Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy is past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.

Well, dammit! Guess I’m gonna have to add a SWOTI tag after all. Obviously, I’ve been paying too much attention to bogus pronouncements by economists.

/rant on

Yet more fools stating confidently that climate change is not really a serious concern has me gasping in exasperation. Take, for instance, this astounding paragraph by Egon von Greyerz:

Yes, of course global warming has taken place recently as the effect of climate cycles. But the cycle has just peaked again which means that all the global warming activists will gradually cool down with the falling temperatures in the next few decades. The sun and the planets determine climate cycles and temperatures, like they have for many millions of years, and not human beings. [emphasis added]

So no climate change worries to disturb anyone’s dreams. Sleep soundly. I’m so relieved. All the effort expended over the past decades toward understanding climate change can be waived off with a mere three sentences by a motivated nonexpert. The linked webpage offers no support whatsoever for these bald statements but instead goes on to offer economic prophecy (unironically, of certain doom). For minimal counter-evidence regarding climate change, embedded below is a two-year-old video explaining how some regions are expected to become uninhabitable due to high wet-bulb temperatures.

The article ends with these brief paragraphs:

There is no absolute protection against this scenario [economic collapse] since it will hit all aspects of life and virtually all people. Obviously, people living off the land in remote areas will suffer less whilst people in industrial and urban areas will suffer considerably.

The best financial protection is without hesitation physical gold and some silver. These metals are critical life insurance. But there are clearly many other important areas of protection to plan for. A circle of friends and family is absolutely essential. [emphasis in original]

Ok, so I’m wrong: they guy’s not an economist at all; he’s a salesman. After placating one catastrophe only to trot out another, his scaremongering message clear: buy gold and silver. Might not be a bad idea, actually, but that won’t protect against TEOTWAWKI. So whose eyes are deceiving them, Egon’s or mine (or yours)? He’s selling precious metals; I’m sharing the truth (best as I can ascertain, anyway).

The other idiotic thing to darker my brow was several actual economists asked about the economic effects of implementing Greta Thunberg’s dream world (sarcasm much?). If her dream world is spelled out somewhere, I haven’t seen it, nor is it provided (link or otherwise) in the article. Seems like the sort of invented argument attached to a trending name for the purpose of clickbait attacking the messenger and thus shooting down her message. However, let me be generous for a moment and suggest that efforts to stop climate change include, at a minimum, getting off fossil fuels, reforming Big Ag, and denying developing nations their quest to join the First-World Age of Abundance. Those are the three subjects discussed in the article. These economists’ conclusion? It will be, um, costly. Well, yeah, true! Very costly indeed. I agree entirely. But what of the cost if those things aren’t done? Isn’t that question implied? Isn’t that what Greta Thunberg has insisted upon? The answer is it will cost far more, though perhaps not in something as cravenly readily quantifiable as profit or cost. Referring again to the embedded video above, it will cost us the very habitability of the planet, and not in just a few restricted regions we can add to existing sacrifice zones. Widespread species dislocation and die-off will include the human species, since we rely on all the others. Some prophesy a human death pulse of monstrous proportion (several billions, up to perhaps 90% of us) or even near-term human extinction. Is that costly enough to think about the problem differently, urgently, as Greta Thunberg does? Might the question be better framed as the cost of not implementing Greta Thunberg’s dream world so that economists are sent off on a different analytical errand?

In the middle of the 19th century, Scottish satirist Thomas Carlyle called economics The Dismal Science, which description stuck. The full context of that coinage may have had more to do with slavery than poor scholarship, so in the context of lying or at least misleading with numbers, I propose instead calling it The Deceitful Science. Among the stupid habits to dispel is the risible notion that, by measuring something as a means of understanding it, we grasp its fullness, and concomitantly, what’s really important. I suggest further that most economists deceive themselves by performing a fundamentally wrong kind of analysis.

The issue of deceit is of some importance beyond getting at the truth of climate change. Everything in the public sphere these days is susceptible to spin, massage, and reframing to such a degree that an epistemological crisis (my apt term) has fundamentally altered sense making, with the result that most nonexperts simply don’t know what to believe anymore. Economists are doing no one any favors digressing into areas beyond their Deceitful Science.

