Archive for December, 2015

Lots of ink has been spilled over intransigent presidential candidate Donald Trump, so it’s unlikely that I will have anything particularly original to offer. This post at Gin and Tacos, including the mostly excellent commentary, got me thinking. Whereas most politicians are pleasantly insincere, offering no end of platitudes and rhetoric designed to appeal to everyone while being almost wholly insubstantial, The Donald is sincerely unpleasant, whipping conservative mouth-breathers into hysterics over one threat or another, real or imagined. Neither is a particularly good option, but The Donald has, for the moment, at least two distinct advantages: (1) fear-mongering as motivation, and (2) hewing much closer to the truth than is possible for any career politician. Everyone gets the insincerity behind the typical politician, all predictable bromides and empty promises. It’s frankly sickening such drivel passes for leadership. Then along comes an outsider unwilling to play by the candidate’s rulebook, spewing heinous insults at every opportunity and refusing to offer even the tiniest gesture of remorse when taken to task over his continuous onslaught of invective. It’s both refreshing and disgusting.

So let me bring forward something from Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness (reviewed here) that is on point: xenophobia. If one subscribes to Glubb’s description of the five ages, the first (pioneering or conquest) is characterized by enterprise, initiative, “optimism, confidence, devotion to duty, a sense of honor, a shared purpose, and adherence to a strict moral code.” These attributes arise out of strong consensus and confer high morale. Shared purpose and strong consensus are enabled by a fundamental sameness of the people, a group identity that makes snap, surface distinctions between us and them. In contrast, the last age (decadence) is characterized by “[f]rivolity, aestheticism, hedonism, cynicism, pessimism, narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fatalism, fanaticism, and other negative attributes, attitudes, and behaviors …” Although Glubb and Ophul never quite spell it out, the current vogue of multicultural and pluralistic sensitivity are surely a profound weakening of consensus and morale that gave the age of pioneers its élan.

Without demonstrating any particular intellectual awareness, candidate Trump has latched onto (among other things) fear of otherness, not far removed from simple fear of the unknown, and made it a modern touchstone. In doing so, he has struck an inchoate but resonant chord among Americans of northern European extract who were until recently a majority in the U.S. They know already that an unstoppable demographic wave is flowing over them, much like the related socioeconomic wave that has reduced the formerly great middle class to a fading memory. Thus far, Trump’s rhetoric has successfully stigmatized an incredible diverse people (Muslims) by substituting a tiny but noisy and violent fragment (Islamofascists) for the whole. (In parallel, try lumping all Christians into one undifferentiated group using the most crazily dogmatic of them as the model.) I anticipate renewal of white supremacy movements under a twisted nativist banner (e.g., taking back America!) completely lacking in even the most basic historical understanding of what the American melting pot has been about these past 300 years. Thus, we face our own fascist moment, rhyming (à la Twain) with those of the not-so-recent past, led by a despicable charismatic whose ravings appeal to the lizard brains in all of us.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that I wholly agree with Glubb and Ophuls, or even politically correct identity politics now emerging from higher education into everyday society. I am saying that this interpretation of our historical moment is worth some consideration.

Only one day away from the premiere of the new Star Wars film (in case it had escaped your notice), I must admit that I did not purchase advance tickets, nor will I likely see the film until some time in early 2016. (As a result, I rather expect to suffer from spoiler exposure, not that it matters much to me.) I have several reasons, but a happenstance conversation today caused me to consider that I may have made the wrong decision to defer.

Over time, I’ve grown numb to media hype, and I tend to be overwhelmed by large, anonymizing crowds and audiences. Smaller, more intimate settings have greater appeal to me. However, I can’t deny the irresistible emotional current that enlivens a truly engaged audience. Sports are perhaps the most sure-fire way of being swept into the crowd’s energy, though I’ve been witness to plenty of lifeless events, too, where players and fans are both merely putting in appearances or marking time. Live musical performance runs a similar gamut between transcendent and lifeless experience. The former is infrequent to rare, while the latter has been my assessment of the modern concert-going experience, and one’s experience is not improved by cranking up the volume to unbearable levels. Political rallies and activism offer further points of entry into the mob mind.

Viewing films in a movie theater is usually a better experience than watching on the TV at home. I’ve only been in theaters a handful of times this year, which has been consistently underwhelming in terms of both film quality and audience response. In fact, given the static nature of cinema, performers have no possibility of interacting with the audience vibe like with live theater, comedy, and music. However, given that I habitually avoid opening night crowds, I just might be shortchanging myself. I was told today that the long lines and breathless anticipation tend to bond audiences together, who typically cheer and applaud at the mere appearance onscreen of familiar and/or beloved characters. Basically, pent-up emotion is purged into the room, which may not possible once opening weekend has passed.

Unfortunately, the most hotly anticipated films these days are superhero blockbusters, which appeal especially to adolescents and adult fanboys still hopped up on hormones. Older, wiser, been-there-done-that adults like me may suffer from a lack of childlike wonder or suspension of disbelief, succumbing instead to jadedness and lethargy. So as we approach the new year, I make the resolution to attend an opening night showing just to see if there is something I’ve been missing out on.

A friend gave me William Ophuls’ Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail to read a couple years ago and it sat on my shelf until just recently. At only 93 pp. (with bibliographical recommendations and endnotes), it’s a slender volume but contains a good synopsis of the dynamics that doom civilizations. I’ve been piecing together the story of industrial civilization and its imminent collapse for about eight years now, so I didn’t expect Ophuls’ analysis to break new ground, which indeed it didn’t (at least for me). However, without my own investigations already behind me, I would not have been too well convinced by Ophuls’ CliffsNotes-style arguments. Armed with what I already learned, Ophuls is preaching to the choir (member).

The book breaks into two parts: biophysical limitations and cultural impediments borne out of human error. Whereas I’m inclined to award greater importance to biophysical limits (e.g., carrying capacity), particularly but not exclusively as civilizations overshoot and strip their land and resource bases, I was surprised to read this loose assertion:

… maintaining a civilization takes a continuous input of matter, energy, and morale, and the latter is actually the most important. [p. 51]

Upon reflection, it seems to be a chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first, increased and unmet demands for inputs or exhausted and/or diminished inputs due to human factors? The historical record of failed empires and civilizations offers examples attributable to both. For instance, the Incan civilization is believed to have risen and fallen on the back of climate change, whereas the fall of the Roman and British Empires stems more from imperial overreach. Reasons are never solely factor A or B, of course; a mixture of dynamic effects is easily discoverable. Still, the question is inevitable for industrial civilization now on a trajectory toward extinction no less than other (already extinct) civilizations, especially for those who believe it possible to learn from past mistakes and avoid repetition.

So the question is actually pretty simple: have we finally reached not just a hard ceiling we cannot rise above due to straightforward limits to growth but the crest of a wave that has by necessity an upslope and a downslope, or have we done to ourselves what all civilizations do, namely, mismanaged our own affairs out of greed, stupidity, and incompetence to the point of unrecoverable fragility? In Immoderate Greatness, Ophuls argues the latter with surprising vehemence and indignation, whereas geophysical processes are more “aw, shucks ….” Here’s a good example: