Watching “Hollywood” left me severely troubled
It’s been a week since we finished the Netflix hit mini-series Hollywood. It’s impossible to NOT include spoilers in this post, so be prepared or walk away. But while my instant reaction was enjoyment, after the end, especially after the final episode, I was left troubled. I found the final two episodes really disturbing. I turned to my collective brain on Facebook to ask them about their impression and I walked away even more confused. The almost unanimous feedback was “great. show”, “it’s revisionist”, “it shows how things could’ve been, should’ve been”, etc. I’ve been thinking about those comments for days now.
Medici, Borgias, the Crown paved the way for this…
I’ve watched a lot of historic TV shows, some mentioned above, and then some. Doing so, I always have my phone in hand to check things on Wikipedia: is this a real character/event? And as has always been the case with TV and movies, writers and directors take significant liberties when creating their shows. I also watched “Once upon a time…in Hollywood“, the Tarantino movie which takes the murder of Sharon Tate and changes it significantly. I enjoyed that movie, to a degree. And it wasn’t primarily the fact that Sharon Tate isn’t killed, but the violence of the movie in general. Typical Tarantino, I guess. Just not my cup of tea.
But “Hollywood” is different on a completely different level. While very loosely based on real events from the post-WWII period, and using several historical figures, including Rock Hudson and Henry Wilson, to just name two of the most infamous ones. It starts out by depicting the arrival of Hudson in Hollywood, and his character is portrayed as the gay man he was. So far so good. The same is true for Henry Wilson, in all the gory despicability of who he apparently was. It also showcases the racial differences and how extremely difficult it was for POC in those days. And while some individuals were able to see past that and regarded people as simply humans, that certainly wasn’t true for society at large. There are scenes with Queen Latifah and Michelle Krusiec that are gutwrenching to watch, yet based on the reality of those days.
Suddenly, everything is different
There is a scene where the gay black screenwriter walks up to the studio head to warn her that he’ll be holding hands with Rock Hudson on the red carpet. By that scene, the improbable movie had already become a smash hit at the box offices and been nominated for a lot of Oscars. She warns him of the consequences thereof, but he, as they say, persisted. From there, the scenes are stacked up and blacks, gays, and the improbable movie “Meg” walk away with Oscars and the mini-series ends with the promise of a romantic gay movie being made. Yes, amazing, isn’t it?
Yet totally unrealistic… That gay movie still hasn’t been shot. No, Simon’s not it either. And while it’s close, it shows that even in 2020 we are so far away from even being close to treating minorities similar to the white ruling classes of Hollywood. #hollywoodsowhite anyone?
Yes, things have changed for the better, but…
I don’t mind fantasy. I don’t mind things being portrayed in rosy colors. But please, don’t change history. Why? Stupid people, simply put. And there’s plenty of them, sadly. There are hundreds of millions of people around the world with no sense for historic accuracy/literacy who do not know how to use Wikipedia while watching historic dramas (I’ve seen the comments about e.g. the Medici or the Borgias on Facebook) and they’ll take this at face value. Don’t believe me? Five letters: T R U M P.
The man and his regime change history on the fly. Suddenly we’re facing “Obamagate” (even though there is NO such thing and never was), Russia is replaced by Ukraine, the Trump campaign by the Biden campaign (which had not begun yet) but I guess beating on Hillary got old. Without any care for facts, we have seen how the perception of the world is changing. One day 45 trumpets about a malaria medication being a promising cure from the White House pulpit, the next day, people are poisoned in Nigeria because they (lack of education) believed him and overdosed on that shit. I’m just waiting for the first idiot to publicly spout from the rooftops that gays and blacks have no reason to complain, that things have been so great for them as the show portrays. And don’t tell me people will not react like that because there are literally millions upon millions who are incapable of separating truth from fiction. Sometimes even educated people. The worst part is how this will affect the perception of things like #blacklivesmatter and the ongoing struggle of the LGBTQ and POC communities for equality if suddenly people think there’s no reason to complain.
It was one of the great reads of my youth, George Orwell’s novel 1984. I remember how they went back to change articles in The Times to better and accurately reflect changes to IngSoc dogma. It was Winston Smith’s job, after all. I doubt that Mr. Orwell would’ve been able to even imagine a time, in the not too distant future where the president of the world’s dominant nation would lie so often and so callously that facts had become a perishable good. He changes his views on the fly and there is no Winston Smith there to alter the facts and clean up the mess. He simply ignores it, labels yesterday’s facts as “fake news” and moves on lying. I have family members reading every word from the man’s lips.
This is why I am so disturbed by revisionist (what an awful word btw.) TV shows and movies. Do fantasy and sci-fi, by all means, but don’t change the past (unless you do so the way time travelers do, where it’s all in the open and stated as fiction and an alternative reality.) It’s simply too dangerous in our time and age. I’m not surprised though. It’s the perfect form of entertainment for the Trump age where nothing is real anymore. Not the news, not science, not facts, not even history. That makes me sad and worried for humanity.
This year will see a different Earth, regardless of how we feel about that
This is the third month of the Covid-19 pandemic here in Sweden, and while we have reached the plateau and our state. epidemiologist informs us that our R-number is below 1 right now (meaning that each sick person infects, on average, less than one person) we see no end in sight. Our rules of social distancing, no-travel, work from home, etc. are still in place and today, I feel a great deal of sorrow. Not only is it the fact that there seems to be no end in sight (experts speaking that this could be going on well into 2022 depending on when a vaccine becomes widely available) but the psychological effects of the pandemic are palpable, everywhere.
