Saturday, May 27, 2006

Introspective indulgences | All about me

There are times when I regret that I am essentially holding down two jobs right now. Two and a half when you consider the extras, and paid for about 1.5 of them. There's so much more I could do if I was holding a real job - Bhutan, for example, - and other little projects that are inevitably kept on hold because you realise that if you don't finish the thesis you're going to owe NUS some 46K.

Bugger the passion about my subject, I tell you. Money is a damn good motivator.

I realise that the sentiment is less than idealistic - after all, aren't post grads supposed to be seeking higher truths, whether in fuel cells or Derrida, a situation that would suggest a certain idealism (not in the philophical sense) about the people who decide to pursue a degree course with high opportunity cost, in the hopes that they can make a difference to the sum of world knowledge. And maybe tenure.

But they aren't idealists. This isn't news, but I feel obliged to write it down anyway, to remind myself of this. Words have power of their own, they frame little realities in text and syntax, till you're faced with a crude mirror of your own amorphous thoughts. Faced with the mirror, you are forced to face the mirror.

And then you wonder what happened. When did you start accepting pragmatism and abandoning idealism? When did you stop wanting to know why the world didn't perform as promised, and start learning about the world to see how it needed changing?

And when did you realise that you had changed?

As an analogy; paraphrased from the wonderful BitchPhD: "There comes a time in every man's life when he stops finding out what women want, and starts finding out what his woman wants."

This realisation comes in bits and pieces, as do many things in life, fragments of a pattern of a larger meaning that your intuitive mind works to put together.

(or just mine. I'm slow, ok? I'm ENTJ. We're like that. Alright, it's just me. )

A fragment of this came at the Mary Turnbull talk organised by the Asia Research seminar. Mary Turnbull is a darling of a British academic - white hair and white lace, hint of antique rose and tweed - and she's written a definitive book on Singapore history. Political history - not unusual, since most histories first written are from the political aspect.

Attending: Drs. Lysa Hong, Albert Lau, Edwin Thumboo, Tony Reid, Chua Beng Huat, Geoff Wade, the entire Singapore History museum board, Iskandar Mudin, Chua Ai Lin, Sim Chi Yin, the general local postgrad community, assorted honour years.

So you get an idea of what the talk/seminar was pitched at.

There were also a few history teachers, and a few ACJC students. Happens occasionally: the history teachers from JC are always trying to shove students into NUS lectures, and the NUS lecturers are always trying to politely tell them that they didn't mind, exactly, but there are people sitting on the floor and subcription to the module is overwhelming, so if you didn't mind..?

After Mary and Lysa and Albert had spoken, there was a Q&A. Questions raised; the impact of great man history, the ideal amount of time to have passed before historians are generally allowed to get away with merde involving the government's role in events, the possibility of a more social-oriented history, and the likelihood of the approved national/founding myths being invariably political and history from the top.

So you get the idea of the questions and key issues that had formed the theme and impetus behind the talk.

And then one of the ACJC students spoke up. Bright-sounding, articulate, tiringly preppy, desperate to get the words out and beat the time limit. The question (paraphrased): "Do you find it disturbing that our Singaporean history is not objective and written with an agenda?"

The room went still. Not with awe, but with a collective "well, duh."

I lie. It wasn't all "well, duh." There was also "Where'd the students come from?" "zzzz - Huh?" "Do you think there are chocolate eclairs on the food table outside?"

Lysa Hong, who is first and foremost, a lady, handled the question with the grace and flair that has marked her tutorial classroom. And because she is also a teacher, she treated the questioner with tolerance and the question with her trademark velvet handling designed to encourage rather than deflate young egos.

No, she said, it didn't disturb her at all.

And the rest of the room echoed the answer silently before we heard it.

Because history isn't objective. It never is. Never was. Objective is a little lie that we tell, the pot of gold that we describe when we want you to chase your rainbow'd dreams.

And I doubted the student had known it. I also knew that the answer had been fair and patient, in recognition of the questioner's youth and idealism, and evident interest that Prof Hong did not want to quash.

And I know that another person that evening who had asked a similarly out-of-place question had been treated less gently, because he was older and thus judged to have known more and better - known more about the subject and the discussion at hand, known better than to ask the question here and now .

And then I realised that in the knowing of these things, I'd lost a little more of a person I had once been.

I think I've gained more much than I had ever lost. Idealism is a wonderful thing, but there are times when I think that idealism is ultimately about forcing your own utopia on a world that has other plans. And the thing about losing your idealism is that in doing so, you actually begin to start achieving your dreams.

And more than that, there comes a time in life, where idealism is no longer forgiven nor cherished, nor looked on fondly by others, nor protected. We look indulgently on idealism in our young, because they are seen as children. We are less indulgent of blind idealism in our peers.

Losing your idealism isn't about losing your hopes and dreams and beliefs and desires. It isn't about giving up making the world a better place, or about "caving in". It isn't about keeping silent in the face of Evil or Evil's more ubiquitous cousin, Screw-up.

It's about realising that there isn't one answer to everything, that disagreements can flare between people who agree on the goals but not the paths. It's about seeing the world in more than a binary, about giving up the Other for others, and about multi-isms. It's about that perfectly delightful moment when the factors and relationships and considerations and issues that drive and complicate and decide and inspire our world lie revealed to you in their rainbow glories.

And it's about that moment when what I have written are no longer just revelations to you, but echoed in your blood when you read it. When you realised that you knew the answer before you read it.

Fun, isn't it? Fuck being 17, there are things that are even better than being young.

[ As an addition to the question of history's objectivity, and by natural extension, the objectivity of MSM that has come under fire in recent months, I give you a quote from Good Night and Good Luck, the Oscar nominated film about Ed Morrow, the journalist who went against Senator Joe McCarthy in an attempt to battle censorship and freedom:

"I would argue that everyone censors. Including you."

Think on it ]


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