/rant on

With a new round of presidential debates upon us (not really debates if one understands the nature of debate or indeed moderation — James Howard Kunstler called it “the gruesome spectacle of the so-called debate between Trump and Clinton in an election campaign beneath the dignity of a third-world shit-hole”), it’s worthwhile to keep in the front of one’s mind that the current style of public discourse does not aim to provide useful or actionable information with regard to either the candidates or the issues. Rather, the idea is to pummel the hapless listener, watcher, or reader into a quivering jangle of confusion by maintaining a nonstop onslaught of soundbites, assertions, accusations, grandstanding, and false narratives. Our information environment abets this style of machine-gun discourse, with innumerable feeds from InstaGoogTwitFaceTube (et cetera), all vying simultaneously for our limited attention and thereby guaranteeing that virtually nothing makes a strong impression before the next bit of BS displaces it in a rapid succession of predigested morsels having no nutritional content or value for earnest consumers of information (as opposed to mouth-breathers seeking emotional salve for their worst biases and bigotry). Many feeds are frankly indecipherable, such as when the message is brutally truncated and possessed of acronyms and hashtags, the screen is cluttered with multiple text scrolls, or panel participants talk over each other to claim more screen time (or merely raise their asshole quotient by being the most obnoxious). But no matter so long as the double barrels keep firing.

I caught Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyann Conway being interviewed by some banal featherweight pulling punches (sorry, no link, but she’s eminently searchable). Conway proved adept at deflecting obvious contradictions and reversals (and worse) of the Trump campaign by launching so many ideological bombs that nothing the interviewer raised actually landed. Questions and conflicts just floated away, unaddressed and unanswered. Her bizarre, hyperverbal incoherence is similar to the candidate’s stammering word salad, and ironically, both give new meaning to the decades-old term “Teflon” when applied to politics. Nothing sticks because piling on more and more complete wrongness and cognitive dissonance overwhelms and bewilders anyone trying to track the discussion. Trump and Conway are hardly alone in this, of course, though their mastery is notable (but not admirable). Talking heads gathered in panel discussions on, say, The View or Real Time with Bill Maher, just about any klatch occupying news and morning-show couches, and hosts of satirical news shows (some mentioned here) exhibit the same behavior: a constant barrage of high-speed inanity (and jokes, omigod the jokes!) that discourages consideration of an idea before driving pellmell onto the next.

Thoughtful persons might pause to wonder whether breathless, even virtuoso delivery results from or creates our abysmally short attention spans and lack of serious discussion of problems plaguing the nation. Well, why can’t it be both? Modern media is all now fast media, delivering hit-and-run spectacle to overloaded nervous systems long habituated to being goosed every few moments. (Or as quoted years ago, “the average Hollywood movie has become indistinguishable from a panic attack.”) Our nervous systems can’t handle it, obviously. We have become insatiable information addicts seeking not just the next fix but a perpetual fix, yet the impatient demand for immediate gratification — Internet always at our fingertips — is never quelled. Some new bit will be added to the torrent of foolishness sooner than it can be pulled down. And so we stumble like zombies, blindly and willingly, into a surreality of our own making, heads down and faces blue from the glare of the phone/tablet/computer. Of course, the shitshow is brightly festooned with buffoon candidates holding court over the masses neither intends to serve faithfully in office. Their special brand of insanity is repeated again and again throughout the ranks of media denizens (celebrity is a curse, much like obscene wealth, or didn’t you know that?) and is seeping into the ground water to poison all of us.

/rant off

In what has become a predictable status quo, President Obama recently renewed our official state of emergency with respect to the so-called War on Terror. It’s far too late to declare a new normal; we’ve been in this holding pattern for 16 years now. The article linked above provides this useful context:

There are now 32 states of national emergency pending in the United States, with the oldest being a 1979 emergency declared by President Jimmy Carter to impose sanctions during the Iran hostage crisis. Most are used to impose economic sanctions — mostly as a formality, because Congress requires it under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

In his term in office, Obama has declared 13 new emergencies, continued 21 declared by his predecessors and revoked just two, which imposed sanctions on Liberia and Russia.

Pro forma renewal of multiple states of national emergency is comparable to the 55-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba, due for reauthorization next month, though indications are that the embargo may finally be relaxed or deauthorized. Both are examples of miserably failed policy, but they confer a semblance of power on the executive branch. Everyone knows by now that no one relinquishes power willingly, so Obama, like chief executives before him, keeps on keeping on ad nauseum.