/rant off

Delving slightly deeper after the previous post into someone-is-wrong-on-the-Internet territory (worry not: I won’t track far down this path), I was dispirited after reading some economist dude with the overconfidence hubris to characterize climate change as fraud. At issue is the misframing of proper time periods in graphical data for the purpose of overthrowing government and altering the American way of life. (Um, that’s the motivation? Makes no sense.) Perhaps this fellow’s intrepid foray into the most significant issue of our time (only to dismiss it) is an aftereffect of Freakonomics emboldening economists to offer explanations and opinions on matters well outside their field of expertise. After all, truly accurate, relevant information is only ever all about numbers (read: the Benjamins), shaped and delivered by economists, physical sciences be damned.

The author of the article has nothing original to say. Rather, he repackages information from the first of two embedded videos (or elsewhere?), which examines time frames of several trends purportedly demonstrating global warming (a term most scientists and activists have disused in favor of climate change, partly to distinguish climate from weather). Those trends are heat waves, extent of Arctic ice, incidence of wildfires, atmospheric carbon, sea level, and global average temperature. Presenters of weather/climate information (such as the IPCC) are accused of cherry-picking dates (statistical data arranged graphically) to present a false picture, but then similar data with other dates are used to depict another picture supposedly invalidating the first set of graphs. It’s a case of lying with numbers and then lying some more with other numbers.

Despite the claim that “reports are easily debunked as fraud,” I can’t agree that this example of climate change denial overcomes overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject. It’s not so much that the data are wrong (I acknowledge they can be misleading) but that the interpretation of effects of industrial activity since 1750 (a more reasonable comparative baseline) isn’t so obvious as simply following shortened or lengthened trend lines and demographics up or down. That’s typically zooming in or out to render the picture most amenable to a preferred narrative, precisely what the embedded video does and in turn accuses climate scientists and activists of doing. The comments under the article indicate a chorus of agreement with the premise that climate change is a hoax or fraud. Guess those commentators haven’t caught up yet with rising public sentiment, especially among the young.

Having studied news and evidence of climate change as a layperson for roughly a dozen years now, the conclusions drawn by experts (ignoring economists) convince me that we’re pretty irredeemably screwed. The collapse of industrial civilization and accompanying death pulse are the predicted outcomes but a precise date is impossible to provide because it’s a protracted process. An even worse possibility is near-term human extinction (NTHE), part of the larger sixth mass extinction. Absorbing this information has been a arduous, ongoing, soul-destroying undertaking for me, and evidence keeps being supplemented and revised, usually with ever-worsening prognoses. However, I’m not the right person to argue the evidence. Instead, see this lengthy article (with profuse links) by Dr. Guy McPherson, which is among the best resources outside of the IPCC.

In fairness, except for the dozen years I’ve spent studying the subject, I’m in no better position to offer inexpert opinion than some economist acting the fool. But regular folks are implored to inform and educate themselves on a variety of topics if nothing else than so that they can vote responsibly. My apprehension of reality and human dynamics may be no better than the next, but as history proceeds, attempting to make sense of the deluge of information confronting everyone is something I take seriously. Accordingly, I’m irked when contentious issues are warped and distorted, whether earnestly or malignantly. Maybe economists, like journalists, suffer from a professional deformation that confers supposed explanatory superpowers. However, in the context of our current epistemological crisis, I approach their utterances and certainty with great skepticism.

