Sunday, 22 November 2009

What Are We Fighting For?

The war is on. It began the day you were born and it won't finish until you're a corpse. Welcome to the battleground of human existence. Our lot is one of constant conflict, so before you suit-up and take to the field you must ask yourself, "What are we fighting for?"

The Decadents believed that life should imitate art. In many ways art and life are reflections of each other. In the narrative arts there is the concept of the story. A story is a person with a problem and how that problem is resolved, accepted, or is victorious over the hero. A story is all about conflict. There is man vs. nature, man versus man, man versus society, and man versus self. Man is always versing someone or something in stories to resolve the problem; otherwise it would not be a story. 

Like our literary counterparts, we too are all versing something to some degree. We all have problems to resolve. Sometimes we choose our problems and sometimes the problems choose us, just like in the stories. So we can apply a little literary criticism and a spot of psychology to our existence to better understand and cope with our daily conflicts.

Conflict can be defined as a state in which the purposes of the individual are impeded. In adventure films, there is this thing called the shopping list. This is where the main character's mission is outlined for him. Such as Brody saying to Indiana Jones, "they want you to find the ark before the Nazis do and they are prepared to pay handsomely for it." This is the character's ultimate purpose and everything he does is directed towards that purpose.

Of course life is not always so clear cut. An individual may have a larger life goal in mind in some vague sense, but no real purpose. This too can be reflected in narrative fiction. If the hero is without purpose, then he must find one.

When I asked the question, "What are you fighting for?" I am asking about your purposes. What do you want? This is one of the most important questions an individual can ask himself. Before entering into conflict you need to know why and your objective. People do not always know what they want and sometimes they accept what other people tell them that they should want without really knowing or acknowledging their own desires.
One of the greatest blunders in military history was due to politeness. During the Battle of Gettysburg the Confederates needed to take a key hill. General Lee ordered, "If at all practicable, do take that hill." This was interpreted by General Ewell as a suggestion. There was no clear communication of the objective. The empty hill was key ground taken by the Federals due to Ewell's inaction and cost Lee the battle if not the war.

In the film Tombstone, Wyatt Earp answers Johnny Ringo's challenge with, "I'm not going to fight you Ringo, there's no money in it." However Doc Holliday accepts it saying, "I'm your huckleberry", meaning I'm your man or I'm what you are looking for. 

For Wyatt there was no profit in fighting Ringo. However, Doc hated Ringo therefore he had an interest in fighting him. In every conflict it is important to know your purposes and whether engaging in the conflict will produce any benefit, that is, profit.

A key aspect of assessing purpose is in knowing your value system. I have been in situations where I get into an intellectual argument with someone that I care about. I win the debate and I hurt someone's feelings in the process, and then I feel guilty afterwards. In terms of value systems, I appear to believe that it is more important to be kind than to be right. Also, there is more profit to be had in kindness than in feeding my ego.

Once you have a clear idea of your purposes and the profit in those purposes, then you must look to the power at your disposal. Power is the means to your purposes. Military victory is not always won by the most powerful army; rather it is through the most effective use of resources.

The understanding of purpose, profit, and power determines your strategies in conflicts. But first a bit about the enemy -- those impediments.

Impediments take the form of the individual versus nature, society, man, or self. Some of these impediments can be so easily overcome that they do not even register as a conflict, such as putting on a warm coat against the cold. Likewise we can be so easily impeded that we do not consciously recognise having even been thwarted. This is commonly called, "the slave mind" in which the individual accommodates the purposes of another without conflict ever entering their consciousness. Other conflicts are more apparent, more hard-fought, and more stressful.

Man versus Nature is little more than the human struggle for food, shelter, clothing, and safety. However, there is another important aspect of this. You might call it Man versus time, or entropy, or mortality. We have but a limited time on this sphere. It seems plentiful, but it is never enough. Time strips us of our energy, beauty, and opportunities putting us in constant conflict with the clock. Yet another aspect of this is man versus a non-sentient problem, like how to build a bridge over certain terrain or how to put a man on the Moon.

Man versus Man describes the conflicts with other individuals; these are those daily struggles of life more often than the grand conflicts of narrative fiction. These include little things like navigating a busy street, or office politics, or both getting and losing that special someone.

Another aspect of man versus man is men versus men. People, with a shared purpose, work together as a team to accomplish their goals. This may put them in conflict with another team with a contrary purpose. This is seen throughout human society from cliques to political parties to all out war.

Man versus Society is not so straight forward. Society is a collective word describing the interactions of many individuals with each other, either personally or through mass media. Each individual has a perception of what this amorphous thing called society is and most people do not even recognise that their unique perception is nothing more than an idea.

Nonetheless, each individual has a perception of a social norm which may or may not be accurate to varying degrees. Some individuals agree with the purposes that they perceive in society while others reject them. Those who reject them are now in a state of conflict.
Man versus Self describes an internal struggle of purposes at odds with each other. Do I want vanilla or chocolate? Do I want Ginger or Mary Ann? Do I want job security or freedom? Do I want to build a company or watch TV? Should I listen to the ghost and kill my uncle? Should I stay or should I go now?

In dealing with these types of conflicts we regularly face, there are five strategies employed by all individuals. Think of these as weapons in your personal arsenal with each being suited to a particular conflict situation. They are avoid, accommodate, force, compromise and collaborate.

One party uses non-assertive, passive behaviour and withdraws from the conflict and neither party is able to pursue their purposes.

Advantages: Keeps you out of situations where your involvement will only result in negative outcomes for you; in other words, there is no profit in it. May keep you from harmful influence of others; buys some time to muster your resources; attention can be paid to other purposes of greater value or profit; keeps you distant from issues others can manage without your involvement.
Disadvantages: Allows conflict to grow (snowball effect); sets the stage for a bigger explosion later; keeps any solution from being found; causes others to perceive that you do not care or that you are weak; leaves the impression that you cannot change; reinforces the notion that conflict is bad and should be avoided. If avoidance becomes a pattern of behaviour, it will lead to a severe sense of alienation, fear, and an inability to cope with conflict.
When to Use: The issue is not important to you; the issue has no real significant outcome; the issue is too emotionally charged and could damage the relationship.
When Not to Use: When a higher value or principle is at stake or profit can be lost.
One party puts aside his/her goals in order to satisfy the other party's goals.
Advantages: When you are wrong it shows you can be reasonable; when you are outnumbered it shows you can be flexible; if the issue is important to the other party but not to you, giving a little can gain a lot; Minimizes your losses if you are going to lose anyway; Advances harmony; and Displays trust of the other party's judgement.
Disadvantages: Reduces creativity; May explode later; the solution may cause more trouble than the original problem; the person who accommodated a solution may change his/her mind later; may demonstrate lack of commitment; lessens the power of the party giving in; and may foster a tone of competitiveness by being overly nice. If avoidance becomes a pattern of behaviour, it will lead to the dependency of the "slave mind" and the inability to know or choose one's purposes.
When to Use: The issue is not important to you; and you are interested in preserving the relationship.
When Not to Use: When a higher value or principle is at stake or profit can be lost.
One party achieves his/her own goals at the expense of the other party.
Advantages: Decisions can be made quickly; focuses on the goal and not on the other party (good only if the relationship with the other party does not matter); demonstrates commitment, focus, and the importance of the issue.
Disadvantages: Reduces the conflict to limited options; may harm the relationship between the parties involved; may explode later; may encourage covert behaviour.
When to Use: Quick action is needed; a higher value or principle is at stake or profit can be lost; and there is only one prize and no win/win option.
When Not to Use: You want to build a working, fairly long-term relationship; and
you have limited knowledge about the subject.
Both parties give up something to get partial goal attainment.
Advantages: Quick resolution is possible; can be seen as a win for both parties; demonstrates equal power balance; can be creative; appears reasonable to outside parties; and can be used as a last resort when other methods fail.
Disadvantages: Solution may not fit the demands of the situation; can be seen as a loss for both parties rather than a win for either; restricts creativity more often than it promotes it; and may be another form of avoidance so neither party has to make a decision (example: flipping a coin).
When to Use: Your goals are truly mutually exclusive (somebody has to lose); you have tried another strategy and didn't get the results you wanted; and you can give up issues that aren't important to you.
When Not to Use: Your goals are compatible; or when a higher value or principle is at stake or profit can be lost; or when the compromise has the potential to be poisonous in the long run. For example, a government run public option in the health care bill, no matter how small, has a very likely probability to expand over decades, given the nature of government programs, to become much larger and therefore effectively no compromise at all, but a loss for those against government run health care.
Both parties actively try to find solutions that will satisfy them both.
Advantages: Satisfies both parties; promotes creativity; demonstrates importance of both parties' goals; demonstrates importance of the relationship; demonstrates respect for the other party; builds trust in the relationship; demonstrates commitment to finding a good solution; gains commitment to solution from both parties; and promotes the idea that conflict can be productive.
Disadvantages: Consumes time and energy.
When to Use: The issue is important and requires long-term strategies, you want the most input into the solution; and you want to build a relationship.
When Not to Use: You don't have time; and you have little flexibility on the issue.

