Archive for April, 2022

Here’s a deal many people would take: you get to live in the First World and enjoy the ample albeit temporary benefits of a modern, post-industrial economy, but to enable you, people in the Third World must be brutally exploited, mostly out of sight and out of mind. (Dunno what to say about the Second World; comparisons are typically hi-lo. And besides, that Cold War nomenclature is probably badly out of date.) There no need to say “would take,” of course, because that’s already the default in the First World. Increasingly, that’s also the raw deal experienced by the lower/working class in the United States, which now resembles other failed states. People without means are driven into cycles of poverty or channeled into the prison-industrial complex to labor for a pittance. That’s not enough, though. The entirety of public health must be gamed as a profit center for Big Pharma, which wrings profit out of suffering just like the U.S. prison system. That’s one of the principal takeaways from the last two years of pandemic. Indeed, from a capitalist perspective, that’s what people are for: to feed the beast (i.e., produce profit for the ownership class). For this very reason — the inhumanity of exploiting and subjugating people — critics of capitalism believe the ruthlessness of the profit motive cannot be tempered and the economic system is ripe for replacement.

Arguments that, “yeah, sure, it’s a flawed system but it’s still the best one on offer” are unconvincing. Rather, they’re a rationalization for lack of imagination how a better, more equitable system might be developed and tried. Human nature, frankly as “animal” as any other animal, also discourages anyone from rising above social conditioning or breaking from the herd. Instead, history forces fundamental change only when decrepit systems no longer function. Late-stage capitalism, having reached nearly the full extent of easily exploitable resources (materials and labor), is creaking and groaning under the weight of its inbuilt perpetual growth imperative. The dynamic is nonnegotiable, as measures of gross national product (GNP) are only acceptable if a positive index, the higher the better. Whereas previous social/economic systems failed in fits and starts, transitioning gradually from one to the next, it’s doubtful capitalism can morph gracefully into a new system given its momentum and totalizing character.

For many millennia, slavery was the solution to labor needs, which became morally intolerable especially in the 19th century but was really only driven underground, never truly extinguished. That’s the point of the first paragraph above. Terminology and mechanisms have sometimes been swapped out, but the end result is scarcely less disagreeable for those on the bottom rungs. Globalization brought practically the entire world population into the money economy, which had been irrelevant to peasant and subsistence societies. Apologists often say that the spread of capitalism enabled those peoples to be lifted out of poverty. That’s a ridiculous claim while wealth/income inequality continues to launch the ultrarich into the stratosphere (literally in the infamous case of at least a couple billionaires) compared to the masses. Yes, refrigerators and cell phones are now commonplace, but those are hardly the best measures of human wellbeing.

So what’s person of conscience to do? Born into a socioeconomic system from which there is no escape — at least until it all collapses — is there any way not to be evil, to not exploit others? Hard to say, considering we all consume (in varying degrees) products and services obtained and provided through the machinations of large corporations exploiting humans and nature on our behalf. When it all does collapse in a heap of death and destruction, don’t look for high-minded reexamination of the dynamics that led to that endgame. Rather, it will be everyone for themselves in a futile attempt to preserve life against all odds.

I use the tag redux to signal that the topic of a previous blog post is being revisited, reinforced, and repurposed. The choice of title for this one could easily have gone instead to Your Brain on Postmodernism, Coping with the Post-Truth World, or numerous others. The one chosen, however, is probably the best fit given than compounding crises continue pushing along the path of self-annihilation. Once one crisis grows stale — at least in terms of novelty — another is rotated in to keep us shivering in fear, year after year. The date of civilizational collapse is still unknown, which is really more process anyway, also of an unknown duration. Before reading what I’ve got to offer, perhaps wander over to Clusterfuck Nation and read James Howard Kunstler’s latest take on our current madness.

/rant on

So yeah, various cultures and subcultures are either in the process of going mad or have already achieved that sorry state. Because madness is inherently irrational and unrestrained, specific manifestations are unpredictable. However, the usual trigger for entire societies to lose their tether to reality is relatively clear: existential threat. And boy howdy are those threats multiplying and gaining intensity. Pick which of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with whom to ride to the grave, I guess. Any one will do; all four are galloping simultaneously, plus a few other demonic riders not identified in that mythological taxonomy. Kunstler’s focus du jour is censorship and misinformation (faux disambiguation: disinformation, malinformation, dishonesty, gaslighting, propaganda, fake news, falsehood, lying, cozenage, confidence games, fraud, conspiracy theories, psyops, personal facts), about which I’ve blogged repeatedly under the tag epistemology. Although major concerns, censorship and misinformation are outgrowths of spreading madness, not the things that will kill anyone directly. Indeed, humans have shown a remarkable capacity to hold in mind crazy belief systems or stuff down discomfiting and disapproved thoughts even without significant threat. Now that significant threats spark the intuition that time is running perilously short, no wonder so many have fled reality into the false safety of ideation. Inability to think and express oneself freely or to detect and divine truth does, however, block what few solutions to problems remain to be discovered.

