Archive for the ‘ CULTURE ’ Category

An Unexpected Attraction to Dr. Strange

You know what the Monty Python boys say . . . And now for something completely different . . .

Comic books were never a fascination for me as a child mainly because my parents refused to purchase them. “Waste of money” they would say, so for pulp entertainment, I was left to rummage through copies of Mad belonging to my much older brother. Out of pity for my growing sense of unsupervised irony, a cousin slipped me a stack of Avengers comics so I at least had enough childhood knowledge about Iron Man not to look culturally deficient when Robert Downy, Jr. brought his story to film.

Beyond the Avengers and a few Haunted Tank issues, I had no further interest in comics until I stumbled upon the magnetic duality of Calvin and Hobbes during my late teenage years. I never took the time to discover the one comic superhero who was endowed not with superhuman abilities but with a gifted mind. That comic hero was Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon turned mystic defender of the universe. I probably would have ignored Dr. Stephen Strange anyway because who cares about a neurosurgeon, comic book version or otherwise, when you are a teenager? Little did I know what lay in the future.

After my involuntary induction into the Parkinsonian Society a decade ago (my description of being diagnosed with young onset Parkinson’s at age 39), I did what every American does upon receiving life changing medical news: I searched the Internet and scared myself silly. Then I began a decade long sporadic study of Parkinson’s and the fascinating field of neuroscience. A little knowledge of Dr. Stephen Strange might have been beneficial then.

Having ignored previous biology classes, I learned what most people already knew – that our brain and nerves are our electrical system. Instead of wires, we have cells that carry electrically charged command signals from brain to body part. When certain cells mutate and disrupt the electrical flow, we have movement disorders develop such as Parkinson’s along with a host of much more debilitating diseases that I remain grateful for not having.

To further mentally align my newfound knowledge with something that I did understand, I began comparing living with Parkinson’s to driving an old English sports car, more specifically one that relies upon a Lucas electrical system, which for some reason (I blame the inefficiencies of socialism) was used by all English manufacturers. These systems were so famously unreliable, a fame rising like smoke from a burned out engine compartment, that Lucas was called the Prince of Darkness. Years ago, I owned an old Triumph whose headlights flickered when I pressed the accelerator and whose horn sounded when I turned left. Maybe Lucas was giving me an early political warning.

All joking aside, current Parkinson’s DNA research into the cause of specific gene mutations gives us hope. These mutations cause proteins to be tagged incorrectly in the brain thereby disrupting the proper flow of neurons. Based on this research, treatments may soon be approved to finally halt the progression of the disease and maybe cure it outright. Most Parkinson’s patients still rely on a drug developed in the 1960’s for optimum treatment though this drug does not stop the disease’s progression.

Beyond gaining a basic understanding of how the brain and nervous system function on the biological level, my limited looksee into neuroscience exposed me to the philosophical conflict between the notions of the “brain” versus the “mind.” An excellent introduction to this debate is Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

Thomas Nagel, University Professor of Philosophy and Law Emeritus at New York University, uses the term “psychophysical reductionism” to describe the claim that the physical/biological sciences can provide a theory of everything. He uses “antireductionism” to describe those features that cannot be explained by a biological process such as consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought and value.

Unlike other atheistic doubters of the non-material such as Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and former University of Oxford Professor for Public Understanding of Science, Nagel opens his mind to the questions posed by biologists and philosophers who promote intelligent design theory. Though he does not believe in a theistic deity, Nagel asserts that there are unknown and unseen nonphysical forces at work that interact with our physical brain to create the mind. He believes a great age of discovery lies ahead as humans figure out how these nonphysical interactions work.

I have a choice at this juncture. I could continue muddling the complex arguments presented in Nagel’s book and risk losing even the most dedicated reader. Or I can greatly simplify the main conflict to a point that even I can understand it by briefly reviewing the latest Marvel film Dr. Strange. Don’t faint. I fully admit that I am drawing inspiration from Marvel Comics instead of Oxford University Press.

Before you think me unhinged and click on over to the Wall Street Journal Online, take a moment to consider the story of Dr. Stephen Strange, a gifted neurosurgeon who after an automobile accident, loses the use of his hands and sets out to heal himself. Played by the talented English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Dr. Strange rises above the typical comic hero who relies upon some superhuman strength or gizmo to be heroic. Dr. Strange just uses his mind.

Cumberbatch brings a humor and intelligence to the main character that has been lacking in other Marvel films. Captain America was so stilted that by the end of the film, I wished I had been frozen in a block of ice. Cumberbatch’s performance should come as no surprise as he has been busy this year playing the Monster along side fellow Englishman Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Frankenstein in an excellent stage version of Mary Shelly’s book. Cumberbatch also recently portrayed the hunchback king Richard III in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, a BBC adaptation of several Shakespearean historical plays. Talent does tell and Dr. Strange is the better for it.