Each of these tactics is applied in every conflict no matter how large or small, whether the opponent is nature, man, society, or self, and they are learned from childhood. As part of our mental programs, each of the five takes dominance over the others as a preferential style.
Let's say a child wants some ice cream. The child asks their parents and the parent says no. There is now a conflict. The child wants ice cream and the parent does not want the child to have ice cream. They are at cross purposes.

The child may not want this conflict so he concedes. This can be seen as avoidance or accommodation. The parent wins. Let's say the child persists and begs, whines, or throws a fit. The parent repeated says no, but the child will not quit. Eventually, the defeated parent buys the ice cream. The child wins through force. Perhaps the child suggests a candy instead and the parent agrees; this is compromise. Finally, the child may promise to do the dishes in exchange, the parent agrees and buy the ice cream. This is collaboration; it is the win/win situation.

Now suppose the child wins every time he uses force to get his way. This sets a pattern of behavior where force is the primary option used and over time he becomes adept in using it. This skill is further refined as he encounters other force users as he matures. Perhaps in the face of a superior force user he chooses avoidance or accommodation as secondary options.
Here's another illustration. A few weeks ago I was reading Youtube comments pertaining to the rise of socialism in the United States. Someone wrote that he has been quiet long enough and now wants to speak out against the socialist policies. This is an example of man versus society and man versus man.
He perceives that American society is becoming more and more socialist and this is against his purposes since he does not want America to be socialist. Up to this point he has chosen either avoidance or accommodation. The man versus society conflict now begins in earnest. However, he is not alone in his beliefs. He can align with others who believe as he does. Likewise, there are those who are pro-socialist. The conflict now becomes man versus man.
He has three tactics left at his disposal. He may compromise, however that is a temporary measure as historically the socialists use force. By force I mean that for them compromise is always a stepping stone towards their goals. He could choose collaboration, however the fundamental principles are in such direct opposition that the likelihood of either party persuading the other to change sides is highly unlikely. The only remaining option is force.
This is where we consider purpose and power. What needs to be achieved and does he have the means to achieve it. Whoever can make the most effective use of resources wins. In this context, the primary type of power is people, therefore whoever can win the hearts and minds of the greatest number of converts will have the greatest means at their disposal to achieve their purpose. At present, that would be the control of the political machine.
Here's is one last scenario. Two people meet and fall in love. One of them equates love with giving, sacrifice, and an absence of conflict. At first this makes this person happy because it suits their purposes, however the conflict has already begun. 

No person exists for the sole benefit of anyone else. Therefore the initial conflict is man versus self. On the one hand this person sacrifices for a loved one's happiness and on the other they sacrifice their own purposes, the ones existent before they met. Over time this internal struggle may spill over into the relationship.
The giver may find themselves in that slave mind state where they are totally dependent on the other person and feeling a loss of self outwith the context of the relationship. The person may feel the need for independence and desires to leave the relationship while blaming the recipient of their love to be the source of their misfortune.

So one person wants to leave and the other wants to maintain the status quo. We now have cross purposes and a man versus man conflict. The person wishing to maintain the status quo is at the tactical disadvantage. Collaboration means convincing the other to stay which is difficult when the decision is an emotional one; compromise means a trial separation which makes the separation easier for the person leaving; force usually takes the form of emotional blackmail, guilt trips, and on some occasions physical violence all of which fail in the long run; and both avoidance and accommodation means walking away and therefore not achieving the purpose of maintaining the status quo.

Looking at this illustration of conflict again, I am reminded of all the variations of this scenario that I have either participated in or observed. Usually it is the man who is left and he goes a bit nuts. He is fighting to keep her or win her back, which is another way of saying maintaining the status quo. If we accept that life is change, then maintaining the status quo requires time travel. It's a no win game especially after the damage is done. There comes a point when winning and loosing has to be redefined according to our higher purposes.

I would argue that the highest human purpose is the pursuit of happiness. Of course what makes someone happy is subjective and the means to that end is an on-going debate and ultimately the source of all conflict.

In the above scenario, she believes she would be happy leaving him and he believes that he would be happy if she stayed. If we accept that all human life is an end in itself and that no one exists for the benefit of another, then he has no claim on her life. Tough pill to swallow.

If he can swallow it, then he may realize that his efforts to win her back is a fight he cannot win and that his ultimate purpose of the pursuit of happiness is being thwarted by himself the more he attempts to win a small, unwinnable battle for the sake of ego.

The key to living is having the wisdom to know thyself, your purposes, your resources, and the skills to use the tactics necessary to achieve your ultimate purpose of sustainable, long-term happiness. And of the different types of conflict, it's the man versus self one that's the hardest battle.

In writing this I realized how much more there is to write on this subject. I never did mention the importance of allies, people who share or support your purposes. That's pretty important too. Life is conflict, but that doesn't make people your enemies. Some folks are allies for now and some for life. Some are just opponents and others really are enemies out to thwart you.

Yes, life is conflict. But as the saying goes, "Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you." C'est la vie.

Friday, 6 November 2009

The Beautiful Life

What is beauty? Not an easy question to answer and believe me there are lots and lots of answers. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously. His example was recognising things were hopeless and yet still having hope. However, the very definition of logic is the art of non-contradictory reasoning. Something cannot be hot and cold at the same time.

When is comes to defining beauty there is actually one definition and a variety of imposed meanings and interpretations. Examinations of beauty over the centuries also opened up all the subtle nuances of meaning, such as the differences between the beautiful, the sublime, the grotesque, and the sexy.

