Here and Now

Posted: January 27, 2016 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

The practice of mindfulness began with the oldest philosophies, yet in a world inundated with distractions and desires it is more necessary than ever.

Everything can be done in a state of mindful focus and intentionality. I am reminded of the “Zen art of sweeping the parking lot” as expressed by a teenage employee who was gently mocking the advice of his boss, the owner of the small convenience store at the end of my road who believed that a well-maintained parking lot is a beautiful thing, achieved with the utmost care and purposefulness. When engaged in what I consider the best things in life: walking, dancing, baking, cleaning, cooking, swimming, I am filled with the joy of the activity, living fully and happily in the moment.

A recent study attempts to measure the impact of mindfulness on happiness, applying technology in an ingenious way while gleaning an astounding amount of insight thanks to the possibility of enormous research participation through an application feeding the findings to the TrackYourHappiness.org project. A discussion of the discoveries can be found in the TedTalk by Matt Killingsworth.

The results yield fascinating insights, particularly the significant correlation between mindfulness and happiness, determined through feelings of well-being experienced when people are truly present and engaged in the current moment and activity, whatever that may be.

Another extremely encouraging result is that among all the activities human engage in, the one activity that engages us the most, commanding 90% presence in the moment, is having sex. I find this data incredibly reassuring since it provides positive proof of the powerful impact acts of love wield on our imagination, in case the plethora of novels, paintings, songs, and poems weren’t proof enough.

I recall a related definition of happiness from the movie Shadowlands

Jack: Now I don’t want to be somewhere else anymore. Not waiting for anything new to happen. Not looking around the next corner, not the next hill. Here now. That’s enough.

Joy: That’s your kind of happy, isn’t it?

Jack: Yes. Yes it is.

Intentional, intense, and sustained attention can be built also a reliable life skill. Often challenged by the many diversions of modern life, concentration must be established and maintained to accomplishing anything. Thus, the practice of mindfulness and development of focus becomes more crucial; I remain firm in my position that smart phone dependency undermines daily productivity and happiness, among other things. No matter what we are in the midst of, more contentment emerges through finding meaning in each moment.

Recently, my friend Kris created a mindfulness project for his art students, inviting a yoga instructor to expand his students’ understanding and inform their work. He’s the kind of art teacher who ensures learners go on to lead meaningful, creative lives.

As for engaging in moments that are less wonderful, it seems that accepting the difficult days as they are might be the best strategy, too. We must find the strength to live through things. Here, again, Kris offers wise counsel, including accepting the aches which accompany life, “pain now or pain later,” is his sage advice.

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Whenever possible, we must seek to live fully and deeply in each moment. Indeed, being fully present is an extraordinary act of choice, one upon which our happiness may even depend.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

It is difficult to decide what Star Wars’ fans like to do more: Watch Star Wars, or identify all the influences and cultural references within the Star Wars film universe? Countless books, articles and blog posts have attempted to decipher the shoulders that George Lucas stood upon in making his space opera. Most people by now have heard that Lucaskuro9 created a tale that fit Joseph Campbell’s meta-myth structure, or that he gave life to characters similar to those in the samurai films of Kurasawa, or that he sometimes blatantly copied old Flash Gordon television serials.

Star Wars’ fans devour this seemingly arcane information, and I am a Star Wars’ fan. As such, I have always been intrigued with the sometimes obvious, sometimes obscure cultural references contained within Lucas’ masterpiece. But, as a student, and now professor of European history, one reference/influence has always struck me above all others. George Lucas obviously created his evil Empire in the guise of the ‘fascist aesthetic’ most infamously formed by the German director Leni Riefenstahl, and her 1935 Nazi propaganda film ‘The Triumph of the Will.’
Leni Riefenstahl was a famous, talented, groundbreaking German filmmaker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. And like many of her German cohorts of the era, Riefenstahl became a follower of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party. She used her immense talents for the party, directing a number of full length propaganda films. ‘The Triumph of the Will’ is her most influential and troubling work. ‘Triumph’ is a roughly two hour celebration of the 1934 Nazi party rally in the Medieval city of Nuremberg. 120 minutes of Nazis goose-stepping and cheering the ‘Führer’. If you have in your mind’s eye an image of fascist spectacle, it has probably been molded by Riefenstahl’s film.

