General Culture

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them

Monsanto.

For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

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Impressive Youth

One thing we see quite a bit of are posts on social media and articles on supposedly reputable news sources that express horror over the terrible literacy and writing habits of teens and young adults.  Some sources blame text messaging (LOL) while others wring their hands over the terrible decline in the educational system under either the left or the right, depending on each individual or media outlet’s political leanings.

Of course, here at Classically Educated, not only do we believe that every political party has an unfair bias against the cultural elites (which is irrelevant in this context, but we like to remind everyone of it every chance we get), but we also believe int he scientific process.

Which means that we decided to put the theory to rigorous scientific examination* to find out if all the fuss was justified.

The first thing we did was to try to track down some modern writing from young adult, maybe someone younger than 22 or 23 years of age.  Fortunately, one of our editors works with a woman who fits the bill and also enjoys doing some creative writing.  So we asked her for a story.

After reading it, we were pretty depressed.  It needed a little polish, but, other than that, the story was not only competently written and well thought out, but it the ending was brilliant.  In fact some of our editors and contributors, who are also writers wept openly and are considering giving up their word processors because if the forthcoming generations are going to write that way, we’re all pretty much doomed anyway.

More importantly, the writing was grammatically correct with not a LOL or WTF to be seen.  It was even set in a culturally interesting milieu.

Of course, we still weren’t convinced,  A twenty-one-year-old might not have been affected by the full brunt of the texting-centric social culture, and therefore might have outgrown it.  What we really needed was something written by teens and pre-teens to figure it all out.

Impresiones 2011

Fortunately, we had something to hand, a small volume of prose and verse published by a school called Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires.  This is an institution very much in the spirit of those we listed among our World’s Most Awesome Schools.

The book in question is entitled Impresiones: A Bilingual Anthology (2011) and is perfect for our purposes because it has prose and verse in both English and Spanish.  It should give us a pretty good idea of whether the people immersed in the texting culture were having any literacy issues (we chose the 2011 edition because the authors are now adults, which means we’re not exposing teens to any particular scrutiny, but they were teens when this was written).

Well… while none of our editors decided they had to give up literature forever after reading this, the writing, on a sentence and grammar level, is all very good.  Even in those stories written in English (remember that these are students whose first language is Spanish) were well-written, and seemed to be thought out in English (one of the easy ways to tell when a story was written by a Spanish speaker is that the sentences, while grammatically correct, use a word order that is more typical of Spanish than English–dead giveaway that the writer was translating as he wrote, not thinking the story through in English).

It might be argued that these examples are no use because they’ve been curated.  The anthology was probably the best writing of the year at that particular school, and the woman’s story was an outlier: written by someone who is set on becoming a writer.

Infinite Monkeys With Typewriters

That’s true, of course, but it doesn’t really matter.  You see, it’s always been like that.  Even twenty or fifty years ago, most people wrote like a drunk chimpanzee.  The joke above describes the literary efforts of any given 99% of the population in whichever era you choose to name.  But the fact that the good ones are still good puts any idea that texting obsessively is killing the language.

Which makes sense if you think about it.  There’s a good analogy for this which we don’t remember the source for (if it was you, drop us a comment and well give due credit): Text messaging is like playing catch.  It’s not a rigorous exercise in perfection, but it can’t do the person doing it any harm; after all, it’s still writing, and not everything is ROFL.

So everyone can stop panicking and go back to your political arguments.  We, by the way, are trying to clone Tiberius.  Now THAT was a leader (you can yell at us in the comments, that’s what they’re for).

 

*All right, we didn’t do a rigorous scientific examination.  We looked at a couple of isolated anecdotic cases.  So sue us.

The Good Stuff – A Classically Educated List

Recycling Bins

Looking back over the past few months, it’s clear that Classically Educated has, perhaps, been slightly less than complimentary regarding the general state of modern affairs. While we still feel that humanity in general is moving in the wrong direction, away from individuality and more towards a groupthink distopia where ensuring that assorted rage-spewing morons and other sub-optimal intelligences feel like worthwhile members of society despite all evidence to the contrary is paramount, we also want to take the time to recognize that not everything is wrong in the world.

So, as a public service, we offer a list of things that are good about the world.