Beauty is something that invokes in the viewer a feeling of delight. To the Classicists, this beauty was inherent in the object itself. People find proportion to be beautiful, also known as the Golden Mean. Beauty then becomes a simple question of maths.

The Romantics found beauty in chaos. Theirs was a more Dionysian than Apollonian approach. For them, the focus was on the individual's emotional response and not the object itself. Therefore Romantic art is characterised by strong emotion. The feelings the creators sought to inspire were awe, wonder, and fear. This came to be seen as the sublime, as opposed to the beautiful.

During the Romantic Movement we see the emergence of the grotesque. The emotion evoked by the grotesque is intrigued disgust and in the face of such a powerful feeling the response is often to laugh, so there is a humorous element to it as well. The archetypal grotesque character is the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Brian Warner's stage persona Marilyn Manson is another example.

The Victorians invented photography and soon after they invented porn. They also invented advertising. I do not know who coined the phrase, "sex sells" but it may have been some Edwardian. Since the early days of advertising, pictures or paintings of beautiful women were used to sell products from absinthe to toothpaste. If the Classical world gave us beauty and the Romantics gave us the sublime and the grotesque, then it might be fair to say that the Twentieth Century contribution to aesthetics was sexy.

What is sexy? How can a car be described as sexy? And yet it is. The emotional responses invoked by something sexy are arousal and desire. This is ideal for advertisers. They want you to associate the emotions invoked by the image with their product therefore making you desire the product. As a result we as a society are bombarded with sexy images constantly. Sexy has nothing to do with fucking. It's all about titillation and arousal. This aesthetic is not limited to selling goods. Sexy also sells music and even the public images of people. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are sexy, so I will pay to see their films and buy magazine with their pictures on them.

Language is how the human mind defines its perception of reality. If a word does not exist for a concept, the mind cannot conceptualise it beyond a vague sense. Since we both feel and act according to our concept of reality, then faulty language can at best limit our range of feelings and actions, and at worst it can bring about the end of civilization. Like the Tower of Babel crashing down because no one could understand each other.

These subtle nuances of meaning may seem a bit OCD in this age of casual and corrupted language. The question I pose to you, my dear reader, is whether you can tell the difference between the beautiful, the sublime, the grotesque, and the sexy? More importantly, can you distinguish between the emotions of delight, awe, disgust, and arousal? Then there are other emotions not thus far discussed, the feelings of attraction and lust.

I know of many girls who describe Marilyn Manson as beautiful and sexy and are complete with feelings of attraction and lust towards him. The last thing they would say is that he is disgusting. From what I've read and seen, Manson is a smart guy. He knows what he is doing and possibly knows what I am about to write here.

The grotesque invokes intrigued disgust. It's like looking at some thing so ugly that you cannot take your eyes of off it. Like the beautiful, the sublime, and the sexy, it stands out from the crowd and evokes a strong emotional response. Your sense of intrigue draws you closer even though you want to recoil. Some people are uncomfortable with those emotions. Others are drawn to it.

These people take delight in the feelings of intrigued disgust and after lengthy exposures to the grotesque develop an attraction to it and with that attraction come desire and lust. The initial feelings of intrigued disgust are supplanted by those of delight and arousal.

At this point, they can no longer make either the conceptual or emotional distinctions. So they say its sexy, cool, or whatever positive phrase comes to mind, but really all they are saying is "Me like. Good" in some primal fashion because they can no longer conceive of the nuances. This seems to apply across the board in our post-modern age. For a people supposedly obsessed with beauty and sex, we certainly lack any critical understanding of it. Now back to the grotesque.

The grotesque grew out of the Romantic Movement and is an indelible part of its idiom. There are those who would argue that the greatest Romantic novelist is Victor Hugo and that the greatest work in Romantic literature is his book Les Miserable. Hugo also wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the great novel on the grotesque. Romantics cannot disown their ugly little sister.

In the modern Goth scene you have the classic Gothic Romantic focusing on the sublime. He or she is striking, elegant, bold, and conveys a sense of power. Imagine Dracula or Heathcliff for boys and Vampira or Morticia Addams for girls.

There are also the grotesque Goths who disfigure themselves in the Marilyn Manson shock-style. They see this as attractive, but outsiders not conditioned to that aesthetic respond as people have always responded to the grotesque, with disgust and humour.

It is easy to see how, given the subjective nature of aesthetics, that the objective definitions and meanings can be lost or confused. The means of keeping this alignment is in understanding the concepts of attraction and lust.

Attraction is a feeling based on self-identification with a person or thing and derives from deeply held unconscious values. You may say that you really like a particular article of clothing, or painting, or object d'art. The feeling you describe as "like" is attraction. More commonly we use the word attraction to refer our attraction to certain people.

The people or things that we find attractive are not necessarily objectively beautiful. Herein lies the ability to say that someone or something can be recognised as being beautiful, sublime, grotesque, or sexy, but is not attractive to me. The image evokes feelings of delight, awe, intrigued disgust, or arousal, but I do not identify with it. There can be appreciation without identification.

I have met many women in my day. I have met the beautiful, the sublime, the sexy, and even the grotesque. Some have even been most of the above. They have filled me with delight, wonder, arousal, and intrigue. However, I did not necessarily find them attractive. I have met girls that any man, including me, would call a beautiful, sexy ten, but I did not feel lust. I have also met a few average looking girls who within seconds of meeting her I wanted to bend her over the nearest table.

Like attraction, lust is a feeling not necessarily associated with any of the aspects of aesthetics. Lust is more of a primal desire welling from deep in the unconscious mind. A homosexual male can feel the emotions that sexy is associated with concerning certain women, but he does not feel lust towards them.

In his book Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire writes of a glassier selling his wares on the street. The narrator calls him up the several flights of stairs to see what is on offer. Unfortunately, everything is dull and boring. No greens or blues. Nothing to inspire. So the narrator sends him packing all the way down the stairs with his hefty burden. Meanwhile, the narrator waits at the window till the glassier appears on the street and throws a flower pot at him causing him to fall and damage his goods. The narrator shouts, "Make Life beautiful."

I have a word for non-Romantics. I call them Mundanes, or Mundies. The world mundane comes from the Latin meaning worldly or of the world. Today, it carries the connotation of being routine, boring, dull, and lifeless. The Romantics believe in making life beautiful. This is not just about the material values in life. It is about feeling something about those things. It is about the passionate existence and actually living life fully, and not in a boring, routine where you simply accept everything society offers from clothes, to people, to lifestyle choices without question. If the things that you own inspire nothing and serve only practical function, then your existence is meaningless and mundane.

As emotional creatures, all human being have the capacity to appreciate beauty in all its forms. Be it beauty in the Classical sense of clean lines and proportion, or the dark ruggedness and grandeur of the Romantic sublime, the twisted fascination of the grotesque, or the sensuality and passion of the sexy. We can hold all of these apparently contradictory concepts in mind objectively and yet feel all the wonderful feelings that they inspire because they really are just superficial emotions to entertain us and make life more interesting.

The deeper emotions reside within the concepts of attraction and lust. These involve more than mere experiential appreciation, but also self-awareness. The full expression of it requires an understanding of our deeper unconscious values and desires. These we discover by examining our emotional responses. If something inspires attraction or lust, then take note of it. Don't over-analyse, just accept, be aware and find more of it. Soon understanding will come and when armed with that knowledge we truly can make life beautiful.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Restoration and Invigoration of the Romantic

In The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand writes about the natural Romantic tendencies of certain children and how as they mature this anti-Romantic society of ours immediately puts them on the defensive. They must either conform or prepare for a fight that they are ill prepared to wage at their level of maturity. I related whole heartedly.

Children look to society as it is presented to them via their parents, siblings, peers, and the media to find who to be and how to be it. Often children will identify with one set of messages over another. When "normal" children were into sports or music, I was into heroes. Comics, Mythology, American Tall Tales, Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and Indiana Jones. All strong with Romantic themes. I learned about relationships from the old Hollywood musicals my mother loves so much. This was the world I thought was normal. Of course that wasn't the case.

I have no doubt that other juvenile Romantics shared similar interests, but in the end we all come down different paths to the same rallying point as Romantics. When we take whatever our social imprints are into the playground we find that they are not normal, therefore we see ourselves as not normal.

Suppose there is no interest in sports and no innate athletic ability, then if you are an American your social status is immediately second class. If you are British and have not chosen a team to support, then you might as well be an atheist.

Suppose your intellectual strengths lie in the humanities, well, you won't be a science geek. Or let's say your musical tastes aren't't top 40 status. So you fall in with the "alternative crowd" who base their entire sense of self on the music and paraphernalia they consume. What if that's not your identity?

For girls, lets say you are a late bloomer or not immediately attractive? The upper status boys aren't going to sweep you into their league. If you're not into soap operas then you're out of the social loop with the other girls.

For the developing Romantic all these are knock backs. The message clearly received is you are weird, different, and at best interesting. As these children learn their place in society it is as the outsider. They begin to view their perception of mainstream society as representing the normal people and themselves as abnormal. Naturally, they seek to find "their own kind" and if they succeed they will largely congregate together throughout their school years. As a result they may or may not find successes in other available aspects of school like drama or politics because they would rather avoid others.

Some juvenile Romantics give in and join the greater social network within that microcosm that is school. Others may continue consuming their fantasies and become the stereotype sci-fi geek content in his little world but never learning any social skills. And others still may create an identity for themselves based on being different and never actually develop the necessary values associated with Romanticism. The result is being different for difference sake and reveling in that oddness.

Then there's politics. The images associated with the right are the businessman, the redneck, and the born-again Christian. If you do not see yourself as fitting in with these types then you automatically default to the left with the intellectuals, artists, minorities, and the poor. Notice children have no Libertarian Romantics on the menu of images to choose? Where does the developing Romantic have to go?

I always believed that I was destined to be the hero. I was not content to fantasize or pretend. Heroes are not fan boys. Indiana Jones would not wear an Indiana Jones T-shirt. He would wear a suit in town and a leather when out in the world. I did what a young Romantic should do. Emulate the hero until you find your own style.

But there was a problem. The social knock backs of youth become trivial when the wider world opens up after school years are done and the real task of living begins. The social pressures lessen, the variety of people and worldviews widens, and new opportunities for success, failure, validation, and rejection present themselves. Despite this emergence into adult life the old programs are still running.

I once read that people with a poor self-image see themselves as funny looking, awkward, and socially inept. The reason for this is that our sense of self develops as teens when we are funny looking, awkward, and socially inept. The pattern becomes set.

The mind then determines what we can and cannot have from the smorgasbord of life according to this pattern and will do all it can to both facilitate what it believes we are worthy of having and undermining those things "out of our league".

For example, if by some quirk of fate you find yourself joined to a partner that you deep down honestly believe that you do not deserve, then you will unconsciously sabotage the relationship and thus restore the pre-programmed state of how your life "should" be. It's the same principle as when the vast majority of lottery winners loose their multi-millions in a few years. The temperature is changed to match the internal thermostat.

It is important to remember that you are not your mind. Your mind does not care if your heart is happy or sad. It only wants to maintain a stable, familiar, pre-programmed mental state. If this state is left-over nonsense from junior high and high school keeping you from getting what you want, then so be it.

Paul McKenna is his book, I Can Make You Rich, tells of comparing notes of school memories with a friend of his. In maths class McKenna's working class word problems involved buying and selling apples and oranges whereas his upper-class friend's memories were of problems involving the buying and selling companies. One man was imprinted for poverty and the other for wealth.

The same holds true for the young Romantic's socialisation. He is imprinted as an outsider. Of course every person has those experiences as not everyone is in the schoolyard elite. Even the elite are in competition with each other. We all know the feeling of being the unworthy, misunderstood, outside. The real issue is one of degrees.

During my examination of the gothic idiom the great recurring theme was not sorrow, as any might expect, but power. The self-identification is with the powerful "monster" and not the victim. And yet in society we see that the gothic subculture is among the least powerful. Why? Because people work best as part of a team and the larger team tends to wield more power. The outsider persona cripples both Goths and the greater community of Romantics of which they are a natural part.

Power is the means to work ones will in the world. The more power someone has the closer they are to being their true self. As Nietzsche observed, we are driven by the will to power, but most people learn to accept their state of powerlessness.

I do not hold to the notion that power corrupts, it simply allows one's true nature the means to act out without limitations. If the end result is corruption and cruelty, then it was always there and only lacked the power to act on it. But what happens if our juvenile programming prevents us from attaining enough power of expression to achieve our Romantic aspirations?

I have identified seven forms of power: characteristic, physical, social, material, titular, legislative, and time. Underlying all of these is the basic requirement of self-belief. You have to believe in yourself and your worldview in the face of a world you perceive to be against you. Without that self-confidence your power supply will be limited. It is difficult to walk through the world with ease when you're in a state of fear and defensiveness due to an actual or perceived lack of power and efficacy.

There is a creature in Glasgow, and indeed Scotland in general, called a Ned. They are usually underclass or barely working class. There are those among them who have never worked a day in their life and some whose parents haven't either. For some, their availability to work is sorely handicapped by their mental, emotional, and social retardation possibly due to being pre-teen alcoholics killing off those developing brain cells. They are socialised among others like themselves and so know nothing of the world outside their little bubble.

For fun, Neds generally drink, but the greatest past time seems to be abusing others, either physically or verbally. I once knew someone, a fairly average, "normal" guy, who was mocked by Neds because they thought his hair cut resembled someone in a boy band popular at the time, so you can imagine the amount of abuse I have received.

The single greatest difficulty I faced in immigrating to Scotland was the Neds and the general Ned-mentality. Suddenly I was back in junior high, but facing a level of verbal abuse I never experienced as a child growing-up. The messages I received from their taunts were that I was a social outcast with no grasp of reality and at worst a joke. Imagine walking onto a bus and a group of people laugh at you then one says, "get a grip" or the ubiquitous "yeeha" on the street.

It wasn't just the Neds. It seemed that everyone I encountered wanted to make some comment about my appearance. Some negative, some positive, and some people thought that they were being funny (usually with a line that I have heard a million times before). The dominant feeling invoked was "how dare you".

I dress to impress myself, and if someone else is impressed then they are welcome to come along for the ride, but I do not dress for the benefit of others. I am not pretending to be something I am not. I am not wearing a costume. I am not here for your entertainment.

The words sting because deep, deep, down my unconscious programming agreed with them. On the surface I may fight them, debate them in my mind, and justify myself, and yet underneath part of me – my programming – agrees with them. The comments act as triggers evoking all those feelings of alienation from childhood along with all the baggage that goes with it.

I became very angry and defensive in my life, stuck to "my own kind", and constantly questioned myself filling my mind with self-doubt. If I wanted anything outside of my safe bubble I convinced myself that I could not have it on account of my handicap.

I have since adjusted to my life in Glasgow. The level of abuse is not what it once was and I have developed what I considered to be the correct posture for dealing with this. It is more than answering, or not answering, the fools who inhabit our globe. It is about self-belief. The reason I am either praised or mocked is because I stand-out, not unlike celebrities who are praised and mocked by people who do not even know them. I have come to accept these comments part of being who I am, just as any public figure must. So yes, these days I'm cool with it.

The post-modern Romantic has been told throughout his life that he is wrong. Is he? Of course not. He may consciously see himself as being right, he may stand defiantly, but how much of that defiance is born of fear, anger, bitterness, and jealousy? These negative motivations stem from the deep unconscious belief that he is, in fact, wrong. Who can blame him? Throughout his life he has been damned or praised for being different, which is the same as being outside, weird, and ultimately unlike everyone else.

You see, humans are creatures of two worlds. We have individual consciousness and we are also group animals who work best in a team. How do we reconcile this? What is too individualistic? What is too collectivist? We crave both liberty and acceptance. How can we have both?

We also crave truth. Whether we are right or not is largely irrelevant. We just want the assurance that our worldview is valid. This usually comes from other members of society telling us that we are right, also known as social validation. So how do you deal with life when society (as you perceive it) has been sending you direct or indirect messages telling you that you are wrong?

I want to emphasis again that this is not just the burden of the Romantics. Our commercial society is quick to tell people that they are wrong if they do not buy their product or their ideology. It's a matter of degrees and fundamentals. Romantics fundamentally disagree with the social mainstream.

Here is an example. There is more than one ethical system. Most people do not realize this. The dominant system is called altruism. The good is self-sacrifice for another and the bad is selfishness. The Romantics look to the Aristotelian system where the good is to flourish and the bad is destruction. Those who embrace the Aristotelian system are perceived as being selfish. This is a far cry from buying the wrong brand of deodorant in the grand scale of fitting in. The Romantic is not just wrong or weird; the Romantic is evil in the eyes of society.

The Romantics created the Modern world; unfortunately we do not live in the Modern world. Welcome to post-modernity. Of course there are still Romantic elements, but they have the style and lack the substance. For example, as a child growing-up I remember a TV ad for a clothing store called Millers Outpost. In one ad they called on people to be individuals while selling Levis, the most conformist article of clothing a person could wear. So we promote the Romantic virtue of individualism while at the same time encouraging conformity.

In the same vein, people outside the goth community say that Goths are trying to be individuals but they all look the same. This same person will happily go to the shopping mall surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of people wearing jeans and a casual top or T-shirt. Sure, the goth scene is subject to the same fashion trends as any other group, but a handful of Goths does not compare to a multitude of conformists who also see themselves as individuals.

In the modern world, the Romantics were heroes, but in the post-modern worlds they are outcasts, weirdos, and some times just plain evil. What we have here is a conflict of fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of reality. Children are exposed to elements of the Romantic, the style without substance, from an early age and if they identify themselves with those elements they find no encouragement from society in general and no means to develop along that path.

I have written extensively on the three "realities". Here's a recap. There is the Objective Reality, the world that is; the Subjective Reality, the world as each individual perceives it, and the Artificial Reality, the material and social man-made world. Each person lives in the Objective Reality and exists within their Subjective Reality as based on their experience of the Objective and Artificial realities.

In other words, the world and the people in it are real, however you can only experience your idea of it, therefore much of what you call "real" is not. It's just your idea. Likewise just as you respond to your idea of reality, other people respond to their idea of reality. Sometimes these Subjective Realities correspond and sometimes not. When they do not, then the result is conflict. When a whole group of people share a worldview that you do not, then you might begin to question yourself.

The final arbiter as to whether one Subjective Reality is truer than another is Objective Reality, the real reality. The outsider may have the opportunity to debate his point, but that rarely occurs in normal routine life. If it does, there is no guarantee that your opponents will see reason. Most people are happy with their Subjective Reality as it is and any threat to it is perceived as a threat to reality itself, since they believe that their perception is truth.

In conflict resolution, this reasoning together to arrive at a mutual win/win solution is called collaboration. There are five types of conflict resolution in total which are: Avoid, Accommodate, Force, Compromise, and finally Collaborate. Avoidance is simply withdrawing; Accommodate is acquiescence; Force is attacking either verbally, physically, or emotional to get your way; and Compromise is as it says on the tin.

In conflict situations people will use certain styles first and if that does not work thy will move through the list. For example, when I was tested on this I start with Collaboration and scored a zero on Compromise. So I would rather go along with things than compromise.

When the young Romantics face their initial conflict with society, there are those who avoid and become introverts avoiding others in general. Some accommodate in order to fit in and eventually join the collective. Some use force and become fierce individualists driven by the anger and fear that once dominated me. Some compromise never loosing their Romantic tendencies, but always cutting themselves short from what they really want for themselves. I advocate collaboration.

Collaboration requires a respect for the worldviews of others and an acceptance of the fact that not everyone sees the world as you do for whatever reason. I believe the Romantic is superior, however that does not give license to disrespecting others who are simply ignorant.

Collaboration also requires self-respect. You're views may not be mainstream. You may be mocked or damned by those who do not understand or those who wish to use force against you. In the face of this you must hold firm to the belief that your worldview is just as valid as theirs (if not more so).

If collaboration is not possible then avoidance comes into play. Will any good (flourishing) be accomplished by either using force or accommodation? When I was mocked by the Neds, I saw avoidance as silent accommodation. I believed that if I ignored them that I was given silent consent to their attacks. If I used force, as I have on occasion, I may change one mind but there are a lot of Neds. Do I want to live my life in perpetual conflict? No. Can I save them? No. In the absence of reason and the threat of physical force the only logical path is to leave them to their own fate to punish them.

Sometimes the conflicts come closer to home from family, friends, and co-workers. People close to us seem to love telling us who to be and how to live. Here, it is important to know your boundaries.

Victorians loved rules. Rules make sure that everyone was on the same page. Rules can be oppressive, yet it also makes life easier when the social expectations are clearly defined. For the Victorians, it was considered rude for a man to pry or question the motivations of another man. Of course it was done, but usually prefixed with an apology. "Not to pry into another mans affairs, but..." There was recognition of another person's right to themselves, their mind, their liberty, and their free will.

These days it seems that everyone has their hands in every else's pockets. The very notion that they should mind their own business is alien to them. To tell them to back off is seen as rude, mean, or hurtful. So a person is forced into a position of accommodation to keep the peace or out of fear of either being hurtful or being seen as a mean person.

In these worldview conflicts, collaboration comes first, but if that is not possible then force may be required if your personal boundaries are threatened. Be polite but firm. Your life is your own and your choices are yours. My parents did not always agree with the choices made by myself and my sisters, but they always supported our free will decisions. They even helped pick-up the pieces if it went wrong. There may have been an "I told you so", but it was in the spirit of "now you've learned something" and not "I'm right, listen to me from now on."