Riefenstahl’s films were as artistically influential as they were politically abhorrent. Filmmakers could not ignore her innovative cinematography. Her techniques of wide Triumph-of-the-Will-2shots, crane shots and sweeping cameras were co-opted by many after her. When I first saw ‘Triumph’ as a sophomore in college, I realized Lucas was one such director. Riefenstahl made the 1934 Nazi rally look massively popular and powerful by setting a camera high above the whole parade grounds, recording thousands upon thousands of Nazi party members lined in rows. In such shots, the Nazi hordes are a man-made sea, being parted by the all- powerful leader, Adolf Hitler. In the same film, Riefenstahl records Hitler high above the masses, standing upon a giant concrete viewing station and watching stoically as his SA and SS march by on the parade ground. When viewing such scenes, it is impossible not to see Darth Vader 7dafa3515f1704408b38da906ceba044and the Emperor marching through masses of Imperial Stormtroopers. Lucas made such scenes even more powerful by using John Williams’ ‘Imperial March’. In this, he was no different than Riefenstahl, who used music in much the same way. Of course, the music she chose for her celebratory film made the Nazi Stormtroopers seem heroic, whereas Williams’ march makes Vader’s Stormtroopers dreadful. For Lucas, the Empire and its’ leaders become the personification of political evil by being the reincarnation of Riefenstahl’s Nazis. The empire is fascism revived.
With such thoughts in mind, I must say I was excited to see if J.J. Abrams would continue utilizing the ‘fascist aesthetic’ of Riefenstahl for ‘The Force Awakens’. I was not disappointed. With modern computer graphics, Abrams was able to do so even more effectively, and spectacularly than Lucas.


Abrams’ ‘First Order’ feels fascist. The military outfits, the giant image of the supreme STAR-WARS-THE-FORCE-AWAKENS-First-Order-Bilderleader and the symbology that surrounds the movement illustrates that Abrams continued the fascistic look of evil from Lucas’ galaxy. Like Lucas, Abrams used Riefenstahl as the ‘First Order’s’ reference point. Just look at the apocalyptic speech by General Hux, as he prepares his troops for the destruction of the Republic. Wearing military haute couture, Hux stands on a massive concrete platform with red ‘First Order’ banners hanging behind him. He speaks to thousands of ‘First Order’ troops lined in formation. When he is finished, the troops raise their left hands in salute. Hmm, that definitely looks familiar, doesn’t it?

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Riefenstahl and fascism are living on in this new Star Wars galaxy. Happily, Rey, Fin, Chewy, Leia and Luke will be fighting it in Episodes VIII and IX. We must do the same in our own galaxy.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

My senior year of high school, I vowed to get in shape. At that point, I had been playing the role of “fat kid” since at least 5th grade, and I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin thanks to the teasing and invisibility to girls.

I decided to workout each day after school. I would go home, say hi to my mom, and then disappear into the basement, where I would lift weights and run tiny 25 foot laps across the room for 30-60 minutes.

I had always been athletic despite my weight, but the chubby kid will always get picked last for teams in gym class regardless of his abilities. My short basement laps weren’t just to get in shape; they were also to prove a point and train for a specific goal. Thus, my fitness coming out party was the day in gym when we had to do the PACER test (or “Beep Test”), which has everyone lineup on one side of the gym and run to the other end to the sound of beeps that set the pace.

Pacer test

Children being tortured by the PACER test.

It was back and forth in bursts, just like in my basement. As the test goes on, the beeps increase in frequency, and most people cannot keep up. Once a person fails to make it across the gym before a beep sounds, they are eliminated from the test. After more than one hundred beeps, the handful of runners remaining were typically stars on the track, cross country, and basketball teams.

Beep Test

Normally, I dropped out around 30-something beeps. But this time, I finished the entire test with the other fit kids, to the shock of everyone in the gymnasium.

