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Thursday, February 6, 2014

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia: “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire”

In the weeks leading us to watch the Olympics, I suspect I was not alone in thinking, “I just don't like what I see here." Why was I resisting paying even scant attention to the pre-Olympics "coverage" (a.k.a. advertising) as NBC, the American broadcast network covering the games, was getting rather publicly revved up on the upcoming media event. In this essay, I briefly survey the external stimuli, leaving the self-analysis to the analyst’s couch.[1]

First, as the American press reported before NBC began promoting the games in earnest (hmm), there is the “whole gay thing” and Putin. I really think that's a non-issue with regard to the Olympics, given the uniqueness of the Olympic Village. I would not be surprised were the Russian police of the mind that “What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas,” at least as far as vacations are concerned.

Now, the "not fit for primetime viewing" conditions of some of the hotels putting up the foreign press strikes me as more substantive because of the implicit and likely even explicit rudeness does not go down well, even at a distance. Relatedly, I suspect, the sheer amount of money "padded" into the construction projects, including hotel construction, for kick-backs undoubtedly directed to Putin's major political supporters eviscerates any possible excuse in the tardiness.

In fact, associating Putin at all with the Olympics comes off to me like associating liver with dinner; I instinctively spit out immediately any hint of liver-taste. I must admit I am glad the U.S. State Department put out a travel warning for Americans going to the games. I was also amused to read of the low numbers of non-Russians arriving from abroad in Sochi as of the first day of games.[2] Of course, the modern Olympics hinges on the broadcasts around the world, rather than attendance numbers.

 Even though NBC's studio in the Olympic Village is transparent, the network's tactics may be anything but. (Image Source: David Johnson)

Interestingly, as part of its rather obvious devices to remind/manipulate its general viewership to watch the approaching games (including inserting reporters live from Sochi into CNBC's coverage of the financial markets), NBC strategists may actually have been fomenting the security story in order to draw viewers' attention to the fact that the games would soon begin. Stirring up fear and the hope of visual voyeurism of others’ tragedies is a sure bet for news reporting as advertising.  However, overdoing it can be counterproductive if too much of the ploy is visible on the surface as a duplicitous, otherwise stealth agenda. Yearning to turn the subtropical town on the Black Sea into an international resort, Putin could not have been very happy about the coverage, though may have realized the importance of a huge broadcast viewership even for himself, not to mention covering some of the kick-backs.
Finally, starting particular events including skating the day before the OPENING ceremony may stand out among the various points of smoke above in being indicative of fire skipping fire lines below. Even though Chris Chase of USA Today concludes “it’s a small price to pay for the overall improvement of the Winter Games,” he admits “it still feels strange to start the Olympics before the Olympics technically start.”[3] In the film, Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine wryly clarifies the matter of something seeming odd (or strange).  “Yeah, we got a word for that in English. It’s called suspicious.” 

In spite of his conclusion (i.e., small price to pay), Chase provides a credible case for suspicion. “Television rules all." he states up front as if it were a natural law. "Adding another day of Olympic competition means adding another day of Olympic telecasts. Thursday is traditionally one of the biggest television nights (along with Sunday). With all the money being paid to cover the games by networks across the world, turning 17 days of Olympic coverage into 18 days is a nice bonus.”[4] Regarding the addition of a program of skating, Chase points to a five day interim within the two weeks without any skating scheduled.

In closing, I must let the philosopher in me have a few words (no philosopher ever has just a few words, so please take a bathroom break if you need to). From sheer logic, to begin something before it has begun is a blatant contradiction. As per his categorical imperative, Kant would call the practice unethical. Were everyone to adopt the maxim, “I will start activities before the start time,” it would not make sense to have a start time for anything. The maxim is thus self-contradictory if it (like reason itself) is universalized.

Hume would point out that Kant relies too much on logic and reason more generally in assessing whether a given practice is ethical. A person reading U.N.’s condemnation of the Vatican in February 2014  for having been more concerned about the reputation of the Church as a whole than children’s welfare—a priority that Rev. Joe Ratzinger, or Benedict XVI, put in a letter while archbishop of Munich—may think through the theological implications of priests covering for each other. However, the sentiment of disapprobation (think of my expression as I spit out odious liver) is likely, excepting sociopaths, to be the principal reaction. Emotive rather than of Reason.