1) Left and right, except in the US, are no longer separated by religious differences. Many atheists now believe in a free-market economy as opposed to being Marxists – which makes sense since the kind of personality that will question the teachings of religion would probably also question a system that has failed every time it’s been tried. Likewise, many deeply religious people are now adopting socialist views. This is especially evident in Latin America, where sectors of the Catholic church have actually sided with the populists in the region (although this isn’t by any means pervasive).

We believe this is actually a good development, because, as definition of left and right get more flexible, people can pick and choose what they believe in all aspects of life instead of being forced to side with a view they disagree with just because that is the group they mostly belong to. Perhaps the US will catch up soon – we’ll believe it when we see an atheist Republican candidate, though.

mars_crosshairs-717225

2) Humanity is taking serious aim at Mars (the link is just one recent example of the many Mars missions in planning stages). We’ve spoken before about just how critical it is for mankind to regain its focus on expansion and exploration, and regain its thrust.

For decades, misguided hand-wringers have been saying that the resources used to explore space would be better invested on Earth. They were wrong – humanity’s history has shown that humans need to explore, to expand and to grow… or that they will wither and decay (see Empire, Roman). Fortunately both private companies and major governments have seen the light, with innumerable Mars missions in the works.

3) Most airplanes that take off neither crash nor disappear mysteriously. That’s not necessarily good for anyone in Bermuda making a living off of credulous kooks, but it’s good for the rest of us.

The Bermuda Triangle

4) People are taking global warming seriously. Now, as a rule, Classically Educated tends to think that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket. We look around to see a world with growing peace and prosperity (a well-researched corroboration can be bought here). Basically, if you were born today, you have less chances of dying violently or of any disease than you did at any previous time in human history. We believe that everything will be fine in the future.

However, we also understand scientific data, and we don’t see any reason for intelligent people to deny the clear evidence of climate change. For this reason, even if governments are trying to avoid the economic consequences of truly going green, many private citizens and especially major cities are taking the baton and running with it. Oslo actually has to import trash to run some of their power plants, which is extreme, but a sign of the times. Even less enlightened cities have begun to implement recycling initiatives.

5) There are elections in Venezuela this year. Who knows… maybe they can finally throw off the yoke of populism. If they do, South America will finally have thrown off all dictatorial governments, another continent to be 100% democratic.

6) Printed books seem to be making a comeback.

Now this one is a bit weird. We generally embrace technology as a great thing, and love how it changes lives and society for the better. But in this case, it seems that both studies and consumer preference are telling publishers that people a) connect better emotionally with paper books than ebooks and b) learn more from paper textbooks than ebooks. I’ll add my own two cents and say that I prefer to read books with photos rather than see them on a screen, especially large-format books – but that is just an opinion without studies behind it.

So the fact that print book sales have been better than precious years during the second half of 2014 is a great sign – plus, books are utterly beautiful.

7) It has been said by futurologists that the first human to live for a thousand years has already been born. I certainly hope so, but even if it’s not quite true, medical advances over the past few years have meant that it’s increasingly difficult to die of anything but cancer. Yes, it still happens, but less and less. And gene therapy should make it even better.

8) Despite access to nearly unlimited amounts of data online, on their phones, most people are still dumb as sand, which makes life so much more entertaining for the rest of us.

9) The year 1984 wasn’t remotely like the novel.

Anyway, this is an incomplete list, and we’d love to see your additions to this list below. We’ve missed or omitted many – but all optimism is welcome, and discussion is positively encouraged.

Ignorance as a Point of View

Astrology Cartoon

I was talking to an acquaintance recently, and was amazed and more than a little dismayed when she said “Astrology is a science, just like math.”  When I expressed my utter disbelief that anyone with even a smattering of education could possibly utter such a statement in the 21st century, she dismissed me as closed-minded and, safe in the knowledge that a majority of society would back her on that point, spoke about other things.

Never has, in my opinion, the modern iteration of ignorance been so eloquently expressed.

So, in order to learn about the people who share these modern times with us, let’s dissect the incident:

Astrology is a science

Well, one thing that astrology is NOT is a science.  To summarize centuries of development, science is a process by which hypothesis are tested via empirical data and then the theory is modified to fit the data.  As anyone objective can easily see, astrology works precisely opposite.  The results are given first (Scorpios kick babies, prefer to drink white wines and are only compatible with Gemini) and then the data is peered at through distorting lenses to make it seem like it fits.  It is much more akin to a religion than a science.  Wikipedia calls it a pseudoscience, because it attempts to clothe non-scientific methods within a scientific framework, but I think Wikipedia is being both generous and politically correct (can’t get funding if potential donors are offended).

