Archive for October, 2010

We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation. —Joe Bageant

The subject of industrial and civilizational collapse has wandered in and out of the front of my brain for years now; it’s never far from my attention. I’ve blogged about it numerous times, but I almost always retreat immediately afterward from the anticipated horror. As knowledge of our shared dilemma (now unavoidable fate) diffuses through the population, I am vaguely heartened to see that some few others really do get it and are sounding the alarm and sharing their ideas, analyses, and preparations for the future. So it’s no surprise when I become newly aware of someone who has essentially spent a lifetime piecing together the puzzle and in the process become fairly well known as an activist, educator, writer, or simply a whistle blower on the subject of collapse. Michael Ruppert, the subject of the 2009 documentary film Collapse, is my most recent such discovery.

Recounting the arguments Ruppert makes in the film in favor of understanding what is happening in and to the world at this particular junction in history is frankly unnecessary. As Ruppert says in the film, there is no longer any point to those debates. Either you are aware and convinced or you are unaware and/or in denial. Further debate solves nothing. What interests me more is the way the issue is framed by the filmmakers and how film critics have responded in print.

When Al Gore appeared in An Inconvenient Truth, it was revealed that he had been shaping his presentation on anthropogenic global warming over a period of decades and that the film was the fruition of years of effort that had matured and ripened in terms of the message, the underlying science, and the readiness of the public to listen (but not yet to act). So a good portion of the film was about Al Gore getting out the message, which is typical of politicians whose eyes always stray to the campaign angle of whatever cause they are pushing. The irony was that Al Gore’s political career was already over, yet he couldn’t resist being a central part of the story. “Look mom, no hands!”

In Collapse, Michael Ruppert is revealed to have been on a similar lifelong quest to discover the truth and get out the message. Accordingly, he occupies the center of the story not just as the lone talking head in a stark yet dramatically lit room (reminiscent of a criminal interrogation room) but as the impassioned, charismatic voice of Cassandra doomed to be ignored for his dark, unsavory prophecy — except that he’s not quite being ignored. (He points several times to power players in government and industry acting on his conclusions but refusing to be honest or validate his message.) The collapse of global civilization may not be the biggest story in the history of mankind, but if not, it’s certainly the most immediately relevant. Appallingly, the film is framed predominantly as a human story: the story of Michael Ruppert. Maybe this can be excused as synecdoche — the story of Ruppert is the story of all of us — but I suspect instead that the filmmakers find Ruppert’s story more engaging and entertaining as a documentary subject than the ongoing collapse, which is dragged onto stage mostly by Ruppert.

This myopic view also accounts in part for the inability of film critics to engage with and evaluate the content of the film beyond Ruppert himself as a quirky subject. I haven’t read all of the reviews, but those I have read follow the template of repeating some of Ruppert’s assertions for context to support adjectival blurbs such as mesmerizing, compelling, terrifying, ominous, riveting, chilling, horrifying, etc., which are probably also applicable to Ruppert himself, yet the reviewers can’t seem to overcome the myth of journalistic objectivity to say, “well duh, this stuff is so convincing and obvious it absolutely demands we add our voices to his and warn of what’s to come.” Instead, one reviewer after the next hedges behind words like possible, plausible, seemingly persuasive, etc. “Golly, I’m just a dumb film critic, hardly even a real journalist. I can’t understand anything if not filtered through a celluloid lens.” The filmmakers, too, reveal some of this same bullshit report-the-controversy attitude when an off-screen voice asks Ruppert something to the effect “Who are you to be stating such dark conclusions? What makes you qualified to offer an opinion?” Earlier in the film, Ruppert described himself as unusually adept at critical thinking. That’s the answer he might have given. But in the heat of confrontation, his actual answer was disappointing. I wish he had replied, “What qualifications do you think I need to describe reality accurately?”

