Archive for May, 2013

Somewhat unexpectedly, I was roundly attacked in face-to-face conversation twice in the same day (a few days ago) with respect to my iconoclasm, as though I were an adolescent or malformed young adult in need of having my grasp on reality channeled toward popular consensus. Although I don’t go out of my way to proselytize my beliefs, especially among acquaintances, neither do I hide behind carefully crafted euphemisms. The first incident was a judgment that I have absolutely no right to complain about or criticize politics unless I cast my vote in periodic elections. The second was about my opinions that trends point to the collapse of industrial civilization and an ensuing die-off (and likely near-term human extinction). Let me discuss each in turn.

Those of us experienced in the public school system typically get our first opportunity to cast votes, ostensibly for self-governance, for candidates for student council in junior high or middle school. A few students might mount campaigns for office, often centered around things like getting soda machines installed in the cafeteria (at least back in the day), but for the most part, a brief statement at student assembly was enough to reveal that a certain type of student was almost certain to self-promote and win: popular, garrulous organizers eager to undertake extracurricular activities that would go on a résumé. Even with a small, restricted voting pool, there was already silent knowledge that the whole thing was just theater: school administrators would allow student council no real influence and nothing embarrassing or discomfiting would ever be tolerated. A position on student council was barely even ceremonial, but its existence got everyone in the habit of casting votes. Skipping past high and college, the first vote cast in a public election upon reaching one’s majority (but still too young to drink) is cause for celebration as the trainee becomes a full if ill- or uninformed adult participant. If it felt like the fix was in for school elections, the impression was even stronger in public elections at all levels, where one’s individual vote was diluted in a much larger pool even though voter participation ran weak and behind-the-scenes organizers had already orchestrated the results.

The electoral system requires participation for legitimacy, right? My assessment is that legitimacy was lost more than a century ago and participation only perpetuates the charade that representative government works as an allegorical expression derived from the consent of the governed. Further, the rights to form opinions and speak up are not earned or validated by casting votes. Those rights precede all else, no matter if interlocutors wish to cordon off speech with qualifying criteria. If I withhold my worthless vote out of frustration that a certain type of person inevitably finds his or her way onto the ballot, offering me a dearth of options that align with my own politics, well, that’s a legitimate political act, though frowned upon even worse perhaps than if I cast my vote blindly or throw away my vote on third-party candidates sure to be losers. In fact, low voter participation may well be the best evidence of the illegitimacy of electoral politics. I remain spectacularly unconvinced that my participation in a corrupt system is mandatory to have grounds for dissent.

My other bit of highly unpopular iconoclasm is prophesying the future, which is hotly debated in some quarters where belief in imminent financial collapse, industrial collapse, climate change and chaos, ecological collapse, and worse tends to evoke denial and hostility on one side of the fence vs. grief and desperation on the other. I won’t argue the case, as I’m only connecting dots anyone can follow, but a series of emotional taunts had me shaking my head in frustration. The two that stood out were about my standing in the way of mankind’s advance (granting me extraordinary superpowers, that) and my lack of ideological purity for enjoying the benefits of modernity. Exposing the myth of progress is a lengthy process, but I was stonewalled in my repeated calls for clarification of any sort what “mankind’s advance” might be. The other bit about how, for example, owning and operating a car and using electricity means I’m a contributor to the problems of civilization is a point I acknowledged, but considering how almost all of us were born into industrial civilization, there really is little possibility of meaningful escape to the woods or countryside to live off-grid. There simply is no unclaimed land where squatters can get along without paying property taxes. Those few who have retreated from civilization are frequently derided as landed gentry (neofeudalism) and regarded as heretics, giving them even less authority to voice criticisms from outside the dominant paradigm. So the charge is nonsensical because to be situated within industrial civilization is contributing and being outside makes anything offered in dissent immediately suspect. Classic catch-22.

What I find especially curious is the doctrinaire insistence that I cannot renounce one thing whereas I must renounce the other, which leads to obvious ideological contradictions. What these two attacks have in common, I think, is what some call “the cult of the solution,” which typically calls for corrections to corrupt institutions to come from within. Someone like me who no longer believes that politics or indeed the future hold much hope for us is intolerable and dangerous. We must always hope and strive and prevail, right? Anything else is defeatism, fatalism, and crawling willingly into our own graves. I would say, however, that a sober look at our particular position in history calls not for unrealistic fantasies but rather acceptance that we’ve had our time and opportunities but ultimately squandered them. Solutions escape us because we’ve unwittingly created problems too big to solve and with time delays as to their effects. Instead, what remains for us to do is work out how to spend the last of our time honorably instead of resorting to a mad scramble for whatever scraps remain. I have no expectation honor and integrity will prevail, however. Resource wars have been fought for far less than survival, and that pressure will be felt by both individuals and institutions that are more likely than not to struggle to the last breath. Renunciation of the future and living as gracefully as conditions permit in the here and now is not yet a mainstream idea. No surprise there.