Funny Fortune Cookie

So when discussing this, the defenders of astrology will say that testing is unnecessary because there are millennia of tradition behind it, and there’s no need to verify further. Er…  Yeah, that would also have worked when Columbus was yammering about the Earth not being flat.

So… why do people insist that it’s a science? Well, despite the growing trendiness of aggressive ignorance disguised as “a democratic right to different points of view”, there is still a feeling in society that science and logic are much more intellectually respectable than spiritualism.  So people lie to themselves (and attempt unsuccessfully to lie to intelligent observers) in order to feel respected as opposed to the alternative: feeling like ignorant cretins when faced with the raised eyebrow of a respected member of the peer group.  It’s better to dismiss logical arguments as “the limitations of people who think they’re educated” than to just admit that astrology is more of a fun, brain-dead way to spend time – like watching Dancing with the Stars – than anything approaching a science.

Screen Shot 2015-01-06 at 11.14.07 AM

Just like math

The discussion of whether mathematics is or isn’t a science probably would have gone over her head, but this article on the topic is simply awesome, especially the bit about Cicadas, so I just had to link it here.

Ok, so that’s the breakdown of her phrase, but the more disturbing bit is her sense of security that society would back her up.  In this case, I tend to agree with her.  That is a bit worrying, and it led me to asking myself why society seems to prefer to support certain ignorant theories and marginalize people who try to debunk them as elitists*

I think the answer is twofold.  In the first place, I’d like to offer the hypothesis that there’s a large correlation between the kind of people who think that astrology is a science and the the kind of people who watch a LOT of TV.  As is pretty evident to even casual viewers, TV content is not designed to stimulate the intellect, but rather to pander to more basic needs: low entertainment, fear-mongering and (particularly relevant in this case) the reinforcement of beliefs.  Now, to meet these needs, even the documentary channels have needed to adapt, as we’ve discussed before.  And if it’s on the Discovery Channel, then it must be true, right**?

The second half of the answer has more to do with how society has evolved in the decades since the second world war.  After the war, society has become obsessed with safety in all forms, be it physical or psychological.  The many have, in their wisdom, decided that freedom is less important that safety (see: mandatory helmet laws, myriad).  Even feelings are to be preserved…  if someone hurts your feelings, they are in the wrong, and therefore “safe places” need to be created where they can’t do so.

As educated, intelligent people are a minority, their opinions are normally dismissed as elitist, which immediately equates them with such immoral bastards as the filthy rich*.  So, to protect themselves from feelings of inferiority, the mob has made astrology a socially accepted topic – and mocking astrology the province of evil, “limited” people who can’t see beyond what their senses tell me.  So, once again, we decide what is scientifically correct by democracy***.

Is it just me, or should an educated society work in precisely the opposite way?

*Please note that here at Classically Educated, we consider the word “elite” to be a compliment, definitely not an insult.  If you are reading this, and feel that being elite is bad, you probably landed on this site by mistake!  We also oppose the discrimination against rich people – in fact, we oppose discrimination against any minority… fortunately, dumb people are not a minority, so you’re good there.

**This footnote isn’t actually linked to anything in particular, but I just had to mention traditional remedies.  All I have to say about that is that most ancient societies had life spans of about thirty years.  I am certain you are intelligent enough to draw your own conclusions about traditional medicine from that fact, and I don’t have to give you any further subtle hints.

***Can we vote to repeal the law of gravity?  Hover cars sound way cool.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…

The Ultimate Elegy?

Christ Church college Quad Oxford

Is there anything quite as poignant as a remembrance of more innocent times written in the midst of war – and a war with an uncertain outcome at the time of writing, at that?  Possibly, but it still hits very hard.

Evelyn Waugh is possibly best remembered for his more mordant work, of course, but Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the best books about a lost era that one can read, heightened perhaps by the simple truth that the protagonist, and his contemporaries knew that they were living the end of what had been a glorious age.  

