dune and racism

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:01 pm by Administrator

it’s been a while since i’ve revisited my top 10 list of favorite books, but i know that dune will make the list every time. and that’s despite the fact that i’ve grown vastly more sensitive to artistic representations of race and civilization. there’s a strong argument to be made that dune rehashes the conventional white savior narrative, but i’m inclined to believe that while frank herbert was surely a product of his times, we who experience the story in the present have the latitude to reimagine the story in any number of ways. in fact, it is our responsibility to reimagine all the stories we have inherited from generations past, in order to reinforce what is true and to dispel the antiquated notions that tend to lace any wisdom of old. this is true for the bible—a sordid tale of a tribe’s genocidal destruction of canaan, later expanded into a broader fantasy of ideological world conquest—and this is true for dune.

i want to anticipate denis villeneuve’s retelling of dune with some eagerness, but the casting alone has caused me no uncertain distress, and this has led me to question whether villeneuve has given any thought to the challenges facing the viewership of these times. i’ve written about this previously, but i want to offer my perspective again in a different manner. let me first start with a dungeons & dragons classification of dune’s major characters, using the lawful/chaotic and good/evil traits to characterize them. for those of you unfamiliar with d&d alignments, tough luck. you grew up in the wrong decade.

lawful good:

1. paul atreides
2. lady jessica
3. leto atreides
4. thufir hawat
5. gurney halleck
6. liet kynes

neutral/chaotic good:

1. chani
2. duncan idaho
3. stilgar

lawful neutral:

1. helen gaius mohiam
2. princess irulan
3. the guild navigators

lawful evil:

1. piter de vries
2. emperor shaddam
3. vladimir harkonnen

neutral/chaotic evil:

1. rabban
2. wellington yueh
3. feyd rautha

i’ll let you digest that list first. you might disagree with some of the classifications, but i’m sure most of us would agree that our friends in the atreides clan represent the lawful good of the bunch (not a bad apple among them except for yueh), while our free-spirited and anti-authority fremen are in the club of chaotic good people. the nastiest of the bunch are the harkonnens and their conspirator wellington yueh, all of whom prove to be elusive, traitorous, and inescapably evil in the chaotic sense of the word.

now, allow me to associate these characters with the ethnicity/race of the actor cast by villeneuve for his particular rendition of the story.

lawful good:

1. paul atreides (white)
2. lady jessica (white)
3. leto atreides (white)
4. thufir hawat (black)
5. gurney halleck (white)
6. liet kynes (black)

neutral/chaotic good:

1. chani (mixed/black)
2. duncan idaho (mixed/hawaiian)
3. stilgar (white/european)

lawful neutral:

1. helen gaius mohiam (white)
2. princess irulan (not cast)
3. the guild navigators (?)

lawful evil:

1. piter de vries (white)
2. emperor shaddam (not cast)
3. vladimir harkonnen (white/european)

neutral/chaotic evil:

1. rabban (white/filipino)
2. wellington yueh (chinese)
3. feyd rautha (not cast)

let me offer a few observations.

the lawful characters in dune are generally the power players. in particular, vladimir harkonnen, leto and paul atreides, lady jessica, and helen mohiam all have authority in the world of dune, and several of these characters prove to have special powers. all five of the actors playing these characters in villeneuve’s rendition of dune are white.

the actors playing the chaotic good characters (our free-spirited friends who end up being devoted followers of paul atreides) are interestingly of mixed race background and perhaps racially ambiguous. in saying this, i mean no offense to jason momoa and zendaya, whom i find to be tremendously attractive and very skilled in their craft.

by contrast, our chaotic evil characters—the clear villains of this story—are played by dave bautista (mixed-race filipino) and chang chen (asian). you won’t find whites or blacks in the chaotic evil camp. no, denis villeneuve’s team made sure that the story’s most duplicitous characters showed up a little yellow on the silver screen, in the tradition of everyone’s favorite star wars film phantom menace. in these trump-dominated times, i find it particularly interesting that a chinese actor was recruited for the role of wellington yueh—an outsider brought into the family and so trusted (a model minority no less!) up until the very moment that he stabs all of his white friends in the back (a betrayal of pandemic proportions!).

i do want to give villeneuve and his team some credit for casting mckinley henderson (a black actor) in the role of thufir hawat and duncan-brewster (a black actress) in the role of liet kynes. regardless, it’s pretty clear that our black characters play second fiddle to our privileged principals, who are universally and gloriously white.

