Archive for June, 2016

An enduring trope of science fiction is naming of newly imagined gadgets and technologies (often called technobabble with a mixture of humor and derision), as well as naming segments of human and alien societies. In practice, that means renaming already familiar things to add a quasi-futuristic gleam, and it’s a challenge faced by every story that adopts an alternative or futuristic setting: describing the operating rules of the fictional world but with reference to recognizable human characteristics and institutions. A variety of recent Young Adult (YA) fiction has indulged in this naming and renaming, some of which have been made into movies, mostly dystopic in tone, e.g., the Hunger Games tetralogy, the Twilight saga, the Harry Potter series, the Maze Runner, and the Divergent trilogy. (I cite these because, as multipart series, they are stronger cultural touchstones, e.g., Star Wars, than similar once-and-done adult cinematic dystopias, e.g., Interstellar and ElyseumStar Trek is a separate case, considering how it has devolved after being rebooted from its utopian though militaristic origins into a pointless series of action thrillers set in space.) Some exposition rises to the level of lore but is mostly mere scene-setting removed slightly from our own reality. Similar naming schemes are used in cinematic universes borne out of comic books, especially character names, powers, and origins. Because comic book source material is extensive, almost all of it becomes lore, which is enjoyed by longtime children initiates into the alternate universes created by the writers and illustrators but mildly irritating to adult moviegoers like me.

History also has names for eras and events sufficiently far back in time for hindsight to provide a clear vantage point. In the U.S., we had the Colonial Era, the Revolutionary Period, The Frontier Era and Wild West, the Industrial/Mechanical Age, Modernism, and Postmodernism, to name a few but by no means all. Postmodernism is already roughly 40 years old, yet we have not yet named the era in which we now live. Indeed, because we’re the proverbial fish inside the fishbowl, unable to recognize the water in which we swim, the contemporary moment may have no need of naming, now or at any given time. That task awaits those who follow. We have, however, given names to the succession of generations following the Baby Boom. How well their signature characteristics fit their members is the subject of considerable debate.

As regular readers of this blog already know, I sense that we’re on the cusp of something quite remarkable, most likely a hard, discontinuous break from our recent past. Being one of the fish in the bowl, I probably possess no better understanding of our current phase of history than the next. Still, if had to choose one word to describe the moment, it would be dissolution. My 4-part blog post about dissolving reality is one attempt to provide an outline. A much older post called aged institutions considers the time-limited effectiveness of products of human social organization. The grand question of our time might be whether we are on the verge of breaking apart or simply transitioning into something new — will it be catastrophe or progress?

News this past week of Britain’s exit from the European Union may be only one example of break-up vs. unity, but the drive toward secession and separatism (tribal and ideological, typically based on bogus and xenophobic identity groups constantly thrown in our faces) has been gaining momentum even in the face of economic globalization (collectivism). Scotland very nearly seceded from the United Kingdom last year; Quebec has had multiple referenda about seceding from Canada, none yet successful; and Vermont, Texas, and California have all flirted with secession from the United States. No doubt some would argue that such examples of dissolution, actual or prospective, are actually transitional, meaning progressive. And perhaps they do in fact fulfill the need for smaller, finer, localized levels of social organization that many have argued are precisely what an era of anticipated resource scarcity demands. Whether what actually manifests will be catastrophe (as I expect it will) is, of course, what history and future historians will eventually name.

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The first Gilded Age in the U.S. and the Roaring Twenties were periods that produced an overabundance of wealth for a handful of people. Some of them became synonymous with the term robber baron precisely for their ability to extract and accumulate wealth, often using tactics that to say the least lacked scruples when not downright criminal. The names include Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor, Mellon, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, Morgan, and Schwab. All have their names associated in posterity with famous institutions. Some are colleges and universities, others are banking and investment behemoths, yet others are place names and commercial establishments. Perhaps the philanthropy they practiced was not entirely generous, as captains of industry (then and today) seem to enjoy burnishing their legacies with a high level of name permanence. Still, one can observe that most of the institutions bearing their names are infrastructure useful to the general public, making them public goods. This may be partly because the early 20th century was still a time of nation building, whereas today is arguably a time of decaying empire.

The second Gilded Age in the U.S. commenced in the 1980s and is still going strong as measured by wealth inequality. However, the fortunes of today’s tycoons appear to be directed less toward public enrichment than toward self-aggrandizement. The very nature of philanthropy has shifted. Two modern philanthropists appear to be transitional: Bill Gates and Ted Turner. The Gates Foundation has a range of missions, including healthcare, education, and access to information technology. Ted Turner’s well-publicized $1 billion gift to the United Nations Foundation in 1997 was an open dare to encourage similar philanthropy among the ultrarich. The Turner Foundation website’s byline is “protecting & restoring the natural world.” Not to be ungrateful or uncharitable, but both figureheads are renowned for highhandedness in the fashion in which they gathered up their considerable fortunes and are redirecting some portion of their wealth toward pet projects that can be interpreted as a little self-serving. Philanthropic efforts by Warren Buffet appear to be less about giving away his own fortune to charities or establishing institutions bearing his name as they are about using his notoriety to raise charitable funds from others sources and thus stimulating charitable giving. The old saying applies especially to Buffet: “no one gets rich by giving it away.” More galling, perhaps, is another group of philanthropists, who seem to be more interested in building shrines to themselves. Two entries stand out: The Lucas Museum (currently seeking a controversial site in Chicago) and The Walmart Museum. Neither resembles a public good, though their press packages may try to convince otherwise.

Charity has also shifted toward celebrity giving, with this website providing philanthropic news and profiles of celebrities complete with their causes and beneficiaries. With such a wide range of people under consideration, it’s impossible to make any sweeping statements about the use or misuse of celebrity, the way entertainers are overcompensated for their talents, or even how individuals such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk have been elevated to celebrity status primarily for being rich. (They undoubtedly have other legitimate claims to fame, but they’re overshadowed in a culture that celebrates wealth before any other attribute.) And then there are the wealthy contributors to political campaigns, such as the Koch brothers, George Soros, and Sheldon Adelson, just to name a few. It’s fair to say that every contributor wants some bang for their buck, but I daresay that political contributors (not strictly charity givers) expect a higher quotient of influence, or in terms more consistent with their thinking, a greater return on investment.

None of this takes into account the charitable work and political contributions stemming from corporations and unions, or indeed the umbrella corporations that exist solely to raise funds from the general public, taking a sizeable share in administrative fees before passing some portion onto the eventual beneficiary. Topical charities and scams also spring up in response to whatever is the latest natural disaster or atrocity. What’s the average citizen to do when the pittance they can donate pales in comparison to that offered by the 1% (which would be over 3 million people in the U.S. alone)? Or indeed how does one guard against being manipulated by scammers (including the burgeoning number of street panhandlers) and political candidates into throwing money at fundamentally insoluble problems? Are monetary gifts really the best way of demonstrating charity toward the needy? Answers to these questions are not forthcoming.

Update: Closure has been achieved on the Lucas Museum coming to Chicago. After 2 years of litigation blocking any building on his proposed site on the lakefront, George Lucas has decided to seek a site in California instead. Both sides had to put their idiotic PR spin on the result, but most people I know are relieved not to have George Lucas making inroads into Chicago architecture. Now if only we could turn back time and stop Donald Trump.