Periodically, I come across preposterously stupid arguments (in person and online) I can’t even begin to dispel. One such argument is that carbon is plant food, so we needn’t worry about greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, a byproduct of industrial activity. Although I’m unconvinced by such arrant capsule arguments, I’m also in a lousy position to contend with them because convincing evidence lies outside my scientific expertise. Moreover, evidence (should I bother to gather it) is too complex and involved to fit within a typical conversation or simple explanation. Plus, evidence relies on scientific literacy and critical reasoning often lacking in the lay public. Scientific principles work better for me rather than, for example, the finely tuned balances Nature is constantly tinkering with — something we humans can hope to discover only partially. Yet we sally forth aggressively and heedlessly to manipulate Nature at our peril, which often results in precisely the sort of unintended consequence scientists in Brazil found when mosquitoes altered genetically (to reduce their numbers as carriers of disease) developed into mosquitoes hardier and more difficult to eradicate than if we had done nothing. The notion that trees respond favorably to increased carbon in the atmosphere has been a thorn in my side for some time. Maybe it’s even partly true; I can’t say. However, the biological and geophysical principle I adhere to is that even small changes in geochemistry (minute according to some scales, e.g., parts per million or per billion) have wildly disproportionate effects. The main effect today is climate changing so fast that many organisms can’t adapt or evolve quickly enough to keep up. Instead, they’re dying en masse and going extinct.

The best analogy is the narrow range of healthy human body temperature centered on 98.6 °F. Vary not far up (fever) or down (hypothermia) and human physiology suffers and become life threatening. Indeed, even in good health, we humans expend no small effort keeping body temperature from extending far into either margin. Earth also regulates itself through a variety of blind mechanisms that are in the process of being wrecked by human activity having risen by now to the level of terraforming, much like a keystone species alters its environment. So as the planet develops the equivalent of a fever, weather systems and climate (not the same things) react, mostly in ways that make life on the surface much harder to sustain and survive. As a result, trees are in the process of dying. Gail Zawacki’s blog At Wit’s End (on my blogroll) explores this topic in excruciating and demoralizing detail. Those who are inclined to deny offhandedly are invited to explore her blog. The taiga (boreal forest) and the Amazonian rainforest are among the most significant ecological formations and carbon sinks on the planet. Yet both are threatened biomes. Deforestation and tree die-off is widespread, of course. For example, since 2010, an estimated 129 million trees in California have died from drought and bark beetle infestation. In Colorado, an estimated more than 800 millions dead trees still standing (called snags) are essentially firestarter. To my way of thinking, the slow, merciless death of trees is no small matter, and affected habitats may eventually be relegated to sacrifice zones like areas associated with mining and oil extraction.

Like the bait “carbon is plant food,” let me suggest that the trees have begun to rebel by falling over at the propitious moment to injure and/or kill hikers and campers. According to this article at Outside Magazine, the woods are not safe. So if mosquitoes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions, or bears don’t getcha first, beware of the trees. Even broken branches and dead tree trunks that haven’t fallen fully to the ground (known as hung snags, widow-makers, and foolkillers) are known to take aim at human interlopers. This is not without precedent. In The Lord of the Rings, remember that the Ents (tree herders) went to war with Isengard, while the Huorns destroyed utterly the Orcs who had laid siege to Helm’s Deep. Tolkien’s tale is but a sliver of a much larger folklore regarding the enchanted forest, where men are lost or absorbed (as with another Tolkien character, Old Man Willow). Veneration of elemental forces of nature (symbols of both life and its inverse death) is part of our shared mythology, though muted in an era of supposed scientific sobriety. M. Night Shyamalan has weak explorations of similar themes in several of his films. Perhaps Tolkien understood at an intuitive level the silent anger and resentment of the trees, though slow to manifest, and their eventual rebellion over mistreatment by men. It’s happening again, right now, all around us. Go ahead: prove me wrong.

For want of a useful way to describe multiple, intersecting problems plaguing the modern world — a nest of problems, if you will — let me adopt matryoshkas (a/k/a Russian nesting dolls). The metaphor is admittedly imperfect because problems are not discrete, resized replicas of each other that nest snugly, one inside the next. Rather, a better depiction would look more like some crazy mash-up of a Venn diagram and a Rorschach test but without the clean dividing lines or symmetry.

I use matryoshkas because they bear close relationship to each other. Also, the matryoshka is a maternal figure, much like Mother Earth. Matryoshkas are interlocking, each affecting others, though their relationships beyond the metaphor are far too complex to manage or manipulate effectively. For instance, the expansionary (growth) economy matryoshka (the paradigmatic problem of our time), nested two or three levels inside the Mother Earth matryoshka, bursts the outer dolls from within, whereas the collapsing Mother Earth matryoshka crushes the inner dolls. Similarly, if the economy matryoshka contracts (as it should and must), other inner dolls (e.g., nation states) will not survive. Which matryoshka fits inside another is a matter of interpretation. The one representing human consciousness is especially hard to position because it’s both cause and effect.