for those who believe that villeneuve’s casting decisions represent a faithful translation of frank herbert’s original story, i want to remind you that dune is fantasy fiction, not a program on the history channel. no matter how you look at it, villeneuve’s dune features a racial hierarchy. one might argue that this is progress when compared to david lynch’s 1984 version, which had virtually no actors of color at all, but i am not sure that villeneuve’s new racial order represents any meaningful sense of inclusive diversity. to me, it’s a reflection of narrow-mindedness, a lack of imagination, and a total disconnection with the movements of our society.

i’d like to finish this entry by offering my own proposed casting assignments for dune, mainly using the actors identified by villeneuve’s team but with a few notable additions (actors i have some fondness for). can’t you see john boyega being a great paul atreides? if not, then why not? check yourself. boyega’s twice the actor that chalamet is.

paul atreides: john boyega
chani: zendaya (no change)
duncan idaho: chang chen
lady jessica: sharon duncan-brewster
gurney halleck: chiwetel ejiofor
rabban: ben mendelsohn
leto: ken watanabe
stilgar: stellan skaarsgard
piter de vries: david dastmalchian (no change)
vladimir harkonnen: jason momoa
gaius helen mohiam: michelle yeoh
thufir hawat: mckinley henderson (no change)
wellington yueh: timothee chalamet
liet kynes: javier bardem


the underperformance of our society

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:26 pm by Administrator

i was 13 when the berlin wall came down. i was 18 when i used email for the first time. and i was 20 when GM produced their first electric car—the EV1. from the pace of change i witnessed when i was a youth, i figured that society would undergo a major revolution by the time i was 40. i was convinced that we’d have cold fusion, a moon colony, gene therapies based on a fully mapped human genome, and near elimination of greenhouse gas production by 2010. didn’t we all? i mean, in 1984 i watched 2010: the year we make contact and figured (like everyone else in my generation) that artificial intelligence and manned planetary exploration were by no means stretch goals for that milestone year.

but here we are in 2021, and i’m looking back and recognizing that the two most furious decades of technological change in world history did not prepare me for the next two decades of almost complete stagnation. let’s face it: outside of a few medical innovations (antivirals for hepatitis c and monoclonal antibody therapies, as an example), nothing transformational has been invented since the year 2000. we’re still driving weapons of mass destruction every day (otherwise known as automobiles). we’re still flying in jet planes that are essentially identical what we flew in the 1990s. our TVs and computers are thinner, lighter, and faster but still do the same essential functions. we still kill one another with guns and missiles (the fabled laser gun still evades us), and we still die of cancer and heart disease.

more fundamentally, we really haven’t changed in the way that we use technology to better ourselves. there’ve been no innovations in technological deployment that have erased disparities in health outcomes among people of different races and ethnicities. people are still dying of malaria, starvation, tuberculosis, and HIV around the world. i mean, what exactly do we have to show for the last two decades of our existence? another 1.6 billion people on this planet. three majors wars in the middle east. an unfolding environmental catastrophe related to global warming and chemical pollution. oh, we have cryptocurrencies. that’s great!

part of me wants to be upset about this and blame someone. why didn’t you invent something important? why didn’t you keep the momentum rolling? why didn’t you get us off this planet? why didn’t you stop global warming? but the bigger part of me understands that i am an extension of this society that failed to progress in all the ways i expected. my frustration with our lack of what i might describe as progress is actually my reckoning with the arbitrary expectations of my childhood. the deeper and darker truth perhaps is that even the moments we thought of as heady and transformational back in the 80s and 90s were spontaneous and incidental to our journey as a species. really, we are less interested in change and progress than our history might suggest; and thus the most likely outcome of the next two decades is that we will continue to propagate more of the same. we will come to no true solutions. we will not right the wrongs. we will continue to multiply, even as the earth we reside in becomes less and less tolerant of our relentless and irresponsible existence.

so with this context established, i can tell you that reading about richard branson’s and jeff bezos’s recent trips into space is strangely galling to me. it’s galling because a part of me feels that i should be impressed. we should be impressed. but this feat is not impressive to me at all. in the context of what the world has gone through over the past year, it actually strikes me as trivial, socially inappropriate, and woefully excessive. what do these high altitude flights promise for humanity? what purpose have they served? we should have had a colony on mars by now. we should have made first contact with alien life by now. instead, we are celebrating a few minutes of zero gravity on a plane flight? it’s silly and sad at the same time. this is the best that humanity has to offer, after two decades of stagnation and futility. i’m disappointed, and i’m pointing the finger at everyone, and ultimately i’m pointing the finger at myself as well, because i figured so much would happen, but i did so little to imagine it, push for it, and actualize it. and this makes me wonder if our progeny and their progeny will look at us, the gen xers and millennials who fumbled the snap from the baby boomers, and accuse us of lacking the one thing most essential to innovation and progress: a dream