I kept running for a while after achieving that goal, but I found it hard to stay motivated, because running was hard to measure on my own. We didn’t have a treadmill at home, and there was no track near the house, so measuring time, speed, and distance was difficult. I tried to make up arbitrary courses to time myself on with my handheld stopwatch, like running down the street around the cul-de-sac and back in the fastest time possible. It worked for a time, but ultimately it felt unsatisfying. I tried driving over to tracks to run, but it all seemed too complicated.

I fell away from running for almost a decade, and when I got back into it, one of the biggest motivators to help me succeed was my smartphone and MapMyRun app. Suddenly, I could run anywhere I wanted and know how fast and how long I was going. It also tracks all my data, so each time I went out to run, I could push myself to run a little faster and farther than before. In no time, I went from someone who dreaded running a mile or two, to someone who was running half-marathons. I could have always been running outside, but the app was that extra little push to motivate me.

Technological innovations that inspire and motivate us aren’t new, necessarily – they just continue to evolve and improve. For example, like many people, my fiancee is currently obsessed with her FitBit. There have been days when I find her walking circles around our kitchen table so she can make her daily goal of steps. The device’s accompanying app allows FitBit users to compete in daily steps challenges, and during her first challenge against family members, I thought she might attempt walking to the moon in order to claim victory.

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That FitBits are so popular seems odd when broken down to its most simple function: it’s a pedometer, which is nothing new at all. But the FitBit is a fancy, elaborate, 21st century pedometer that will get someone like my fiancee to demand we go for a walk at night in freezing temperatures just so she can win her FitBit challenge.

Likewise, last week, I downloaded an app called “Productive” that is intended to build habits. Users input what habit they would like to form – such as exercising daily – and the app delivers notifications to encourage the behavior, as well as tracks data like successful/unsuccessful days and streaks of successful days.

I have five habits in my app, including exercise and writing. For writing, I felt I had fallen off the wagon pretty hard in recent months. Now, within five days of downloading the app, I have written and performed a nonfiction story at a local live lit show, penned an Op-Ed article that I submitted to the New York Times, and wrote this piece for the Flaneur’s Turtle. I’d say the free app has been worth it so far.

Of course, all of the apps and devices can only work if we support their missions with our own willpower and action. No app can do the exercising or writing for me; well, not yet, at least. There are also plenty of arguments that can be made that technology is making us lazier and more dependent, rather than self-motivated and independent. (See: Wall-E.)

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I understand the satire, but I still kind of want a floating chair…and a soda.

Yet, sometimes it takes only the tiniest spark of motivation to spur us to keep pushing forward with our goals, and if that spark is a notification on our smartphones – a device we all have in front of our faces at all times – then it’s all the better and easier to be inspired.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

On December 19th, I began to read the most famous novel of all time.  I hefted Leo Tolstoy’s epic masterwork War and Peace off my shelf for the first time in years. When I say years, I mean years. I had actually read War and Peace one time51qFi0rYw7L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ before when I was 21 years old. Back then, during the Spring Semester of my Junior undergrad year, I signed up for a course titled ‘Great Books’, or something like that.  We had to read Homer’s Iliad, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Tolstoy’s aforementioned monster.  That is A LOT of reading for a 15 week course.

It was a pretty interesting course. However, I really didn’t need it to graduate.  I signed up because I thought it would be fun. I enjoyed the class and I enjoyed the readings, but I did not want to produce any of the work.  I just wanted to learn about the books. So, I did something that I probably shouldn’t discuss: I dropped the course, but kept doing the readings and showing up to the class.

What can I say? I’m a bit of a nerd.

At 21, I enjoyed War and Peace.  I don’t think it was the first Tolstoy I had read, but it was undoubtedly the first of his great novels I tackled.  I must have read it when it was cold outside because, for some reason, whenever I would think about the book in the years following it would make me think of winter.  And so over the last few winters when it would get cold outside, I would think fondly of the big ol’ tome.