The Global Climate Strike underway this week reminds us of the outermost matryoshka, the largest one that contains or encapsulates all the others. Dealing with this biggest problem (since it’s truly an extinction level event, though slow-acting due to its global scale) has been delayed so long that (to mix my metaphors) the patient has become terminal. The diagnosis came long ago (i.e., quit smoking, or more accurately, quit burning fossil fuels and heating the planet), but treatment (cessation, really) never happened. We just kept puffing away with our transportation infrastructure (cars, boats, trains, and planes) and industrial machinery (including weaponry) because to do otherwise would — gasp — imperil the economy or negatively impact what’s become a nonnegotiable lifestyle, at least in the First World and only for a diminishing portion. The implicit decision, I suppose, is to live large now but condemn those unfortunate enough to follow in the wake of global ecological destruction.

Unless I misjudge the mood and consensus, climate change is (finally!) no longer the subject of controversy or denial except by a few intransigent fools (including political leaders and news groups that have inexplicably instituted gag orders to conceal the staggering immensity of the problem). Enough nasty events (storms, species die-offs, and epidemics — though no pandemic just yet) have piled up, including by way of example “unprecedented” flooding in Houston (never mind that flooding is a regular occurrence now, establishing a new precedent from which we steadfastly refuse to learn), that it’s impossible to dispute that we’ve entered an era of rather extraordinary instability. (That last sentence has problems with nesting, too, which I could fix by rewriting the sentence, but perhaps it’s fitting to just let the problems fester.) Indeed, as I have indicated before, we’re transitioning out of the Garden Earth (having left behind Ice Age Earth some 12,000 years ago) to Hothouse Earth. The rate of change is quite unlike similar transitions in the geological past, and we’re quite unlikely to survive.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

A potpourri of recent newsbits and developments. Sorry, no links or support provided. If you haven’t already heard of most of these, you must be living under a rock. On a moment’s consideration, that may not be such a bad place to dwell.

rant on/

I just made up the word of the title, but anyone could guess its origin easily. Many of today’s political and thought leaders (not quite the same thing; politics doesn’t require much thought), as well as American institutions, are busy creating outrageously preposterous legacies for themselves. Doomers like me doubt anyone will be around to recall in a few decades. For instance, the mainstream media (MSM) garners well-deserved rebuke, often attacking each other in the form of one of the memes of the day: a circular firing squad. Its brazen attempts at thought-control (different thrusts at different media organs) and pathetic abandonment of mission to inform the public with integrity have hollowed it out. No amount of rebranding at the New York Times (or elsewhere) will overcome the fact that the public has largely moved on, swapping superhero fiction for the ubiquitous fictions spun by the MSM and politicians. The RussiaGate debacle may be the worst example, but the MSM’s failures extend well beyond that. The U.S. stock market wobbles madly around its recent all-time high, refusing to admit its value has been severely overhyped and inflated through quantitative easing, cheap credit (an artificial monetary value not unlike cryptocurrencies or fiat currency created out of nothing besides social consensus), and corporate buybacks. The next crash (already well overdue) is like the last hurricane: we might get lucky and it will miss us this season, but eventually our lottery number will come up like those 100-year floods now occurring every few years or decades.

Public and higher education systems continue to creak along, producing a glut of dropouts and graduates ill-suited to do anything but the simplest of jobs requiring no critical thought, little training, and no actual knowledge or expertise. Robots and software will replace them anyway. Civility and empathy are cratering: most everyone is ready and willing to flip the bird, blame others, air their dirty laundry in public, and indulge in casual violence or even mayhem following only modest provocation. Who hasn’t fantasized just a little bit about acting out wildly, pointlessly like the mass killers blackening the calendar? It’s now de rigueur. Thus, the meme infiltrates and corrupts vulnerable minds regularly. Systemic failure of the U.S. healthcare and prison systems — which ought to be public institutions but are, like education, increasingly operated for profit to exploit public resources — continues to be exceptional among developed nations, as does the U.S. military and its bloated budget.