Update: Although the comments below became about the is-not-is-too of collapse and NTE, the post above did not entertain that argument. In this update, I want to offer (without additional comment) a characterization of the voting issue by Robin Datta that I stumbled across recently:

Voting is the voter saying which way the voter wants the gun of the hierarchy of state to be pointed. I decline to give my sanction to the pointing of the gun. There can be no discussion until the gun of state is holstered. A discussion is not a discussion when one of the parties speaks out of the barrel of a gun. Nor should that party be allowed to cloak that mischief with a pretence of participation.

Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Numerous times in the 19th century, a period that notably included New England Transcendentalism, the only worthwhile American contribution to philosophy, it was observed that our things, things, had got hold of us and were driving and using us rather than the reverse. Though difficult to recognize, one product of the Machine Age and emerging Information Age was World War I, the Great War, the first truly worldwide conflict, the first mechanized war where fighting could be staged at substantial remove beyond the perimeter where one could see the whites of the eyes of one’s enemies and thus dehumanize them. Something in human character broke in that conflict, and we nearly destroyed ourselves then and in more than one follow-on conflict (including multiple genocides). And yet we still haven’t stopped trying to destroy ourselves. That may well be the dominant aspect of the last 150 years of history, though only a few are sober enough and willing to reach that conclusion. Makes for depressing blogs and lousy careers. There are many folks, however, who can at least see that we’re marching off a cliff but don’t really know why. We’ll get the job done soon enough; we will drive ourselves to extinction while chanting incantations to the gods of renewed economic growth, the lovely bounties of technology that enable us to live (at least temporarily) in self-satisfied luxury, and management of climate chaos and severe population overshoot (and then die-off). The first two of those aren’t philosophies or religions in the proper sense of either word, but they have become de facto substitutes.

I quote fellow blogger Hal Smith of The Compulsive Explainer from time to time. He puts the problem as follows:

[H]igh-tech made people who were no longer people. And so people did the only thing they could do — they set about destroying the world that had destroyed them. One more thing needs to be emphasized — all this happened in the collective unconscious, which has been denied completely. We live in an era of universal despotism — where the despots are not human, but something bigger than human that we can hardly comprehend — especially when our thinking ability has been seriously compromised.

I think the problem goes further back to the Machine Age and is only more recently exacerbated by high-tech. Hal Smith states and restates this diagnosis periodically, but I suspect hardly anyone gets it.

What makes objects of desire, mostly things, so irresistible that we are content to destroy ourselves in their pursuit? As a younger, more idealistic man, not yet given over to the profound pessimism the reality principle has demanded of me as I learn more about the world, I had believed that if religious transcendence were unavailable to me in an increasingly profane, secularized world, then at least transcendent beauty in objets d’art and music were still worthy pursuits as either creator, practitioner, or audience. As I learned more about those endeavors, their remorseless cooptation, commodification, and corruption (e.g., when did paintings become pure investment vehicles?) faded the bloom from the rose. One pursuit after another grew tarnished, which appears to be the terminal trajectory of all things, and I, like everyone else, have turned to alternatives in search of beauty, meaning, and transcendence. Some find meager substitutes in food, sex, drugs, drink, sports, gambling, wielding power, fighting wars, etc. and throw themselves into their enthusiasms with willing abandon, unconcerned whether the logical result be self-destruction. Even the glimpse of something transcendent is a price worth paying.

But to the zombie masses, less willing to shoulder known and foreseeable risks, the objects of desire are mere things, commodities, which seemingly offer a last hope in an otherwise played-out world, since progress in the affairs of men is hopelessly stalled while refinements of the goodies continue to leave us gobsmacked. For the American public, the automobile is probably the principal object of cathexis, since its nearly mythical associations with power, freedom, and license are by now well established in our hearts and minds. Electronic devices run a close second as they deliver other substitutes for our yearnings, namely, entertainment, pseudosocial connectivity, and a firehose of information, news, and ephemera. I won’t say that I’ve succumbed entirely, but I’ve definitely had my flirtations with stuff/things, mostly recently with high-end audio equipment. It’s hard not to admire and covet well-designed, well-made, high-quality goods that serve useful purposes, just like it’s easy to have one’s head turned by strictly fashionable items (brands and prestige goods, such as clothes and jewelry), which beyond their effectiveness at enhancing one’s appearance also function as markers of class/wealth. But as I have averred repeatedly, for the most impressionable among us — our youths — electronics and the virtual world they invoke have in particular become so alluring that awareness of something else — anything else — to strive for is easily eclipsed. If the message of philosophy and religion (of most any type) is to look and think beyond oneself, the message of electronics is to look no further than one’s own thumbs and think hardly at all.