Archive for October, 2020

I’ve been holding in mind for five months now the article at this link (an informal interview with neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson), waiting for conditions when I could return to forms of media consumption I prefer, namely, reading books, magazines, and long-form journalism. When I try to read something substantive these days, I find myself going over the same paragraph repeatedly, waiting in vain for it to register. Regrettably, the calm, composure, and concentration needed for deep reading has been effectively blocked since March 2020 as we wait (also in vain) for the pandemic to burn itself out. (I could argue that the soul-destroying prospect of industrial collapse and near-term human extinction is having the same effect for much longer.) So my attention and media habits have been resignedly diverted to crap news gathering, mostly via video, and cheap entertainments, mostly streaming TV (like everyone else, though others may complain less). The lack of nourishment is noticeable. Considering we’re only weeks away from the U.S. presidential election, stress levels are ratcheting up further, and civil authorities prepare for “election riots” (is that new term?), which I can only assume means piling violence upon violence under the pretense of keeping-the-peace or law-and-order or some other word string rendered meaningless now that the police are widely acknowledged to be a significant contributors to the very problems they are meant to address. These unresolved issues (pandemic, police violence, civil unrest) give rise to pathological anxiety, which explains (according to Robinson, disclaimers notwithstanding) why it’s so hard to read.

To say we live in unprecedented times is both obvious and banal. Unique stresses of modernity have led multiple times to widespread madness and conflict, as well as attempts to recapture things lost in previous shifts from other styles of social organization. Let me not mince words regarding what’s now happening: we’re in an era of repudiation of the Enlightenment, or a renewed Counter-Enlightenment. I’ve stated this before, and I’m not the only one making this diagnosis (just learned it’s a rather old idea — I’m always late to the party). For instance, Martin Jay’s essay “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment” appears to have been floating around in various forms since 2011. Correlation of this renewal of Counter-Enlightenment fervor with literacy seems clear. Despite basic literacy as a skill being widely improved worldwide over the past two centuries, especially in the developing world, deep literacy is eroding:

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read – or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned – typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – what Wolf calls “cognitive patience” – on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.

Considering deep literacy is absolutely critical to clear thinking (or critical thought, if you prefer, not to be confused with the The Frankfurt School’s critical theory discussed in Jay’s essay), its erosion threatens fundamental institutions (e.g., liberal democracy and the scientific method) that constitute the West’s primary cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment. The reach of destruction wrought by reversing course via the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be overstated. Yet many among us, completely unable to construct coherent ideas, are rallying behind abandonment of Enlightenment traditions. They’re ideologues who actively want to return to the Dark Ages (while keeping modern tech, natch). As with many aspects of unavoidable cultural, social, environmental, and civilizational collapse, I have difficulty knowing quite what to hope for. So I won’t condemn retrograde thinking wholly. In fact, I feel empathy toward calls to return to simpler times, such as with German Romanticism or American Transcendentalism, both examples of cultural and aesthetic movements leading away from the Enlightenment.

Long before these ideas coalesced for me, I had noted (see here, here, and here) how literacy is under siege and a transition back toward a predominantly oral culture is underway. The Counter-Enlightenment is either a cause or an effect, I can’t assess which. At the risk of being a Cassandra, let me suggest that, if these times aren’t completely different from dark episodes of the past, we are now crossing the threshold of a new period of immense difficulty that makes pathological anxiety blocking the ability to read and think a minor concern. Indeed, that has been my basic assessment since crafting the About Brutus blurb way back in 2006. Indicators keep piling up. So far, I have a half dozen points of entry to process and digest by other cultural commentators exploring this theme, though they typically don’t adopt wide enough historical or cultural perspectives. Like the last time I failed to synthesize my ideas into a multipart blog series, I don’t have a snazzy title, and this time, I don’t even have planned installment titles. But I will do my best to roll out in greater detail over several blog posts some of the ways the Counter-Enlightenment is manifesting anew.