Here are few final thoughts. One thing that I have learned from studying hypnosis is that people will generally believe what you tell them about yourself. If you accept and believe in yourself, then they will too unless given evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes I see or meet girls that I think are out of my league. They are usually attractive, motivated, career women with boyfriends who are career men. I have no career. They are "normal" and I am, well, eccentric. I question my reality and see my reality as less real and therefore inferior to theirs. They are grown-ups and I am a child in a costume.

See the problem here? I've given myself a handicap from the start. Most of what we think is reality is just an idea. It's an illusion. So why not have an illusion that benefits you instead? If you see yourself as an outsider, then you are. If you perceive others to have it more together than you, then you are less than them (even if the fact is that they don't have it all together). If you believe in your world with confidence and conviction, then others will too.

I wrote earlier of Paul McKenna's childhood math problem. His working class schools used fruit for math problems and his upper-class friend's school used companies. McKenna then goes on to explain the importance of reprogramming these old imprints imposed upon us as children. This goes towards resetting the mental thermostat of what our minds will allow us to have.

McKenna's book is called I Can Make You Rich, so it focuses on resetting the wealth thermostat. He advocates reimaging a wealthy childhood instead of a poor one. This same process can be done regarding Romanticism.

On a positive note, Romantics are people who live life to the fullest, take chances, and walk through the world with ease. Their level of self-confidence is such that there is nothing that they fear. They do not fear failure, ridicule, or experience the "need" to fit it because they know that they do. The Romantic is not the freak or the outcast. He is a man of values and principles who does not compromise his beliefs or himself. His most prized possessions are his soul and his honour, which no one can take from him.

The contents of your mind whether they be memories or fantasies are equally valid as far as the mind and heart are concerned. Where the mind goes the body follows, so tell the mind where you want to go. Re-imagine your life as the one you want it to become. Think back on your past as one where you were that self-confident Romantic I just described. Imagine that wealthy childhood, the admiration of your peers, the great accomplishments even if it did not actually happen that way.

I know this may reek of self-delusion. Does it matter whether you were popular or not in school? It only matters in your memory – a memory that is setting the patterns of your life today. Besides, most of our memories are misremembered perceptions of events anyway. If that inner Romantic was repressed in your youth, then reconfigure your memories so that it wasn't repressed. Imagine a better past and you will have a better future.

In my teenage years I had no luck with the opposite sex. I was the loser without a girlfriend. At least that was my mental self-image. Since then I have had remarkable good fortune with many beautiful women. Did this matter? Nope. I still saw myself as the loser who couldn't get the girl. I always found some excuse to validate this poor image. When I was young it was because I was different, then it was because I was loosing my hair, then it was because I was getting old. The fact is that none of this matters.

I'm sharing all this personal information because none of us is unique in this regard. Everyone, Romantic or otherwise, has this same experience. For me it was relationships, for some people its wealth, for others its success. We all have this childhood programming holding us down.

Rousseau said that we live our lives in bondage from swaddling clothes to the shroud. I believe these chains are those of the mind. We are bound by our programming, but alas this is no master programmer. Random events, media images, social pressures, parental concerns, or lack thereof, all contribute to the mental system we foolish call ourselves.

You are not your mind. You are not your heart. You are your will, the will to power to be who you choose to be through your actions. When people look at you they do not see your mind or your heart. They see what you do.

I believe that there are many people who share my experience of Romanticism frustrated and misled in youth. As adults, we are still burdened by our perceptions and memories of the experiences. Likewise, I believe that process is still at work in schools across the Western world.

The answer is not to fight but to simply be. Use the power of imagination to recreate your programs. Speak out with boldness. Be confident. Walk the world with ease. Be an example of individualism gone right. And reach out to the lost lambs trying to find their place in the world. Most of all, remember Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.


Friday, 9 October 2009

I Am Iron Man

No, I'm not really. But wouldn't it be cool?

Romanticism means a number of things to a number of people. My researched and considered view is that Romanticism describes a zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, for the period from roughly the late Eighteenth to early Twentieth Centuries.

I disagree with Ayn Rand who pits Romanticism in-between the two opposing deterministic forces of Classicism before it and Naturalism after it. The events of the Classical Period, though certainly based on religious determinism, paved the way for the Romantic with the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Republican Radicalism, and the Rise of Capitalism. Likewise, in many ways the social determinism of Naturalism can be seen as a twisting or misreading of Romanticism.

I'll pause here for a little background. Rand saw Romanticism as the aesthetic aspect of her approach to the five philosophical branches (Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics). So she focused on Romanticism as an artistic movement and a manifestation of the other four branches. For her, Romanticism in art is based on the central premise that man possesses volition.

In contrast, Classicism saw man's existence determined by God or the gods whereas Naturalism replaces the divine with the social. For the Naturalist, your existence is determined by society and therefore, by extension, the state. Where Romantic art seeks to glorify man's existence vis-√°-vis the individual, Naturalist art sees man as a cog in the great social machine cast about by the tides of cruel social forces.

I differ only slightly from Rand in that I also see Romanticism as a greater social and cultural movement resulting from the affects of the underlying philosophy found in Romantic art forms.

The Romantic Manifesto by Ayn Rand was published in 1969. Given the date of publication, we see how she charted the advance and eventual manifestation of Naturalism from the late Nineteenth Century through to it entering the mainstream culture in the Sixties. Today, many of those Sixties socialists are in power in the United States government.

In 1963, six years prior to the publication of The Romantic Manifesto, Stan Lee decided to create a superhero that embodied everything the Naturalist popular culture of his day would hate. Enter Tony Stark, a wealthy arms manufacturer, industrialist, capitalist, and womanizer based on the real life Howard Hughes. Unlike most super-heroes, Iron Man's only powers are his intellect and his wealth which he uses to created a powerful suit of armour.

Steve Ditko was the co-creator of Spider-Man with Stan Lee and a follower of Ayn Rands philosophy of Objectivism. He went on to create two "Objectivist" heroes in 1967, The Question for DC Comics and Mr. A for Witzend. Mr A was recently the subject of the song "Good-Bye Mr A" by The Hoosiers and both The Question and Mr A served as the inspiration for the character Rorschach in the Watchmen graphic novel and 2009 film.

All three of these characters embody elements of Ayn Rand basic philosophy and yet they lack the Romanticism she praises in characters like James Bond. These men are social outsiders and hardly reflect the spirit found her own characters from Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. For that, you have to look to Tony Stark.

Personally, I have never been an Iron Man fan. I knew the basics but that was about it. I preferred the X-men, particularly the swashbuckling Nightcrawler and the feral Wolverine. What caught my attention was the 2008 film. Not only did I see it in the cinema, I pre-ordered the DVD, and these days its been on the movie channel, as a result I have probably seen in close to ten times.

The last time I watched it, I noticed how Victorian the story is. I say Victorian, but it is also Romantic and indeed Objectivist.

The word Romantic is taken from the Medieval Romances in which brave knights battled dragons and saved fair maidens or indeed the kingdom. The knights embodied the best of humanity through the chivalric code of ethics, their wealth as noblemen, and their sheer physical power as heavily armoured mounted infantry.