It is a fact that everyone living in the inter-war years in England had to know that the times they were a changin’.  But though they had hopes, none knew whether what was coming would be better or worse… and the horrors of just how bad “worse” could be were extremely fresh in their minds.  When this insecurity was combined with the uncertainty of Waugh himself at the time of writing – in the midst of the second world war – even this slim, seemingly superficial volume can hit like a hammer.

Arcadia

It’s tempting to compare this with other writers of idylls, particularly Wodehouse, but while with Wodehouse the reader wants to be there, with Waugh, the reader mourns the loss.  Wodehouse, for this reason, is much nicer to go back to; he reconstructs the utopia in the reader’s present, making it seem alive.  Waugh, on the other hand, makes it plain that Arcadia is gone… and it hurts, because Waugh’s world seems much more real.

But at time, especially in the beginning, this is a book that transports the reader powerfully to another era, another place, and that is its lasting beauty.  The charm certainly isn’t in the story itself although the progression is interesting and absorbing, but is let down by an ending is that is unsatisfying and with ultimately uninteresting religious symbolism.

But the imagery…  It’s impossible to read this book and not be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of loss for the more gentle times in England, where every day was a sunny spring in the countryside around Oxford, and where pain, suffering and responsibility existed only in the dark writings of Dickens.

Of course, it is a time that never truly existed – at least not for everyone – but that won’t keep you from pining for it.

An Early Zombie Walk

I walked with a Zombie still

We all know film zombies.  They are the gentlemen and ladies who shuffle along in the direction of the nearest warm body (especially if it’s one of the main characters in the film) slowly decomposing, asking for brains, making others like themselves and generally being antisocial.  We should probably blame the seventies for this image.

But zombies are a little more complex than that.  They’ve even found a certain amount of street-cred among intellectuals due to the fact that they are said to embody the fears and anxieties of consumerism – the mindless pursuit of a given objective – and the atomic era.  This viewpoint has caused them to be accepted by certain areas of academia and there are even articles in serious newspapers and even academia dealing with the phenomenon.  Seen this way, as a symbol and a metaphor, they become socially acceptable.

I personally believe that the whole “metaphor” thing was planted by George Romero in an attempt to boost their popularity.  They’re friggin’ zombies for crissakes – if you over-think them, you’re doing it wrong.

I walked with a Zombie

Which brings us neatly to the next installment in our review series about the 1001 films to see before you die (hit the 1001 movies tag for the rest of them).  Today’s subject is the 1943 horror vehicle I Walked With a Zombie.

What makes this one interesting isn’t only that the lack of symbolism is appealing (in 1943 the atomic age hadn’t started, and the discussion of the angst of consumerism by postmodernists was still awaiting a time when psychedelic drugs were more widely available), but also that it uses the actual zombie mythology from Haiti.

We generally try to avoid spoilers when we do these reviews, but in this one, there’s not that much to spoil.  Generic character A discovers that Generic character B has a strange disease (a probable source for the virus-zombies of later years?  Discuss in comments), and the villagers, driven by their Voodoo belief believe that B is a zombie, and as such needs to be put out of her misery.  Tension ensues.

What makes it worth tracking down is not the story itself, but the fact that it tells the tale of a zombie as it would have been told before we all “knew” what zombies were.  It’s a story of witchcraft and curses and spiritism, all washed down with rum (and the first performance of a Calypso song in an American movie).  Also, like the movie Cat People by the same director, it leaves the audience with the question of whether anything supernatural is actually happening – or whether it’s all just an unfortunate misunderstanding.

As modern horror, it’s not all that compelling – or even frightening for that matter – but if you know what’s under the hood, it does become interesting!

And, if you ever get dragged into a Zombie Walk (seriously, you should get new friends or a new boy/girlfriend)… at least you’ll be the single person who knows what real zombies are about!

zombie walk

 

And remember, liking our Facebook page is not only free, it is guaranteed to solve all the world’s problems (eventually – the world domination plot needs to mature, first).

Which Classics?

British Flag Flying

Today, we’re going to do something that we normally don’t, which is discuss current events, specifically, something going on in the UK, which has global implications (well, global except for the US), and which we believe also opens us to a wider discussion which can be 100% global.  I am referring to the recent decision to include more British-literature (as in literature created in Britain) on the GCSE examinations.  There has been a public outcry (details here) because, in essence, this will mean removing many 20th, century American books from the syllabus.

