Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Never too old to talk

We're Never Too Old to Talk

I have a most unique relationship with my "Brasilian sister." She's my sister because 50 years ago I was a foreign exchange student and went to live with her family in Fortaleza, Brasil, and I have kept in touch with her ever since. If we're not visiting each other, we're talking on Skype and emailing each other almost daily. Recently I got wound up in my routines and was not very attentive to Glorita. She reprimanded me for ignoring her emails to which I responded, "Please don't worry- I will never forget you and I will always love you." Shortly after, I received the following email from her:

"What a relief!!! Glad to hear this, as I won't ever forget you either. You are always on my mind...But I have to tell you something: you know I like to talk and, in the absence of a face-to-face situation, write. Maybe because I live alone and have no one to talk to most of the time; maybe because I really like to write and share my thoughts, especially with you, with whom I have total confidence and ease. There is not one single friend of mine, other than you, who is interested in writing on a regular basis. I have tried before, with those Americans and some Brazilians, but didn't get any response worthy of merit. A close friend who lives in Brasilia says she works at the computer the whole day and doesn't feel like taking this task at home. Maybe she'll have more time when she retires. When she lived in Fortaleza and I in Rio, we used to write to each other often the the old days. But now things are different. We are not growing up and full of questions anymore, or trying with frenzy to understand what life is about or to jump into any circumstances that seemed fun. We are now middle-aged people with a considerable baggage, and have other questions in mind. Life still excites us, of course, but not in the same way, I guess. We were all about being truthful to each other about feelings of true friendship, about commitments to these friendships. We would often sleep at each other's homes and lift each other's spirits over a half a bottle of scotch. And all our love affairs were of cosmic importance, as well as the heartbreaking of separation. We had to see each other frequently and our conversations would often extend to the late hours, ranging from the silliest to the most deep considerations of life itself. "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end..." and suddenly, they're over. I have developed this need for writing, if I can't talk personally to you. You have nothing to do with this, it is MY NEED, and you're not accountable in any way to reciprocate it. But I want to converse with you, tell you all the important and non-important things that happen to me, as well as my thoughts about a myriad of themes. I'll keep doing that, if you don't mind. But, if it's not a pain in the ass for you, try to write back as often as you can. Put out some thoughts, some happenings, some resolutions, some angers, some happiness, whatever you feel like you want to talk about. I love when you write and am always waiting for you messages. Love, Glorita

Things have, indeed, changed from when we were younger, but the thing I love about this email and what I love about Glorita is that her mind is still thirsty. Sometimes I open up an email from her and it is three pages of heavy duty philosophical thoughts! OMG! But it keeps me alive. And so I want to publish some of our conversations - "thoughts from some unretired minds" to see if there is anyone else out there who might enjoy being a part of our dialogue. Are you ready?

One such discussion began on November 20, 2009 with the following email sent to me from Glorita:
I know this is a little big and takes some time, but I think it is very interesting and enlightening regarding Roy Dupres' Michael character (in La Femme Nikita). It has been on the web for quite some time, but I just found it today by chance. This guy has some very different (and deep) points of view when it comes to macho personas in movies and TV. I hope you read it all and then tell me what you think of it. If I'm boring you, my apologies. Check the article out at

Check the above article out and then see how our conversation evolved by reading the responses.


nanwebware said...

From Nancy

I really liked that article on La Femme Nikita and the "drag" male image. I never thought of so much of what he was talking about- but Yes, Clint Eastwood does have a very stoic, unemotional look about him- much like "Michael"- and I especially liked when he went in to how Nikita and Michael really communicate through their eyes-not so much words. That is so true. And the part about when Michael gets amnesia and Nikita has to teach him how to act- thus bringing back the unreachable Michael - very interesting!

I just finished a book called "ON Killing" about how our military has had to "program" our armed forces to kill. It is really not natural for a species to kill one of its own kind. During the Civil War, WWI and WWII the actual rate of hits to amount of artillery fired was only 15%- They have proven that men actually aimed above the enemy's heads- and intentionally missed. In early warfare, there was a lot of posturing- bright red uniforms,loud bagpipes, shouting matches- all will the intent to save face- make the enemy back down and not kill.