Considering Obama’s credential as a Constitutional scholar, relatively unique among U.S. presidents, one might expect him to weigh his options with greater circumspection and with an eye toward restoring suspended civil liberties. However, he has shown little interest in doing so (as far as I know). In combination with the election only a couple months away, the U.S. appears to be in a position similar to Germany in 1932 — ready and willing to elect a despot (take your pick …) and continue its slide into fascism. Can’t even imagine avoiding that outcome now.

The surprising number of ongoing emergencies makes me point to James Howard Kunstler and his book The Long Emergency (2006). Though I haven’t read the book (I’m a failed doomer, I suppose), my understanding is that his prediction of a looming and lingering emergency is based on two intertwined factors currently playing out in geopolitics: peak oil and global warming. (“Climate change” is now preferred over “global warming.”) Those two dire threats (and the California drought) have faded somewhat from the headlines, partially due to fatigue, replaced primarily by terrorism and economic stresses, but the dangers never went away. Melting icecaps and glaciers are probably the clearest incontrovertible indications of anthropogenic global warming, which is poised to trigger nonlinear climate change and hasten the Sixth Extinction. We don’t know when, precisely, though time is growing short. Similarly, reports on energy production and consumption are subject to considerable falsification in the public sphere, making it impossible to know just how close in time we are to a new energy crisis. That inevitability has also been the target of a disinformation campaign, but even a rudimentary understanding of scientific principles is sufficient to enable clear thinkers to penetrate the fog.

I have no plans to return to doom blogging with any vigor. One emergency stacked upon the next, ready to collapse in a cascade of woe, has defeated me, and I have zero expectation that any real, meaningful response can be formulated and executed, especially while we are distracted with terrorism and creeping fascism.

A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.

Lessons of History

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Culture

Here’s something I wrote nine years ago that seems still on point.

Creative Destruction

The oft-repeated trope is that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, to which most most of us laconically reply “So what? Big deal.” We’ve taken our eye off the ball and don’t really care anymore about history, being contented with the illusory belief that our current stage of historical development can and will continue undisrupted into the middle of the century, which is probably the longest time horizon we really care about. But there are still plenty of academics and pundits studying history, drawing lessons from it, and sounding the klaxon regarding some threat or imminent transformation or collapse. Actually rousing citizens out of their satiated lethargy is undoubtedly too difficult a task just yet, but the alarm calls at least make for some interesting reading.

Three recent articles make comparisons between the current state of America and historical conditions here and abroad in an attempt to…

View original post 1,027 more words

We all live in perceptual bubbles of varying breadth and focus. Otherwise, we would be omniscient, which none of us is or can be. Two hot topics that lie outside my perceptual bubble are geopolitical struggles in Israel and Northern Ireland. I’ve also read analyses that suggest that our current troubles and involvements in the Middle East are part of a clash of cultures going back two millennia, where the mostly Christian West won the battle back in the Middle Ages but newly gained oil wealth in the Middle East has prompted a resumption of hostilities. I have a mixture of opinions passing acquaintance with geopolitics, and the complexity of the myriad interacting elements keeps me from getting a good fix on what’s proven to be a constantly shifting target. That aspect of modern history is the domain of intelligence agencies, military strategists, and diplomats. I don’t necessarily trust those professionals, though, since they operate with their own perceptual biases. (When your main tool is a bomb hammer, everything tends to look like a target nail.) But I also recognize that I’m in a really lousy position to second-guess or drive from the back seat. Plus, I have zero influence, even at the voting booth.

