Dec 20, 2013

The Massacre of History and its Consequences: Historical Accuracy in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy

The Massacre of History and its Consequences: 
Historical Accuracy in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy

Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Englishman’s Boy explores elements of truth and deception in the telling of history. Damon Chance, a film producer, attempts to create an American film masterpiece by retelling Shorty McAdoo’s experience of his involvement in the Cypress Hills Massacre. McAdoo and Vincent retell and manipulate the story in numerous ways before Chance ultimately rearranges the story completely. Chance deceives Vincent into believing that his intentions are to create an accurate portrayal of McAdoo’s story on film, but he eventually makes clear that he is uncaring about accurately recreating the history. Chance believes that the most significant aspect of the film is to capture the spirit of McAdoo and to advance his ideologies. Each retelling of a historical event affects the story as it contracts the teller’s unconscious bias and intentional manipulation. The medium places limitations on how the story can be portrayed. However, tellers of history have a responsibility to avoid, wherever possible, extreme bias and intentional misrepresentation of the parties involved as shared stories have a significant effect on society’s values.

Whether truth is something that can be objectively proved or even achieved is an important issue when discussing the accuracy of written (or filmed) history. Statements concerning the past, such as historical events and stories, lack the ability to be proven by empirical evidence; at least they lack enough evidence to prove beyond a doubt that the stories are an accurate representation of the truth. Historians can analyze the stories, compare them to the evidence available, and rely on the probability of their occurrence.

The inability to prove historical truth shifts the study of history away from the pursuit of absolute certainty into the realm of probabilities. Historians are able to gather information from texts based on the probability of the texts being factual. For example, a historian could investigate the existence of Solomon by relying on The Bible, but it would be improper for a historian to prove the existence of the Homeric gods by studying The Odyssey; nevertheless, a historian could use The Odyssey to learn about ancient Greece.  Any theories based on knowledge gathered from these texts should be supported by other works considered factual and physical evidence, such as archeological digs in the locality where archeologists consider Ancient Troy to be.

Storytellers and historians use words and sentence structure to convey information about the past, but whether the medium of speech and literature is capable of presenting truth is questionable. The viewer of the incident in question converts the events into ideas in his or her mind and then converts these naked ideas into words. The listener or reader then converts the words back into ideas in his or her own mind. People’s use of the traditional process of information exchange allows the story to become distorted. Stories become distorted because as Stanley Fish, a professor of law, states a sentence “necessarily leaves out more than it includes, whether you write a sentence of twenty words or two thousand” (Fish 37). McAdoo, in the telling of his story, could have stated much more things than he did as “there is always another detail or an alternative perspective or a different emphasis that might be brought in and, by being brought in, [alters] the snapshot of reality presented” (38). Fish states that the ultimate goal of a person writing a sentence is to communicate “forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes” (38). In this case, Chance is the most effective storyteller in the novel as he clearly knows his purpose. McAdoo only reveals his story to Vincent after they've negotiated a payment. Ultimately, McAdoo’s only purpose in telling his story is to get peaches and cream and a few bottles of whiskey.

Film can be used to manipulate and assimilate people as Chance attempts (Hofstede 5). Vincent is aware of the power that storytelling has on people when he states that Charles Dickens, though his stories, had made cripples “touching and lovable” (Vanderhaeghe 33). Dickens, with his novels and short stories, has the power to influence cultural acceptance, just as Chance has the power with his film Besieged to influence its viewers’ understanding of the Cypress Hills Massacre. More importantly, Chance is able to influence his viewers’ opinion and acceptance of Native Americans and the possibly reprehensible actions of the white settlers. Chance is correct to say that film can be described as the “great educator” of the 20th century, especially concerning the assimilation of the American spirit by new foreigners. Vincent states that “everybody goes to the movies” (Vanderhaeghe 181), whereas not everyone is able or willing to read novels, and movies are able to make everyone “feel the same thing” (181). Chance would like everyone to feel the way he does about the American people. In order to accomplish his goal, Chance must portray the white people in the story as the heroes. Chance’s interpretation does not necessarily align with the truth as he disregards McAdoo’s telling of the events of the story to focus on portraying what he calls the “psychological truth”. This “truth” is not a reality, but an ideological concept created by Chance as manipulated by his racism. Chance’s “psychological truth” is the behaviour and the psychology that predicts the behaviour that he wants to be true.

An accurate retelling of the massacre could allow Americans to learn from their past mistakes; in this case they could revisit their ways of dealing with Native Americans and perhaps atone for the atrocities they committed. Hardwick instigated the original massacre because of the hatred he holds against the Natives. Chance has a racial hatred similar to Hardwick’s and chooses to further the potential of hatred to become a part of the American culture with his films. Chance wants to destroy the most significant part about the Massacre, namely it taught “the law ought to concern itself with persons, not with races” (Goldring 102).

The accurate presentation of history using film is an impossible task. Research into the Cypress Hills Massacre will show that history is shrouded in a mystery that can never be fully unveiled. Numerous contradictory statements from witnesses marred the reliability of any one story about the Cypress Hills Massacre, and thus little can be said to be undeniably true (Goldring 82).There is no realistic way to portray the past without biases and mistakes. The original observation of the event itself holds numerous problems. Two people can see the same event and retell the story later in completely contrary narratives. When creating a historical film the creator must be aware of the bias that they are imposing on the story, and the viewer must be conscious of the bias the creator. Even the most innocuous films contain the ideology of the creator, even if unconsciously; and these films have a felt effect on society’s values. Its left to the whims of the producers and artists to share beneficial values with society and up to the viewers to digest the stories with caution.

Thomas Tomas
Distorting your reality from Vernon, BC
March 2014

Dec 6, 2013

Essays in Digest: George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

“Politics and the English Language” is an essay written by the novelist George Orwell and published in 1946. It criticizes the written English of his time. Orwell argues for a writing style that is plain and transparent. The most important thing in writing is to make one’s meaning clear.

Orwell brings up numerous problems that plague writers’ works. The most important of these issues is the use of canned phrases. Many writers do not take the time to craft new sentences with select words that specifically get the writer’s meaning across. Many writers rely on phrases, these phrases are then “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”, the result being poor writing. By the use of phrases the writer loses precision and his or her own voice. Orwell also suggests avoiding pretentious and inappropriate words. Writers often fail to visualize the words used; they often favour abstract meaningless words over concrete. He suggests that writers should avoid using everyday, well-known metaphors.

This decline in language is not permanent and can be prevented by the writer if he or she strives to write good English. Orwell suggests reasons for this deterioration of English. These poor writing habits spread by imitation. The decline of language can be explained by political and economic factors. Political writing often strives to be vague; it uses this as a technique to obscure the details. In this sense, I would argue, political writing is effective. It accomplishes what it intended to do, even if its intent is hardly virtuous. When writing I always begin with what I want to accomplish, how I wish my audience to react, or what I want them to feel or learn. However, Orwell points out that political writing is often mechanical and ineffective.

The “fix” does not entail setting up a Standard English. Orwell notes that the issue does not lie in grammar or syntax. Good writing is writing that best gets the writer’s meaning across to his or her reader. The writer should use the fewest and shortest words required and have the intended meaning already mapped before the writing process begins. Bad writing occurs because the writer is rushed and lazy. If the writer is willing to take the time to truly craft original sentences with active selection of appropriate words his or her writing will improve.

The biggest impact that this essay had on me was Orwell’s critique of phrases. I will often use canned phrases when writing, I acknowledge that this occurs due to economic reasons; it simply takes more effort and time to write well. Since reading the essay I have also begun to analyze the phrases that I use in daily speech, it would be very difficult to craft original sentences for everything that I say. There are a few key differences between writing and speaking. Speaking allows the receiver of the message to have instantaneous feedback, if the meaning is not clear the receiver can alert the speaker. In person communication also allows other aspects of communication such as body language and intonation, which are extremely important for accurate communication. The writer does not have these supporting components. The writer must ensure meaning through the use of words alone. The lack of feedback means that the writer must have an understanding of his or her target audience and write for that audience.

I think that being more active and dedicated in the writing process will lead to more effective writing where the thoughts in my mind are more accurately transferred to the reader. Words should be selected that give imagery and not vagueness. Sentences should be unique and meaningful.

James Thumb
Canning phrases in Vernon, BC
May 2014

The essay can be read here:

Nov 22, 2013

Man is Social, Man is Weak: The Need to Be Social

Society is the man's most extraordinary biological weakness. I am nothing alone but I am proven nothing when with others.

Society does not make us weak, but rather it is us. The statement in question posits the man in relation to the society to which he belongs. A single man finds his greatest weakness in his attachment to his society. Society dictates the way he thinks, believes, loves, and so on. All his major psychological functions are influenced (if not dictated) by his society. Society taught his mother and his mother taught him. Society gives him the values in which he judges himself. For example, our capitalist society forces me to value myself in terms of things that I "have". My job, my car, my girlfriend all contribute to my overall worth, and this worth gives me hope. Society is man's greatest biological weakness because although the intelligent man can clearly see that this material evaluation of his life is silly - that life shouldn't be valued; life is beyond any type of measurement - he is unable to escape. Man it is true, in a sense, is greater in numbers, but greater only to the extent that the numbers work towards a goal that is beneficial to the individual men involved. Society helps us achieve goals, yes, but it goes a step further and tells us what the goal is. The man is not his own. Society does not make us weak, but it is a weakness as it is a barrier to our ultimate goal; namely to love and experience happiness.

Should society be held up as the reason for my unhappiness, after all it is the cause of many kinds of human achievements. Public sculpture and art. Music. Gardens. Even language itself is a cause of society. But, society seeks to take too much in return for its favours, and if I try to break away, as a few do do, I am judged as 'sick; and must be retaught how to function in society. Society goes so far as to restrict my liberty when I reject it.

Society helps to facilitate my preservation and perseverance. Alone, I would gather my own fruits and hunt my own food. With society, I am able to specialize and hoard my labour through the use of a monetary system. This system causes me stress and worry, no doubt, but is this anything in excess of what I would experience on my own? Is there much a difference between counting one's dollars and counting one's hoard of food? Perhaps not.

Yet, society is a barrier to what I think should be a human's goals - an individual will decide his own goals. It is a biological weakness because the weakness is birthed from our upbringing; namely, one of reliance on an Other (my mother, for example). The weakness is not from a societal standpoint but from an individual standpoint. Man is afraid to be an individual (meaning not psychologically reliant or unduly influenced by Others). Man is inclined from childhood to submission to an outside force, in this case the norms of society. Submission may in fact be the greatest way to achieve certain goals, such as stimulating products and power/sex; but, it must be a willing and consensual submission, which it often is not. It is most often a submission birthed out of the inability to not. Our current society is not necessarily a good strategy for the sustainment of life (as an aside - sustainment of life itself should not be taken as a self-evident good). And it would appear that society is a self directing beast that we are incapable of changing. - by saying that is it man's weakness I am negating but not positing any alternative. It would be vain to for an indoctrinated man to posit any alternative.

Isaac Snow
Hanging with his bros in Vernon, BC
January 2014

Nov 8, 2013

The Absurdity of Multiple Sects: Religious Incompatability

It would seem to most people who are not indoctrinated into a certain religion and who have no ulterior motives for promoting a specific sect of religion we can all agree that religion is good in so far as it promotes good. This is a silly tautology that is nonetheless worth explicating. As a denier that any text contains ultimate truth, it is easy to criticize those who claim that the Bible contains such a truth. It becomes even stranger when we realize that multiple religious sects have different 'interpretations' of that truth. In other words, the Bible, to these religious groups, contains the truth, but they can not agree on what that truth is. When the average person is unable to garner truth from the text alone, he must seek the guidance of a professional. It's not ridiculous to expect this person to do this, after all, if I am ill I seek the guidance of a doctor. It only becomes ridiculous, and allows one to adopt a certain skepticism, when the professionals begin to give you a variety of different answers. In the doctor example, perhaps one doctor misdiagnosed you, or perhaps they have a different opinion on the proper treatment. Their judgement is also affected by their temperament. In the end, this is excusable, because the doctor does not claim to propound the truth. A doctor gives his advice based on logical speculation coming from his interpretation of your symptoms. Religious speakers, in contrast, do pretend to give out truth-isms. The truth can not be inconsistent; therefor, only one, if one, of these speakers is correct - just as only one of the doctors has given you a correct diagnosis.