When I read of the sports beginning a day before the opening ceremony, I felt a sentiment of disapprobation well up inside me. Because I had been feeling that something just isn’t right about the upcoming games, especially from an vague intuitive sense of NBC’s manipulative tactics as over-reaching at best, I suspected that the rather odd placement of some events before the ceremony also came from the mentality that wants incessantly to squeeze out a few more drops of lemon juice from lemon that has already shed enough.  The sight of this childish demeanor in action is enough for any non-manipulative person to resist going where the manipulations point.

[1] I have in mind here Nietzsche’s thesis that reasoning is really a person’s instinctual urges tussling for dominance—that which overcomes the others (here as obstacles) reaches the surface of consciousness as an idea. I do think about this point regarding philosophy (and particular philosophical systems) in general and how my own psychological background fuels or is otherwise expressed in the ideas and related theories I “intuit” and “create.”
[2] Associated Press, “Sochi Olympics Still Waiting for Spectators from Abroad,” The Huffington Post, February 6, 2014.
[3] Chris Chase, “Why Do the Winter Olympics Start before the Opening Ceremony?” USA Today, February 6, 2014.
[4] Ibid.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

From Ground Zero to 1776 Feet

The glass exterior gives the Freedom Tower a look of unity, such as that which occurred on September 11, 2001. (Image Source: USA Today)

Aspiring to hope again, against the pull of the annualized calls to remember, yet again, a tragedy whose villain had met his fitting end, America could dare to inhale a fresh sense of pride instead of the stale bad air of vulnerability and death that stubbornly would not die under the cover of mourning. New Yorkers with an even longer memory could feel a sense of payback on behalf of their proud city, which had lost the World's Fair to Chicago in 1893. New York's press had dubbed the metropolis of the Midwest "the windy city" for all the bragging there for having been selected over Wall Street's locale. In 2013, New York's bewindowed Temple of Independence beat out the Sears, or "Willis," Tower in Chitown (pronounced shy-town, not shit-own, or, even worse, own-shit) as the tallest building in the Western hemisphere on account of a spire. 

Lest it be said that the sky is the limit for the perpetual Union of shimmering unity, the laws of nature do not allow a Rome or a Washington to rise forever. as if social organization were somehow not mortal. As between us and God, our cultural artifices are unfortunately on our side of the ledger. They are also in continuity with Nature, into whose embrace we mere mortals cannot evade. So what does Nature have in store for the American experiment of a general republic within whose borders semi-sovereign republics reside as though tamed members? Will the U.S. collapse from its own weight, or become increasingly susceptible to enemies foreign and even domestic? 

Our lot is not to know what lies beyond the horizon reflected in the unscratched glass of freedom's tower. We can, however, marvel at the sheer tenacity of a people whose hope, whose light, will not go quietly under the ashes at Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero. For from the extraordinary hardships of brave colonists in the wilderness, on the periphery of the known world, came bubbling to the surface the idea of self-governance, whose practicability and unity require the self-discipline of virtue and civic knowledge,  in 1776.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Target Intimidating Customers by Impersonating Police: Nietzsche on Weakness Seeking to Dominate