Isolated for weeks with no end in sight
While we’ve been lucky here to have avoided the most severe “lock-downs”, the rules here in Sweden are less draconic, but still: our airport had one flight per day for 7 weeks, we’ve worked from home for almost two months, theaters, playhouses, the opera, and all concert halls have been closed for as long. We had to cancel attendance at birthday parties and some planned dinner parties with friends have never made it out of the planning stage. And while our government is proud to claim that the avoidance of a total lockdown enables us to sustain our restrictions for a much longer time, I’m not sure I even want to contemplate another two years of this. I can’t even see summer coming without a trip to see my dad.
I’m not alone. I think loads of people feel the same, and while 99.99% of us follow the rules, some “idiots” have taken to the streets to complain loudly, armed to the teeth, which says a lot about their true intentions. But even regular people around the world probably wish we’d wake from this nightmare, that we’d be able to attend concerts again, go to the movies or drink a beer in a bar. Alas, that day eludes us.
The victims are found everywhere, from mass graves to the gig economy
Now, I mustn’t complain. There are people who’ve lost their jobs, their livelihoods, their homes. I have friends, family in much worse situations. I watch on in horror as mass graves are dug around the world to dispose of bodies nobody’s claiming. Not just in the slums of the poorest cities in the world, but in the west as well, e.g. New York’s Hart Island. For weeks, my most visited website ahs been the Corona page of John’s Hopkins University and every weekday at two pm I’ve been tuning into the press conference of our authorities to get the latest “scoops” in the fight against covid-19. I haven’t written a word of fiction in over two months. My mind just isn’t in it. I do grocery shopping for the elderly on the island which is super rewarding. Yet, looking back, my own life hasn’t really changed that much. Yes, I’ve lost a major consulting gig with great potential because of the pandemic, I probably sell fewer books because of covid. But my husband still works, our son is still going to school, and I’m used to working from home, have done it for a decade. My life is not much different than it was compared to last spring. What’s changed is the perception of it.
For the hundreds of thousands who’ve perished, and their loved ones, reality HAS changed, and this new reality is grim. For those hanging on to live in ventilators around the world, fighting for every breath, this new reality is about life and death. For people struggling to put food on plates, the new normal is anything but normal. For companies trying to stay afloat without their customers, covid-19 is a game-changer. This pandemic is altering our societies, our economies, and our way of life forever. And I doubt it will ever go back to the way it was before, and that makes me sad.
Is there a silver lining?
We don’t know what the future will look like. Will the clear water in the canals of Venice and the dolphins stay? Probably not. Will the people of Delhi be able to enjoy blue skies even after the pandemic? Not likely. There are reports of wildlife reclaiming their habitats as humanity (temporarily) retreats. Sadly, chances are the backlash will be swift. Although, there is hope. There is hope that the people of Venice will get used to seeing dolphins and will want them to stay and enact measure to protect them and the clear waters. There is a sliver of hope that the people of Delhi will cherish seeing the blue skies above them and will enact legislation to protect the environment. There is hope. For Mother Earth, our environment. There is hope that fewer planes in the air will help the climate, that politicians will make sure that the post-covid society will be more gentle to our planet.
Once upon a time, going places. Taken 30,000+ ft in the air.
In psychology, grief theory suggests a number of steps to go through: rejection, anger, depression, bargaining & acceptance. It would seem that I’m in the “depression” stage, right now. Eventually, you might see me talk about how “amazing” things were in the past (not sure though), but there will be a time when we come to accept what has been will never be what is, and I presume that is good. The world has always been changing and throughout history, events like pandemics have always altered societies, sometimes for good, sometimes not so much. But change is inevitable. It is up to us to make the best of the situation. I for one hope that we see a gentler, more caring society emerge, a society where we invest more in healthcare and the common services we all share and cherish in this difficult time (schools, elder care, libraries, etc.)
I will travel again…
I miss traveling, weirdly enough because I’m not supposed to, not because we had to cancel any trips. But I know that I will travel again. The wandering gene within me has not been switched off. And whenever, and however, restrictions are loosened, I know I will be going to the airport and board a plane to elsewhere, to meet new people, experience new things. Until then, I have Instagram and my friends around the world. As any seasoned traveler will tell you, anticipation is one of the greatest perks of travel. My next trip, to the undiscovered country, has me in anticipatory stitches right now.
After three homophobic attacks in six weeks, I’m exhausted
It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have gotten used to the feeling of it’s over, we’re good, society has finally accepted us. Because under the veneer of legislative progress, there is still an underbelly reeking of hatred and disgust, there are still people publicly stating “we don’t hate the gays, just the acts”, etc. Friday, January 31, marked a chasm in my sense of security. It was late, after ten pm, Alex and I were watching TV, as we usually do on a Friday night. Tired from a week of work, I was half asleep when I suddenly heard a noise, less than two meters to my left, a loud banging followed by a male voice screaming “fucking faggots”! I literally flew out of my chair, my heartbeat pulsating in my throat, as I approached our back door to see what was going on. I open the door, look around and see a guy walking down the street, dark green hoodie, pulled over his head, low. Wearing slippers, I follow him, calmly, now more upset than scared, at the act. He starts to run, I follow as quickly as I can in my slippers but lose him to the night and the forest he disappeared into.
