Archive for July, 2016

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.

I’m not paying close attention to the RNC in Cleveland. Actually, I’m ignoring it completely, still hoping that it doesn’t erupt in violence before the closing curtain. Yet I can’t help but hear some relevant news, and I have read a few commentaries. Ultimately, the RNC sounds like a sad, sad nonevent put on by amateurs, with many party members avoiding coming anywhere near. What’s actually transpiring is worthy of out-loud laughter at the embarrassment and indignities suffered by participants. The particular gaffe that caught my attention is cribbing from Michelle Obama in the speech delivered on Monday by Melania Trump. The speech writer, Meredith McIver, has accepted blame for it and characterized it as an innocent mistake.

Maybe someone else has already said or written this, but I suspect innocent plagiarism is probably true precisely because that’s the standard in quite a lot of academe these days. Students get away with it all the time, just not on a national stage. Reworking another’s ideas is far easier than coming up with one’s own original ideas, and Melania Trump has no reputation (near as I can tell) as an original thinker. The article linked to above indicates she admires Michelle Obama, so the plagiarism is from a twisted perspective an encomium.

The failure of Trump campaign officials to review the speech (or if they did review it, then do so effectively) is another LOL gaffe. It doesn’t rise to the level of the McCain campaign’s failure to vet Sarah Palin properly and won’t have any enduring effects, but it does reflect upon the Trump campaign’s ineptitude. My secret fear is that ineptitude is precisely why a lot of folks intend to vote for Trump: so that he can accelerate America’s self-destruction. It’s a negative view, and somewhat devil-may-care, to say “let’s make it a quick crash and get things over with already.” Or maybe it’s darkly funny only until suffering ramps up.

I hate to sound a conspiratorial note, and you’re free to disregard what follows, but it seems worthwhile to take further notice of the rash of violence last week.

In a commentary by John Whitehead at The Rutherford Institute, blame for what Whitehead calls “America’s killing fields” is laid at the feet of a variety of entities, including numerous elected officials and taxpayer-funded institutions. The more important quote appearing right at the top is this:

We have long since passed the stage at which a government of wolves would give rise to a nation of sheep. As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, what we now have is a government of psychopaths that is actively breeding a nation of psychopathic killers. [links redacted]

While this may read as unsupported hyperbole to some, I rather suspect Whitehead tells a truth hidden in plain sight — one we refuse to acknowledge because it’s so unsavory. Seeing that Whitehead gave it book-length consideration, so I’m inclined to grant his contention. One can certainly argue about intent, objectives, mechanisms, and techniques. Those are open to endless interpretation. I would rather concentrate on results, which speak for themselves. The fact is that in the U.S., Western Europe, and the Middle East, a growing number of people are in effect wind-up toys being radicalized and set loose. Significantly, recent perpetrators of violence are not only the disenfranchised but also police, current and former military, politicians, and pundits whose mindsets are not directed to diplomacy but instead establish “taking out the enemy” as the primary response to conflict. The enemy is also being redefined irrationally to include groups identified by race, religion, vocation, political persuasion, etc. (always has been, in fact, though the more virulent manifestations were driven underground for a time).

Childhood wind-up toys are my chosen metaphor because they’re mindless, pointless devices that are energized, typically by tightening a spring, and released for idle entertainment to move around and bump into things harmlessly until they sputter out. Maniacal mass killers “bump into” targets selected randomly via simple proximity to some venue associated with the killer’s pet peeve, so victims are typically in the wrong place at the wrong time. Uniformed police might be the exception. One might ask who or what is doing the winding of the spring. The pull quote above says it’s a government of psychopaths breeding yet more psychopaths. That is certainly true with respect to the ruling classes — what used to be the aristocracy in older cultures but now is more nearly a kleptocracy in the U.S. — and members of a monstrous security apparatus (military, civil police, intelligence services, etc.) now that the U.S. has effectively become a garrison state. Self-reinforcing structures have hardened over time, and their members perpetuate them. I’ve even heard suspicions that citizens are being “chipped,” that is, programmed in the sense of psyops to explode into mayhem with unpredictable certainty, though for what purpose I can only imagine.

The simpler explanation that makes more sense to me is that our culture is crazy-making. We no longer function well in a hypercomplex world — especially one so overloaded with information — without losing our grounding, our grip on truth, meaning, and value, and going mad. Contemporary demands on the nervous system have outstripped biological adaptation, so we respond to constant strain and stress with varying levels of dysfunction. No doubt some folks handle their difficulties better than others; it’s the ones who snap their springs who are of grave concern these days. Again, the mechanism isn’t all that important, as the example from Nice, France, demonstrates. Rather, it’s about loss of orientation that allows someone to rationalize killing a bunch of people all at once as somehow a good idea. Sadly, there is no solution so long as our collective attention is trained on the wrong things, perpetuating a network of negative feedback loops that makes us all loopy and a few of us highly dangerous. Welcome to the asylum.