A Dog’s Life

Posted: October 15, 2020 in Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense

From my earliest memories growing up, my large, Catholic family kept a series of pets. Most of the time it was a dog, only one at a time, usually a German shepherd. Later on, it was a cat. The pet belonged to no one in particular but to the family as a whole. And because this was before leash laws became commonplace, the dogs had plenty of exercise and range off-leash. As an adult, I’ve never had a dog but often wanted one. What I understand as a nonnegotiable commitment to a dog is not really possible for me. Moreover, I have never lived in a location amenable to the needs of a dog. Yet in my condo building, many of my neighbors keep rather large dogs, who are dutifully trundled outside to a small, enclosed space where they can be let off leash for 10 to 20 minutes every morning and evening to pee and poop (owners often face-planted in their phones during these intervals). Whether the dogs are eventually taken to a park or dog run to socialize with other animals or just be free to roam and play is unknown to me. I don’t witness it.

In rather stark contrast, I was fortunate to spend most of a recent weekend visiting Winged Elm Farm operated by fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian (a superlative blogger, host, and chef, BTW), and the very first impression upon arrival was being greeted by his three dogs. Rather than being hemmed in by the city and limited by their master’s availability and willingness to grant outdoor time, these amiable dogs were free to move around and be dogs independent of the master. All of their time during my visit was spent outdoors. Of course, they were also tuned in, vigilant to all goings on around the farm and hyper-vigilant to any possibility of food or affection offered by one of the humans. They were introduced to me as “mostly useless,” which was unexpected because, to my way of thinking, all pets are essentially useless (as distinguished from useful or productive). That’s part of their charm. However, it was relayed that the oldest of three had been quite useful in her day corralling farm animal as they were moved from pasture to pasture. Alas, age and infirmity has made her less useful except for a reputed intimidation factor other farm animals still respect. Another dog was described as moderately useful as a ratter. The third enjoyed no encomium and had a habit (slightly unnerving to me) of standing with its muscled body pressed against my legs whenever possible. All three ventured without hesitation or apparent complaint into the rain that persisted most of the weekend.

Aside. With surprisingly superfluous regularity (maybe not so surprising in hindsight), nouns were accompanied by the modifier farm: farm dogs, farm animals, farm truck, farm tools and implements, farm life, etc. Eggs and veggies were farm fresh. Meat and fish were farm sourced, or as was jokingly admitted with respect to the crawfish etouffee we enjoyed for dinner, farm sourced but maybe not this farm.

Further aside. The farm was described as organic, meaning chemicals and unnatural fertilizers are not used and animals are mostly grass fed rather than raised in feed lots or stuck in crates. Indeed, chickens had access to the yard, goats sheep has access to pastures and barns, and pigs had access to the woods where they searched the understory relentlessly for anything remotely edible. The organic quality was reinforced as we sampled directly from the garden and orchards. Each farm product seemed to have a bit of dirt on it, which I ingested without first washing.

On the whole, these dogs enjoy a life on the farm most of us would envy. Their rootedness and sense of belonging to the farm, notwithstanding the occasional, cherished ride in the farm truck, is a condition few of us humans can claim. For instance, my own family, raised in the heart of the American Midwest, has now scattered to all four coasts/boundaries (East, West, North, and South), leaving only one behind in the center. Home may be where we hang our hats, but we don’t belong anywhere in particular anymore, and it’s difficult to say convincingly that any of us belong to that same family from my childhood, either. We live in flux, moving from place to place in search of opportunity, reforming many of our social attachments with each move, some of us forming new families in the process. Of course, this characterization fails to describe all Americans. Many stay their entire lives within, say, 100 miles of their birthplace and keep vital connections with an extended family all situated within one small region. Still, I can’t help but to admire the life provided to those dogs, something now denied to many of us humans.

Supporting the Vietnam war was dumb. Supporting the Iraq invasion after being lied
to about Vietnam was an order of magnitude dumber. Supporting any US war agendas
after being lied to about Iraq is an order of magnitude even dumber than that.
—Caitlin Johnstone