A sleepless night and the aftermath
I don’t get much sleep that night, and I end up taking a sleeping pill to get any rest at all. Monday night, a neighbor knocks quietly on our front door after our son had gone to bed. As I open the door to see what she wants, her first reaction is staring at me saying “I’m sorry I scared you…” That’s how visible my fear still is, 72 hours later… And it took weeks to get over this violation. No, I’m not trying to compare this to rape or physical abuse (been there, experienced that, too, sadly) but we often consider our homes our castles, our keeps. Places where we are safe, and we do not expect strangers to simply walk into our properties to harass us. It’s bad enough we have to endure this shit in public but in our homes?
Then came last Friday. Alex was tired and had gone to bed soon after ten pm. I was still up, trying to wind down, hanging in my chair, soul dangling, when the banging and the slurs scare the heeby-jeebies out of me, again. Once again, I follow, this time barefoot. Bad idea. I hear the young man’s footsteps as he ran away into our nearby forest. Not a good to follow without shoes. The next morning we talked about what to do. Alert social services? Report to the police? We decide not to because it’s just a waste of time since the police obviously have better things to do. Instead, having a hunch that this might be a troubled young man and since it is important to me to show that we’re not going to be scared (as much as we are, tbh, but we refuse to let our lives be run by fear.) Here’s my letter to the young man. I published it, after much deliberation with my husband on an island forum:
To the young man…
Who banged and yelled at our door last night, like a madman, for the second time in a few weeks.
Your consumer information did not come as a surprise to anyone in the house. We knew that long before you were born. As for “devils” [used to strengthen a curse in Swedish.], we are no deities, not in anyone’s book. Just ordinary people, with young children who sleep this time of day.
Both times I followed you a bit, but you are certainly afraid to talk to us. You ran into Arbores quickly, both times. Unsurprisingly perhaps.
I suspect I know what’s going on deep inside you. And that knocking on the door is more about something else you are actually knocking on, from the inside, your closet door. You would hardly be the first one. Homophobia is strongest among those who are most afraid to be discovered.
Our door is there to ring, the day you dare to talk. But then preferably daytime.
Poor mailbox, what did you ever do to anyone to deserve this?
Seven hours later…
The young man’s response came swiftly, just seven hours later, and I can only assume that my post hit a nerve. I woke at 1:30 am to a loud banging from outside our bedroom. Someone was going berserk on our mailbox. Naked, half-asleep, I decided not to get up. I hear a moped leave the premise. Too late. When I woke up in the morning, I see the damage. The mailbox is a wreck, and someone had unloaded all his hatred and rage upon it. Just ours. Nobody else’s mailbox was visited that night (as sometimes happens here, sadly.) This was a direct response to my letter. Had I hit a nerve?
Our Sunday was solemn, cleaning up the mess, going to town to buy a new mailbox, setting it up. We also bought our first-ever security camera, not something you really need on an island where many people don’t even lock their homes. But this was maybe not the last mailbox we lose, but the last time we do not identify the perp…
Regardless of whether the young man is closeted (and struggling with accepting himself) or just plain homophobic, the real question is: why? Why are we still having this discussion in 2020? Why would we make young people feel that coming out is more painful than unloading their wrath on innocent people? Why does being LGBT still cause so much pain and anguish? Could it be that despite all the progress we’ve made, our society still regards us as freaks? You don’t have to go far to experience that. Here in Sweden, it’s preached from the pulpits of churches (Pentecostal, Mission Covenant, Catholic, Salvation Army, etc.) and mosques, from political parties (Christian democrat, Sweden Democrats), from radical feminist groups (TERF) or go to neighboring countries like Poland (“LGBT free zones”) or Russia (“Gay Propaganda Laws”, “Chechen Concentration Camps”) to realize that our young are still in daily contact with views that there is something wrong with them. There is so much conflicting messaging out there, no wonder our young are still confused.
I was recently reading brochures on mental and physical health and young LGBTQ people are radically overrepresented in those statistics of people who are not well. And that is not because there is something inherently wrong with us (as the crazy lot will tell you) but because we’re bullied and ostracised. Every day. In every aspect of life.
There is hope
The outpour of support from our community was huge. Almost two-hundred-fifty people reacted and commented on my post. Yes, it wouldn’t have been advisable for the haters to do so publicly, and they abstained from doing so. They prefer the shadows obviously, but we had several neighbors visiting us that day, people came with hugs and flowers and many called to offer their help and support. That feels amazing and reaffirming to live in a community where we’re welcome and accepted. We’ve lived here together for almost twenty years, and I’m coming up on twenty-five… And we’re not alone. In our neighborhood alone, there are three LGBTQ couples living.
Yet I worry about the young man. Why does he feel the way he does? Is there a way to reach him without risking another $200 mailbox in the process? Without wasting half our weekend? And particularly, without the fear, the sense of insecurity in our own house? That’s really the worst part of it. I can’t describe how it feels to not feel safe in your own four walls. It’s awful. I don’t wish this upon anybody. I still hope to reach him. The bigger question is how do we reach the rest of them? The Putins, the Pences, the Kaczyńskis (incidentally, all three closet cases themselves), all those men and women spewing hatred against the LGBT community? To that, I still don’t have an answer.