Posted in Uncategorized at 6:44 pm by Administrator

this morning i tried out metamorphosis for the first time. it’s a studio workout that focuses on slow reps and continuous motion on a moving platform without any sustained breaks. it was a difficult session that i found particularly stressful on the core muscles and the glutes. i had to cheat on almost all the exercises, but regardless i found myself hyperventilating halfway through the 45-minute session and by the end i found myself dead-legged and thoroughly dehydrated. it was exhilarating.

i’ve found it difficult in my life to experience low-impact workouts that give me the opioid kick i’m accustomed to getting with fast tempo runs. now that i’m developing ankle and foot problems, i’m realizing that i have to stress my body in new ways in order to simulate that experience. the metamorphosis workout delivered that in spades. it did something more though; because it was a guided workout through movements that i could not anticipate, it was a body-centering activity for me, much like yoga but of greater intensity. when i run, my mind can wander, even though intense and focused thought is nearly impossible. but during this morning’s workout, i had to focus on my instructor and on the constant pain in my body. the experienced emptied my mind. it was not meditative, but in many ways it prepared me for a meditation. pain connected me to my body; my body connected me to the earth; and thus i emerged embodied and integrated. the experience made me realize how much more naturally i experience connection through kinesis, rather than through cogitation.

sometimes i reflect back on the many years i spent in the church engaged in mental activity that i once described as spiritual disciplines. i meditated on scriptures. i took the communion, imagining a man’s self-sacrificial mutilation and death on my behalf. i prayed prayers of penitence, and i prayed prayers of aspiration. i did almost all of these activities in what i have previously termed the “didactic position”—seated, silent, and still, facing a man (invariably a man) who functioned as a conduit to a higher power, receiving energy without exerting any, experiencing thought without any form of self-expression or release. all those years of consuming the body of christ, of consuming a concept of identity, of imagining life forms beyond the visible and the material—all of this was the hard mental work of aspiration, and it divorced me from the physical and the mundane, as it separated me from the self and from the universe. i called this consecration, but in fact it was alienation. what i practiced in the church was not spiritual practice at all. it was self-commodification, in the most capitalistic of ways; it was a weekly exercise in reframing the self, reconstructing the self, manufacturing conviction and feeling and belief to maintain a sense of identity apart from the body. how sad and ironic it is for me to realize now that the most natural way for me to feel connected to others and the universe is not outside the body but through the body.

lately, i have been feeling sadness and regret about my health, and in moments of meditation i have tried to hold this person within me that is witnessing and anticipating my death. i am not as strong and healthy as i perhaps expected to be at this age. my left foot is ceaselessly in pain from plantar fasciitis. my left ankle has a degenerative lesion that prevents me from running the long distances i once enjoyed so much. my blood pressure is chronically high and exacerbated by stresses at work. my vision has been compromised by retinal tears; my teeth have premature bone loss from decades of periodontal disease; my hair is thinning; my lower back is painfully tight every morning i wake up. outwardly, i project health to others because i’m relatively fit. but what i experience of myself is aging, decay, and weakness. that often frustrates me, and i punish that weakness with the pain of exercise.

but what i experienced today was something a bit beyond the usual ritual of self-flagellation. there was a positive energy linked to the intimate experience of my own body, linked to the company of fellows engaged in the same progression of movements, linked to the voice of the instructor pushing me through the interminable minutes. we were a community of people breaking free of thought and embodying ourselves, in a manner that seems so rare in these times of constant conceptualization, commodification, and intellectual consumption. coming out of that experience, i was reminded of something my neighbor dave told me about his experience at spirit rock: a freedom from demons, an effortless connection with plants and animals, an experience of love not as aspiration and mission but rather as the utter acceptance of what is.

i know that my life needs to change. and in fact i am already changing. the universe is pushing me to recognize that the spirit i once imagined is no thing at all; the very idea of it implies a disembodied identity, which alienates human life from other forms of life, predisposes to the abuse of the self, causes great mental suffering, and is unnecessary to furthering compassion and love. what other lesson do we require for loving kindness other than the exquisite fragility of our bodies and minds and the inevitability of our pain and passing? if we more deeply tended to ourselves, i think we would understand better how our suffering leads to the suffering of others, and we could better appreciate how kindness for oneself invariably spills over into a love of others. this is a lesson i have not learned well enough. it is a lesson most of my patients have never learned, leading to their compulsions, addictions, and their unhealthy reliance on professionals like me, whose skills and approaches offer them no fundamental solutions. i tell my patients to move their bodies so that they can burn calories and manage their stress, when i know that what they really need is movement as practice—that which empties them of thought and identity, freeing them to do what is both natural and loving.