The global implications arise because the GCSE guidelines are the basis for most of the important international examinations for anyone who is studying English abroad (yes, there are American examinations, but in secondary education, at least, worldwide the British model still rules the roost).  Everything from IGCSEs on are based on this model.

So, do we agree with the critics?  Well yes and no*.

It seems pretty clear that the focus on British literature will leave out many, many worthy books, especially from the 20th century.  Without thinking too hard, The Great Gatsby comes immediately to mind as one of the best pieces of literature ever written in the English language – if I had to rank the 20th century, that one would be at the top of the list.  The Mosquito Coast was on there once, and it will probably get taken off.  Hemingway will also get ignored, which is just silly, and there are many, many more omissions which we are probably not thinking of, but are important.

Of mice and men

Where we disagree is on the books that are causing the outrage: Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  The central criticism from this front seems to be that the Literature portion of the GCSE is there to teach kids morality, humanism and how to be a better person.  That if we leave off books that improve us socially, we are doomed to… well, The Guardian isn’t particularly clear on that point, but we are doomed to something!

This is an admirable feeling, as far as it goes, but misguided.  You see, we feel that social studies is a perfectly good place for that kind of thing, and that Literature GCSEs should be about literature, not pushing agendas.  Both Mice and Mockingbird are strongly political books, which is fine, and both strongly humanist and leftist, which is also fine, especially in the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a seriously moving book that everyone should read.

musty tomes

But, as literature, they are not the best of the best.  Yes the Steinbeck is more easily defensible in that regard that the Lee, but there are other, much better books and authors that could have been pointed at to justify the anger without being too obvious about the underlying agendas.  If you read the article to the end, there’s even a mention of the Diary of Anne Frank – a must for everyone, but as literature?  Nope.

Anyhow, the discussion is worth having, but there needs to be a little more focus on literary merit, and a little less on the politics behind the decision (and there are a LOT of politics in this, on both sides).  Should other cultures and voices be represented?  Yes, but only when the writing merits it – you have social studies to teach us how a modern human should think, whether you are defending Ayn Rand or Steinbeck!

All thoughts appreciated, especially well-argued disagreement (there are some grays here, convince us!)!

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*Being called “Classically Educated” should have given you a hint that we weren’t exactly going to fall over ourselves agreeing with The Guardian

The Only Conspiracy Theory Book You Need to Read

Foucalt's Pendulum

I was once told by someone extremely wise that the best thing about Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, is that it didn’t disappear up its own arsehole like so many of his other books.  He’s Irish, so the extra “r” and “e” are his, but he is also a critically acclaimed writer, so it’s necessary to keep his opinion in mind.

Since I actually thought that TNOTR is brilliant on many levels apart from the anatomical, so I proceeded to purchase Foucault’s Pendulum, and place it in my TBR file, where it gathered dust for some time before I finally cracked it open.  And then I couldn’t put it down.

Does it disappear into dark cavities?  Well, yes, I have to admit that it does, a bit.

Is it worth it?  Yes.  You see, the intricate texture of the book, the way it weaves together everything Eco could find on different pseudo-Christian secret societies in history is hugely fascinating, although once Eco starts doing his completist thing, it’s easy to understand why the sheer volume of info can turn people off to the book.  But not me – and, I suspect, not anyone who loves learning about history’s strange little nooks and crannies.

It is, essentially a conspiracy theory book, a kind of Da Vinci Code for deeper thinkers and skeptics (disclaimer: I enjoyed the Dan Brown book, so please feel free to dismiss anything I may say from here on out!), except it seems to take into consideration ALL of the theories that state that there is “more than meets the eye” with regards to where the world’s ultimate power – or at least that in the western world – lies.  It shows you what kind of theories could be born if the regular theorists were also extremely good at research, as opposed to the more feeble-minded exponents that make up the majority of the group.

I have always thought that conspiracy theorists were a bit deluded at best.  At worst, they seem to be the kind of people who can’t bear to face that, when they fail, it is their own fault, and not that of some shadowy power.  If they are powerless, it is because power, riches and glory generally go hand-in-hand with both talent, perseverance and hard work.