It’s easy to despair looking at the world today
The world we live in is pretty depressing right now. Nationalism, tribalism is on the rise, social cohesion is in rapid decline, and all around us, conflicts escalate, wars increase and it seems that for every opinion uttered, two loud voices argue fiercely against, oftentimes regardless of the topic, just to spite.
Social cohesion is lost
When I was a child, there was a lot of social control. The society I grew up in exerted a huge amount of social control. One example I’ll always remember with shame was when I first bought a pair of torn jeans, paying good money for someone else tearing those pants apart in just the right places. It must’ve been either 1987 or 88. Wearing them for the first time in public, on my way home, an older woman on the trolley approached me and asked me if I couldn’t afford a whole pair of pants. That simple question is still haunting me, and it took decades before I wore torn jeans again. Social control at its worst, but social control also creates social cohesion, especially if it is used to make sure kids are safe (I had to yell at a kid the other day who jumped down on the tracks of our streetcar line as a car was approaching), etc. It feels we’ve stopped, be it telling people not to park in the wrong place, or whatever other transgressions (against laws!) people are committing. We simply look the other way and think that it’s not our problem. Thing is, our laws are our problem.
We simply need to differentiate between rules and legislation. If you believe it goes against your religion if a neighbor mowed the lawn on a Sunday, keep mum, as long as it’s legal. But if someone breaks the law and you see it, speak up. If you disagree with the law, speak up! Talk to your parliamentarian, raise your concerns, lobby for a change in your favor.
Societies drift apart
If you look at economical statistics over the past fifty years, it becomes obvious that the rich keep getting richer and the poor fall behind. The middle class is slowly disappearing, and it was the backbone of our western societies for decades. In the fifties, the average CEO would be paid about 20x what his workers were paid, in 2017 that number had risen to 361x. And that is simply insane. There is no reason for that. It’s not like the cost of living for the average CEO has risen more than that for their workers. I might argue the opposite, as tax burdens for the rich have been lowered all around the world.
There is a huge risk associated with societies drifting apart. The happiest societies are the ones with the least amount of economic inequality, while societies with a large economic inequality see effects on e.g. public health. And as we see societies drift apart, we also see tensions between generations (hashtags #okboomer #millinnials), between the “left” and the “right”, haves and have nots. Is there a breaking point? Are we heading toward a new 68-revolution? Or worse, a 1918-style revolution? Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon are just a couple of examples where entire societies are in upheaval, and where traditional lines of conflict no longer seem to apply.
Are social media (at least partially) responsible?
I have a theory that our use of social media has sped up this process. As the algorithms turn our lives into virtual ghettos where the only people we talk to are the ones most like us, where we unfollow or block views we dislike, or worse, report them, we rarely need to second-guess our own views and convictions. So how are we to learn? How are we to evolve our own views if all we ever see or hear comes from within our own chosen echo chamber?
To believe (as I do) that this also exacerbates extremist views is not far-fetched. We tend to idolize those we follow (fiercely) and dismiss everyone else as a scam, a fraud. I see these tendencies all around me, and we forget that most people, even politicians simply want the best for their societies, even if we may disagree with their points of view. Things get personal, very quickly, and we refuse to see other arguments, other points of view. Unfortunately, I feel this is also influencing global politics and adds to the tribalism around us, as wedges are driving between entire peoples.
What can we do?
I think the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to educate ourselves. When I woke up this morning, to the news that Evo Morales resigned as president of Bolivia, I accepted that as a fact. Then I read Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to it, basically calling it a military coup. Given Mr. Corbyn’s position, I was worried that there had indeed been a coup. Then I read a friend’s post on Facebook who said that he feared for something similar to be needed in the USA after the 2020 election, implying that Mr. Trump might not leave the White House even after a defeat. Someone else immediately and very angrily asked if he really wanted a right-wing military coup in the USA. Well, so far for disinformation and polarization.
I’ve since tried to make sense of this, and here are the facts: Evo Morales had been elected President for a fourth term recently, despite a referendum restricting presidents to TWO terms shortly after he’d won his third term. How he was able to even run for a fourth term? I don’t know. Mr. Morales was also accused of election fraud by international monitors. Public uprising ensued and it seems the military and police finally abandoned him yesterday, upon which he resigned. These are the facts we have. I don’t know nearly enough to make a statement about the military or police or who they support or not, whether they’re “right” or “left” (but ask yourself this: why did they support him for three terms?) It’s so simple to jump to conclusions. I reserve judgment until I know more. But it seems Mr. Morales love for democracy is limited. Why else stand against his own constitution and cheat to be re-elected?
What else can we do? Well, go vote! And resist the urge to protest vote. I know it’s enticing, to teach ‘them’ a lesson, but it might just backfire. Look at the US, and what Trump’s draining of the swamp has led to? Look at every nation where extremist parties have grown and come into power. Divisions increase, co-operation seizes. The American Congress, largely incapacitated, is a good example. Westminster another. But the list goes on and we see tendencies to this everywhere. Again, talk to your parliamentarians, tell them what you expect.
Here’s my wishlist:
We need to focus our public sector: less is more. Make sure infrastructure works. Invest in schools, social care, healthcare. Stop the divergence of the haves and have nots. Make sure people have jobs, meaningful things to do. Invest in security and safety so people feel safe. Work together to fight global warming, invest in commerce and global, open and free trade, but start to move away from constant growth. Find ways to improve the world, apart from simple economic growth.