This, of course, is the crux of the documentary. Not being a movie critic, I didn’t know that the filmmakers tend to take as their subjects people who are regarded as kooks, freaks, weirdos, eccentrics, and obsessives. So from its inception, the film is another in a serious of profiles of strange folk who need not be taken any too seriously. This perspective is reinforced by imposing the question of credentials on the subject, and in turn, the movie critics all fall in line and agree that they, too, are unqualified to evaluate Ruppert’s statements but can only review the film for its entertainment value. Never mind that the arguments and underlying science take only modest intellectual wherewithal to recognize as truth. No, this truth, since we lack the courage to confront it with any integrity, is now being served up as spectacle: lookie at the funny tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist going on about doom. How wonderfully charming he is for our fun and enjoyment! As it happens, Ruppert escapes being humiliated or shamed despite being lured into self-exposure and made the subtle object of derision. Withholding judgment as the cowardly critics do does not change the fact that Ruppert was set up for failure.

This is one reason among many why we have earned our fate.

Advertisements

The Stupid Grenade

Posted: October 16, 2010 in Culture, Idle Nonsense

I made a rather startling realization about myself recently. I’ve long known that I have an inveterate self-destruct button. I finally identified one of the reasons why I push the button: the stupid grenade. The stupid grenade is one of those whimsical, metaphorical devices like the ugly stick or the can o’ whoop-ass that describes an all-too-common human condition or behavior. The stupid grenade can manifest lots of places, but its natural milieu is the committee or seminar room. A typical scenario involves a small group responding to questions such as “What do we do about this problem?” or “How about this policy?” or “Where to invest this money?” In the brainstorming session that follows, lots of ideas are shot down handily, but at some point, perhaps unwittingly, some participant will pull the pin and lob the stupid grenade into the middle of the discussion. Someone else contributes to the action by calling the grenade a great idea. It doesn’t get shot down; rather, it sits there ticking away.

Let’s sponsor a writing contest for kids. We’ll have a fill-in-the-blank following the well-known phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” It will look like this:

The pen is ______________________.
The pen is ______________________.
The pen is ______________________.
The pen is ______________________.
The pen is ______________________.
The pen is ______________________.

Others besides me may recognize the stupid grenade for what it usually is: a relatively harmless idea that, left to run its course, will eventually explode and get a little of itself on everyone, sort of like egg on the face. So they do the eminently justifiable thing and stay silent, ready and willing to bear their modest share of the detonation.

I, on the other hand, with my self-destruct button operating more like self-sacrifice to the greater good, immediately respond to the ticking grenade by exclaiming, “Look out! It’s a bomb!” and promptly throw myself on the device to smother it. Sure enough, I absorb the full brunt of the explosion, but rather than getting a posthumous medal for recognizing my duty and doing it, others in the room slink away, relieved that it was me, not them, who kept the stupid grenade from getting all over everyone.

In its more virulent forms, the stupid grenade does some real damage, which is why no one will throw him- or herself on it. For instance, someone in those board rooms must have recognized that the idea of buying toxic derivative assets with pension funds was a stupid grenade. And yet, the meme somehow caught on that high-risk, high-return financial instruments with bogus ratings might be just the place to squirrel away everyone’s retirement eggs. (Plans to privatize Social Security are quite similar, though those schemes have received a wide range of public discussion to dispel the idea.) It makes no matter that no one really understood the toxic asset swindle fully, as everyone was jumping on the bandwagon anyway, like lemmings hurling themselves over the cliff. (You’re going full tilt, chasing some other lemming’s stupid ass just before you careen over the precipice to your demise. Maybe the lead lemming gets pushed over the edge by those behind him unable to see.) Had I been in the room, no doubt I would have thrown my body onto the device, but I suspect everyone would have pulled out their concealed weapons and killed me on the spot, letting the stupid grenade tick slowly away until its awful results got on everyone.

Everyone is familiar with the claim “based on a true story” used to add supposed authenticity or authority to some fictionalized account drawn from real life, but what about cases where truth flows from some kind of fiction, misrepresentation, or subterfuge? For instance, it’s been established as true (though many yet fail to subscribe to the truth) that the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq based on a pack of lies. Similarly, we respond emotionally to stories told in novels and movies, but are those emotions in any sense untrue even if their causes are pure fiction?

