Thursday, January 20, 2022

Klara and The Sun

As is tradition, I purchased my wife some books for Christmas. And, as is also tradition, I began reading them, starting with Klara and The Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

First, I must also mention a truly wonderful gift that I received this year, from my daughter. She gave me a jar labelled "100 books to Read" which contained 100 slips of papers with various book titles on each.  Imagine that, she spent untold hours researching interesting books that I might like to read, then wrote the titles on slips of paper and placed them in the jar. If not, the most, it is certainly right up there with the most precious and thoughtful gift I have ever received. Truly, a remarkable young woman.

Anyway, the basic story behind Klara and The Sun, is that Klara is an AF (artificial friend) who we meet in a shop which sells these kind of robots, in addition to other items.  Interestingly, the word robot is very seldom, if ever, used in the book.  Klara and those like her are always referred to as AFs. Klara possesses extraordinary observational skills, even more than the average AF, a trait which is commented upon by the Manager of the shop. While no actual dates in time are specified by the author, and while it is certainly clear that this is not a story meant to reflect today, I also felt in my reading that Ishiguro is using Klara to make his point about love and empathy, rather than a comment on the future.

One day, Klara encounters a young girl through the window she has been placed in to advertise her to prospective customers.  She has an immediate reaction to seeing this girl, which is further cemented when the girl comes in to shop after seeing Klara in the window. Even though the girl's mother does not agree to buy Klara on this first encounter, the girl, Josie, whispers to Klara how much she likes her, and promises she will come back to bring her to her home soon. Klara actually discourages a different girl and her mother from buying her, an action noted by the Manager, due to her instant attachment to Josie.  And, as it turns out, Josie and her mother do, in fact, come back some time later and complete the transaction.

Again, this entire story is from Klara's perspective, a being whose life until then was confined to what she could see out a storeroom window, on those days when she was placed in the window, and what she is exposed to when standing inside the store. So, going in a car to a new home, encountering a Mother, Housekeeper, Father, meeting other adults and children, seeing things other than what she saw on the street outside the store, all these things are described in the book, as they are intertwined with the relationship between Josie and Klara.

As it happens, Josie is prone to sickness.  There is a vague reference to a process which many, but not all children go through, which sometimes leads to a health issue but it is only discussed in relation to Josie's best friend, Rick, who did not go through the process, and which equates to Rick being at a disadvantage in getting into a better school and having better opportunities.  My interpretation of this topic is that most parents who can afford to, have their child "lifted" as it is referred to, knowing their could be a negative outcome.  There is also a reference to Josie's older sister who has died, perhaps due to a sickness that can happen from being lifted, something I assume has to do with genetic engineering. 

Without giving the whole story away, Josie does in fact get sick, to the point where it is possible she will die.  Klara, who is solar powered and who believes she has seen the sun help and heal humans, makes a deal with the Sun to help clear the pollution that is caused by the machine she occasionally sees in the streets, a machine which not only causes pollution but blocks the sun from shining, by killing the machine in exchange for the Sun curing Josie. She even convinces the Father to help her without specifying why exactly she needs to kill the machine for fear that naming the reason, to help Josie, will cause the deal to be voided.

Anyway, the important aspect to the story, is that Klara is willing to give up part of herself, to actually impede the efficient operation of herself, to seal the deal with the Sun and kill the machine.  Does Klara love Josie?  Is it possible for a machine to love anything?  These are the topics which Ishiguro explores in this life story of Klara, the AF.

For me, regardless of whether one believes that a machine can love or not, it is clear that Klara demonstrates empathy and love for Josie.  In fact, through her observations, she also displays empathy for many of the other characters in the story.  In trying to understand her world and the new things she encounters outside the store, she tries to understand Josie, her Mother, Rick, and all those humans she meets.  She exhibits empathy in these attempts to understand them, tries to see their world as they see it.  To me, there is nothing more human than the trait of empathy, a trait, by the way, which I am finding displayed less and less in our world today.

Does empathy necessarily lead to love?  Do we need to love to feel empathy? 

I find that Klara, by using her strong observational skills, begins to understand those in her life, is able to put herself in their shoes, or at least, tries to imagine how their actions are a reflection of how they see and feel the world. When someone says, I am healthy, I don't need to wear a mask, they, either consciously or unconsciously, refuse to acknowledge someone else's perception of the world, someone who may have an underlying medical condition, or be living or working with someone who does.  Those who choose to refuse to get a vaccine, which is free, during a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any event in our history, just because they don't want to be told what to do, have lost their sense of empathy for their fellow citizens who may be more likely to die or experience the death of someone they know. 

I am not completely sure if one can have empathy without having love in your heart, or that one can have love in a limited way, perhaps just for oneself, or one's set of beliefs, but still not exhibit empathy to those around them, but it seems clear that a group within a society which feels belonging only when that belonging is based on demeaning Others, then that group has no empathy. And, as a society tumbles further and further away from its ability to show empathy, it tumbles further and further towards its eventual decline.

It is very easy to love those like oneself, those with similar beliefs, skin color, gender preference, religious dogma.  If that is all it takes to spend eternity with the Creator, then I guess it will be a crowded place. But if the bar is a bit higher, if we are judged by our actions and ability to empathize with those that are different from us, then we seem neck deep in a time when far too few people have worked on their empathy skills and a time when the rolls of heaven may not include many souls from this era.

I imagine it might seem silly to think that Klara will one day go to heaven.  But if I should reach that place, I would much rather have Klara to spend time with, than those who use religion to create divisions, and those who reside in those small worlds and perspectives that promote bigotry based on race, gender, sexual preference and choice of religion, and who believe that personal freedom grows when the freedom of others is diminished.



Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Rudolph and Lincoln

Happy New Years to all those to whom I have not already wished good tidings through personal contacts during the holidays.  I hope this post finds everyone off to a happy and healthy 2022.  My family had our share of sickness, Covid and non-Covid, in the past few weeks, but nothing serious, no hospitalizations.  We did experience a cancelled New Years party due to these various illnesses, but nothing like the tens of thousands of Americans who were effected by flight cancellations or emergency visits to the hospital, or worse.

I did manage to watch a few of the holiday classics this past year, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being one of them.  I had been thinking about this post since then, but only felt compelled to put pen to paper, as they say, after reading an interesting article about Abraham Lincoln this morning.

First, Rudolph.

I imagine most people are familiar with the main morale of this story, that discrimination and prejudice are not only damaging to those who are on the receiving end, but also the entire community in which they occur.  Remember, if not for Rudolph and the nose he was made to think made him a misfit, Christmas would have been cancelled that snowy, wintry night.  Rudolph's uniqueness, the very thing that made his parents, community, and even Santa, reject him, saved the day.  If it doesn't make you hold your tongue the next time you encounter someone who looks, loves or worships differently than you, then perhaps by imagining all the magnificent achievements that have been made by people with absolutely no similar qualities as yourself, innovations that have helped propel mankind forward (including those who rejected them outright), not to mention those still to come, maybe that in itself might encourage tolerance, acceptance, a common goal for real equality, and not just equality for those who look like the person in the mirror.  

But what about Santa himself?  Santa who saw first hand Rudolph's flying ability, yet thought it a shame that such talent was negated by the red, glowing nose.  Had Santa focused on Rudolph's ability, and not his "defect", the community might have accepted Rudolph right away, rather than driving him out.  (Note, it seems to me that Clarice - the girlfriend - and Mrs Donner - the mother - were the first to realize the mistake of prejudice, an interesting comment on woman's superior ability to empathize).  

Santa, for all his generosity, goodness, outright saintly behavior, was prejudiced when it came to Rudolph's difference.  Does this mean we should demonize this Santa character. allow this fault to override his overall goodness?  No, emphatically no, because Santa realizes how wrong he was, even if only because Rudolph's nose was now useful to Santa.  This admission of guilt enables us to excuse Santa's behavior as a mistake that all humans make, even cartoon characters who resemble real people and/or mythical figures. 

This lesson, that everyone can make a mistake, even our most treasured and revered heroes and ancestors, may help us when we are deciding to remove, hide or otherwise reconsider the statues and honors we have erected.  Certainly, we should not use an advanced moral norm of today to rethink all historical figures, without considering the circumstances of the times.  

A good example is slavery.  Most of the founding fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, two of our most important founders, owned slaves.  But there is also evidence that they regretted the practice as time passed.  Certainly, even if their recanting of slavery was a bit of lip service, we need to remember that, despite their flaws, they accomplished more good than bad.  It seems to me, that this should be the core of how we grade our heroes, did they overcome their flaws, or did the flaw define them.

Moving forward then, if we keep with the concept of slavery, there are hundreds of statues in the American South which honor and glorify various generals of the Confederate Army precisely because they took up arms against the United States government to defend the existence of slavery in their states.  While it may be said that some did not own slaves, or did not particularly believe in the concept of slavery, they chose to fight to keep it going.  They chose the side of slavery, and for better or worse, slavery is a big part of what defines them.

In other words, I could consider leaving in place a statue for a Confederate general who subsequently disavowed slavery after the Civil War, perhaps went on to found a college (and allow the Negroes of the day to attend), or in some way admitted his mistake and took steps to alter his definition, maybe we can allow an altered (or new statue) to exist which honors these new achievement.  But glorifying the actions of those who actively killed or led others to kill, their fellow citizens in the name of the complete dehumanization of men merely because they were born with a different skin color (as God wished them to be, He being the creator of all men), then that is a travesty, and not worth our honor.  If, in any way, an expression of humanity is one of the reasons to create a statue or otherwise honor a past hero or heroine, then anything erected which somehow emphasizes the horror, the non-Christian treatment, the sheer evil of a defense of slavery, then that statue must be removed, even if just to remind us now, and in the future, that enslaving any of God's people, is not to be tolerated, excused, or otherwise treated as if it is not evil incarnate.

Which brings me to Lincoln.  The article I was referring to was an essay which was meant to remind the readers that Lincoln himself, the Great Emancipator, did not embrace the abolition of slavery, and certainly not the idea of suffrage for Blacks in general, immediately.  Some might even say that he came around, in part, because he soon realized that allowing former slaves and free blacks to fight for the Union, and to be treated as men and not property once the War ended, was needed to win the war, and might help in some of the post-war elections of the South, by both allowing suffrage for this formerly enslaved population as well as providing representation for those people in the halls of Congress.  While we certainly don't know how an extended Lincoln Presidency would have changed our history as we was killed shortly after he gave a speech attended by John Wilkes Booth in which he supported the vote for educated Blacks and those who had fought in the Civil War, we might imagine that Reconstruction might have taken a different course.

It could be said, that Lincoln died for his belief in race equality, or at least some steps in that direction, but not because he believed in it from the start.  His perspective changed over time, just as any thinking man's viewpoint might, even should, evolve over the course of a lifetime.  Perhaps that is something to consider when a politician is praised for his/her consistent opinions over time.  Does that reflect someone who is wise, or just someone who is so in love with their ego that they can't see that times change, and along with it the tenets of what makes us human, and humane.