Thursday, January 13, 2011

Getting It

I've just started reading Studs Terkel's classic Working. I'm not too far in, but it seems to be a testament to what you hear when you listen. It was written in the 70s — do we listen worse now than we did then? Do we have less hope of brotherhood than we did then? I didn't live then, and I don't know.

Then, this, on the Singularity.

I also recently finished Craig Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute (essentially a memoir of his military education and service in Afghanistan). One striking aspect of the book, to me, is the following statement: “At West Point we'd learned that responsibility preceded privilege”. Leading up to that, he'd been describing difficulties re-adjusting to civilian life after returning, and the sorts of stupid comments he'd hear from people at parties. That they'd sign up for military service if they were “guaranteed a challenging assignment”, or that they supported the troops but not the war, when in fact they did nothing to support the troops.

His subjective response of disgust is clearly justified, and points to a more universal truth. Yes, these people are clearly putting privilege ahead of responsibility, asking for the sorts of promises they'd get in business. That's one privilege my generation has become accustomed to, instant gratification and recognition. It's never asked for and rarely acknowledged. Mullaney's early decision to go to West Point instead of an Ivy League school contained an acknowledgement of this privilege (and of his discomfort with it) and a rejection of it.

Another theme that ran through was the question of meaning. It's sort of a cliché to describe bureaucracies as Kafkaesque, and some reviewers called his descriptions of West Point life and of his experience as an adjutant by that word. I don't think that's quite right. In those things Mullaney found meaning where it wasn't initially obvious — in some (especially in frustrating training exercises) he found definite, specific meanings, and elsewhere he seemed open to the idea of a yet unknown or unknowable meaning. To really be Kafkaesque the experience ought to be meaningless. He seemed more ambiguous about the meaning of the war in Afghanistan. Obviously it had as much personal meaning as his training but an actual war demands more than that. Could he have undergone meaningful training for a meaningless mission? At least within this book, he asks the question but doesn't become consumed with it.

1 comment:

olyphant said...

your blog posts are like little peeks into your brain. your brain is brilliant. i want it to come home. alaska... erm, the rest of you can come too.

*loves and misses*