Which brings us back to December 19th. I finally cracked that monster open again. It had been 18 years since I had read it so I really didn’t remember a great deal. Would I still enjoy it?  It was questionable. Over the last 3 or 4 years, I have re-read some ‘great works’ that I loved in my early 20’s.  Maybe it was to be expected, but I found that my late 30’s self felt differently about said books.  Some books really spoke to me at an older age more then they did at a younger age.  One of these was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remember slowly slogging through that book when I was 20. When I read it at 35, I absolutely loved it! On the other hand, one of my favorite books when I was 21, Albert Camus’ The Plague really didn’t hit as hard the 30-something me.

So, what about Tolstoy’s epic? 39 years of age, or 21 years of age made no difference. It was, is and always will be amazing.  I realize many people get intimidated by the size of the book, the number of characters and the historical references therein, but I think that is war_and_peace_is_heavy_readingbased upon reputation and heresy more than reality.  Many will sit down and read all the Game of Thrones books, and each of those are only a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s work. Plus, there really aren’t that many main characters; ten or so protagonists make up roughly 80% of the book. Granted, the historical aspects of the book can confuse, but all you need are some end-notes to clear things up.

Tolstoy’s writing in War and Peace is simply awe-inspiring.  The psychological portraits of even the most secondary characters make you feel as though you have truly entered a complete world; a world that is not easy to extricate yourself from. After finishing the chartemainaltarbook, I felt spiritually charged. Only the greatest pieces of art have this ability. I believe a good analogy would be walking into Chartres Cathedral for the first time.  The size, the colors, the sounds, the epic nature of the environment must take one aback. Even if you don’t believe in what the church represents, the grandeur of the product still moves you. This is much like Tolstoy’s creation. At times, Tolstoy’s esoteric mystical Christianity shines through in certain characters’ beliefs, words and actions. While I in no way buy into Tolstoy’s religion, it is difficult not to be moved by his descriptions of the sacred.  War and Peace is Chartres, Rouen, Notre Dame in written form.  The nice thing is, you don’t need to travel thousands of miles across an ocean to experience Tolstoy.

So, what book is next?  I need some time to think about that one.

from A to Z

Posted: January 5, 2016 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Beginnings and endings get a lot of attention. 20130702_a-to-z_91

I use the alphabet as a calming go-to-sleep tool, thanks to the advice given by my excellent psychologist friend, Maddie.

Having discovered the intellectual fun of creating alphabetical lists, I introduced the exercise to my classes.

In my Fall 2015 course, I reached the pinnacle of that practice when I asked to my students to create an alphabetical list of what they value in life; the results were amazing, brilliant, creative, downright extraordinary! Fortunately, I took a photo of the result, a memento of a conversation that will no doubt remain among the most wonderful and meaningful experiences in my teaching career.

ABCThe alphabet can be used as a poetic instrument as well, done vividly in the abecedarian entitled “ABC” by Robert Pinsky.

The A to Z approach tantalizes with a sense of order that the chaos of life denies.

As I struggle through the heartbreaking conclusion of a love affair, which has been slowly, painfully ending for a year, I wish, in vain, to go back to the beginning, knowing (but not quite feeling) that the end would be the same.

Life moves in one direction. We can begin again, but only in the place we are now.

Ultimately, the desire for an ending leads to the same place, brilliantly articulated in “The School” by Donald Barthelme and the perfectly awful “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood. Art tells the terrible truth of life.

Beginnings seldom announce themselves.

Endings are rarely what we wish them to be.

Meanwhile, the Alphabet talks it all in stride, certain in its totality, until it packs a bag and travels elsewhere, only to discover that there are other alphabets that do not begin with A or end with Z, and suddenly nothing is sure, and anything is possible.

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Get What You Need

Posted: December 15, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

The price of getting what you want, is getting what you once wanted.” ― Neil Gaiman

A photo inspires my reflection this week: a snapshot taken at a family Christmas, perhaps ten years ago or more. In those days, we would gather my mom’s fifteen grandchildren near the Christmas tree, offspring filling the couch and chairs and spilling on to the green carpeting in her family room. Aunts and Uncles would place gifts in front of each and let them tear away at the wrapping paper in a giant frenzy of childlike glee and Christmas present heaven.