In the narrower arena of domestic and campaign politics, the news media (journalists) have failed in their legitimate role as the fourth estate, which function is now being performed by their cousins in entertainment media. (I’ll skip the diatribe that journalism has essentially merged with entertainment and utterly lost any claim to objectivity.) Specifically, we live in a surprisingly mature age of political satire replete with shows that deliver news in comic form far better than serious journalists do with straight faces. The model is undoubtedly The Daily Show, which has already spun off The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight, Full Frontal, and The Nightly Show. Each of these shows features a host considerably smarter than the audience, who proceeds with rapid-fire (though scripted) takedowns of all manner of political dysfunction. Each has its own stylistic tics, but in aggregate, they arguably do a better job of investigative journalism these days than, say, 60 Minutes, Dateline, or 20/20. Better yet, since they don’t pretend to be serious journalism, they can dispense with bogus claims to objectivity and simply go ahead to indulge in righteous indignation and silly stunts, exposing corruption, stupidity, and inanity in all their shameful manifestations. Political humor has now become a form of gallows humor. Read the rest of this entry »

Lingua Nova 02

Posted: August 20, 2016 in Idle Nonsense, Nomenclature, Writing
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From time to time, I indulge my predilection for nomenclature and neologism. Those collected below are not novel so much as repurposed.

code blue: the closing of ranks and circling of wagons undertaken by police departments in the wake of an officer (or officers) killing an unarmed citizen, usually black, accompanied by the insistence that the officer(s) by definition can do no wrong.

Christian fiction: an alternative narrative promulgated by Christian fundamentalists in a field of inquiry not based on faith and belief.

STEAM: the addition of Arts to STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) to acknowledge the fundamental source of creativity and innovation.

nostalgia mining: the creation of entertainments that guilelessly seek to exploit the resource of fond remembrance of days past.

That’s a short list, to be sure. If you feel cheated, here’s an additional list of words sure to confound any interlocutors: espial, telic, desuetude, fubbed, girandoles, catarrh, avulse, gobbet, diaphanouspipping, panicles, cark, cantilene, fisc, phylactery, princox, and funest. I knew only a few of them before stealing most from something I read and can’t imagine using any in speech unless I’m trying not to communicate.

The last time I blogged about this topic, I took an historical approach, locating the problem (roughly) in time and place. In response to recent blog entries by Dave Pollard at How to Save the World, I’ve delved into the topic again. My comments at his site are the length of most of my own blog entries (3–4 paras.), whereas Dave tends to write in chapter form. I’ve condensed to my self-imposed limit.

Like culture and history, consciousness is a moving train that yields its secrets long after it has passed. Thus, assessing our current position is largely conjectural. Still, I’ll be reckless enough to offer my intuitions for consideration. Dave has been pursuing radical nonduality, a mode of thought characterized by losing one’s sense of self and becoming selfless, which diverges markedly from ego consciousness. That mental posture, described elsewhere by nameless others as participating consciousness, is believed to be what preceded the modern mind. I commented that losing oneself in intense, consuming flow behaviors is commonplace but temporary, a familiar, even transcendent place we can only visit. Its appeals are extremely seductive, however, and many people want to be there full-time, as we once were. The problem is that ego consciousness is remarkably resilient and self-reinforcing. Despite losing oneself from time to time, we can’t be liberated from the self permanently, and pathways to even temporarily getting out of one’s own head are elusive and sometimes self-destructive.

My intuition is that we are fumbling toward just such a quieting of the mind, a new dark age if you will, or what I called self-lite in my discussion with Dave. As we stagger forth, groping blindly in the dark, the transitional phase is characterized by numerous disturbances to the psyche — a crisis of consciousness wholly different from the historical one described previously. The example uppermost in my thinking is people lost down the rabbit hole of their handheld devices and desensitized to the world beyond the screen. Another is the ruined, wasted minds of (arguably) two or more generations of students done great disservice by their parents and educational institutions at all levels, a critical mass of intellectually stunted and distracted young adults by now. Yet another is those radicalized by their close identification with one or more special interest groups, also known as identity politics. A further example is the growing prevalence of confusion surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. In each example, the individual’s ego is confused, partially suppressed, and/or under attack. Science fiction and horror genres have plenty of instructive examples of people who are no longer fully themselves, their bodies zombified or made into hosts for another entity that takes up residence, commandeering or shunting aside the authentic, original self.