Jehovah's Witness, a specific sect of Christianity - to the extent that they purport the Bible to be the truth, publishes a periodical called 'The Watchtower'. This pamphlet typically contains a series of short articles of advice giving, and interpretations of the Bible. In a recent issue there was an article on  interfaith movements. The writer quoted the Dalai Lama as saying, "All major religious traditions carry basically the same message: that is love, compassion and forgiveness." One subtitle in this article carried the text "Is promoting good good enough?". The writer wanted to say that simply doing good things isn't good, to do good we must follow the dogma of the Bible. This obviously goes against my judgement of what a good religion is: once you say that religion is only good if it propounds truth, we enter into a strange world; who is to say what truth is? The Bible can't say what truth is, if it did we wouldn't have multiple sects all in disagreement. 

The Jehovah's Witness seems to enjoy its ignorance of this fact, as do many sects, and they firmly admit of only the truth of their interpretation. The article even cites a survey that described 89% of people as saying religion divides us. But, even if it does divide us, Jehovah's Witness does not care: it is in the belief that they are correct. "Jehovah is described as 'the god of truth', and he said of himself: 'I do not change.' About God Jesus said 'your word is truth'. The truth is in the divinely inspired Scriptures, the Bible." Even ignoring the fact that Jehovah's Witness spits in the face of all the other religious types (it disallows the legitimacy of the Koran, Buddhist Writings, etc.) it doesn't acknowledge that even if the Bible is the truth, there are different interpretations.

The Jehovah's Witness has almost no self-awareness. In the very same article it draws up an analogy to the international space station. The interfaith movements won't work because they are not using the same 'blueprint'. The space station was the result of 15 nations working together, "could you imagine the project being accomplished if the participating nations did not agree on what blue-print to use?". But, the interfaith movement has declared a blueprint, namely "love, compassion, and forgiveness". This blueprint seems less convoluted than the open-to-interpretation Bible. The Bible, to continue the blueprint analogy, doesn't state which measurement system it's using, it is not explicit in its commandments. We can't, as the writer suggests, "build our lives on what the Bible says", because I have no clue as to which biblical line (let alone chapter or book) to use, and I don't know how to convert that line into a call to action. The Bible tells me to circumcise myself, but it is impossible to see a logical link between that and my goals - I don't even know what my goals should be based on a reading of the bible.

The Jehovah's Witness places "building faith" above the reasons that faith should be built to begin with. It places the means above the ends. If the 15 nations building the space station each brought its own blueprint, it would make sense for the nations to sit down and rationally choose which is the best blueprint, or to piece together a blueprint using ideas from each one; the best blueprint would obviously be the one that the nations agree will help them build the best space station. Yet, the nation of Jehovah's Witness would reject the 'blueprint' of every other religious sect in favor of their own, in complete disregard of which one will lead to the best results; in complete disregard to what the best results even look like.

You can be an incredibly caring person, who tries to get along with everyone, but if you don't follow the specific dogma of a specific religious sect, you are an imbecile in their eyes. Jehovah's Witness, and any other religious sect that demands the same submission from people, have completely missed the point of the interfaith movement, they have complete disregard for the value of human life. They commit an absurdity of gargantuan proportions. Jehovah's Witness is a kin to a doctor who ignores the methods of its peers even if the foreign methods proved effective.Until you can quit this absurd ignorance, I would appreciate it if you didn't knock on my door. Unfortunately, Jehovah's Witness relies on the intellectual and spiritual weakness of its members to persevere; it is a vampiric practice that is sadly not exclusive to this one sect.  