But now they have learned to "de-humanize" the enemy- make them seem less human and more like animals- more like a different species- in order to get more efficient killers. In a way that relates to what this guy is saying about the "dead-pan" stoic macho super hero who can only do his job effectively if he is devoid of human emotions.

I find this quite interesting... maybe I'll send it to Haden to get him on the conversation!

nanwebware said...

From Haden

I’m not sure the de-humanization of the enemy is anything new and judging by the amount of suicides we’re seeing in the military these days I’m not sure, whatever they’re doing, is working as well as they might like. An interesting debate is happening in the military right now regarding soldiers who kill themselves in the war theater. There’s a group of veterans trying to get these soldiers awarded the purple heart (the standard metal given to soldiers who are harmed or killed in battle). Right now individuals who kill themselves are not only not given the purple heart, but their families also do not receive the standard letter of condolence from the president. It’s an interesting debate on justice and what constitutes a war related injury or death. Human empathy emerges from our common attributes and our ability to relate our sense of self with others. Killing someone necessarily does damage to, not only the victim, but the killer’s sense of his own self. Should this loss of self be seen the same as a loss of a limb?

For me, the most interesting (and disturbing) military trend these days is the move to robotic killing machines that are steadily removing the human element from warfare. There was a good TED speech on this…

I guess if you can’t de-humanize the enemy, de-humanize the way you kill him.


nanwebware said...

From Glorita

Thanks, Haden, for giving your input to this subject. You and Nancy have taken it to another angle, that of the military. Very grim, surely. I was sailing in the fictional clouds of John Wayne, Clint and Michael/Roy Dupuis (iconic figures), thinking about the de-humanization of the action heroes in the film/illusion universe, and of men in general as imposed by cultural traits, and you brought me back to earth, to the rough realm of war and soldiers and weapons. Something very real and with so many facets that it is difficult to even think of them.
We, Brazilians, have a very distant regard concerning wars, as we are considered a very peaceful people and have only a great war against Paraguay to our credit. It lasted 6 years and Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay teamed up to stop the Paraguayans from invading our territories, back in the 19th century. We do have a national war hero, though, and one of my great-uncles (or great-great, I'm not sure) fought in that war. Some member of the family still has his sabre as a souvenir.
Someone has said that war is the natural state of men (I think it was Wilhelm Reich, but can't find this quote anywhere), and certainly history has proven this over and over again. Nancy has brought forward a book that says that "it is not natural for a species to kill one of its own", but I have my doubts. I have seen somewhere that male polar bears kill their cubs if the mother doesn't pay attention. And, of course, there are the traditional and ever-present fight for the female in many species, where the loser is sometimes so crippled that he ends up dead. Men have killed men since humans inhabit the earth. It could have been for fear, for competition or for conquering and submitting, but there you are.
The de-humanizing of the enemy is nothing new, of course. The massacre of the North and South American Indians is but one example. History repeats itself, no doubts about it. The new element in the de-humanizing process, as you observe, is the substitution of humans by robotic "killing machines", which will spare the 21-year olds from experiencing the tragedy of killing a 21-year old they have no grudge against, except his country tells them they must. It will make war so much cleaner, won't it?
This is a very complex subject and I should stop now.
My last line here is to enforce your mom's sugestion that you rent at least the first season of La Femme Nikita and enjoy a worderfully emotional and dark series.

nanwebware said...