I’m an optimist, I know, but I just can’t help it. As a father of a young child, I worry endlessly about the world I leave behind, the legacy we all leave to our kids and grandkids.
Is knowing a lot of languages always a good thing?
I’m multilingual, polyglot if you will. I speak more than one language. Doomed to it, as it were. In Switzerland, where I was born and raised, we have four official languages, and I just happened to go to school in that one corner of the country where they speak the country’s smallest language, Rhaeto-Romance, an odd mix between Celtic and Latin.
But, my mother tongue or my first language is Alemannic, which is the language spoken in e.g. Alsace, parts of southernmost Germany, Switzerland, Vorarlberg in Austria and Liechtenstein. It’s a Germanic language but lacks a formal written language. People often call it “Swiss German”, but that’s not linguistically entirely accurate, and it’s very complicated when you blend it Luther, German politics and history. Safe to say that Swiss German is what I’d consider most Swiss speak when they speak High German, language #3 in my life, first taught in fifth grade with a book I remember fondly “Deutsch für Ausländer” where we practiced for hours how to pronounce numbers and colors.
Trilingual by the age of ten, Hexa-lingual by age fourteen, Dodeca-lingual after uni
Let’s fast-forward a few years, to junior high-school, where Latin, French and Italian were added to the languages I had regular weekly lessons in. In ninth grade, English was added, and when I began to study at university, my choice subject added five more languages: Old Norse, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.
Sometimes when you hear people who are multilingual being mentioned in the media you get the impression they all speak a multitude of languages fluently. I don’t, and I never even tried to pretend I do. I was fluent in French at the age of sixteen. Today I still speak it, but I often stumble and have to think about the words I want to use. It serves me for my trips to France, or so I hope, as we visit Paris next week. I was never fluent in Italian, but I get by. When it comes to the “dead” languages of Latin and Old Norse, there aren’t any people to talk to, as the Pope won’t accept my calls and the Vikings are long gone. Also, my studies, especially of Old Norse were not very in-depth. The same is true of Danish, Norwegian and particularly Icelandic. While I can read and understand texts, especially in the former two, thanks to the kindred spirits of all germanic languages, any native speaker will immediately call out my Swedish accent when I try to speak. Up here, we call that “Scandinavian”, this weird blend of our own language with that of our neighbors to make ourselves more easily understood. Often enough, Scandinavians resort to English instead.
Rhaeto-Romance, however, is almost gone. Having been bullied throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, the language became a scapegoat for my emotions and I refused to speak it to anyone or to read any books in the language. Today, I can barely understand people speaking it and even reading is tough. I regret my feelings, but it is what it is. The locals didn’t make it any easier by conjuring up a stupid writing language that was supposed to unite the five idioms but did more harm in the process. It came right at the end of my education and strengthened my resolve to not engage.
I still speak four languages without hinder…
So, what’s left? Alemannic (Saint-Gallese dialect to be exact), German, English, and Swedish. Languages 1, 3, 7 and 9. It makes no sense, right? After that, I’d say French (5) and Italian (6) would follow, then Norwegian (11) and Danish (10.) But still, I’m glad to have those four to speak. And write, right? Wrong.
Just a sample of what my native tongue looks like in writing, laced with some words spelled in German, probably for lack of knowing ‘how’ to…
First of all, #1 has no formal codified writing, and you should see text messages we send to each other. Everybody just writes anyway they like, in their own dialect, which varies from town to town. Trust me, even reading it is sometimes challenging. German is another thing entirely, as the stupid ministers of culture changed the way the language is written actively as I was in college and basically screwed it all up. I mean I can still write letters and emails, but I could never write professionally. I’d be ashamed to screw things up because, quite frankly, I have no clue what’s what these days. And I say this remembering that as a Swiss, “our” German is vastly different from that in Germany or Austria, and just to repeat, the Swiss written German, which we call “Hochdeutsch” is nothing, but absolutely nothing like Alemannic.
Which leaves Swedish and English. And I’ve always felt more comfortable writing my prose in English. There are also more English readers than Swedish ones, by a factor of a hundred or so, which made the decision easier.
…but hardly perfectly…
BUT, and I think monolingual people find the concept hard to grasp, I don’t speak any language perfectly. Not that anyone really does, but my point is this: you know the name of a flower in one language, but not in any other. When I returned from my stay in the US in 1987, I had learned a lot of specific terms around funerals, as I’d had to attend a couple, but I didn’t know those terms in Alemannic, my first language. Or any other language for that matter. And that is the case for every situational vocabulary. I’ve learned a lot of terms in English working for “corporate America”, words I have no idea what they’re called in Switzerland or Germany. Some I know in Swedish, etc.
It never ends. Right now, with a son in school, I learn a lot of terms related to school in English, as he’s visiting an English one, but I often struggle with the Swedish equivalents, not to mention the Alemannic or German ones. The list goes on and on.