Isaac Snow
Valuing the outcome regardless of the method in Vernon, BC
January 2014

Oct 25, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness and Its Lies by Isaac Snow

The pursuit of happiness seems to be an oxymoron. Happiness is not a stable state that we can capture and bottle; it is rather a fluctuating state of mind. Happiness to me is a feeling of contentment, a moment in time where nothing needs to be changed or adjusted. I have moments of happiness everyday even when my life in general is not going so well. It can be sparked from an external stimuli, such as receiving gratitude from a friend, or from an internal source such as satisfaction in myself for doing something great. If this essay turn out to be informative and entertaining, I will feel joy. Happiness in this sense is a reward. This is the type of happiness that is unsustainable and fleeing, but it is also the happiness that is desired by many people in society. From birth I'm rewarded with external items such as candy or gratitude for performing certain actions, and this reward creates joy; eventually, however, joy itself replaces the reward and becomes the reward. The interaction of reward-er and reward-ed becomes internalized. We develop the opinion that we get rewards for good action; this eventually creates the situation where happiness becomes the reward. Through habit, we reject happiness if we deem our selves not to be worthy of it; we need to achieve something in order to reward ourselves. Our definition of successful actions (actions that are worth of the reward of happiness) come from habit and not from reason; hence many actions of this type are irrational and potentially damaging. If we want this behavior to be changed we need to address the issue in society, with special attention to how we raise our young.

The disciplinary method predominately used in the education system has a negative effect on the young and their development into adults. The use of punishments and rewards for good behaviour leads to adults who are unable to enjoy happiness without it being in the form of an abstract reward for 'good behaviour'. In the classroom, what constitutes 'good behaviour' is defined by the school system and the teacher; often the type of behaviour wanted goes against a child's natural physiological wants. For example, good behaviour in a student in a classroom situation may be 'sitting still', but this behaviour is in direct opposition to a child's natural, and legitimate, tendencies to want to be active. I do not seek to find a solution to classroom 'discipline' here, but to point out that these wide-spread methods affect us for the rest of our lives. Later in life, we internalize the good behaviour - reward system; only granting ourselves happiness when we perform good actions. These good actions, just as in the classroom, are defined by others than ourselves; often in the form of what society at large deems it. What constitutes a good action, also as in the classroom, may be in opposition to our natural tendencies and may have no rational grounding whatsoever. Happiness has a relationship with underlying values and beliefs, the general ideology, of society.

Happiness is measured by sociologist using objective or subjective techniques. In order to do any form of objective measurement, the scientist must first form an operational definition of what happiness is. These objective techniques are usually in the form of proxies; the scientist may assume that happiness has a positive correlation with wealth, and will measure a person's wealth to estimate his/her happiness. Objective techniques are inadequate because it ignores cultural and individual differences and often equates wealth with happiness. Ultimately, personal happiness exists only within the person and can be gained in infinite ways and measured in none. Every society naturally has its own idea of what happiness consists of. In Canada it is very often thought to occur with wealth and stability in finance. But that is not true. Happiness is discussed as a subjective well-being that one does not merely enjoy but pursues. It is not simply a state of mind that one can passively achieve but an end-state reward for action. This is justified by saying that happiness comes from the "satisfaction of innate needs for self-determination". Happiness is the "enjoyable anticipation of hedonically valuable outcomes". It involves the care of worldly utility streams. However, I argue that happiness is not an end state. Happiness does not necessarily come with prosperity and progress. It is a thing that the individual gives to himself. Happiness is a reward for success and often it is conflated with the success itself.

Happiness can only be achieved by self contentment. And self contentment often occurs as a result of external achievement. Achievement is, unfortunately, often defined by those other than yourself. In Canada achievement is defined by financial/career success. A person ends up valuing himself based on his value on the market place. Happiness should not be an end goal or a fleeting moment; it should be continuously present in a healthy mind. There are moments and periods of time when life feels to drag or bad things occur and stress builds, but contentment should always be present in a lesser or greater form. It is this type of happiness that should be instilled in our young, not rewards and punishment.

Isaac Snow
Smoking a doobie in Vernon, BC
Summer, 2012