Upon rereading, and with the advantage of modest hindsight, I think I got it exactly correct in this 5-year-old blog post. Even the two brief comments are correct. More specifically, the United States is understood to be the sole remaining military superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Never mind that numerous countries count themselves members of the nuclear club (cue Groucho Marx joke) and thus possess sufficient power to destroy the world. Never mind that the U.S. failed to win the Korean War or the Vietnam War (the two major U.S. military involvements post-WWII), or in fact any of numerous 21st-century wars (undeclared, de facto, continuing). Never mind that the U.S. has been successful at multiple smaller regime-change actions, often on the back of a civil war instigated by the U.S. and purposefully designed to install a puppet leader. And never mind that the capitalist competition for control of economic resources and capture of perpetual growth is being won handily by China. Nope, the U.S. is no longer the only superpower but is instead busy transitioning from superpower (military and economic) to failed state. Or in the language of that old blog post, the U.S. is now a geopolitical Strong/Stupid hybrid but is actively deploying stupidity in a feverish play to be merely Stupid. The weirdest aspect, perhaps, is that it’s being done right in front of god and everybody, yet few bother to take notice.

It’s no stretch to assert that in the U.S. in particular (but also true of nearly every regime across the world), we’re piling stupidity upon stupidity. If I were inclined to go full conspiracy like some QAnon fool, I’d have to say that the power elite have adopted a deep, 3D-chess strategy that means one of two possible things using the Rock-Paper-Scissors power dynamic algorithm (which, unlike tic-tac-toe, produces a winner) modified and inverted to Strong-Stupid-Smart: it’s either (1) very Smart of them to appear so Stupid, granting victory (against all appearances) over Strong (but only Strong in a three-legged contest), or (2) they reject the algorithm entirely in the misguided belief that nuthin’ beats stoopid. That second option would indeed be entirely consistent with Stupid.

Take for instance three looming issues: the pandemic (and its follow-on effects), the U.S. presidential election (ugh, sorry, it’s unavoidable), and climate change. They loom threateningly despite being well underway already. But with each, we’ve acted and behaved very stupidly, stunningly so I would argue, boxing ourselves in and doing worse damage over time than if we had taken proper steps early on. But as suggested in a previous blog post, the truth is that decision-makers haven’t really even tried to address these issues with the purpose of solving, resolving, winning, remedying, or ameliorating entirely predictable outcomes. Rather, issues are being either swept under the rug (ignored with the futile hope that they will go away or resolve themselves on their own) or displaced in time for someone else to handle. This second option occurs quite a lot, which is also known as kicking the can down the road or stealing from the future (as with sovereign debt). What happens when there’s no more future (for humans and their institutions, anyway) because it’s been squandered in the present? You already know the answer(s) to that question.

From a lengthy blog post by Timothy Burke, which sparked considerable follow-on discussion in the comments:

What the liberal-progressive world largely doesn’t understand is that the 35% of the electorate that stand[s] with Trump no matter what he does (maybe a quarter of people resident inside the borders of the US) do[es] not believe in democracy. It is not that they don’t realize that Trump is an authoritarian, etc., that democracy is in danger. They realize it and they’re glad. Mission accomplished. They have a different view of power and political process, of social relations. They are brutalists. Fundamentally they think power is a zero-sum game. You hold it or you are held by it. You are the boot on someone’s neck or there will be a boot on yours. They agree that what they have was taken from others; they think that’s the way of all things. You take or are taken from.

They do not believe in liberty and justice for all, or even really for themselves: it is not that they reserve liberty for themselves, because they believe that even they should be subject to the will of a merciless authority (who they nevertheless expect to favor them as an elect of that authority). We often ask how evangelicals who think this way can stand the notion of a God who would permit a tornado to destroy a church and kill the innocents gathered in it for shelter. They can stand it because they expect that of authority: that authority is cruel and without mercy because it must be. They simply expect authority to be far more cruel to others than it is to them. And they expect to be cruel with the authority they possess.

Can’t let these two brief paragraphs pass by without reinforcing them, from Tom Lewis’ latest blog post:

… we have generations of privileged white people who cannot imagine being non white or unrich. We have whole populations who cannot imagine that an infectious disease is a real threat because they don’t have it, and neither does anyone they know. Who are unable to believe that global warming is real because where they are, it’s cold. Who cannot conceive of conditions that would cause a family to walk a thousand miles and seek a new life in another country. Who cannot think of any reason other than moral depravity that would lead a person into addiction.

People who are devoid of imagination find it easy to accept simplistic explanations of how things work: forests burn fiercely in California because they haven’t been raked; bleach could be good for COVID-19; all we have to do to have a better life is get rid of the (fill in the blank, one word only).