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Once Upon a Time

Oct. 23, 2022

by Dr. David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

Recently, I read a comment by an expert on the Mexican drug wars, who said that the movie Sicaro was largely realistic in its portrayal of the violence gripping my adopted homeland. Not a fan of gruesome violence, and anticipating that the movie had its share, I had passed it over on earlier browsings of Netflix. But with this expert approbation, I went back and clicked play.

By myself, I watch movies piecemeal during dinner, breaking each one up as though it were a series. Just as soon as I've cleaned my plate, I get back to work, turning off the movie to continue watching it the next day over the next dinner. Sometimes, this is an injustice to the movie. But usually, the movie is an injustice to me.

Generally, I work a lot. But yesterday was particularly busy. I sat down to eat dinner at the Mexican hour, already some time after the sun had set. Hungry as I was, before taking my first bite, I clicked play and started my third "installment" of Sicaro. At the close of dinner, uncharacteristically, I let the video continue, only pausing it some short while later, to clean up the kitchen and tend to a few loose ends online. Then, while treating myself to dessert, I went back to the tab where the movie was still open and reanimated the characters, who had all been frozen on the screen, patiently waiting for just that.

It was late. I like action movies. I rewind and watch the action segments over again. If not absorbed, I was at least interested in the drama. By dessert's end, there were only 30 minutes left. I thought, why break the spell? Rewarding myself for my hard work that day, I sat back and let the projector roll.

We human beings love stories. "Once upon a time" is a magic enchantment. When the dad on the sitcom comes bursting through the apartment door, announcing, briefcase still in hand, "You won't believe what happened in the office today," we, along with his picture-perfect family, are hooked; "Tell us. Tell us, please."

Our love for stories has been true throughout history, and through prehistory before that. Picture the primordial scene, a clan on the African savanna, gathered around a campfire. Night has fallen all around them, pressing menacingly right up to the perimeter of their circle. The surrounding blackness is broken only by the stars, which themselves are only dim, distant shards of some, yet more ancient, more distant luminous mythological whole. There, around that fire, it was very important to listen, to absorb the stories that defined the tribe.

Essentialism, that we human beings have inherent characteristics, jealousy, envy, violence, love of art..., is the opposite of Rousseau's blank slate. I don't mean to reduce everything to our hormones and neurological hard-wiring, but our hormones and neurology have a lot to do with who we are, with how we see the world. Often, they are a challenge that civilization must overcome.

I don't like Sam Harris and his smarmy, facile atheism. But open-minded as I am, I found myself listening to him the other day, as he spoke with a scientist about how hard it is to change our beliefs. This being something we non-scientists have been aware of for millennia, I was initially unimpressed, but listened on. Sam's friend followed up that revelation with another bombshell, namely, that this changing of our mind is especially difficult to accomplish when the belief involves our identification with a group. It turns out, again unsurprisingly, that people are loath to lose their friends, family and political associations because they've changed their opinion about something. I hope that study didn't cost too much. This finding took me back to the great darkness outside the tribe's fireside circle. Back in those days, ostracism meant a much more difficult, precarious life on the edge of the tribe, or death.

The main thing I don't like about Sam Harris is that he believes that he is immune to such human foibles. He believes that his beliefs, grounded as they are in rational science, are pure. But science, far from being monolithic, has its orthodoxy and its heresy. It has been observed that, "Science progresses in direct relationship to the death of old scientists." Facts and opinions that contradict the prevailing paradigm are pushed back. No one, including heads of science departments, wants to admit that their life's work was wrong. Tony Fauci actively suppressed a scientific consideration of the Great Barrington Declaration, currently with almost one million signatories, in which world-class immunologists objected to Fauci's violating the standard pandemic protocols that were in place before Covid.

Harris' scientist friend mentioned a study in which a group of people were told that, somewhere in the city, a fire had started, made worse by oily rags. Later, they were told that fire inspectors had reported that there were no oily rags involved. Despite this revision, later yet, when discussing the fire, members of the group kept making oblique references to the difficulty of putting out fires involving oily rags.

We were told things about Covid. Most consistently, we were assured, by every authority, many times every hour, for months, for more than a year, that if we got the vaccine, we would neither get nor transmit Covid. Talking heads: news-casters, politicians, government health officials, pounded this message into us. They righteously inveighed, like preachers in their pulpits, against the sinfulness of the unvaccinated: "They are endangering us all," "It's a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

I'm not sure that the news has gotten through to your tribe, yet, but now we know that that's not true. It turns out that the unvaccinated are no more likely to get or transmit Covid than are the vaccinated. The vaccine does lessen the severity of symptoms, which, in at risk populations, keeps people from dying. (The Great Barrington Declaration advocates "Focused Protection," concentrating our efforts on those at risk.)

Oh, well, this official disinformation only took away two years of our life, and irreparably damaged the education of countless children, and did you know that 250,000 children, in SE Asia alone, starved to death from the shuttering of the global economy?

I'm too literal when I watch a movie. I get hung up on the holes in the plot. Sicaro had its share. I'm not spoiling anything for those who haven't yet seen it, but for one thing, the former prosecutor would have had to have been a world-champion marksman to make such accurate pistol shots. I know. I had a friend who was a world-champion pistol marksman. Then, why the driver of the Mercedes, while he was bleeding out, the prosecutor having just slit his throat, would have helped the former prosecutor by allowing his car to drift up to the king-pin's gate, requires another illogical leap.

I know. I know. I'm being too petty. In the trade, the blindness to such improbabilities comes under the rubric of "suspension of disbelief." The movie-goer chooses to stay immersed in the story, to overlook such discrepancies. He agrees to not disbelieve.

A similar process is at work in almost every human activity, serious endeavors and playful pastimes. As members of society, of social units, we also must suspend disbelief. We ignore the inconvenient truths that would make it difficult to keep our circle of friends, our party affiliation or our job.

Iain McGilchrist counsels that it ought not be a choice between either/or (left brain) thinking and both/and (right brain) thinking. He advises that we need to think in ways which are both either/or and both/and.

I have the persistent suspicion that I am muddling it all up. My nagging hunch is that if I could just get my prejudices out of the way, then everything would become clear and easy. Of course, it might very well turn out that my biggest prejudice is that things should be clear and easy. I'll get back to you.


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