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One of my nieces, Annabelle (now 18) has been caught by the camera just before opening her gift, a moment of utmost desire and anticipation. She has her eyes closed; clearly wishing, hoping she will get what she wants.

Sadly, outside of the rarefied world of lucky childhood Christmases, we can’t control what we get and what we don’t get.

Often, what we want most is just to keep moving forward on the path we know, but the universe intervenes, blocking our path, forcing us to turn left, requiring us to enter unknown territory and leave behind the comfort of the familiar.

Life saddens and surprises us in ways we didn’t even stop to consider.

Relationships end; projects falter; opportunities vanish; we helplessly look on as our fondest hopes and dearest dreams come to nothing.

We ask for things, tangible and intangible, but what we want rarely comes to fruition. Instead, we settle for Rock & Roll philosophy and a halfhearted belief that we will “get what we need.”

The grand disappointments in our lives do not make sense; however, we can, and must, make sense of things, dealing as best we can with what we get and what we don’t.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

During the last week, America has been paying an inordinate amount of attention to world events. On Friday night, terrorist attacks in Paris killed over 100 people. After the attacks, Americans started to (finally) pay some attention to Syria, where a Civil War has ripped the nation apart, giving Syria_areas_of_control_March_2014opportunities to groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) to find a territorial foothold.  Unfortunately, most US citizens ignored Syria and the instability of the region until the day ISIS began targeting areas outside the immediate region. Hence, a bomb going off in a marketplace in Beirut on Thursday passed through the 24 hour news cycle with nary a whisper, while the attack in Paris was front-page news with fully invested in-depth reporting.

For the most part, Americans have no idea what ISIS is, or what they want. Their story is too complex for most Americans to follow, and, to be quite frank, most US citizens just don’t care to follow foreign affairs.  The majority of the nation concern themselves with sports, video games and the lives of celebrities, and don’t worry about the world outside their immediate selfie-bubble.  The one thing Americans do seem to know though, is that ISIS is made up of some pretty bad guys.  Whether it be beheading those identified as heathen apostates in Syria, or shooting civilians randomly with automatic weapons in Paris, ISIS fulfills the Hollywood villain role quite nicely.  Of course, for most Americans, when this is happening ‘over there’, we can simply shake our heads and declare such actions monstrous, evil or devilish, and turn the channel. ISIS is not sticking ‘over there’ though. As Americans feel it hitting closer to home, our rhetoric of fear and aggression has intensified .

Evil. I never like to use that term.  Strangely enough, it is too comforting of a word. Labeling something or someone evil simplifies complexities.  It glosses over reality. If our enemies are evil, then we are good.  If they are

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Jim Acosta

 

evil, then they easily explained.  If they are evil, all we need to do is kill’em and the world will all go back to normal.  In President Obama’s press conference the other day, a CNN reporter spoke for all those who want to live in such a simplistic Manichean world. Jim Acosta stood up and asked the President, why can’t we  ‘just take out these bastards’?  It is a simple question, and it is begging for a simple answer. The problem is, the situation at hand is not simple. Hard problems often call for difficult, ugly, complex, time consuming and unpopular solutions.

With this in mind, I would hope Jim Acosta, and all those he speaks for would take 10 minutes and read an analysis of the problem by one of the world’s experts on the psychology of terrorists.   Anthropologist Scott

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Scott Atran

 

Atran has written numerous books on how we should understand terrorists, and how we can hope to defeat the social challenges that give rise to terrorist movements. A couple days after the Paris attacks, he published an important article in the New York Review of Books that should be required reading for all American policymakers.   To me, this is the most clear explanation of what ISIS is, what they  want, and why they seem to be so popular with young people around the world.  I highly recommend you read it.  I will attach it below.

Paris: The War ISIS Wants by Scott Atran and Nafees Hamid.

If you are interested in more, here is Atran speaking to the United Nations earlier this year.
Atran at the UN

Troublesome

Posted: November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized
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By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I encountered an old Jewish myth that explains the origin of human suffering. Before life, each individual is taken to an enormous field of difficulties and instructed to select the bundle of troubles that he or she will take to earth. The most significant detail of the tale emerges when, after life, each person is brought back to the same field, only to select the same bag of troubles.