The more languages you speak, the less you actually know, or so it feels
Sometimes I feel like I have NO language that is truly mine. I’ve not lived in Switzerland for twenty-seven years, so my Alemannic, though spoken regularly, is probably anything but current. My English is a mixture of the Sassenach learned in school, the American learned in High School in the US, and the international variations which are spoken all around me: Indian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English, Singapore English, Canadian English, and various other non-native flavors. Do I always know the difference between elevator and lift, truck and lorry, etc.? I wish… I’ve already mentioned my troubles with German, where I’ve never lived, a country where people speak very differently in Bavaria, Hamburg, Berlin or Dresden. I tend to pick up nuances and yeah, my Swiss accent will always give me away, no matter how hard I try to speak Standard German (which no human really speaks in their everyday life) rather than Swiss German, Pferd instead of Ross, etc. And my vocabulary is somewhat limited, especially with regards to “working” situations. To illustrate my frustration, allow me to use an example: a couple of weeks ago, my son asked me about barnacles and how they were attached to whales. I was at a loss, as I’d never even heard the word, not consciously anyway. I had to google. Look it up. And yeah, I did know what it is, in Swedish. But yeah, not in English. The facial expression on my son’s face, that he (English is his first language) knew a word I didn’t, was priceless. It won’t be the last time I get to experience that as he goes through his education learning more and more English, while I go on being lost in translation.
This is a weird situation to be in, especially for someone who uses “language” as his primary source of income. Not a good feeling. And I wonder how monolinguists feel in that situation? Do they simply learn the word? Do they forget again? It’s taken me weeks to remember this new word in English. And I typically, when I learn a new word, need to remember it in more than one language. But more than that, the feeling of inadequacy is that which lingers the longest. To be polyglot, multilingual also means the loss of a native language, a mother-tongue if you will. That is probably that which affects me the most, as we so often associate language with culture, leading me to questions like “who am I?” or “what am I?” I doubt I’ll ever have definitive answers to those burning questions.
Crimea, 9/11, Hong Kong, racism, mass migration, global warming, etc.
The world is going down the drain
We live in troublesome times. The Internet’s profound impact on our lives, the individualization of society, the increasing divide between the haves and have nots. As a consequence of previous generations’ ravaging of the planet, global warming is about to wreck the world as we know it, leading to mass migration and human-induced mass extinction. On the other hand, family ties, social bonds are deteriorating rapidly, and we care less and less about those around us. It’s definitely the age of entitlement but the freedom we seek, yearn for, is in many aspects smaller than in previous decades. This might be a long post, so hang in as I try to look at the reasons why, various aspects of it, and what you and I can do to make a difference.
From individualization to entitlement, or how western societal control disappeared
Entitlement takes many forms…
It often amazes me how things have changed since I was a child. Mostly for the better, let me say that before I move on. However, when we abandoned our traditional “family values” and pretty much everything associated with it, we didn’t just rid ourselves of the “bad stuff”, such as control, that sons had to walk in their father’s shoes, that we weren’t allowed to marry whom we loved (some of us no one at all), honor killings, the honor system in the first place, etc. Unfortunately, we also rid ourselves of the positive aspects of familial/societal cohesion: people are lonelier than ever before, mental illness is galloping, grandparents no longer feel obligated to look after their grandkids while their parents work as they, too, are still finding themselves, children no longer care for ailing and/or aging parents, etc. Some of that is remedied by social and health services, but (and I could write a book about this, and I might…) at what cost?
No, I don’t think grandparents ‘have’ to look after their grandkids, but on the other hand, given increasing workloads and career expectations on parents, where’s the relief system? And while it’s a boon that we no longer have to live under the same roof with our elder generations, the lack of social cohesion in society is palpable. There are two sides to every coin, and when I look at my own society, I can see how many immigrant families have maintained that cohesion. Sadly, they also kept the negative aspects, such as honor concepts, non-acceptance of LGBTQ family members, traditional gender expectations, etc.
The extreme individualization we see in our society is visible everywhere: from traffic where everyone feels entitled to go first (regardless of what the law says), to the workplace where people tell their managers that they don’t “feel like” doing certain aspects of their jobs, despite the job description they once signed off on. We all want to be “influencers”, we expect our dream jobs to just fall in our laps regardless of qualifications, we are offended by everybody and everything, and rather than forgiving or giving people the benefit of the doubt, we cry racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc. We react long before our neurons have had a chance to reflect on the situation to warrant if our reaction is a) warranted and b) appropriate/adequate for the situation. I sometimes wonder: do I have to let people know every single time they say something stupid? Why have we become so confrontational? We are, after all, humans and are prone to making mistakes. Unfortunately, this extreme individualization has dire consequences for our societies, few of which are positive… I’ll explore that in the rest of this post.
The Internet: from freedom of speech to mind control and indoctrination
One of the advantages of being “old” is that I remember the age before the Internet, albeit barely. When the Internet first became a thing, in the early nineties, we all saw it as this amazing thing that would help us become freer, liberated in ways never before possible. We imagined how the “unfree” around the world would be able to access information freely and how the masses would rise in China and elsewhere to demand freedom and democracy. Swell! Too bad it didn’t really work out that way. In an almost Orwellian way, the Internet has instead become a tool to control the masses. China’s great wall isn’t visible from the moon, but it certainly makes sure that the people of China only read and see what the party wants them to see. And while we, in the west, still have access to (mostly) everything, we have become so fat and complacent that we sit in our comfy reclining chairs, pizza slice in one hand, beer in the other, and happily allow us to be manipulated to believe exactly what we always wanted to believe. This bias, this preference to read/watch/hear that which we expect to hear is bad enough when the news/information is unbiased, but in a world where algorithms map our preferences to the t, we are easy targets for all kinds of misinformation and propaganda. Cambridge Analytica and their role in the 2016 US elections and Brexit are bad enough, but with recent advances in technology, so-called “deep fakes” will make your mother tell you in a facetime call that she’s really a mass murderer and by the way never gave birth to you. And since it’s your mother on the line you’ll never know the difference. Already, researchers have put the words of Hitler into the mouth of Obama. We are doomed! And we won’t even know it.