Gaffe-prone Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden cemented his reputation as a goof years ago yet continues to build upon it. One might think that at his age enough would have been enough, but the allure of the highest office in the land is just too great, so he guilelessly applies for the job and the indulgence of the American public. Of course, the real prize-winner is 45, whose constant stream of idiocy and vitriol sends an entire nation scrambling daily to digest their Twitter feeds and make sense of things. Who knows (certainly I don’t) how serious was his remark that he wanted to buy Greenland? It makes a certain sense that a former real-estate developer would offhandedly recommend an entirely new land grab. After all, American history is based on colonialism and expansionism. No matter that the particular land in question is not for sale (didn’t matter for most of our history, either). Of course, everyone leapt into the news cycle with analysis or mockery, only the second of which was appropriate. Even more recent goofiness was 45’s apparent inability to read a map resulting in the suggestion that Hurricane Dorian might strike Alabama. Just as with the Greenland remark, PR flacks went to work to manage and reconfigure public memory, revising storm maps for after-the-fact justification. Has anyone in the media commented that such blatant historical revisionism is the stuff of authoritarian leaders (monarchs, despots, and tyrants) whose underlings and functionaries, fearing loss of livelihood if not indeed life, provide cover for mistakes that really ought to lead to simple admission of error and apology? Nope, just add more goofs to the heaping pile of preposterity.

Of course, the U.S. is hardly alone in these matters. Japan and Russia are busily managing perception of their respective ongoing nuclear disasters, including a new one in Russia that has barely broken through our collective ennui. Having followed the U.S. and others into industrialization and financialization of its economy, China is running up against the same well-known ecological despoliation and limits to growth and is now circling the drain with us. The added spectacle of a trade war with the petulant president in the U.S. distracts everyone from coming scarcity. England has its own clownish supreme leader, at least for now, trying to manage an intractable but binding issue: Brexit. (Does every head of state need a weirdo hairdo?) Like climate change, there is no solution no matter how much steadfast hoping and wishing one into existence occurs, so whatever eventually happens will throw the region into chaos. Folks shooting each other for food and fresh water in the Bahamas post-Hurricane Dorian is a harbinger of violent hair-triggers in the U.S. poised to fire at anything that moves when true existential threats finally materialize. Thus, our collective human legacy is absurd and self-destroying. No more muddling through.

/rant off

The phrase “violence never solved anything” is a bit of wishfulness many think is true or at least would like to believe. It’s not true, of course. Violence puts a stop to some things while compelling others. While those may not be solutions exactly, things get done. The first lesson in that feeling of power (stemming from violence) comes in early childhood when some toddler in a preschool class hits another toddler for some unimportant reason (e.g., a disputed toy) and crying erupts. Because young kids are so attuned to each others’ emotional states, everyone might start crying in chorus without knowing why. An example of entrainment more familiar to adults is an infectious laugh. So the kid hitting another kid doesn’t solve anything exactly. Rather, hitting puts a stop to everything temporarily while everyone processes what just happened. The disputed toy is often forgotten.

Significantly, the hitter processes events differently than either the hittee or collateral criers. The experience of power to accomplish sumpinoruther takes some figuring for a toddler and is probably not an ecstatic realization like the ape at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey working out how to use a leg bone as a club to drive other apes away from a watering hole. Instead, possibilities open up if one can manage to deploy power via threats or actual punches (e.g., gimme that toy or gimme your lunch money) before someone else comes along and turns the tables. No doubt, some adult caretaker will inveigh against hitting (No hitting, Timmy!), which makes little sense to a toddler except that it’s a credible threat from someone much bigger that consequences will ensue if violence (hitting) is repeated, which makes immediate sense to someone not yet old and developed enough to reason abstractly. Indeed, throughout childhood, kids deal with the threat or actuality of being beaten up by bigger, older kids (and sadly, parents). Bullies and wimps develop out of this basic dynamic, sometimes unpredictably.