November 28, 2009

Ever since Darwin came out with The Origins of the Species, there has been a heated debate among scientists and philosophers about the definitions and ramification of "natural selection" and "survival of the fittest". On one side of this debate there are the people who believe that individual survival is the foundation of evolution. Survival of the fittest is a personal attribute embedded in our individual DNA and we are motivated to protect and reward ourselves at all costs. This philosophy has driven much of our politics and economic ideology over the past 100 years. Social Darwinism is the driving force of our meritocracy and the justification of our justice system. Individual selfishness is seen as a powerful and predictable attribute that can be exploited to further economic and political progress. Mom's buddy, Thomas Friedman, is a typical case of someone who believes that economic carrots and sticks will create equality throughout the world. Only through free markets and complete individual freedom will humanity be united as one. There is an obvious paradox in this ideology. How can embracing the individual's selfishness create a world of selfless people?

nanwebware said...


The other side of this debate are the people who see the instances of selfish behaviour in nature as being the exception, not the rule. You're right that there are many cases of animals killing members of their own species in a battle of individual survival. But to focus on these alone would be tossing aside the plethora of examples of mutual aid in the animal kingdom. I'll start with ants as it is claimed that Brazilians once said that Brazil belongs to the ants, not to men. There are a number of instances of mutual aid in ant colonies but one that I find interesting is their digestive tube, which consists of two separate parts, one for feeding themselves and one for feeding other members of their community. If a hungry ant approaches one with its digestive tube filled with food and says, "I'm hungry", the ant with food ALWAYS regurgitates some food and feeds it to its neighbor, it never refuses. The other famous ant is the army ant which will sacrifice its own life for the greater good of the community, the ultimate act of selflessness. Bees and termites live in much the same way. Sticking with Brazil, another example of mutual aid is the Brazilian kite, a bird renown for its skill as a thief, but while this bird will rob anyone at anytime, it will not steal from its own kind. In fact they coordinate their robbing like Butch and Sundance and the Whole in the Wall Gang.

There are numerous cases like this in the animal kingdom and while you're right, there are unsociable creatures out there, these are not only the minority but are found to be decreasing. Isolationist animals like the polar bears you mentioned are becoming less and less due to the fact that their "go it alone" lifestyle leaves them vulnerable to small changes in their environment.

Regarding humans, I think we fall into both categories of this debate. But to claim that one or the other is "human nature" is to imply that our nature is static. If we've learned anything from Darwin it's that nothing in nature remains unchanging. I would like to think that we are evolving into a larger complex system where individuals see themselves as parts of a greater whole. This should not be confused with society as we now see it. Our social structures are built upon the premise that individuals will only do what is in their self interests. Our justice system is designed to keep us in line and not allow our "true natures" to drive society into chaos. Do away with the police and the streets will run with blood. People like Friedman pontificate about economic liberalism being the key to social equality and mutual empathy but the capitalist free-market ideology that he preaches is based on winners and losers, the antithesis of mutual aid and social equality. We need only to look at the effects of globalization over the past 60 years to see how incomplete his philosophy is.

In think about this stuff I continue to come back to our natural ability to empathize with one another. The more I can see the image I have of myself in others, the less likely I am to want to do them harm, and the more likely I am to feel for them when they are in pain. I feel we do this on our own without being told and that in fact, it's when we are told what our morals should be, by our religions or by our politician, is when our abilities to empathize become distorted and corrupted.


nanwebware said...

March 2, 2010
From Glorita:

There are three subjects (among a zillion) which have been on my mind these last few days:

I saw a documentary about her two weeks ago and this thing has been nagging me since. She's the chief editor or fashion editor of Vogue magazine, and a very well-known figure. "The Devil Wears Prada"'s main character was based on her. What struck me very negatively was the amount of money that has to be put up for the monthly edition of the magazine. At least 1,500 photos have to be taken in order to choose the single one that will make the cover. Thousands of fashion and advertising photos are taken, studied and chosen to fill in the pages. Numerous trips, interviews, chats and whatever are made (in luxury) to compose the edition, and the working hours are tough. I don't know how much a magazine copy costs, but I bet it isn't cheap. I know these people have to live, the fashion producers have to sell and the dandies have to know what's "new" in that area, but I was horrified about the meaningless luxury of it all. It seemed like a huge waste of precious dollars to tend to a reasonably small (I guess, but I'm not sure) group of people. I'm not against the magazine per se (and certainly have nothing against her) but can't see why they have to go to all that hullabaloo and spend so much money. The problem is: if they're doing it, someone is buying. What this tells us about human nature, I'm not too sure, but think it might not be good. Of course, this is but one item in the gigantic fashion industry, and I wonder if, should they just slow down a little bit, some of that money could be diverted to more worthy needs. Has our vanity grown beyond redemption?
My second subject follows...