Is it hopeless? I’m not optimistic, but when we see something, hear something that is completely “out there”, it begs to check the source. Call your mom, make sure it was actually her placing the call. Visit her face to face. This is an extreme and unlikely example, but in politics, we’ll see this happen, sooner rather than later. Make sure you double-check and triple-check the source, their bias. Because, and this is crucial, there are always two sides to every story. Before you jump to conclusions, before you make up your mind, make sure you’ve heard at least two sides of it. Actively force your mind to weigh the pros and cons before you decide to cry foul.
Education, the key to a better future
We once understood the need for a good education. Today we need to know and understand things more than ever. Some people don’t want that.
The above is easier said than done. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, our cable news, heck even our favorite department stores all show us what they believe we want to see, hear, buy. Republicans tune into Fox, Democrats into MSNBC, safe to only hear good things about their own. Never to have their values and convictions challenged. To second-guess, to question is hard work, and it requires a basic level of education many of us don’t possess and even more can’t be bothered with.
For decades, school systems have been allowed to deteriorate around the world, at the same time as we know infinitely more now than when I went to school. Just last week, the Swedish school department suggested scrapping any and all history prior to 1700 to make room for contemporary history. People are up in arms. Imagine a child growing up with no basic concept of ancient Athens (cradle of democracy), Rome (basis to much of our legislative traditions, still, not to mention politics, philosophy, etc.), the dark ages, etc. With no understanding of the many wars that plagued us through the eons. How are we to understand contemporary history with not even a hint of ancient history (which goes further back and includes other cultures as well, mind you?)
There is a reason why some don’t want the broad masses to have access to education, to keep them malleable. I’ll use the Romans as an example: “bread and games” Look at a country like Singapore. People are generally content, even though the country doesn’t really know the freedom of speech or real democracy. But as long as people find employment and fun (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) they’re content. However, as soon as the subway stops working, the government faces riots. There are advantages for a system like Singapore’s: it’s extremely efficient and works, but at the expense of minorities. You’re fine if you’re a straight Chinese, but if you’re Malay or, worse, Indian, your choices in life are limited. And other minorities, like the LGBT community, are oppressed. All the while, the richest are getting richer and the poorest lag behind. Never before in human society has the gap between the most fortunate and those least fortunate been greater. And it’s all happened in the past forty years, give or take.
To limit access to education is a tool for the “haves”, of course. Keep the have nots docile. Those of us who want a better future for humanity need to counter that. We need to fight for the best possible education for everybody, regardless. No exception. Nobody gets to be left behind. A comprehensive, free education. We also need to teach our children the consequences of NOT having an education, and I think we need to broaden that discussion from mere career choices to include our civic duties. Education is, of course, not the only factor. Voting is another. And they’re correlated: the more we know, the more likely we are to vote! Gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter restrictions are other tools used to make sure fewer people vote, and again, education and the ability to navigate the shoals of bureaucracy greatly impact those least educated. The reasons why are glaringly obvious as they usually do not vote for those who steal from you.
There’s nothing I can do
It’s easy to feel hopeless these days…
Last Sunday I traveled from Liverpool to Manchester after a book launch. The direct train I was on, to avoid the worst of the traffic from the ongoing Tory party conference in Manchester, had no first-class seats. Suddenly I found myself in an environment I usually avoid. Minutes after boarding the train, two young men came in and sat down in front of me, loud music blaring from their phones. Their voices carried and they talked about stuff I didn’t really care about and most certainly didn’t want to listen to. I put on my earphones and zoned out, too. They quickly fell asleep, heads on the table, with no regard for the third passenger sitting with them. After a while, the conductor came to check our tickets and after having checked everyone else’s, he tried to wake those two. They didn’t respond for the longest time, and I’m unsure if by design or as a result of being drugged (they seemed fine when they boarded the train, but what do I know about drugs…) Police were called and I got to witness just how the world of the disenfranchised looks like. It was painful. And it got me thinking, a lot. What can I do to change their lives? How can I help people care about their lives? Worry about the climate when their only focus is the next fix? The next meal? Clothing their kids?
Can I blame the mom who buys the cheapest eggs, produced by hens in miserable conditions, while I soothe my conscience with organic ones? Can I blame the Appalachian miner who sports a MAGA hat, not realizing that his president’s “clean coal” is as likely to get him a job as the presidents ties ever being in fashion again? Can I blame the South Africans who decry immigration from other countries in the region because they can’t find work back home? Can I blame the illiteral Hindi farmer who kills his newborn daughter because he knows full well that he will barely be able to feed her, but never, ever have the money to marry her off?
We look at the world around us and it feels not only like an uphill, but an insurmountable task. At the same time storms become more deadly, temperatures increase and sea levels rise. It’s easy to get the impression that we are doomed! Yet giving up isn’t really an option, is it? We have to fight, for our own children and grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for our neighborhood children.
