Thursday, May 3, 2012

Cupid, exposed

What most people do not know about Cupid is that he used to have a great P.R. guy. This of course was back in the Greek golden age, when the gods had a lot more resources to spend on things like public relations. Gods, like musicians, tend to change their names to create new personas, and at the time, Cupid was going by Eros. Aristophales, (that was Cupid’s P.R. guy), did a fantastic job with the persona of Eros. Eros was a sex symbol, more beautiful than Adonis and with more infatuated fangirls than Johnny Depp. Even the very word ‘erotic’ can find its roots in this rock star of ancient Greece. He did not cause a lot of problems, his mother, the vengeful Venus, was more into the whole ‘tormenting the mortals’ schtick. The worst thing that could happen with Eros is that he would spirit away some beautiful princess about to be sacrificed to a sea monster and treat her to a non-stop love-fest in his magnificent castle.

Unfortunately, his ‘Eros’ persona was relatively short lived, and soon the Cupid we know began to take root in the minds of mortals: A fat, cherubic little baby, floating about on wings, shooting love darts left and right, usually around Valentine’s Day. This was a common practice amongst the gods of modernity, with many of them selling out to corporations. Mercury became a flower delivery spokesperson, Apollo opened a concert hall in New York City, Mars got into the candy bar business, and even King Midas got a deal fixing mufflers and brakes. Cupid, however, became the biggest sell-out of all, becoming the corporate tool of Hallmark, selling cards to remind people that they love each other on an arbitrary day in February. 

Still, the version of Cupid we know from Hallmark, while not as flattering a portrait as the Eros of antiquity, is still a much more benign image than the real Cupid. The real Cupid resembles the winged fat baby only in passing. A closer look shows that he is indeed rather short, overweight, and bald, but not adorable by any stretch of the word. His wings are vestiges of a time in his youth when his frame was undoubtedly slimmer. He is eternally cranky. Were I a casting director, I would probably recruit Danny DeVito for the role.

 The diaper is in actuality a whitish pair of briefs, sometimes accompanied by a men’s sleeveless undershirt, (colloquially known as a ‘wife-beater’). He does indeed have a bow and arrow, but rather than the cute little plunger-like darts one sees on cartoons, his arrows are jagged, designed to inflict damage when removed. These serrated arrows are then dipped in a love-inducing venom and fired with precision towards his victims. 

This is another instance where Hallmark does a passable job cleaning up Cupid’s image. Falling in love is portrayed as some sort of pre-destined event, a fated union of two soul-mates. In reality, the Fates and Destiny herself both refuse to have anything to do with Cupid, ostensibly because of his drunken groping of Nona the spinner at a New Year’s party. Cupid himself is something of a Darwinist, which is admittedly an odd philosophy for a deity, but goes to show that religion and science can sometimes get along rather well.

One of the constraints Cupid works under is one familiar to many fans of first person video games: He only has so much ammunition. Arrows aren’t free, and so Cupid rarely fires two at the same time. Economic concerns aside, Cupid does seem to relish unrequited love. Like a frustrated housewife watching soap operas, he enjoys watching the drama of complete devotion answered with utter indifference. Still, because humans must reproduce in order to perpetuate the species, which in turn, is good for Hallmark’s bottom line, Cupid must occasionally strike two people at once with his arrows. The resulting infatuation breeds a new generation of mindless customers. This is where his Darwinism comes into play, targeting attractive people who will in turn have beautiful children and keep the species interesting for Cupid and the other gods to look at. Moral character, wisdom, intelligence, kindness, or any number of other factors are irrelevant in Cupid’s decisions. The tiny tyrant has decreed that happily ever after is only allowed to a genetically fortunate few.

Fortunately, the human race is nothing if not adaptable. In the absence of that rare form of love that includes an equality of adoration from both parties, many will settle for what they can get. Women will convince themselves that their attractive, but abusive and neglectful boyfriends are in fact simply good men encased in mystery: Mr. Darcys and Edward Cullenses just waiting to be discovered beneath the cold exterior. Men will blindly devote themselves to beautiful goddesses who would not deign a second glance to them if their money ran out. Aspirations of love erode slowly, replaced by resignation and acceptance. Miserable marriages soon follow, laced with secret resentment and a sense of disappointment that their lives did not end up the way Hallmark and Hollywood promised. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Idiocracy: The Corruption of the American Dream

*Note: When I use the word "Santorum" in this piece, I am talking about the politician, not the more common definition that shows up when you google the word.