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“Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate),” Van Gogh

To be sure, each life comes with its own share of miseries. How does the conversation about the difficulties we face differ if we are lead to believe that we select our own troubles, and, after a lifetime of suffering, would still make the same choice?

The tale asks us to recognize of our own fallibility, and our tendency to choose, again and again, the same sorrowful path. The brilliant film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind offers a heartbreakingly beautiful exploration of this territory. We long for heartwarming, romantic love, but frequently allow ourselves to become mired in hurtful relationships. Choosing the same pain, over and over, oblivious, or at least in denial.

By virtue of being earthly creatures, we are subject to injustices of every type. Larger troubles, far out of our control, are created by worldly powers that exact a human toll throughout all of history. Each of us must constantly contend with the agonies of life.

The logical mind in us wants a reason; the creative mind transforms pain into art.

Blues music embodies our poignant endurance, blending knowledge, acceptance, and regret. “Trouble Weighs a Ton,” by Dan Auerbach, mournful, sweet, tells the same sad stories, and in listening we share in the common grief of humankind.
We rely upon the healing force of companionship, connection through art, and a community bravely moving forward; we can and must allow pain to transform us into more compassionate people.

Pain can also reveal our inner strength and determination. “We Shall Overcome,” has ultimately and astonishingly fulfilled its own prophesy.

break through from your mold

“Break Through Your Mold,” Zenos Frudakis

Suffering also builds empathy. Understanding the infinite difficulties in life allows us to connect with others, to share their suffering and ease their pain.

We must withstand tragedy after tragedy, but at least we do not have to do so alone.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty
I regularly ask my students to devote their time and attention to the crucial habit of reflection. In autumn, Nature herself asks us to reflect on death, and consider the ways that we allow death to coexist with life.

I am fortunate: most of the people I have ever loved are still on the earth. That will not always be so. Still, those that die are always present in our thoughts. And the many cultural traditions attached to the remembrance of the dead, The Day of the Dead among them, are necessary.

It seems appropriate to reflect upon the physical places and spaces reserved for death. The living must make these choices, since the dead cannot. Cemeteries tend to be lush and green, replete with old growth trees and acres of quiet elegance, and the habit of visiting and enjoying cemeteries as parklands is one of many ways humans have endeavored to practice philosophy. In “Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries” Rebecca Greenfield writes, “It gives you a sense of the finiteness of your life, the preciousness of your life. Cemeteries are places that make us reflect upon not just the mortality of those who are buried there, but on our own mortality.” Recently, I drove past Rosehill Cemetery in North Chicago, twenty acres of which had been re-purposed to include a nature preserve including biking and walking trails. The permeable border between life and death made manifest in this place confronts our need to understand and connect with the dead.

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Moreover, cemeteries are a lasting testament to the life of a people and a place. I was inspired by the tangible persistence evidenced in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Like others, I visited Arlington national cemetery (when staying with my brother) and was moved by the solemn changing of the guards at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The devotion and dedication paid to the loss of one who represents countless others: a somber and poignant experience. And nearly every tourist in New Orleans considers visiting the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, home to Marie Laveau’s tomb, to entertain the notion that the dead might be able to intervene on our behalf.

Human must grapple with loss and death. The recent discovery of an early burial cave was a tremendously exciting archaeological and anthropological find because it evidenced a shift toward the ritualization of death. More recently, an idea to replace coffins with seed pods in order to create lush “memorial forests” appeals to the human desire to see new life spring forth, perhaps abating our grief in some small way.

Cemeteries remain among the few silent spaces, solemn and lovely, inviting us to remember those loved and lost, and to consider life’s inherent brevity, and attendant beauty.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Like so many others, I am absolutely psyched for December 18th, 2015.  If you need to ask why, then you probably are not going to understand my excitement. On that day, the new Star Wars is released, and like many within my generation, I will be star-wars-episode-7-the-force-awakens-trailers-poster-640x330lined up at a local theater with bated breath waiting to experience the continuing adventures of Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie. However, I will NOT be dressing up. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll tell you who is crazy though…

Last week after the third and final trailer for Episode VII was released, a strange Twitter trend began.  Evidently, a small group of fools have decided that they should boycott this new Star Wars film because it is ‘promoting a multi-cultural agenda’ and, hence is evidently ‘anti-white.’  A few extremist internet trolls have even argued that the film supports ‘white genocide’.  White genocide…….white genocide.  Lord.