In the PBS series Downton Abbey, the Victorian countess, magnificently played by Maggie Smith, delivers a reverberating line as fit for my hometown in the second decade of the twenty-first century as for a village in Britain a century earlier. Referring to the local physician, who had just been raised to the position of military manager of convalescent centers during World War I, the countess remarks in frustration after a rejected request, “We give these little people power and it goes to their heads like strong drink.” This poignant quote fits like a glove in the case of the typical store manager and assistant managers, especially in my decaying hometown in the U.S. a century after World War I. In this essay, I apply Nietzsche's philosophy to a rather distinct pattern that I discovered there decades after I had left for college.
Walking through the electronics department of a Target store two days after Thanksgiving in 2013, I noticed two college-aged guys wearing badges and hand-cuffs helping customers locate desired merchandise and operating the department’s cash register. The spectacle caught my eye on account of the excessively pessimistic over-kill. Was it smart to rely on two college students to fight off the expected riot after Black Friday?
After picking up some underwear in the clothing department, I headed to the store’s line of cashiers. It so happens the cashier ringing up my sale had been a police officer for fourteen years before stepping down due to knee surgery. After I quickly described what I regarded as overkill in the electronics department, she hastened to explain her own resentment.
“Those two guys didn’t have to stand attention—remaining perfectly still for a long time—at a police academy. The guy with the Justin Bieber hair really gets to me.”
“I see your point,” I said in a reassuring tone borne of having lived enough years to sympathize. “Can they even use the handcuffs?” I asked. “A store employee can’t keep a customer from leaving a store—that would be false-imprisonment!” I added as my opinion gained focus.
“That’s true,” the police veteran answered matter-of-factly. “They can’t use the handcuffs.”
“Giving handcuffs to those guys and telling them they can’t use them is just asking for trouble,” I said as I shook my head in utter disbelief mixed with disgust.
“The cuffs are to intimidate customers,” the cashier explained as my jaw seemed to drop to the sterile tiled floor.
“Well, that’s one way to attract customers,” I remarked sarcastically. "This goes beyond even the typical control fixation people have in this town." In hindsight, I should not have been surprised, for having the distinction of being the third most miserable city in the U.S. hinges not on the high crime and unemployment rates, but, rather, on the pervasive mentality and attitude.
"The intent to intimidate is probably illegal," I said to get the former policewoman's opinion. She nodded. Thinking out loud, I realized that having sales associates wear badges, uniforms, and handcuffs constitutes a more serious crime--that of impersonating a police officer. At the time, I was about to pay, but I could not bring myself to pay; I had suddenly hit an invisible wall. “I would be an utter hypocrite, writing as I do on business ethics, were I to buy the clothes in spite of the blatant intimidation,” I said as one thought led to another and finally to a decision.
“I don’t blame you,” the cashier replied in a hushed tone.

"I just can't enable the mentality I'm seeing here," I explained as if I were apologizing to a sympathizer.
As I walked out of the store, I was struck by an omission; the cashier had not offered a percent discount on my purchase. In a way, the cashier had unintentionally defended the validity of the intention to intimidate by committing a crime. I looked down at the pavement ahead of me and shook my head in utter astonishment as I took in the sheer presumptuousness of a store manager or corporate management thinking that fake police badges and real handcuffs are perfectly o.k. as a show of potential force in order to intimidate existing customers. Such over-kill without any sense of going too far in terms of active or passive aggression (e.g., power-trips) epitomizes the acidic local mentality drunk on aggressive power-trips in Rockford, Illinois, leider meine Heimstadt. 

Both the malevolent managers at Target, whether in the stores or at the corporate headquarters, and the clueless yet presumably infallible Rottweilers who aggressively guard their little turfs in insignificant Rockford as if on speed can serve a useful purpose here as I try to answer a question that Friedrich Nietzsche, a late nineteenth-century European philosopher posed but could not answer. How is it that the weak "new birds of prey," whose urge to dominate must presumably be sated whatever the cost, get the self-confident strong to willingly renounce their native strength and be dominated by the sick birds. Nietzsche singles out the weak moralizing of what he calls the "ascetic priest" figure in the second essay of The Genealogy of Morals. Foisting Thou Shalt Not on the strong is, Nietzsche argues, the way that the new birds of prey get their cruel poison into the strong. In place of self-confidence, the beguiled, infected strong feel ashamed of their inherent strength in overcoming interior and external obstacles. 