Events of the past few days have been awful: two further shootings of black men by police under questionable circumstances (Louisiana and Minnesota), and in response, a sniper killing five police officers (Texas) and injuring more. Everything is tragic and inexcusable; I offer no refuge for armed men on both sides of the law using lethal force against others. But I will attempt to contextualize. Yes, issues of race, guns, and public safety are present. The first two are intractable debates I won’t wade into. However, the issue of public safety seems to me central to what’s going on, namely, the constant beat of threatening drums and related inflammatory speech that together have the effect of putting everyone on edge and turning some into hair-triggers.

I’ve read news reports and opinion columns that subject these events to the usual journalistic scrutiny: factual information strung together with calm, measured assurance that what occurred was the result of intemperate individuals not representative of the public at large. So go ahead and worry, but not too much: those guys are all outliers — a few bad apples. As I take the temperature of the room (the country, actually), however, my sense is that we are approaching our boiling point and are frankly likely to boil over soon, perhaps in concert with party nominating conventions expected to break with convention and further reveal already disastrous operations of the federal government. The day-to-day,  smooth surface of American life — what we prefer in times of relative peace and prosperity — has also been punctuated for decades now with pops and crackles in the form of mass shootings (schools, theaters, churches, clubs, etc.) and a broad pattern of civil authorities surveilling and bringing force to bear against the public they’re meant to protect and serve. How long before it all becomes a roiling, uncontrollable mess, with mobs and riots being put down (or worse) by National Guardsmen just like the 1960s? Crowd control and management techniques have been refined considerably since that last period of civil unrest (I wrote about it briefly here), which is to say, they’re a lot creepier than water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray (nothing to laugh about if one has been on the receiving end of any of those).

My question, to anyone with the equanimity to think twice about it, is this: aren’t these outcomes a rather predictable result of the bunker mentality we’ve adopted since being instructed by the media and politicians alike that everyone the world over is coming to take away our guns freedom? Further, aren’t the vague, unfocused calls to action spouted constantly by arch-conservative demagogues precisely the thing that leads some unhinged folks to actually take action because, well, no one else is? Donald Trump has raised diffuse threats and calls to action to an art form at his rallies, with supporters obliging by taking pot shots at others at the mere whiff of dissent from his out-of-tune-with-reality message. (Don’t even think about being nonwhite in one of those crowds.) He’s only one of many stirring the pot into a froth. Moreover, weak minds, responding in their lizard brains to perceived threat, have accepted with gusto the unfounded contention that ISIS in particular, terrorism in general, represents an existential threat to the U.S., and thus, generalizing the threat, are now calling for curtailing the practice of Islam (one of three Abrahamic religions arising in the ancient world with over 2 billion adherents worldwide) in the U.S. Apparently, the absolutism of freedom of religion (can also be interpreted as freedom from establishment of a state religion) enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is lost on those whose xenophobia erases all reasoned thought.

The mood is turning quite ugly. A quick survey of history probably reveals that it’s always been that way. Many of us (by no means all of us) understand calls to “make America great again” as coded speech advocating return to a white male Christian dominated culture. So much for our vaunted freedom.

The holiday weekend (July 4th) is one of several spots on the calendar given to unusual crowd formation as events ranging from barbecues, concerts, parades, festivals, and fireworks displays invite multitudes to assemble. The combo concert/fireworks display is perhaps the most well attended, as the fetish for watching shit blow up never flags. The Taste of Chicago is about to begin and is a notable example of severe overcrowding; the pics on the website do not show sun-baked, sweaty, overfed attendees elbowing each other for room to move or just to stand still and eat, but that’s been my experience. In honor of their 100-year anniversaryOutside Magazine also devoted a recent issue to the National Parks, which are setting attendance records. I’ve written before about the self-defeating result of drawing unmanageable crowds together. Consider this frightening image of a crowded beach in China, which is a frequent problem around our overpopulated globe:



Something I wrote ten years ago at Creative Destruction. Probably worth an update.

Creative Destruction

We’ve all see the reports. U.S. high schoolers rank at or near the bottom in math and science. Admittedly, that link is to a story eight years old, but I doubt rankings have changed significantly. A new study and report are due out next year. See this link.

What interests me is that we live in an era of unprecedented technological advancement. While the U.S. may still be in the vanguard, I wonder how long that can last when the source of inspiration and creativity — human knowledge and understanding — is dying at the roots in American schools. It’s a sad joke, really, that follow-the-directions instructions for setting the clock on a VCR (remember those?) proved so formidable for most end users that a time-setting function is built into more recent recording systems such as TIVO. Technical workarounds may actually enable ever-increasing levels of disability working with our…

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