Eco seems to share these feelings, but he has a genuine affection for humanity’s weaknesses that comes through in his text, and it is this which makes the deeply-flawed characters in his book come to life.  Yes, everyone in here is a caricature, more an idea than an actual human, but they are ideas that represent the perfect initial conditions for the ultimate in conspiracy theories.  And while the characters are parts of humans, they are extremely human.  We see many of our own hopes, fears and desires painted on the canvas of his good guys and bad guys.

Eco's Cosmic Joke

This book is clearly a Cosmic joke on Eco’s part.  He is certainly poking gentle fun at the kind of people who will twist history and science with a foregone pseudo-scientific conclusion in mind, but one feels that he isn’t necessarily laughing cruelly at them, but more ribbing them affectionately for their own human foibles, but in a way that only a scholarly genius could possibly pull off.

We should also stop to mention that the whole thing is one long series of cultural and literary allusions.  Anyone even slightly widely-read will enjoy the satisfaction of spotting the little nuggets tossed in, almost carelessly, to give the book texture.  The most amazing thing is that the pockets of knowledge break up what is, in essence, a huge speculative history lesson.

And, of course, any book that tosses in an offhand reference to Finnegan’s Wake, while assuming the reader has read and understood it gets major kudos in my book – for sardonic irony if nothing else.

This one is a delight to read.

 

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What the Reading of Blake’s Poetry Awoke in Me

tyger copy

María Evangelina Vázquez, today’s guest blogger, is amazingly well-suited to the topic of poetry and literature.  Not only did she study journalism, but her experience also includes stints at publishers and at leedor.com, a culture site – Spanish-speaking readers can read her articles here.  I think you’ll enjoy the following post as much as I did!

 

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

-William Blake: “The Tyger”

 

Songs of innocence and of experience, by William Blake was a book that touched me deeply when I discovered it back in high school, when I was sixteen, at the same time I first read the short stories by Cortázar and Borges. My English literature teacher, Janet Lenton, taught me Blake for the first time, and for that, among many other teachings, I will always be thankful. The fact that the book explored the two contrary states of the human soul with such craft and clarity was, to me, hugely captivating. Blake, this visionary and mystical poet, retrieved the strongest universal symbols in his poetry such as “the lamb”, representing innocence or God’s love; and “the tyger”, representing experience or God’s wrath.

Portrait of William Blake

The fascination I felt for the simplicity with which Blake depicted both animals with opposite meaning, but both made by God’s hand impelled me to continue reading his works in the following years. At the same time, the musicality of his poems and the precise composition of his rimes made an impact on me. I further studied this author when I was in my early twenties and I also took a course in romantic poets, his contemporaries; but Blake is the one to whom I always return. I think it’s because, through his work, he taught me  what the power of imagination is really capable of. He was the founder of his own mythology and the universes he created through language and images are still alive. His creations show that all the arts can be found together: literature (the texts he wrote), visual arts (the images he painted and engraved) and music (the rhythm and rime in his poetry).

The idea of the artist as a creator of a parallel world or reality where we can escape from everyday life has been an obsession for me ever since. Reading is the vehicle through which one can enter this world created by a writer or artist. Reading helps us readers become artists, as well, as we follow the path marked by the authors we love or admire.

Prometheus and the Fire

I truly believe in the power of inspiration and I think of Blake as an inspired author. When I think of him I think about the image of Prometheus, stealing fire from the Gods to share it with us humans. Maybe there is a divine flame inhabiting those inspiring poems we read. Some texts are able to enlighten us and some of them aren’t. There is a kind of magic which remains latent in words until we read them. We readers can bring words to life while reading, as if we were casting a spell.

Good books have a soul inside them. These souls are looking for a body to incarnate: a good and sharp reader that knows how to understand and interpret the texts will provide it to them. Texts are like a sleeping beauty waiting to be awoken by a kiss, and this kiss is the act of reading: the reader can be the prince chosen to awake the princess who is asleep in the written word. This is what I imagine that happens when I read Blake and other authors that move me.

Today, Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Lamb” inhabit my mind; they have the same sounds of a childhood lullaby and I often turn to them when I am in distress. They have a soothing quality. Blake’s works have a strong insight on human nature and on the opposite forces that dwell in us. The power of his words can be compared to the warmth of the maternal presence, a protective being that watches over us and teaches us how to know the world, ourselves and the divine forces at the same time.