Dr. Strange begins the film as an arrogant and gifted surgeon who loses himself when he loses his physical ability to operate. (Believe me, when your muscles won’t do what they are told, it can be disconcerting.) When given the opportunity to learn about a spiritual path towards healing, he scoffs, “No, I reject it because I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.” That quote could have come straight from Dawkins. In his helplessness, Dr. Strange finally opens his mind to the metaphysical.

After a few hard lessons Dr. Strange discovers that there are, indeed, other worlds than these and entities that we can see only through a glass darkly. He discovers that his gifts reside in his mind and not in his hands. At the moment of his greatest challenge as he struggles with his ego, his teacher says to him what we all need to be reminded of, “It’s not about you.” He ends his lessons as a humble and gifted surgeon who faces the choice to heal himself physically and return to his old life or continue his spiritual growth for the protection of all humanity. He chooses to protect the world and finds the forces of evil arrayed against him.

Some may object to my positive review of a story that has more occult about it than Christian doctrine. The talk of magic, spells and ancient mystical artifacts may bother some even though we hear these words in the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I give credit to the creators of Dr. Strange for opening his mind to the spiritual world and siding him with good against evil. The film reminds us that good can come from the most unexpected places – a fact that I hope proved in the political realm over the next four years.

I’ll leave you with the best quote of the film. Exasperated over his early arrogance,  Dr. Strange’s teacher observed, “You think you know how the world works? You think that this material universe is all there is? What is real? What mysteries lie beyond the reach of your senses? At the root of existence, mind and matter meet. Thoughts form reality.”

Or as John the Beloved wrote in the first verse of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Thomas Nagel, C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien could not have said it better.

Remembering Who We Are – Our Honor Culture and the Graduate Profile

After visiting Atlanta a few days ago, I avoided driving back into Dante’s Tenth Circle of Hell (aka I-285) and came home through the North Georgia mountains. The drive was pleasant and the air fresh as I found myself in Lumpkin County where my grandfather grew up. That part of Georgia remains a family outpost so I stopped to pay respects to my great-grandfather. His given name is William Thomas and he was born in 1854.

As I looked at his gravestone, I thought how many times the names “William” and “Thomas” have been used by my family. Even my son carries “Thomas” as did my uncle on my father’s side and my grandfather on my mother’s side. Since my mother did not care for my uncle’s black sheep ways but wanted me named after her father who was a saintly man, she named me Tommy. She then took my middle name from her favorite cousin, Max. I guess if our parents named us logically, we might all have a serial number instead of a little piece of family history that links us to the past for the rest of our lives.

Naming our children after our ancestors has been a common cultural habit in the South for generations. We can all think of examples or have indulged in the habit ourselves – sometimes extravagantly so. I have met quite a few Southern men who carry a junior at the end of their name. Some carry thirds and a few fourths though it seems carrying a fifth is more about bourbon than birthing. Other than Henry and Jack Daniels, I don’t know anyone with a fifth trailing their name.

Until I began researching South Carolina’s honor culture, I didn’t realize that our naming habits are mostly unique to the South. Apparently people outside of the South just give their children new names devoid of any past family connection. Maybe they don’t realize that to name your child after an ancestor is to show honor to the past and hope for the future. Or maybe they realize that hope comes with a new name. As I recall, John the Revelator alludes to the gift of a new name for those heaven-bound. My purpose here is not to criticize naming habits, but to comment on an anomaly of permanence in our constantly shifting modern American culture.

These links between honor and naming habits are presented in a 2014 study entitled Naming Patterns Reveal Cultural Values: Patronyms, Matronyms, and the U.S. Culture of Honor by Ryan P. Brown, etal. (Note that the authors included the multi-generational use of given names in their definition of patronym. Historically, patronyms are the use of a given name to form the surname for the next generation – i. e. Johnson is the son of John).

The study revealed several significant findings. Men who had formed a personal code of honor tended to name their sons after themselves or other male relatives of past generations. These fathers tended to live in “honor states” where personal reputation still forms a significant part of an individual’s identity. When faced with a substantial collective threat or attack such as 9/11, the use of patronyms rose collectively in honor states. Simply put, all those post 9/11 babies born in the South received a lot of family given names.

The study defined honor as being more than just having virtue. “ For men in such cultures having honor means being (and being known as) strong, brave, and willing to defend one’s person, one’s family and one’s property from any threat.” Proof was offered that even today Southern males respond more strongly to insults than Northern males across “physiological, psychological and behavioral levels.”

Specific honor states were not named other than placing them in the Southern and Western regions of the country but the study did define a common characteristic found in honor states. They are made up of communities having “strong kinship bonds, with extended family systems often forming local clans that, among other functions, serve to reinforce an individual’s reputation as someone with whom interlopers ought not to trifle.”

