Saturday, February 23, 2013

Millennials and Es Meson

The Greeks of Classical Athens had a habit they called es meson or "putting it in the middle."  To make a matter or a person es meson was to bring them up for public scrutiny and debate.  Athens moderate climate favored this habit by encouraging as much of life as possible to take place out doors in a common area.  Thus even the homes of wealthy Athenians were relatively sparse, and wealth was often displayed in out-door public works projects that could be enjoyed by citizenry as a whole.  Along with the geographical climate, the political climate favored es meson as well.  Athens, during most of the Classical Era, was a democracy and, as thinkers from time immemorial have noted, democracies favor institutions that allow the franchise holder to have his say; a say on everything.

The modern United States is a vast and geographically diverse country separated from Classical Athens by about 2,500 years.  Nevertheless, we also have a democratic habit of es meson.  De Tocqueville noted this n his visit and others have noted it since.  U.S. citizens feel required to both have and state an opinion on everything at the drop of a hat.  Distance and winter once served as a check on this habit until the coming of the telegraph.  With the advent of the internet, the process is only accelerating.

Now what does all this have to do with Millenials (those born around the turning of the millennium)?  I think certain social trends among this generation may further deepen the old democratic habit.  Aside from the aforementioned internet, Millenials are noted for placing far less emphasis on acquiring private property and placing far more on shared experiences.  Whether in sunny SoCal or wintry Wisconsin, this shift in emphasis sounds like a move back to Athens.  Furthermore, the Athenians linked the habit of es meson directly to the strength of the democracy (whether they thought that democracy good or bad).  I wonder, then, if Millenials' tendency to place a premium on shared experience is a sign that a strengthening of the United States' democratic order (for good or ill) is coming down the pipe.  Of course there are many other factors also in play, but it's something I've found myself wondering lately.  A democratic culture is about so much more than showing up at the polls and so it seems worth considering things that don't usually come up when talking politics around the water cooler.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Pondering the Puritans With Miller and Demos: The Platypus Reads Part CCXI

Reading Arthur Miller's The Crucible for the first time has helped to fill in one of those lamentable holes in my high school reading experience.  Also pushed off till adulthood was Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  I'm catching up.  What can I say?

Well, what I can say is that the historian in me itches every time I seem see the Puritans deliberately demonized to serve their descendants various pathologies: religious, political, psychological, or otherwise.  Now don't get me wrong: I enjoy Hawthorne and Miller and will be re-reading their masterfully crafted works many times over (D.V.).  Still, as a historian and former resident of Olde New England, there's a part of me that can't stand to see history brutalized to serve an agenda.

Satisfying that rather aggrieved part that insists on its wie es eigentlich gewesen now seems the order of the day.  Filling that role then is John Demos' The Unredeemed Captive.  I'm still in the middle of it, but what I like so far is the broad view of the Puritans Demos takes: that they are but one group among many negotiating the chaos caused by European expansion and exploration in the wake of the "Renaissance" and Reformation(s).  They are neither (so far) the center of his story nor the villains.  In fact no one seems to be particularly the center or the villains.  Individual acts of brutality or humanity are recorded with perhaps a shadow of the frown of condemnation or the nod of approval, but final verdicts are left up to the reader.  Demos may suggest, but he seems to understand that his audience is mature enough to make their own decisions where necessary (where necessary  How often do we sit enthroned like God to render the last judgement on our "poor benighted ancestors"?  What would we do if we suddenly found our situations reversed and the dead were judging us!).

That's where things stand at the moment.  I'll let you know more as my thoughts coalesce.  In the meantime, remember: the Platypus speaks Truth.    

Monday, February 04, 2013

Guinevere and Julia: The Platypus Reads Part CCX

Connections are forged at the oddest moments.

We were discussing Tennyson's Guinevere, part of his larger work Idylls of the King, in class today and focusing in on Arthur's final speech to Guinevere.  After painfully listing every consequence of her sin, Arthur pardons and forgives the Queen, affirming that he loves her still and hopes to see her in paradise.  In the meantime, however, even if he should win his war with Modred, he tells her that they can never be together again lest the kingdom thinks that the king's justice can be set aside for family loyalty.  It's a harsh sort of self-limiting that strikes one as quintessentially Victorian: duty before love and all that.  Stuffy.  If we read Tennyson correctly, it's not, but an odd way of seeing that struck my mind today as we were discussing: I thought of Charles and Julia's pact in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to never see each other after they become convinced of God's existence.  Call Waugh what you will, I don't think he can be accused of being a stuffy old Victorian.  Still, he requires the same earthly renunciation of his leading couple in the middle of a thoroughly Modern novel.  In Waugh's case, it's not the corruption of a kingdom that's at stake but the corruption of personal integrity and belief: I we believe that the world happens to be a certain way then, like it or not, we must live in accordance with that way or be crushed.  That is a change, but rather one of emphasis, I think, then substance.  Both authors challenge us with the idea that some things might be more important than our temporal "happiness," that living in the real world might cost us something tangible.  G.K. Chesterton, though no fan of Tennyson (perhaps because he was too close to him in time and space), states this case positively when he talks of "the right of a man to be held to his oaths" in Orthodoxy, that it's a necessary part of all romance and adventure that we not be allowed to weasel out every time our beliefs land us in hard places.  Art is limitation, whether we're aesthetes, adventurers, or the builders of Camelot, and all three authors seem to be saying that it is our willingness to be bound by morality, even when it hurts, that makes the art in life possible. 

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Returning to Exalted's Dragon-Blooded (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCIX

One of the things I'm appreciating during my read through the first edition Dragon-Blooded rulebook is the way that it balances the need to create a fully-realized sub-creation with the fact that it's essentially a list of rules for a game.  A whole world is there before your eyes (government, cuisine, fashion, religion, geography, etc.), yet each and every fact is presented so as to suggest a germ of an idea for a role-playing session or campaign.  I constantly find myself pausing to consider how a tiny note on local folklore, the name of an eminent craftsman, or the relations between branches of the Imperial bureaucracy could be spun into a story.  Sure, there's plenty of flavor text and several short stories to set the tone and provide some obvious ideas, but it's the fact that even the little details are couched in such a way as to get you straight into the game that astonishes me.  As with the Exalted core book, the way that the information is deployed also provides the player with the maximum number of entry points into the world.  Social Justice your thing?  There are abolitionist factions among the slave-holding Dragon-blooded.  Prefer political intrigue and subterfuge, just look at the assassination etiquette common among the Thousand Scales.  Fancy fighting the man?  How about playing a rogue officer whose legion was just disbanded?  If your a fan of old westerns and wandering, hard-bitten heroes, try one of the Imperial magistrates.  Playing a demi-god not your thing?  There's plenty of information on the human citizens of the Blessed Isle from peasants to patricians.  This balance of creativity with playability is what I remember liking so much about role-playing in The Age of Sorrows during grad school.  Playing was fun, but the books were a pleasure to read on their own even if you didn't have a game running.  They got the creative juices flowing in ways that were as likely to lead to a drawing or a short story as to a campaign or a character.  A world was introduced to you along with a framework or rules and then you were invited to join right in helping to create and expand wherever you saw fit.

Once again, those are my thoughts for now.  The reading is still going and any epiphanies will be recorded here at The Platypus of Truth.