So, what can I do?
As long as the sun rises in the East, there is hope!
If ever there was a $64,000 dollar question, eh? I think the first thing is to not give up, not give in to the overwhelming feeling “we’re soo screwed!” Because there are plenty of things you and I can do. A change in attitude is the first thing. History teaches us that we can change our fortune. Just look at the American Revolution, the French one. While there were setbacks, in the end, democracy prevailed, and little by little, things got better. The civil rights movement, the 68-movement, and right now, the Friday school strikes are already making a difference.
But you don’t have to go on strike. There are other things you can do. Talk to your Representative, your MP, whoever represents you in your country’s parliament. There is a website listing their name, email and postal address. They might even have a phone. Their job is to represent you, even if you’ve never voted or if you voted for the other candidate(s) in the election. Talk to them, tell them about your concerns, your worries. Tell them what you expect from them. Believe me, it’s easier than you think. Do the same on your regional level, in your city. Talk about your schools, the retirement home your parents are in or let them know what isn’t working in your health care system. It is my experience that most parliamentarians (regardless of what level) welcome the contact to their constituents.
There’s so much more. Recycle. Such a simple thing. Don’t litter in nature. Eat less meat. Believe me, every little makes a difference. I recently read an article about how much microplastic ends up in our waters due to laundry cycles. The longer you wash, the worse it is. I had always flushed down the fibers stuck in my dryer in the toilet. OOPS! Not doing that again. A tiny change for me, walking the twenty extra steps to the trash can, but if we all do that? Imagine how grateful sealife will be for the difference we make. We are, after all, almost 10 billion people. Even if we all ate one less beef burger a week, replace it by something else, better, times billions… Suddenly you can see how even the smallest thing makes a difference.
But what changes to make?
That is where education comes in. Never stop learning. Read the papers, science section. Trust me, those journalists are trained to present difficult academic subjects so we, you and I, can understand. If a source is unknown, is known to be biased (your way or another way), make sure you double-check the article is credible. Google it. Find other sources to confirm. It’s not that hard and after a while, it’ll become second nature.
You can also engage those less fortunate. This is probably the most important, the single most difficult thing we will need to do. We can’t wait for politics to introduce great education for everyone. There was a reason why we once said that everyone should be able to read, write and do math. Duh! But so many still can’t. More now than decades ago, right here in the west. But what good does it do to read if you don’t do so? Our kids brains yearn for the stimuli from their phones and pads, rather than stimulate them with a good book. You can change that. Read aloud! Insist! Really, I mean it. Read for fifteen minutes every day until your child is old enough to read on their own. Then make sure they read a book for a half-hour every day. Soon they’ll be so engrossed in the story they’ll ask you to stay up just a little longer… I know, author optimism here, but I can see how children’s minds are wide open to embrace the imagination books spark. So much more than adults.
But it’s not just kids, is it? It’s our neighbors, our friends. If they give voice to uneducated views, if they speak up against science, engage them. Not aggressively, don’t be condescending, judgemental. Try to understand WHY they feel like they do. Don’t tell them “you’re wrong…” (that’ll only make them reinforce that view), but listen. Then try to offer an alternative view, how their lives can improve, what they can do themselves, without scapegoating, hating, blaming. Possibly help them take the first baby step.
Is there hope for humankind?
Do we have a choice? Can we let things go to hell? If we don’t act, things will get worse. The dark forces that divide us for short-term profit mustn’t be allowed to win. We have enough food to feed all of humankind. There is enough creativity to solve climate change challenges, to slow global warming, halt the mass extinciton of plant and animal species. But we all need to act, beginning with ourselves. Don’t be complacent, don’t give up.
When I began to write my latest books about The Golden One, I knew little about how dire things really are out there. I say that despite having a post graduate education, despite reading several newspapers every single day, despite considering myself engaged in current events around the world. But immersing myself into the animal world, to hear my hero Jason speak to animals, widened my understanding for our planet, our ecosystems. It widened my empathic senses.
A tick. A nuisance, but do you understand it’s place in Mother Nature’s pyramid?
When I saw that spider trapped in my bathtub I wasn’t just sensing disgust and fear of the animal, I was also able to understand how it must feel, the panic of being trapped, unable to escape the white hell of my tub. Rescuing it made me a better human being. Just a couple of days ago I removed a tick who’d been sucking blood from one of our cats. The poor creature began to crawl away on the bathroom floor, probably in a panic, dragging her heavy, bloodfilled body alog the smooth surface. Rather than flushing her down the toilet, like I had done countless times before, I picked her up and released her outdoors. I know that ticks, too, have a role to play in Mother’s great pyramid. Just because I don’t understand that role doesn’t mean I get to play God. Silly, you say? Stupid even, given the diseases ticks carry? Possibly, but even viruses and bacteria play important roles in culling populations, making sure that the fittest survive. Humanity has long ago stepped away from that pyramid, and we control it. But that doesn’t mean we understand it, treat it with respect. The current extinction event points to the contrary.
Is there hope? As bleak as things may look right now, I emphatically maintain that we have no choice. We must remain optimistic. I for one will struggle to the bitter end to make sure my son has a bright future, but not only he, but every living thing on this planet. We are all connected to each other and only together can we thrive.