Most narrative conflict revolves around people manifesting their power over others. Power dynamics are the root of politics as well, from individuals and small-scale associations up to multinational alliances. Violence can also take nonphysical forms, such as economic violence (e.g., usury and monopoly) and rhetorical violence (e.g., propaganda and hate speech). While some may recognize violence as a tool merely to protect their watering hole and eschew using violence wantonly, others rather enjoy that feeling of power to compel others or wreck things. The latter group risks becoming psychopaths (power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely), of which history has far too many examples to countenance. In fairness, there’s a wide middle ground, too.

Channeling the seductions of power into positive endeavor is a worthwhile project. Sports might be the best example, though many sports revel in destructive powers (boxing and MMA, both combat sports) rather than more wholesome competition (target sports and racing). There’s plenty of overlap, such as American football, basketball, and hockey, all target sports (putting an object into a target) with high quotients of physical roughness and injury. My own sport is triathlon, and I’m racing in the Chicago Triathlon tomorrow, which will be for me the eleventh time. Since I’m not fast or strong except in the swim, the event is really about endurance (thus, endurance racing). I daresay most participants (nearly ten thousand tomorrow) are in it not to win it but for just that purpose: enjoying that feeling of power to endure and cross the finish line.

Decades ago, I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Lots of inventive things in those books have stayed with me despite not having revisited them. For instance, I found the SEP (Somebody-Else’s-Problem) Field and the infinite improbability drive tantalizing concepts even though they’re jokes. Another that resonates more as I age is disorientation felt (according to Adams) because of dislocation more than 500 light-years away from home, namely, the planet of one’s origin. When I was younger, my wanderlust led me to venture out into the world (as opposed to the galaxy), though I never gave much thought to the stabilizing effect of the modest town in which I grew up before moving to a more typical American suburb and then to various cities, growing more anonymous with each step. Although I haven’t lived in that town for 25+ years, I pass through periodically and admit it still feels like home. Since moving away, it’s been swallowed up in suburban sprawl and isn’t really the same place anymore.

Reading chapter 4 of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger brought back to me the idea of being rooted in a particular place and its culture, and more significantly, how those roots can be severed even without leaving. The main cause appears to be cultural and economic infiltration by foreign elements, which has occurred many places through mere demographic drift and in others by design or force (i.e., colonialism and globalization). How to characterize the current waves of political, economic, and climate refugees inundating Europe and the smaller migration of Central Americans (and others) into the U.S. is a good question. I admit to being a little blasé about it: like water, people gonna go where they gonna go. Sovereign states can attempt to manage immigration somewhat, but stopgap administration ultimately fails, at least in open societies. In the meantime, the intractable issue has made many Americans paranoid and irrational while our civil institutions have become decidedly inhumane in their mistreatment of refugees. The not-so-hidden migration is Chinese people into Africa. Only the last of these migrations gives off the stink of neocolonialism, but they all suggest decades of inflamed racial tension to come if not open race wars.

Mishra cites numerous authors and political leaders/revolutionaries in chapter 4 who understand and observe that modernizing and Westernizing countries, especially those attempting to catch up, produce psychic turmoil in their populations because of abandonment and transformation of their unique, local identities as they move, for instance, from predominantly agrarian social organization to urbanization in search of opportunity and in the process imitate and adopt inappropriate Western models. Mishra quotes a 1951 United Nations document discussing the costs of supposed progress:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress in impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. [p. 118]

Thus, men were “uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to live in the big city,” which is a reenactment of the same transformation the West underwent previously. Another insightful passage comes from the final page of Westoxification (1962) or Weststruckness (English transliteration varies) by the Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin. [pp. 122–123]

It’s unclear that the resurrection referenced above is the Christian one. Nonetheless, how sobering is it to recognize that random, anonymous victims of nihilistic violence depicted in storytelling have their analogues in today’s victims of mass killings? A direct line of causality from the severed roots of place to violent incidents cannot be drawn clearly, but the loss of a clear, stabilizing sense of self, formerly situated within a community now suffering substantial losses of historical continuity and tradition, is certainly an ingredient.

More to come in pt. 2.