If we know our family history or had a decent American history teacher, we learned that these communities were formed and interlinked as families expanded from Virginia through the rest of the South into Texas – a distinct nation building process that began before the United States was formed and that was 250 years old by the time of the War Between the States. My own family followed a similar trail from Virginia in the late 1600’s through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee leaving family outposts along the way and always staying near or in the mountains. Most of these family outposts exist to this day containing cousins to the nth generation. This is not uncommon as many of my neighbors in Northern Greenville County can lay claim to the same heritage. Mind you, I’m not talking about imaginary magnolias and columned houses. These were and continue to be hard working people who want to keep their independence, expand and protect their families, educate their children and worship as they see fit.

150 years after that war ended, the South still retains the foundational notion of personal honor – a present-day fact proved by numerous studies devoted to honor cultures within the United States. Before we go further, we should understand that the underlying premise of most studies assumes honor to not be a meritorious code for oneself, family and community but a justification for patriarchal violence, gender oppression and child poverty. Somehow, these researchers have isolated personal honor from a host of other positive character traits, religious influences and manners. They have concluded that the influence of honor is the cause for all that ails us. The significance of the naming study is that it shows how the notion of honor influences a non-violent act such as the naming of children. If I had time to answer the critics, I would propose that the notion of honor, especially when combined with the traits that they did not study, prevents violence rather than encourages it. But that is a subject for another day.

So what does honor have to do with the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate and the education of our children? South Carolina has 300 years of cultural development that’s ingrained with this notion of personal honor. Our General Assembly has instructed our public schools to teach our children about integrity, an ideal which rests at the core of being honorable.

During a review of the new Graduate Profile last session, I asked an educator how schools would teach the importance of integrity especially since we have removed even the acknowledgement of any moral or religious authority that used to be inherent in education. He replied that schools would have a hard time teaching integrity if it was not taught at home.

I disagree. In the past, schools had honor codes that were simple yet taught students the importance of taking personal responsibility, valuing your own effort and trusting your classmates to do the same. These days, honor codes have been abandoned in favor of developing self-expression, collaboration and interpersonal skills. Hey, who needs an honor code when cheating is just a form of collaboration? That answer will come in our next installment in the honor series, where we will take a look at the disappearance of honor codes on the college level and the efforts that high schools have to expend to maintain order.

Who knows? It might be that students will discover who they are through guided self-restraint rather than unguided self-expression.

Ryan Lochte, Orion and the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate

Those who still care about the Olympics have heard ad nauseam about Mr. Ryan Lochte and three other US Olympic swimmers who got drunk, urinated on a gas station wall, was challenged by police and then claimed to have been victimized by armed robbers. When finally caught out in his exaggeration or what used to be known as a lie, the 32-year old Mr. Lochte apologized for his immaturity.

We can assume from his immaturity that Mr. Lochte did not attend a religious school. If he had done so, he might have read the Old Testament warnings against those that “pissith against the wall” but only if he had been exposed to the King James Version or the Rheims Douay. He may also have learned about Orion, the ancient Greek mythological hunter, especially since urine is one remote etymology of Orion. Mr. Lochte could now become Orion, the modern hunter of gas station restrooms.

After the sniggering dies down about Mr. Lochte’s inability to hold his liquor, all we are left with is another winning athlete busted for anti-social behavior with a trite apology on his lips. Let’s remember what Mr. Lochte actually did. As a United States Olympic athlete, he was invited to a foreign country where he embarrassed himself and us. Not because he lost, but because he won. He urinated on his hosts even though he was the victor.

No gentlemen he. Nor is he a positive example for our children to admire despite his athletic skills. Though his $25,000 bonus and his sponsorship opportunities are being threatened, I suspect his immaturity will be quickly forgotten. For the rest of us, Mr. Lochte presents a problem for those who wish to teach children self-respect and proper manners toward others.

The General Assembly passed Act 195 earlier this year defining the Profile of the South Carolina Graduate. Within the Life and Career Characteristics section several ideals were listed that our students should be taught or as the actual wording in the bill says “Students finally also must be offered reasonable exposure, examples, and information on the state’s vision of life and career characteristics such as: Integrity, Self Direction, Global Perspective, Perseverance, Work Ethic, and Interpersonal Skills.”

The Act does not expressly say that negative examples may be used but Mr. Lochte expressly presents poor examples of Integrity, Interpersonal Skills and Global Perspective. Only the gas station wall can attest to his Self Direction.

As I read through the Graduate Profile prior to passage, I thought about one important ideal that was omitted – the notion of honor – not just showing honor to another person but the development of an honor code for oneself. A personal code of how you will behave and what behavior you will tolerate from others. Maybe Interpersonal Skills have taken the place of an honor code. Interpersonal Skills suggest acceptance while an honor code suggests mere tolerance. Our society often confuses the two.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to write a short series on our state’s “honor culture” and how the notion of personal honor and honor codes should be revived in our education system. In the interim, one warning remains whether our graduates learn personal honor or interpersonal skills, if they urinate on their employer’s office wall, they will be terminated.

Tommy Stringer