The Nineteenth Century popularity and cultural influence of these Romances cannot be over-emphasised, particularly through Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. Two books influenced by Ivanhoe are The Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper (aka Last of the Mohicans) and The Virginian by Owen Wister. These books in turn form the foundation of The Western genre.

So Ivanhoe the lone knight riding through the countryside righting wrongs trades in his armour and lance for a six-gun. Then in the Twentieth Century he puts on tights, or in this case a high-tech suit of armour equipped with advanced weapons systems.

Tony Stark is the son of Howard Stark, a wealthy industrialist and owner of Stark Industries. In this sense he is of "noble" birth in that he is born into privilege as the prince of the kingdom of Stark Industries. His parents die in a car crash while the teenage Stark is attending MIT and he inherits the kingdom his father created.

As an adult, Stark is wounded by shrapnel while in a foreign land (originally Viet Nam and most recently Afghanistan) while on company business involving the US military. He is captured by the enemy and builds his first armour as a means of escape.

The wounding of Stark means that he must constantly wear an electro-magnetic chest plate to prevent the pieces of shrapnel from entering his heart. Here we see the theme of the wound that doesn't heal found in the Romances, The Fisher King in the Percival stories and Lancelot in the film Excalibur come immediately to mind.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is the one where Stark's enemy, Obadiah Stane, is trying to recreate the power cell used in chest plate for the armour. The chief scientist on the team says "Sir, the technology doesn't exist. Honestly, it's impossible." Obadiah Stane retorts yelling, "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!" He meekly replies, "Well, I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark."

Few scenes illustrate the greatness of Tony Stark like this one. Stark is born into wealth and therefore power. However, he also has another form of power in abundance; he has intrinsic genius. When he is reduced to nothing but a wounded hostage in a cave, he is able through his genius to rise above and conquer by achieving "the impossible" while making it look easy. Stark is determined, but not stressed, strained, or broken.

The Romantic walks through the world with ease. This is the most obvious external manifestation of Romanticism in a person. It is the Romantic temperament, or attitude, in action. There are no obvious indications of any fear, self-doubt, pressure, or confusion. There is an easy going air that conveys the sense that everything is going to turn out alright. When things do go wrong, they are not the focus of brooding or worry. If Plan A fails, then move seamlessly to Plan B without anyone noticing the difference. This attitude is portrayed to text book perfection in Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Stark.

But Tony Stark is one of the richest men on the planet. Of course he "walks through the world with ease". There is a Celtic Christian saying from St. Columba, "The man to whom little is not enough will not be satisfied by more." Yes, more power makes more possibilities available, but it is attitude that is the key to success. Be content with yourself and the powers, both material and immaterial that you have, but also constantly strive for more. Not because more will make you happy – it won't – but because more creates more opportunities and greater freedom of self-expression and therefore happiness.

Besides, when we makes excuses for someone else's success as means of justifying our own lack of achievement, well, that's just quitter talk. We all have obstacles to overcome. The path to and the maintenance of success is nothing but a series of obstacles. If you cannot jump the small hurdles at the start, then what makes you think you can jump the big ones at the end?

Two of the recurring themes I see among many Victorians are progress and legacy. Victorians loved their tech and were constantly pushing for technological advances. People like Bell, Edison, and Tesla were heroes to be admired and emulated. For proof, just look at some of the goofy gadget advertised in Victorian newspapers.

They were also concerned about their legacy. What kind of world will we be establishing for future generations? Today, people speak of the world they will leave to their children. The Victorians were thinking great-grandchildren. They wanted the history books to recognise their achievements. On a small scale this sense of legacy is revealed in the elaborate funeral customs and the monuments they left behind.

In Tony Stark, we see a genius promoting technological advances and the desire to create a world dominated by the American values of freedom for the sake of future generations. In the comics, his original enemies were Communist in nature and in the film they were terrorists. In both instances, Stark is supplying weapons to the American military to battle these threats while taking the initiative to battle them himself.

Here is another aspect of that. When you watch the news and you see something you find morally wrong, who do you look to for action? In the Flashman novels, George MacDonald Fraser through Harry Flashman credits the spread of the British Empire to four words. Something Must Be Done. These are usually spoken by the wives of generals, governors, politicians, or civil servants over tea.

The American tradition is different. Something must be done means that I must do something. The most immediate examples that come to mind are the volunteers to the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War or the Americans who joined the fight in the two world wars before the US government officially declared war.

When Tony Stark saw that something must be done, he did not use his enormous power and influence through the US government. He put on the armoured suit that he built himself and he took action. This is not unique to Stark. All superheroes feel the sense of personal responsibility to make a difference themselves and not sit back and expect the government to pass legislation or use its power in their name. They take responsibility for their values.

I have seen clips of the new Iron Man film due out next year. One scene has Tony Stark appearing before a government committee demanding that he turn the armour over to them. The government does not like the idea of an individual or a group of individuals to have that kind of power unless it is under government control. Society, through government, must control the individual in the name of securing the safety of society but in practice to restrict personal liberty.

Here is where Naturalism returns to the equation. Naturalist literature portrays a world of the lowest common denominator with a journalistic approach to narrative sometimes lacking plot, and therefore purpose. The characters are pushed through their journey by oppressive social forces and not individual volition.

If we are all merely swept by the ebb and flow of social forces, then it stands to reason that society can be improved if only the right people were in control of it. But who are the right people? Obviously those concerned with the well-being of the largest group of people, the masses, the poor, and oppressed. Once in power, the right kind of people will redistribute power, in the form of wealth, and thus improve society. There are no individuals, only members of social groups of various size and influence based on class, race, creed, or gender.

In such a world Tony Stark is the enemy, just as Stan Lee had intended. He is a rich, white, male, industrialist, pro-American capitalist. He is a member of that minority group who oppresses and exploits the majority of the Earth population. And yet he is also the hero Stan Lee intended. Why?

Because Naturalism is unnatural. It's double-speak. Individuals don't come in groups. They come individually with individual consciousness, individual lives, and individual goals. This is what Nietzsche called our innate will to power as the driving force of mankind. Freedom without the means (power) of expressing that freedom is meaningless. We have an inborn need to exercise our free will, our volition, to accomplish our values. This is why Romanticism is natural.

So we look to characters like Tony Stark as examples and inspiration. If Tony Stark can be that Romantic, cool, suave, gallant knight in shining armour and over-come his big obstacles, then why can't I do the same to overcome my small obstacles?

So how does one become Iron Man? The answer is so simple that it stings of cliché. Believe in yourself, know what you want, believe you deserve it, and constantly strive for competency. Oh, and walk through the world with ease, and why wouldn't you? Hey, you're Tony Stark. Cool.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Fall of McDonalds

To my knowledge McDonalds, the global fast-food giant, the restroom with a cafeteria attached, is not going to be falling in the near future. However, a couple years back I read a newspaper article saying that for the first time in decades McDonalds was not the number one fast food company on the planet for that year. It was Subway.

Institutions like McDonalds, Coca-cola, and other global brands may seem like great unassailable and eternal stone edifices, but they are not. Like any other company providing a product (or value), they are only as powerful as the choice consumers make in buying what they are selling. If another company comes along with something the public prefers, then good-bye McDonalds.