I detest American politics.  I would probably protest other countries' politics too if I followed them.  However, I cannot stop myself from paying at least a little attention to them.  This little bit from Santorum made me wish I'd stayed blissfully unaware:

Let's ignore, for a moment, the blatant hypocrisy of a man with an undergraduate degree from the highly ranked Pennsylvania State University and no fewer than two GRADUATE degrees (an M.B.A. and a law degree) calling Obama a snob for valuing higher education.  The idea that universities are indoctrination mills churning out a legion of Obama clones is so easily refuted that a simple glance at two random college graduates....let's say...Obama and Santorum...will show that college does not guarantee uniformity of thought or policy.  Or even guarantee thought at all.

I want to focus on the larger problem here.  Namely, Santorum's meteoric rise as a contender for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.  This is symptomatic of a disturbing cultural trend: The tendency of Americans to vilify intelligence and glorify ignorance.

First, let me make one thing clear:  I do not think Americans are innately less intelligent than any other people. I think stupidity is common to the human species in general.  The problem is that, in America, ignorance is seen as a positive thing.

I'm a bit of a Francophile, and I'll use France now by way of contrast.  France is a country that values its intellectuals.  Philosophers are rock stars to the French.  When Sartre was alive, his opinion was sought out on matters of social policy, on politics, on whatever.  People recognized that he was a smart guy and that it might be nice to know his thoughts on the matter. 

In America, this sort of rapt attention is reserved for Kim Kardiashian and Snooki's twitter accounts.  

Carl Sagan picked up on this way back in 1995. "One trend that bothers me is the glorification of stupidity, that the media is reassuring people that its all right not to know anything - that in a way it's cool.  That to me is far more dangerous than a little pornography on the internet," he warned. 

We see it in schools where the smart kids are afraid to answer the teacher's questions for fear of looking too smart in front of their peers.  We see it in politics, where Americans will always vote for the guy who looks like he would have a beer with them and not the guy who sounds 'too smart' (or like a SNOB, to use Santorum's word). We see it when girls are told not to act too smart around a boy she likes, or she'll scare him away.  "Just giggle and smile and laugh at his jokes, boys don't want girls who are smarter than them", their mothers warn. From a very young age and at every stage of social development, American children are taught to hide their intellect for fear of making others feel inadequate.  

Where did this begin? I believe what Sagan calls the 'glorification of stupidity' its in reality the bastardization of the American Dream.  What once was the idea that every citizen had the chance to become more successful than his parents, to rise beyond her circumstances, or to achieve that white-picket fence epilogue to a life well-lived, has been subtly transmuted into something far less inspiring.  The American Dream was what once allowed a child to say, with every confidence, that he would grow up to become President, or an astronaut, or a scientist.  Now it has become an ambiance of marked scorn for even daring to have such lofty ambitions.  Why would you want to be an astronaut? Are you too good for us here on Earth? We're cutting NASA's funding anyway.

These principles of equality and fairness have been tainted by contact with the least common denominator.  Ambition is met with derision. Credentials are scoffed away.  With the democratization of knowledge through google and wikipedia, everyone feels entitled to the role of 'expert'.  With the advent of blogging and self-publishing, everyone is first an author, then a specialist.  Why waste time on a Ph.D. when a cursory (and shallow) facade of expertise can be produced with a few minutes spent on a search engine?  

True academics and vetted intellectuals are seen as elitists.  Seeking to become one is somehow an affront to those who are content not to develop their intellect.  It is as if attaining a higher education was pushing the rest of society somehow lower, when in reality the relative distance only increased in a positive direction.  Education improves society.  The academic achievements of my peer elevate him, they do not diminish me.  That science nerd who made you feel dumb in high school may one day cure your cancer.

Now we find ourselves in a society where Plato's Philosopher King would be booed out of office in favor of someone who is acceptably average.  Instead of putting the power to help us all into the hands of the most capable, we prefer to put it into the hands of those who make us feel comfortable with our own mediocrity.  The same jealous spirit that moved the mobs of Alexandria to burn its libraries and murder Hypatia animates modern man.  Those same feelings of distrust, fear, and hatred motivate bullies to punch the 'brainiacs' and push Santorum to get cheap laughs at the very notion that America could be improved if more people were taught critical thinking skills. 

I currently live and work in South Korea, which, like most Asian countries, puts such an importance on education that the children spend countless hours after school with expensive private tutors, at great cost to their families.  If America wants to retain its competitive edge, we would be wise to give education at least some of that value, rather than scorn.  If we do not, we cannot complain to our leaders when China overtakes us.  

After all, our leaders are just average Joes like us.  That's why we elected them.