When I first read this my immediate thought was, ‘what is wrong with people?’  Perhaps it was simply a ridiculous hoax? Nope. No such luck. There are obviously people out there who truly believe this garbage.

But, when I started to look into this ridiculous story, I grasped a larger more worrying trend.  As movies begin to slowly get more diverse (far too slowly for the most part), racist responses to film casting are becoming more common.  Star Wars is just the latest, and most extreme example.  In 2012, the first Hunger Games film faced a similar racially charged response.

Amandla Stenberg is 'Rue' in THE HUNGER GAMES.

Amandla Stenberg is ‘Rue’ in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The futuristic, dystopian film had many white fans upset that a character who they assumed was white was played by an African-American actress.  Similar online anger was spewed in 2014 because of the remake of Annie.

So, what to take from this? Why does this bother so many people? I believe the Twitter reactions in these cases point to the heart of modern racism, and why it is still a huge problem within our society.

On an individual level, racism is a system of thought that breeds dehumanization of whatever group is identified as the Other.  Of course, we can look at innumerable examples of racism in American history for illustrations of such beliefs and practices. But perhaps the most obvious example, and most extreme example of dehumanization of the racial Other took place in Nazi Germany.  Nazi Germany was a totalitarian state based upon the ideology of ‘Aryan’ supremacy.  For the Nazi state, this supremacy was constantly attacked by the supposed racial degeneracy of the Aryan’s immortal enemy,

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda

the Jew.  Ad nauseum, Nazi propaganda portrayed the Jew not only as dirty, slovenly and treacherous, but also as a dangerous, even deadly, non-human.  Jews were vermin, they were bugs, they were bacterium. The ‘bacillus of Judaism’ was to be destroyed.

Such dehumanization attempts to destroy humanity’s natural desire to empathize.  All humans empathize with others. We can literally feel the physical and emotional pain of others by putting ourselves in their situation,  It doesn’t even need to be a loved one. Humans can empathize with any random stranger.  It comes absolutely naturally.

Empathy helps explain why we love film as much as we do.  Most people want films with action, adventure and a great story.  Those things are great, but without the human element, without characters we can empathize with, action and adventure falls on it’s face. If you want proof, just think about how people responded to the prequel trilogy of Star Wars (Episodes I, II, III). George Lucas’ telling of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side, and eventually, into Darth Vadar. These unbelievably anticipated films should have been classics. Instead, they were critical and popular flops. Why?  Many felt that Lucas depended upon ‘cool’ computer graphics too much, ruining the magic feel of the original trilogy. That had something to do with it. But, what ruined those films was the fact that the human beings in the

We should care, but we don't.

We should care, but we don’t.

audience were not able to care about any of the characters.  We couldn’t empathize with them.  Bad acting, bad story development and bad scripts ruined the films.  When Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala dies in childbirth, most of the audience yawned. When Anakin/Vadar finds out about the death of his wife (Portman), and reacts with a guttural bellow of pain, the audience laughed. There was absolutely no empathy, and it was understandable.

The twit tweeters who want to boycott the new Star Wars, or who were angry at the Hunger Games or disturbed by the new Annie illustrate their lack of empathy.  However, this lack of empathy does not come from bad acting, or a trite script. This lack of empathy is a sign of the pernicious horror of racism. For those who complain when a character is ‘not white’, or not the correct race, they are truly illustrating that they can’t, or they consciously don’t want to see these characters as human.  For the twitter trolls, the actor and the character he or she plays can only ever be a racial category: An Other.   Finn, Poe Dameron, Rue or Annie become only ‘black’ or ‘Hispanic’.

This is the heart of racism, and why we should take such Twitter trolls seriously.