today, amidst the furious and raging tide of society’s great movements, i am moving against the current, moving against identity, moving against the prevailing ideas that seek to capture my mind. i am moving into the body and into the pain of my living and dying. there is no redemption in this pain. there is only the separateness that consciousness brings us, and the return to the universe that the body promises


regarding myself, leadership, emptiness

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:33 pm by Administrator

randomly i got a recruitment email for a position that is a bit out of my league, but it got me thinking anyways. so i pulled up the last copy of my CV and started updating it. my CV, i realized, is not very well formatted and has way too much narrative for the level of content i’m trying to convey. really, at the executive level, i need to be absolutely succinct and focused on the bottom line: revenue growth, membership growth, production trends, awards and distinctions, key partnerships. get rid of the details about the various projects i drove; eliminate the scientific publications that aren’t relevant to my career trajectory. make it clear that the impact i made was at a macro level and contributed to the kinds of achievements that make the news.

the current state of my CV very much reflects the kind of leader i am at this point in my journey. i’m embedded in management responsibilities, but where i really want to make a difference is in pushing the strategic priorities that can make or break the organization’s financial sustainability. there’s no doubt that i have a perspective, and i can defend my position as well as anyone. my CV reflects my strengths as a leader: my team coheres and produces results; i bring out the best in people; i push projects that make a difference for customers and employees. but the gaps in my CV reflect where i have had limited opportunities to grow: i have limited experience with developing external partnerships, and i haven’t interacted much with community leaders and politicians. more fundamentally, when it comes to running a business, i’m very into the mechanics of the business but not so naturally into the potential of the business. i used to think of myself as a visionary, but i’m not. i’m generally risk-averse and financially conservative. as an executive leader, it’s important that i partner with true entrepreneurs.

i know that there are people who go to work every day eager to produce results, to advance, and to tell a more and more fascinating story through their curriculum vitae. i’m not that kind of person. i am always ambivalent about my work. i am constantly evaluating and reevaluating my fit with the people i work with. while this may seem exhausting, it does allow me to grow, adapt, and reframe my approach in ways that are nearly impossible for my colleagues. what propels me through my career life isn’t ambition or a lust for wealth or power. no, it’s a much simpler thing: i’m just looking for my place in the world, the place where i belong. i’ve never found it, but i can’t stop looking because i need it that much. this is something that i’d never share in a job interview, because the american employer wants an employee who is driven by a mission, ambitious for advancement, and confident in the future. so even though i experience alienation in this society—alienation as described by my favorite marxist herbert marcuse—i put myself in a suit that says i have it together, and i pretend to be congruent with this society that is sick beyond belief. i pretend that i have a mission.

part of what is so difficult about being a working man in this time and place is that there is so little room to speculate on the true nature of things. really, work as an identity is totally meaningless, but who would ever admit to this? it would seem self-defeating. nevertheless, i question on an almost daily basis the routines and responsibilities that i devote myself to, because while there is some good i do, there is also so much suffering that i contribute to as a worker, a manager, a leader. it’s not merely the suffering of putting the self and others to work; it’s also the suffering of pretending that the work is sufficient when it is not. our society spills over with innumerable ideas about purpose, power, and the utter sufficiency of wealth. what drowns in this milieu is any appreciation of the basic life—the empty life. perhaps what furthers my alienation is that i have always sensed the intrinsic truth of emptiness, which makes me question everything that gives me excitement, pleasure, or a thrill. these feelings are deceiving. what is true beyond all speculation is the life that consists of breathing, of eating, of urinating, of sleeping, of waking, and of being present with the world—not just the human world but all the innumerable lifeforms that we share the air, water, and soil with.

indeed, my CV is a lie, and it always will be. it tells a story of where i have come from, and it implies where i’m going in order to complete my arc. it tells someone who doesn’t know me what value i can offer and what troubles i may pose. but when i look at my CV, it fails to tell the single most important thing about me: that i am a conscious being, birthed by the universe to experience consciousness as separateness, intended as a result of that separateness to suffer, so that as a result of that suffering i might bring back to the universe a deeper appreciation of all that integrates it. i was birthed by the universe so that in my separateness and reintegration i might be part of what holds the universe together, even as it is ever flung apart by the forces that spread all particles and matter across the unreached spaces. by living and by dying, i sense the profound tragedy of alienation, for which only gravitational attraction offers any solution. in this life, i am the comet falling to pieces as it careens out of the known universe; in the next life, i am what holds the planets in their orbits. in this life, i am a man who pretends that his whole life can be explained by his work; in the next life, i am empty, content to be absent of purpose, lovingly woven into the fabric of all the inexplicable things i once thought required an explanation