O Captain! My Captain!

I normally avoid writing posts that are too personal. While I have a genuine passion for all the topics I have covered on this blog, I made a conscious choice to cover “world issues” – whatever that might mean – here. Today, I am breaking that rule and I sorely wish it was for a different reason.

The first time I recall seeing Robin Williams on screen was in Flubber. Unbeknownst to me, I had already experienced his work as the Genie in Aladdin. I was too young to understand how voice acting worked. I was also too young to realise that Flubber was CGI. But, in this particular case, I didn’t care. Flubber might have been the protagonist and the plot, but it was Williams’ Prof. Brainard that held my attention.

Like so many others, I have been an avid fan of his work. Hook remains one of my most beloved childhood films and I still tear up when Peter Pan consoles Rufio at his passing. The sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire had just been announced, with Williams at the helm, and it was a sequel that I was actually intrigued by, simply because of his performance in the first. Patch Adams might have criticised by many, but I like it. No eloquence there; I just love his work.

But, for someone who is known for his comedic chops – go check out the episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway? he was in to get an idea of his improv skills – it was his dramatic range that earned him most of his career accolades. Good Will Hunting and Good Morning, Vietnam are two of the finest performances ever committed to film.

For me, it was Dead Poets Society that actually influenced my life. In that film, I saw the determination of all the teachers who inspired me, whether at school or at home. I saw, for the first time, a need to be true to yourself, to stand by your principles in the face of adversity, to live. How tragic it is that these lessons are flashing through my mind as I mourn his death.

Over the past few weeks, Robin Williams returned to my life in a big way. I had spent a week in Edinburgh with my cousin and had suggested showing Hook to her lovely boys. I wanted them to enjoy its magic the way I remember doing when I was their age. A while later, a couple of my friends came to stay and we watched Aladdin, commenting throughout how much of an awe-inspiring creation the Genie was. We might proudly monopolise a generational obsession with another magical protagonist, but it was Williams’ work that helped shape our early imaginations. I appreciate that so much more now.

His passing shows how easy it is for us to accept someone’s cheerful facade as proof that depression might not be such a big deal. I feel so much for his family; I have experienced depression first-hand. I cannot imagine losing someone to it in such a tragic way.

I don’t know whether this rambling can rightfully be called a “tribute”. I don’t care. I just wish I could say to him, “O Captain! My Captain” I just wish he wasn’t gone.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
(Poem O Captain! My Captain! by  Walt Whitman)



Hobby Lobby: The Dangers of Imposing Values

Apologies for the delay in addressing this, but here is a piece on the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision in the USA. It is a worrying precedent because it is essentially arguing that the rights of a corporation are more important than those of a human being. Once again, a fundamental flaw of capitalist society seems to have been accepted. The piece is from the University of Warwick newspaper The Boar, in the Comments section: http://theboar.org/2014/08/10/hobby-lobby-dangers-imposing-values/#.U-eBt_ldXF4

In a recent landmark ruling, the US Supreme Court has decided, by a margin of one vote, to allow companies a religious exemption from laws that might go against the owners’ beliefs, provided that there are other means of adhering to the foundations of those laws. The Hobby Lobby case was aimed at forms of contraception that were supposed to be covered by the company’s insurance under the Affordable Care Act but which the staunchly Christian company found objectionable.

Living in the UK, where the NHS has free sexual health clinics and awareness programmes, alongside such groups as the Family Planning Association, it might be easy for us to forget how valuable free birth control really is. It might also be possible to try and objectively justify the Supreme Court’s decision. After all, the ruling’s “other means” clause implies that alternative forms of contraception must still be provided, especially since the case was only launched against 4 out of a possible 20 forms covered under the ACA.

Unfortunately, the reality of the ruling and its ramifications are very worrying. In their deluded omnipotent glory, the judges decided to put all 20 forms of contraceptives under the exemption clause and not just the 4 in the original court filings. This means that individuals who do not have any scruples using these forms and who might be unable to afford them unless covered by their employment insurance can legally be denied them if their employer happens to be more religiously conservative.

This also sets a precedent for other crucial rulings to be hampered by over-zealous Republicans and Republican appointees trying to woo over the right-wing voter base. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would eliminate sexuality-based employment discrimination, has already lost steam because of the various religious exemptions added to it. It is one thing to provide religious exemptions for laws that affect religious bodies – such as the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 in the UK.

However, the Hobby Lobby case is not one of religious protection; it is one of religious strong-arming. It was seen earlier in the ill-fated SB 1062 debate, but this time, the danger has not subsided. Values created by religious beliefs should be kept firmly in the private sphere. For a country with so many high-profile radicals, it should be remembered that the US Constitution acknowledges this by clearly separating Church and State in the First Amendment. As soon as these values are put into law, they allow prejudices to be defended.

Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has been considered a victory for the religious right and for any politician spouting the old “family values” shtick. The truth is that is a loss for women’s rights. In a terrifying chain of events, it is also not the only loss. The Supreme Court has deemed abortion clinic buffer zones, aimed at protecting people from vitriolic pro-lifers, unconstitutional. This while the fight against abortion reaches new highs. It would seem that, in the eyes of the American judiciary, it is far more important to preserve a specific interpretation of religious rights than it is to protect women’s health.

Lessons Not Learned

I accompanied a friend to Westminster today, 100 years exactly from the day that the war to end all wars started. The Cenotaph stood serene as always, a hauntingly beautiful monument to the memories of the millions lost. Yet, barring commemorations being covered in the news, it was as if London had forgotten the 20th century’s first great tragedy.

When I was younger, growing up in a country where the word “World” in World War I seemed to be a misnomer, my maternal grandfather was busy instilling in me a love of history. Among the things he taught me, years before I experienced it in an expressionless school textbook, was the horror and the futility of the Great War. It was a lesson I never forgot, its sadness remaining as an almost romanticised constant regardless of where I encountered it later.

It was that sadness that stayed with me through my school History lessons, taught with mechanical efficiency and little else. It stayed with me when I studied History at a different school for my International Baccalaureate, where I learned for the first time the cost World War I had on Asia. And it stayed with me through my undergraduate and postgraduate years, where the war was a part of so many of my lessons.

You would think I would get used to the sadness, or at least rationalise it and move on. The truth is, the more I learned about World War I, the more real and ever-present the sadness became. London and Dhaka might have forgotten the scars of 1914-1918, but there are parts of the world still reeling from it.

Just as it ushered in the end of the Age of Empire, so too did it usher in the beginning of new sufferings. World War II, of course, is a conflict that no one fails to link with its predecessor. Yet, these same people often forget that so many of the battle lines in the world today can trace their genesis to the conditions of the Treaty of Versailles.

Syria is amidst a civil war that the world chooses to ignore because the alternative is admitting its shame in failing the country. Israel-Palestine dominates the headlines every so often, but not many remember that World War I provided the impetus to create the boundaries of the current state there. Africa’s ongoing territorial plights and the struggles of the Indian subcontinent might have peaked at various times, but the seeds were sown when the last shot rung out over the trenches. Even the USA’s championing of well-intentioned but horribly misguided interventionism can trace its roots to Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter the conflict in 1917.

The world would like to think it has moved on from the horrors of those four years. On a material level, we have indeed made advances. But the scars run deeper than we would care to look. The Cenotaph’s inscription reads: “The Glorious Dead”. We eulogise them, praise their sacrifices and respect their bravery. Let us not then forget they had hoped theirs would be the last war ever fought. We should try to edge the world towards that utopia.