Glorita said...

March 2, 2010
From Glorita second subject that I've been thinking about is:

A British scientist (biologist) who happened to come to Brazil last September. I watched an interview today. He was mentioned by our friend Bloom and by me on our previous discussions about the survival of the species. Among his books, there is one called The God Delusion, where he explains or posts his views about religion and beliefs. I haven't read it but I'm sure I'll agree with him. Apparently, he explains scientifically the lack of evidence to prove the existence of God. He's an atheist, or course, and this subject is always on my mind, as I see so many distortions, persecution, fanaticism, genocide, intolerance, misapprehension, and war being made in the name of God or religion. On the other hand, you might say that there are a lot of solidarity and good coming out of religious people or organizations. There is a lot of people out there who think they have to do good in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. What I think, and have said it before to Nancy, is that one doesn't need a religion to be a good person, and religion has been used as an excuse to all kinds of evil actions. If you're interested, I just found out he has a site, to which I'm posting a link below. He's also apparently a Darwinian.

My third subject follows...

Glorita said...

March 2, 2010
From Glorita

My third subject is:

Watching the movie "Crusade", I couldn't help but think about the results some of our choices bring. At one point, Balian of Ibelin is asked by the Christian king of Jerusalem to kill one of the French knights, who was a cruel and dissident man and was attacking the Muslims, with whom the king had an alliance. In order to maintain the fragile balance with Saladin, the king allowed all faiths to worship at their sacred places and vowed not to fight Muslims. But this French knight was a blood-thirsty bastard and politically, had to be stopped. But Balian, following his Christian morals and knighthood codes, refused to kill the guy. When the king dies, his sister is made queen. It happens that she was married to another French knight, who was in allegiance with the other, and a true blood bath was initiated. The spread of murders resulted in a war with Saladin; By the end of it, after much death took place, Jerusalem was retaken by the Muslims. (This story is a manipulation of history, but the characters were real.) What I ask is, what if Balian had forsaken his moral values and killed the bad guy? By not doing so, and denying the king the help he had previously pledged, he finally caused the fall of Jerusalem to the Islamic king and the death of many innocent people, besides soldiers from both armies. Was this a good choice?

Haden said...

From Haden

I'm going to skip the Dawkins sections because I have read the God Delusion and pretty much agree with everything he has to say. And also because your third subject brings up one of the great paradoxes in religion, war.

I am a big believer in non-violence. I think force is necessary only when the objective you are trying to accomplish is flawed. If the objective is just, then there should be no need for force. It might take longer to achieve through non-violence, but it will ultimately prevail if it's a morally sound objective. This should hold even in self-defense situations, although the cost of life in the face of oppression must be accepted as a necessary sacrifice in the name of your goal. A good example of this was the Pathans, Muslim warriors who fought the British on the border of Afghanistan and India in the 19th century. For 70 years they protected their territory through fierce battles with the British army losing thousands of lives and provoking England to use more and more brutal tactics to bring them down. In 1930 their leader met Gandhi and decided to change his approach to a non-violent one. He allowed every Pathan who agreed to renounce violence to join his "army." 70,000 of them did, and when they had a general strike, the British sent in the military where they began to fie into the crowd. As Pathans fell, others would move up to be shot. After this massacre, 80,000 new volunteers joined the non-violent army. Eventually, of course, the British officers refused to fire on the crowds and 178 years later the British left India for good.
Virtually all real progress is due to non-violent movements that have justice and truth on their sides, despite what the history books tell us aout the wars. Just taking the U.S, our independence was secured by some of the greatest non-violent protests in known history. We knocked out the Stamp Act through boycotts, we switched to coffee instead of tea in rebellion against the tea act, and of course the famous Boston tea party, which was so nonviolent that, not only did they not hurt anyone, but when they had to break the lock on the storage room to get to the tea, they sent someone back later that night to repair it! It can be very convincingly argued that the Revolutionary War could have been avoided had these acts of non-violent resistance been allowed to continue.
The civil rights movement in the States is another great example of non-violent resistance. MLK's followers were beaten, bruised, and in many cases killed, but their objective was righteous and just and so eventually the bigots who were using force lost favor ion the eyes of the populous and were shown to be the evil that they were. MLK succeeded where the Black Panthers failed.
(Comment to be continued.....