Perhaps the most commonplace truth based on fiction is the attraction, ambivalence, or repulsion we feel for the way others present and/or project themselves publicly. Hairstyles, fashionable clothing, make-up, and being on best behavior are probably fair means of dressing up one’s attributes or rockin’ what ya got, but it’s also fair to say that many have pitched well past the edge of the precipice with more invasive and questionable methods such as tattoos and piercings, cosmetic surgery, and the now-routine Photoshopping of images of people beyond what even exists in nature. The sickness of such fictions is obvious when the desire to obtain such appeal becomes neurotic or the procedures themselves go horribly awry, but the lesser forms are still sick, escaping luridness and condemnation only by the smaller degree by which they diverge from truth. These fictions also interfere with normal social interaction when people are conditioned to expect unrealistic standards of perfection.

Aside: One of the central messages of feminism — that women should not be treated as objects of the slavering attentions of men — seems to have been lost considering how many women are lined up asking to be objectified in rather humiliating ways. For instance, it’s scarcely possible anymore to market popular music based predominantly on musical merit. Instead, a very high quotient of salacious sexual material accounts for the popularity of Lady Gaga and nude or near-nude photo shoots of Avril Lavigne and Liz Phair, among many others. The preoccupation with image is affecting men these days, too, but the worst effects of this particular scourge will always be visited upon women.

Lying about credentials on a résumé or spreading false information about oneself is a tried-and-true method of getting a leg up, but in the world of electronic social networking and virtual identities, I suspect finding honest statements in a personal profile is far less likely when spinning a fictionalized version of oneself carries so few consequences — even after being exposed. Differing again only in degree, some have gone to the extreme of devoting most of their waking hours to virtual worlds such as Second Life and Utherverse. Stories abound of folks spending considerable real-world time on virtual relationships and marriages and spending considerable real-world money to furnish their virtual homes. While not as sick perhaps as extreme body alteration, the very real response to sensual immersion in virtual experience causes some to forsake or lose touch with the real world. Getting lost in the imagined worlds of video games, comic books, and graphics novels also fits well in this category.

The deepest fiction we experience as truth is undoubtedly consciousness. Few have the circumspection and detachment to appreciate just how powerful is the illusion of consciousness. From the perspective of neuroscience, the mind is an emergent property of the brain and nervous system, constructing a narrative or stream of consciousness as a means of processing and organizing external reality. If this is true, and it’s further true that internal mental experience is reducible to material and cognitive processes still too complex to understand, then the “self” residing somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears (or the noncorporeal “soul” if one is theistic) is nothing more than the ongoing story we tell ourselves as we go through life. Two decades ago in his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett called this the “benign user illusion.” Ironically, if in fact there is no one there in there or we are merely our bodies, there is little actionable information based on that truth, much like the related argument that free will doesn’t exist. We continue to experience life as conscious agents of free will because the alternative is so … unthinkable.

Traffic Report No. 05

Posted: October 7, 2010 in Blogosphere, Blogroll

Consistent with my last report, my blogging pace has stayed fairly sporadic, though I continue to comment elsewhere quite a bit. I don’t have enough time in the day or week to give most of my ideas the attention they deserve, so blogging gets deferred. However, my comments at other blogs has driven some traffic my way, and several older posts continue to draw attention. The daily average has climbed from 20 something to 30 something most days, with dips over the weekends and the odd spike when some topic of mine hits. WordPress added ratings and like buttons since I last reported on traffic, but few readers have availed themselves of those features. I’d like to get more comments, to which I would respond if I have something further to say on a topic, but few make any comments. For shorter, less analytical blog posts, I have resumed putting those up at Creative Destruction, which is abandoned by the other bloggers who used to post there.

I add to my blog roll only sparingly, and my latest addition is The Compulsive Explainer, where I have been reading and commenting for some time. The blogger there, Hal Smith, clearly has much more time than I do to consider things, and I like his perspective. These two recent posts (one and two) are good examples. My commenting has dropped off there out of frustration that Mr. Smith rarely responds. I’m more interested in dialogue than broadcasting, so I tend to withhold commentary at blogs where the blogger either doesn’t reply or is inundated with hundreds of me, too comments. Nonetheless, he’s worth a read.