently agree with them. None of that is true.

I had heard of the Toronto Opera Repertoire for some time.  I had always wanted to go but I never managed to find the time.  Finally I made it this year to the very last free (pay what you can, donation) concert of the season.

The Repretoire is made up of local talent with many performers having diverse day jobs ranging from physicists to journalists.  I walked into the unassuming theatre with no expectations.  It’s always such a delight when an event with no expectations exceeds even one’s wildest expectations.

All of the talent, conducting and accompaniment was top notch.  The range of music covered and the calibre of the performance was above or beyond most of the paid concerts I’ve attended.  With all due deference to the terrific talent that was there that night, there was one performer who outshone the others by several levels of brightness.

The performance of Hanny Djuwati was a pure joy to listen to.  She announced the name of the piece with such a soft voice I had to lean forward in my chair to make it out.  She had a somewhat heavy Asian accent which made the task even more difficult.   The piece was by Puccini, I never did catch the exact title.  I reclined back in my chair curious to see how this performance would turn out.

The next thing I knew, the room was filled with crisp clear ‘Bel Canto’ singing, all the words clearly audible with an authentic Italian accent.  I’m not often a fan of sopranos in opera as they tend towards being shrill with notes resonating painfully in my sinuses.  Not so with Hanny Djuwati.  The Bel Canto style of singing is a style which emphasizes ‘head voice’ which in turn focuses on clarity without pushing or straining.

After her performance, when I returned to earth, I double checked my surroundings to make sure I wasn’t at the Metropolitan Opera in $500 a seat chairs.  Djuwati certainly belongs there and I was glad to have been given a chance to hear her.

More information on Hanny Djuwati can be found here:

http://www.toronto-opera.com/2009_season/Carmen/djuwati_hanny.html

and the Toronto Opera Repertoire can be found at:

http://www.toronto-opera.com/

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