Haden said...

Haden's comment continued:

A quote from John Stuart Mill sums this up nicely:

"But, indeed the dictum that truth always triumphs against persecution is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. The real advantage which truth has is that successive generations keep rediscovering it, until from favorable circumstance it escapes persecution until it has made such headway as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it."

Debates about the effectiveness of non-violence in WWII and the American Civil War become obviously more heated but I'll argue these ones as well if we ever get the time.

So, moving to your question regarding the choice Balian had to make, I would say unequivocally he made the right one. But in order for my position to make sense, it needs to be seen in the greater context, not through the narrow vision of the war he was already engaged in.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, the Christians who lived in the Roman Empire were strict followers of the teachings of Christ. Among these teachings were the Golden Rule, Love thy Enemy, and Thou Shalt Not Kill. For these reasons, the Christians refused to enter the army and fight for Rome, making them history's first conscientious objectors. It was this refusal that made them hated among the Roman citizens where they were on occasion "thrown to the lions." It was Constantine who changed this when he proclaimed, prior to a battle against the Moors, that Jesus had come to him in his dream that night and guaranteed victory for Rome. With this one idiotic public premonition, the "just war" was born. Constantine put crosses on his army's shields and Christians lined up to fight on the side of Christ. Rome was proclaimed a Christian state and from then on the duties of the state became inseparable intertwined with the teachings of the church.
So now fast-forward to your battle for Jerusalem. How is it that these people who so readily walked to their death in the Coliseum only 100 years earlier could now be standing on a battlefield knee deep in blood...and be there in the name of Christ no less? What if the Christian leaders in the day of Constantine held firm against the notion of a "just war?" Would Balian even be in Jerusalem? Would his idea of morality be based on just killing French knights, or would it be based on killing in general? War can seem out of control when it's in full swing, but the choices we make need to be consistent across all terrain. Otherwise, we're not choosing, the situation is.
Now fast-forward to the present day. Moasad just announced that they have gotten a record number of new applications from Israelis since it was reported that they sent a it-squad to Dubai to kill a Hamas leader. Here we have thousands of young Jews signing up to kill Muslims a stone's throw from Mount Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments, one of which is "Thou Shalt Not Kill."
Too often we are concerned about religions influencing policy in nation-states. What history tells us though, it's the nation-states that have influenced the religions and continue to use them for their own objectives, dragging them and further away from their beliefs.

Glorita said...

From Glorita:

This is an easy one, as I couldn't agree with you more about the God Delusion and the power of non-violence. Considering justice and truth, I would say that both concepts are also relative. As is the "morally sound objective." Not that I think there are dozens of different meanings to them, we all have more or less the same understanding, but there are nuances to each concept, given the differeent cultures and situations. Also, I can trhink of a numer of things that ultimately rought progress to society and were the ults of acts of war. But those would constitute big themes for our discussions and right now I'm more interested in what Balian did, this is to say, the question of choices.
You have placed Balian in the broader context (beautifully put, by the way). Except, that context is similar to every other context in ancient history. The history of civilization is a history war: conquest, submission, slavery, annexation, treachery, re-conquest, defense, looting, ravaging and so on. Their frequency is so great we cannot ignore them. That's how they understood the world back then. Instead of just acknowledging the existence of others and trying to live in harmony, the rulers felt defied to conquer and annex other territories for the sake of building empires and acquiring riches, often imposing their culture and religious beliefs. Maybe that was what would justify and explain the ruler role in themselves. And they would need proper armies, be they regular or mercenaries who would go about killing for their masters. This was the "natural" way everyone behaved at that time. So, no wonder the Christians, once the cross was attached to Constantine's banners, would march in the files of the Roman army. Unfortunately, the examples of non-violence you exposed are pretty few compared with the myriad of wars humans have been engaged in throughout the times.
Fast forwarding: As the Crusades were summoned both by the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Pope, who thought it would be a good idea to unite Christians around a common goal, considering his hold on Christian kings was fractured, with dissidents in France and other places, Balian really found himself in what you explained as "a choice chosen y the situation." not solely by himself. But the fact that he refused to kill a knight that subsequently caused the very thing - the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin's hands - he was there in the first place to prevent, tells me something about the ambiguity of a narrow righteous decision. What I'm really saying is that sometimes, on very special occasions, the righteous decision can bring more bad than good, and if he had dedicated some time to think and evaluate the ripples his decision would provoke, he could have been more malleable and flexible and chosen another course of action. Shorter than killing (or even murdering the deserving devil), he could have thought of a number of things to discredit, intimidate and ultimately stop the knight's foul actions against the Muslims. I might be the most cynical of us all, but I am in doubt if his was an "unequivocally" right choice. I hope I'm never in that situation, but it just may be that one would opt to sacrifice a few in order to save thousands in some occasions. This affirmation will put us right in the middle of an old polemic issue: do the means justify the end? Or does the end justify the means?

nanwebware said...

From Nancy:
I am just about to pick up a college friend who is coming up from LA with a friend to stay with us for two days and go to the King Tut exhibit- so I can't comment in full- But boy are you two extraordinary thinkers. One thing that I find strikingly ironic is how Constantine put the cross on his banners and created the "Just War" for his purposes- when Jesus was saying "do unto others..." how the Jews are killing Arabs "in the name of their God" who said, "Thou Shalt NOT kill" To me, a contented atheist, I can't help wonder what if.... What if all the believers in the world really, actually, followed the advice of their Gods.... REALLY- no making up, no manipulation, just followed the precepts.... What kind of a world would we have then?

Glorita said...

From Glorita:

I remember picking up a book in Juliana's house about the 100 most influential people in history, and it caused me some strangeness when the author placed Mohammad in first place and Jesus in third. More so because, at the time he wrote the book, Christians were twice as numerous as Muslims (I'm not sure if those figures are still the same). The criteria used included, among other aspects, the broader spread of the person's influence, both religious and political. Muhammad, the religious prophet, became a political leader as well, and had the opportunity to take arms to spread Islam, forming a big army of his followers, and went on to convert (and I expect, submit) the infidels or those who did not go by the words of God as had been passed on to him. This job was done also by his successors and the Islamic empire, according to the author, was one of the biggest and fastest growing at the time, including the conquest of Spain for over a good number of years. Christ, on the other hand, was just a religious leader and his word was passed mouth to mouth without any armed imposition and he didn't have any direct political influence. I may be misinterpreting the text, as I can't recall it quite well, but that seems to be the bulk of his arguments.
So, Mohammad had a political agenda and Christ didn't. That's not to say that the Catholic Church remained apolitical. On the contrary, the Church had its own army, its own territorial claims, and demanded obedience from the Christian kings, often sparkling fights and battles and forcing them to close hanks with it.
What history tells us is that religion was something very abstract in one sense, as men, being mere mortals and flawed, would take religion as an excuse to almost everything they wanted. So, religion, in some stances, became the political rule, or vice-versa, considering we cannot even distinguish between them sometimes.
Yeah, if the precepts of any religion were followed to the letter and with the utmost respect, we wouldn't have had so many disastrous consequences. They would constitute a set of moral and ethic rules that would represent all the good that man can and should do.
But, as the saying goes, every rule has its exception, and besides, would we have any fun?