There was a study done in which a group of five people enjoyed a nice meal. Each of them cleaned their plates and praised the meal. The follow day, the same five people were served the same meal in the same restaurant and prepared by the same cook. The only difference was the blindfold. None of the participants could see the meal. The results were that the meals were not finished because the subjects felt full and they also noted that the meals did not taste as good as the one the previous day.

This study highlighted the role vision played in eating. By seeing all the food on the plate subjects felt the need to eat more than their bodies required. By eliminating the visual stimulus they ate more slowly, therefore they were more aware of the physical cues from their bodies that told them that they had eaten enough. Also, the absence of vision gave them a more objective approach to the flavour of the food. The lack of vision made consumption a self-aware and conscious activity rather than a habit.

McDonald provides a product, a value, that which we act to gain or to keep. A value is only a value if it is of value to someone. The value requires a valuer. When customers decided that they no longer valued the values McDonalds was offering, they went to someone else. The executives concluded that Subway represented healthier eating, so McDonalds changed their values on offer to include a new healthy range to their menu, thus aligning their available products to the values of their customers.

As for the customers, something changed in them. Perhaps they were habitual McDonalds customers since childhood, but then one day, or perhaps gradually, there occurred a shift in their awareness and therefore a change in their values. When the time came to act on their values they chose Subway over McDonalds when given a choice.

People do not consume merely food. Food, as a value to be consumed, is but one of many. People also consume clothes, entertainment, leisure time, books, magazine, newspapers, and even friendships and ideas. Since we live in a value-driven society there are a myriad of value choices given to us on a daily basis. Collectively the choices made in consumption define an individual's style of life.

The question for each of us is how many of our choices are conscious and how many are a matter of habit or whim? Just as blindfolding the participants in the eating experiment made them more aware of their bodies and their tastes, so too must we become aware of our values. Perhaps if we are, then we may take the time to savour our values and perhaps realise that certain values do not taste as good as we had once thought.

I have noticed a small up swell in people consuming according to their values instead of through habit. This is most obvious to me in the media where the values on offer do not fit the values of the consumers.

When McDonalds dropped to number two it realised that it had to change the values on offer to fit the values of its customers. And yet, rather than change as McDonalds had done the traditional mainstream media outlets continue to drive their messages even harder. So consumers of values do what they have always done. They consume from someone else.

As a result, newspapers are failing across America; mainstream news outlets are loosing their audience to cable and the internet. I think the same might hold true of the celebrities turned social and political pundits as their comments become increasingly disconnected from mainstream values. More and more, nobody is listening to them anymore.

The lesson here is that if the mighty leviathan that is the McDonalds Corporation must change its ways or fall, then so too must politicians, media outlets, and even celebrities. We live in a marketplace of values. As any purveyor of values will tell you, "first know your market". It is not your place to tell them what they want when they clearly do not want what you are offering.

This reminds me of Betty Crocker and the egg. Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, invented the focus group and with it he invented public relations. Betty Crocker had just created instant cake mix and sales were poor, so they brought in Bernays.

By applying some of his uncle's theories to groups of housewives he discovered that they felt guilty using a cake mix. It went against their values. Bernays' solution? He told Betty Crocker to change the instructions on the packaging to read, "add one egg". The egg symbolised the housewife giving something of her own and made her feel as though she was actually making a cake for her family. Sales skyrocketed. The solution was not to change the customers' value system rather to work with it.

Contrary to popular opinion consumers of values are not a vast ignorant populace blindly buying whatever the mass media tells them to buy. Yes, people can be persuaded. Yes, not everyone consciously considers their value system when consuming. And yet, consumption is still driven by the individual value system of the consumer. When any purveyor of values, be they a massive corporation or a politician, fails to provide a desired value the consumer will go elsewhere. Without support from the consumer the seller fails and disappears from the market.

This is how the free marketplace of values, both material and immaterial, functions. But what about the unfree market? The unfree market can only operate with the force of government in the form of socialist, communist, fascist, and corporatist policies. In these systems the government decides what the individual may or may not consume according to its collective value system. After all, government and its academic lackeys know what is best, not the ignorant masses.

If the government favours McDonalds over Subway it will subsidize McDonalds, tax healthier food, give tax breaks to McDonalds over Subway, and run public service announcements highlighting the health risks of going to Subway. If the public still refuses to choose McDonalds over Subway and McDonalds goes bankrupt, then the government will bail-out McDonalds as being too big to fail and now the government is in the fast food business.

The public does not know what is best. It has to buy rubbish cars that are good for the environment or a light bulb that does not illuminate and costs a fortune to clean-up if it breaks. It should not smoke, watch Glenn Beck (or anything on Fox News), or eat fatty foods. It must not buy tires from China. It must send its kids to state-run schools and learn what the state says they should learn. It cannot buy health insurance across state lines and must take a prescribed policy. This is the unfree market at work. We, the state, will tell you what to value, when to value it, and for how long.

I'm no fan of McDonalds. I may have eaten at one five times in the past twenty years. Popular fashion is not always to my taste, nor is popular music. I do not own jeans, t-shirts, and trainers. I'm not a sports fan either. Nor am I a tech geek who needs the latest and greatest piece of kit to hit the market. I believe that global warming is a fraud, I smoke, and I do not trust in governments to make my life better.

All of these choices and beliefs are derived from my conscious and unconscious value system. Some I consider a matter of choice and others as moral imperatives. Most put me outside of the mainstream. I will always argue my corner, but never demand others to accept my ways as their own.

And yet in the media and online I see people not arguing their corner but insulting all those who do not agree with them. Worst of all, I see this coming from people in the US government as well. Idiot, fool, hate-monger, racist, astroturf. These arrogant politicians and pundits are mocking their customers.

The free market is about free choice. You may not like that people choose McDonalds, but that is the individual's choice. Accept it. If people choose Subway instead, then McDonald changes or it falls. Simple. At present, Glenn Beck's ratings are through the roof and both of his books top the New York Times and Amazon best sellers list. Why? The free market. He speaks to people's values, just as Obama speaks to the values of his audience. Is popular best? Not necessarily. But liberty is all about the right to choose from various values on offer.

In the world of material values companies recognise the need to address the values of as many potential customers as possible. In the world of immaterial values we are seeing ideologues condemn those whose values they fail to address. They are providing a product the public does not want and they seek to use the force of government or media pressure (in the form of public ridicule) to sell their agenda.

Unlike other countries in the world, the United States has a prescribed philosophical identity. To be an American is to accept a particular set of values and for every American liberty is one of the highest values. The simple truth is that you cannot have liberty without a free market of material and immaterial values.

It may be argued that the market has never been totally free. That is true. This is because there have always been powerful forces in the world that seek to control the market for their own ends usually with the excuse of helping society. Thus does the pendulum swing.

Just as McDonalds can fall by not meeting the desires of their customers, so too can ideologies, politicians and their parties fall. They become irrelevant and fade into insignificance. Republicans and Democrats/Conservatives and Labour are no more eternal than McDonalds or Coca-cola.

In a free market, the world will beat down the door of the company that can make a better sandwich. Therefore it is in the best interests of the authoritarian Statists and Corporatists to keep the marketplace of values as unfree as possible. Only then do they stand a chance of survival. So all lovers of liberty must be constantly vigilant in preserving the value of values by keeping the market place of values as free as possible.