Despite having identified modern ego consciousness as a crisis and feeling no small amount of empathy for those seeking radical nonduality, I find myself in the odd position of defending the modern mind precisely because transitional forms, if I have understood them properly, are so abhorrent. Put another way, while I can see the potential value and allure of extinguishing the self even semi-permanently, I will not be an early adopter. Indeed, if the modern mind took millennia to develop as one of the primary evolutionary characteristics of homo sapiens sapiens, it seems foolish to presume that it can be uploaded into a computer, purposely discarded by an act of will, or devolved in even a few generations. Meanwhile, though the doomer in me recognizes that ego consciousness is partly responsible for bringing us to the brink of (self-)annihilation (financial, geopolitical, ecological), individuality and intelligence are still highly prized where they can be found.

rant on/

Monastic pursuit of a singular objective, away from the maddening and distracting rush of modern life, is a character attribute that receives more than its rightful share of attention. In its salutary forms, monastic pursuit is understood as admirable, visionary, iconic (or iconoclastic), and heroic. In creative endeavors, seclusion and disengagement from feedback are preconditions for finding one’s true voice and achieving one’s vision. In sports, the image of the athlete devoted to training for the big event — race, match, tournament — to the exclusion of all else is by now a tired trope. Indeed, in this Olympics season, athlete profiles — puff pieces of extraordinary predictability — typically depict competitors in isolation, absolutely no one else at the gym, in the pool, on the track, etc., as though everyone goes it alone without the support or presence of coaches or teammates. Over-specialization and -achievement are such that spectators are conditioned to expect successful individuals, champions, to bleed (quite literally) as a mark of devotion to their respective fields.

At some point, however, monastic pursuit morphs into something more recognizably maniacal. The author retreating to his cabin in the woods to write the great American novel becomes the revolutionary hermit composing his political manifesto. Healthy competition among rivals turns into decidedly unsportsmanlike conduct. (Lance Armstrong is the poster boy not just for doping but also for the sociopathy he displayed mistreating teammates and perpetuating the lie as vehemently and as long as he did. Further examples compound quickly in sports). Business leaders, discontented with (sometime obscene) profitability, target others in their market sector with the intent of driving them out of business and establishing monopolies. (This contrasts markedly with the ideology of self-correcting markets many CEOs falsely espouse.) In politics, high-minded campaigns and elected politicians formed around sound policy and good governance lose out to such dirty tricks as character assassination, rigged and stolen elections, partisanship, and reflexive obstructionism of projects that enjoy popular support. In journalism, fair and balanced reporting inverts to constant harping on preferred talking points to control narratives through sheer force of repetition. You get the idea.

It’s difficult to say from where this intemperate impulse arises, but we’re undoubtedly in a phase of history where nearly every field of endeavor manifests its own version of the arms race. Some might argue that in a cost-benefit analysis, we’re all better off because we enjoy fruits not obtainable without (some folks at least) taking a scorched-earth approach, raising the bar, and driving everyone to greater heights. The willingness of some to distort and disgrace themselves hideously may be a high price to pay, especially when it’s for simple entertainment, but so long as we aren’t paying the price personally, we’re willing spectators to whatever glory and train wrecks occur. I would argue that, ultimately, we’re all paying the price. Routine competition and conflict resolution have grown so unhinged that, just to be in the game, competitors must be prepared to go all in (poker lingo) at even modest provocation. As a result, for just one example, the spirit of America’s erstwhile pastime (baseball) has been so corrupted that balanced players and fans (!) stay away and are replaced by goons. A true level playing field probably never existed. Now, however, whoever can muster the most force (financial, rhetorical, criminal) wins the trophy, and we’re each in turn encouraged to risk all in our own monastic pursuit.

rant off/

In my travels and readings upon the Intertubes, which proceed in fits and starts, I stumbled across roughly the same term — The NOW! People — used in completely different contexts and with different meanings. Worth some unpacking for idle consideration.

Meaning and Usage the First: The more philosophical of the two, this refers to those who feel anxiety, isolation, estrangement, disenfranchisement, and alienation from the world in stark recognition of the self-other problem and/or mind-body dualism. They seek to lose their identity and the time-boundedness that goes with being a separate self by entering a mental state characterized by the eternal NOW, much as animals without consciousness are believed to think. Projection forward and back more than a few moments in time is foreclosed; one simply exists NOW! Seminars and YouTube videos on radical nonduality are offers by Tony Parsons, Jim Newman, Andreas Müller, and Kenneth Madden, but according to my source (unacknowledged and unlinked), they readily admit that despite study, meditation, openness, and desire to achieve this state of mind, it is not prone to being triggered. It either happens or it doesn’t. Nonetheless, some experiences and behaviors allow individuals to transcend themselves at least to some degree, such as music, dance, and sex.