Among recent developments I find unsettling and dispiriting is news that U.S. officials, in their effort to — what? — defeat the Russians in a war we’re not officially fighting, are just making shit up and issuing statements to their dutiful stenographers in the legacy press to report. As I understand it, there isn’t even any pretense about it. So to fight phantoms, U.S. leaders conjure out of nothingness justifications for involvements, strategies, and actions that are the stuff of pure fantasy. This is a fully, recognizably insane: to fight monsters, we must become monsters. It’s also maniacally stupid. Further, it’s never been clear to me that Russians are categorically baddies. They have dealt with state propaganda and existential threats (e.g., the Bolshevik Revolution, WWII, the Cold War, the Soviet collapse, being hemmed in by NATO countries) far more regularly than most Americans and know better than to believe blindly what they’re told. On a human level, who can’t empathize with their plights? (Don’t answer that question.)

In other denial-of-reality news, demand for housing in Sun Belt cities has driven rent increases ranging between approximately 30% and 60% over the past two years compared to many northern cities well under 10%. Americans are migrating to the Sun Belt despite, for instance, catastrophic drought and wild fires. Lake Powell sits at an historically low level, threatening reductions in water and electrical power. What happens when desert cities in CA, AZ, NV, and NM become uninhabitable? Texas isn’t far behind. This trend has been visible for decades, yet many Americans (and immigrants, too) are positioning themselves directly in harm’s way.

I’ve been a doomsayer for over a decade now, reminding my two or three readers (on and off) that the civilization humans built for ourselves cannot stand much longer. Lots of people know this yet act as though concerns are overstated or irrelevant. It’s madness, no? Or is it one last, great hurrah before things crack up apocalyptically? On balance, what’s a person to do but to keep trudging on? No doubt the Absurdists got something correct.

/rant off

The major media — particularly, the elite media that set the agenda that others generally follow — are corporations “selling” privileged audiences to other businesses. It would hardly come as a surprise if the picture of the world they present were to reflect the perspectives and interests of the sellers, the buyers, and the product … Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations, and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.
—Noam Chomsky (Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies)

In U.S. politics, received wisdom instructs citizens to work within the system, not to challenge the system directly in protest, rebellion, or revolt. Yet it’s often paradoxically believed that only an outsider can reform or fix problems that endure generation after generation. The 2016 U.S. presidential election was emblematic of this second sentiment: an outsider who had never held political office but was unexpectedly installed in the Oval Office anyway — largely on the basis of several three-word promises to accomplish things only he, an outsider unbeholden to existing power structures, could do. Since that chief executive no longer holds office and none of his three-word promises came to fruition, one might pause to wonder why the putatively intrepid outsider is still held up in some circles as preferable to the insider. Was he beholden to existing power structures after all? Or was he transformed quickly into a faithful tool of the establishment despite antipathy toward it and his coarse, unorthodox style?

These are unanswerable questions, and one could argue that conjecture on the subject doesn’t matter, either. The reality most of us experience outside the halls of power is markedly different from that of those on the inside. Further, when a recently hired journalist or newly elected government official completes their orientation period, they reliably become insiders, too. The Chomsky quote above is directed to that process, which is a system dynamic without anyone already inside needing to twirl a mustache or roll their hands in a cliché of evil. The outsider becomes an insider simply by being hired or elected and seeing how things get done by colleagues. No need to name names. Bringing the outside inside appears to be an effective mechanism for nullifying authoritative dissent and watchdog action that used to be handled by the 4th Estate in particular. What’s appeared following journalistic abandonment of that role is a variety of citizens and breakaway journalists on alternative media. The job is getting done, sorta.

Principled dissent, not the two-party theatrics that pass for opposition, are needed to keep self-governance from falling prey to capture. Since roughly the 1990s, when the Democratic Party betrayed its working class constituency and became corporate boosters, opposition dried up and corporate was effectively added to the term military-industrial-corporate complex, an old term that drew attention to a unified chorus of pro-war military leaders and arms manufacturers that had captured government in the early days of the Cold War. Indeed, for decades now, very few prominent insiders in journalism and government have even bothered to try to steer the U.S. away from war and nonstop military escapades. Popular opposition among the citizenry unfailingly falls on deaf ears. Do insiders know things we outsiders don’t? I rather doubt it.