I see an additional way besides the use of morality as a velvet weapon of resentment. The new birds of prey can gain a momentary advantage over any of the strong who step onto any of the little turfs, whether by an unhappy accident or through enticement (i.e., lies). By leveraging actual authority, which is valid only on a small bit of turf, to squeeze out as much discretion as possible to add on still more directives, the puerile pests can harness individuals of noble strength by insisting that the rules must be obeyed as if they had the force of public law. Masking their lack of self-control over their sick urge to dominate, the weak taskmasters of the herd know all too well the value that appearing strong has even as a lie in being able to draw on societal levers of legitimate force, such as the police, to intimidate the strong into capitulating to the power-trip as if it were founded on anything substantial.  

The strong are indeed subject to the actual authority of the weak who have can exercise some power as low functionaries, such as bus drivers and store employees. Crucially, their reach is limited to their tiny turfs. Whereas the "herd animals" cannot but cross the lowlands as they are naturally herded by the sort of weakness that simply must dominate others, such as by extracting a relatively low-potency pleasure out of the power in being cruel. Whether rich or poor, the "noble strong" (i.e., courageous and of strong will in overcoming obstacles) can hopefully find a way around the primitive lairs (i.e., external obstacles), such as a Target or Walmart store. To the extent that the strong cannot avoid the weak birds of prey who work as functionaries, any bullying bosses among the tiny Lilliputians really can ensnare Gulliver, even if only temporarily as he is, after all, a giant in Lilliputian terms. Even though generally speaking weakness cannot (by definition) conquer strength, little swirling eddies of weakness applying whatever feeble power it has into churning the occasional river current that happens to stray into what looks like a smooth patch of water off to the side. The artificial tumult can indeed cause even a substantial fish to lose its bearings and be tossed around, subject for a time to the overreaching of the power-tripping weakness. 

If a person who is naturally self-confident in his or her strength cannot avoid a Target or Walmart store, or taking a city bus, he or she can at least minimize the time spent under the watchful eye of a lurking functionary while --and this is important--viewing him or her from a pathos of distance, lest the strong foreigner become infected, and thus more recognizable to the sick Lilliputian hunters. This can happen merely in being hoodwinked into believing that the snares are not by any means trivial or avoidable, and thus that the tiny taskmasters are worth taking seriously--that their power is commensurate to the potent pleasure of power obtainable only by the strong in overcoming mighty (rather than tiny) obstacles. 

For the natural law that strength cannot be subject to weakness to hold rather than putrefy at certain points, the strong must not inhale the bad air that pervades and surrounds the invasive animals from among the herd who regularly dominate the herd animals, whether the passive cows be on a city bus headed to a Walmart or Target store, or already inside it. That a bus driver or a store's sales clerk, cashier or manager somehow feels entitled as if by right or false equivalence to dominate the strong can be likened to arrogance on stilts during a flood. The cow-in-charge stubbornly forces the strong into the more familiar (and useful) category of weakness, refusing to view the strong as anything else. 

For one thing, the weak who relish dominating others resent the strong for being strong (as if strength could be anything else). Secondly, if the strong do not detect the category mistake, they are more likely to accept the suitability and perhaps even the inevitability of being treated as a herd animal and thus subject to the primitive whips and snares. Because resentment plays a role in the motivation of the weak birds of prey to extend their domination to cover the strong, I suspect that the assignment of strength to fit within weakness does not stem from an incapacity to distinguish the two. After all, strength must first be recognized to be resented. 

The sickness is palpable, or readily observable, in the twisted nature of the social reality that the dominating functionaries, such as those at Target, have invented and try to enforce of the healthy. Remind a store manager that customers are not "guests" and you (as a "guest") will find a solar flair of anger suddenly taking the place of the fake smile to force you back into your place. The perversion in the manager's mindset also comes to the water's surface should he or she feel humiliation rather than just anger and, yes, jealousy as you self-confidently move on, having obviously come to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter what mentality Target's management and that assistant manager have and are determined to impose on the herd of shoppers. Regarding such petulant functionaries who have no sense of the impropriety of their urge to impose, and thus dominate, Nietzsche has the person of noble strength say, what are these parasites to me? Let them get what they can. The problem arises when the strong themselves get ensnared as part of the booty, for Gulliver ought to be able say in a carefree manner, Let the Lilliputians have their harmless little snares! even as he walks through their village.