Meaning and Usage the Second: The more populist and familiar of the two, this refers to people for whom NOW! is always the proper time to do whatever the hell they most urgently desire with no consideration given to those around them. The more mundane instance is someone stopping in a doorway or on an escalator to check their phones for, oh, I dunno, Facebook updates and new e-mail. A similar example is an automobile driver over whom traffic and parking controls have no effect: someone double-parked (flashers optional) in the middle of the road or in a fire lane, some who executes a U-turn in the middle of traffic, or someone who pointlessly jumps the line in congestion just to get a few cars lengths ahead only to sit in yet more traffic. The same disregard and disrespect for others is evident in those who insist on saving seats or places in line, or on the Chicago L, those who occupy seats with bags that really belong on their laps or stand blocking the doorways (typically arms extended looking assiduously at their phones), making everyone climb past them to board or alight the train. These examples are all about someone commandeering public space as personal space at the anonymous expense of anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the same location, but examples multiply quickly beyond these. Courtesy and other social lubricants be damned! I want what I want right NOW! and you can go pound sand.

Both types of NOW! behavior dissolve the thinking, planning, orchestrating, strategizing mind in favor of narrowing thought and perception to this very moment. The first gives away willfulness and desire in favor of tranquility and contentedness, whereas the second demonstrates single-minded pursuit of a single objective without thought of consequence, especially to others. Both types of NOW! People also fit within the Transhumanist paradigm, which has among its aims leaving behind worldly concerns to float freely as information processors. If I were charitable about The NOW! People, I might say they lose possession of themselves by absorption into a timeless, mindless present; if less charitable, I might say that annihilation of the self (however temporary) transforms them into automatons.

The sole appeal I can imagine to retreating from oneself to occupy the eternal moment, once one has glimpsed, sensed, or felt the bitter loneliness of selfhood, is cessation of suffering. To cross over into selflessness is to achieve liberation from want, or in the Buddhist sense, Nirvana. Having a more Romantic aesthetic, my inclination is instead to go deeper and to seek the full flower of humanity in all its varieties. That also means recognizing, acknowledging, and embracing darker aspects of human experience, and yes, no small amount of discomfort and suffering. Our psycho-spiritual capacity demands it implicitly. But it takes strong character to go toward extremes of light and dark. The NOW! People narrow their range radically and may well be the next phase of human consciousness if I read the tea leaves correctly.

The Democratic National Convention has come and gone, and like the RNC, it turned out to be another nonevent. I’m quite surprised that there were no, um, surprises (which I suppose wouldn’t be surprises if one expects something irregular). Neither convention erupted into violence on the floor or in the street, neither party leadership attempted to install a different candidate, both parties made obligatory shows of unity (Cruz excepted), and the presumptive nominees both finalized their tickets for the main event in November. It’s impossible to judge whether the two parties finally resigned themselves to the their eventual nominees or simply rolled over and played dead, unable to put forth anyone more electable and/or less divisive. I suspect the latter.

Competition in the marketplace of ideas for one’s perspective on the parties, their candidates, and who can be expected to do more damage as president is impossible to referee. We are forced to entertain every crackpot scenario and interpretation, a phenomenon I described in this post about dissolving reality. See, for example, the comments thread at this blog post (a site highly respectable for its commentary most of the time). I find it infuriating to wrestle with so many possibilities and be unable to synthesize them effectively. Perhaps it’s just my refusal to be rigid and doctrinaire, but in the spirit of openness and with an absence of convincing arguments, I find myself being pushed and shoved all over the ideological map.

Voters are now faced with the choice that has been forecast for some months now. Little occurring between now and November will likely have much impact on anyone’s decision making, but in the meantime, we will get plenty of theater of the absurd as the contest goes down to the wire. I cannot recall an election where both candidates were so repulsive, though one is far more authoritarian. That characteristic alone is sufficient to distinguish between the two at the voting booth, but I’m nonetheless bothered in no small measure that the binary choice, R or D, remains so perfectly awful. The call to service (nonmilitary) used to be answered by men and women of high character and formidable qualities. These days, almost all of those thrust into positions of power and influence fail even routine tests of decency and admiration. Instead, we have coarse, vulgar candidates, some well able to disguise themselves with appealing presentable masks. A truer reflection of our culture’s descent into baseness could not be found.