After a hiatus due to health issues, Jordan Peterson has reappeared in the public sphere. Good for him. I find him one of the most stimulating public intellectuals to appear thus far into the 21st century, though several others (unnamed) spring to mind who have a stronger claims on my attention. Yet I’m wary of Peterson as an effective evaluator of every development coughed up for public consideration. It’s simply not necessary or warranted for him to opine recklessly about every last damn thing. (Other podcasters are doing the same, and although I don’t want to instruct anyone to stay in their lane, I also recognize that Joe “Talkity-Talk” Blow’s hot take or rehash on this, that, and every other thing really isn’t worth my time.) With the inordinate volume of text in his books, video on his YouTube channel (classroom lectures, podcasts, interviews) and as a guest on others’ podcasts, and third-party writing about him (like mine), it’s inevitable that Peterson will run afoul of far better analysis than he himself can bring to bear. However, he declares his opinions forcefully and with overbearing confidence then decamps to obfuscation and reframing whenever someone pushes back effectively (which isn’t often, at least when in direct communication). With exasperation, I observe that he’s basically up to his old rhetorical tricks.

In a wide-ranging discussion on The Joe Rogan Experience from January 2022 (found exclusively on Spotify for anyone somehow unaware of Rogan’s influence in the public sphere), the thing that most irked me was Peterson’s take on the climate emergency. He described climate as too complex, with too many variable and unknowns, to embody in scientific models over extended periods of time. Seems to me Peterson has that entirely backwards. Weather (and extreme weather events) on the short term can’t be predicted too accurately, so daily/weekly/monthly forecasts give wide ranges of, say, cloud cover, temperature, and precipitation. But over substantial time (let’s start with a few decades, which is still a blink in geological time), trends and boundaries reveal themselves pretty reliably, which is why disturbances — such as burning enough fossil fuels to alter the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere — that upset the climate steady-state known as Garden Earth are not merely cause for serious concern but harbingers of doom. And then, as others often do, Peterson reframed the climate emergency largely in terms of economics (same thing happened with the pandemic, though not by Peterson so far as I know), suggesting that the problem is characterized by inefficiencies and grass-roots policy that would be magically different if more people were raised out of poverty and could advocate for solutions rather than simply struggle to survive. Dude apparently hasn’t grasped that wealth in the modern world is an outgrowth of the very thing — fossil fuels — that is the root of the problem. Further, industrial civilization is a heat engine that binds us to a warming trend. That’s a thermodynamic principle flatly immune to half-baked economic theories and ecological advocacy. Peterson also gives no indication of ever having acknowledged Jevons Paradox.

So let me state somewhat emphatically: the climate emergency is in fact an existential crisis on several fronts (e.g., resource depletion and scarcity, ecological despoliation, extreme weather events, and loss of habitat, all resulting in civilizational collapse). The rate of species extinction — before human population has begun to collapse in earnest, 8 Billion Day looms near — is several orders of magnitude greater than historical examples. Humans are unlikely to survive to the end of the century even if we refrain from blowing ourselves up over pointless geopolitical squabbles. I’ll defer to Peterson in his area of expertise: personality inventories. I’ll also grant him space to explore myth and symbolism in Western culture. But speaking on climate, he sounds like an ignoramus — the dangerous sort who leads others astray. And when challenged by someone armed with knowledge of governing principles, grasp of detail, and thus analysis superior to what he can muster (such as when debating Richard Wolff about Marxism), Peterson frequently resorts to a series of motte-and-bailey assertions that confound inexpert interlocutors. “Well, that depends on what you mean by ….” His retreat to faux safety is sometimes so astonishingly complete that he resorts to questioning the foundation of reality: “Why the sun? Why this sky? Why these stars? Why not something else completely?” Also, Peterson’s penchant for pointing out that the future is contingent and unknown despite, for instance, all indicators positively screaming to stop destroying our own habitat, as though no predictions or models can be made that have more than a whisper of accuracy in future outcomes, is mere rhetoric to forestall losing an argument.

As I’ve asserted repeatedly, sufficiency is the crucible on which all decisions are formed because earnest information gathering cannot persist interminably. Tipping points (ecological ones, sure, but more importantly, psychological ones) actually exist, where one must act despite incomplete knowledge and unclear prognosis. Accordingly, every decision is on some level a leap into the unknown and/or an act of faith. That doesn’t mean every decision is a wild, reckless foray based on nothing. Rather, when the propitious moment arrives (if one has the wherewithal to recognize it), one has to go with what one’s got, knowing that mistakes will be made and corrections will be needed.

Peterson’s improvisational speaking style is both impressive and inscrutable. I’m sometimes reminded of Marshall McLuhan, whose purported Asperger’s Syndrome (low-grade autism, perhaps, I’m unsure) awarded him unique insights into the emerging field of media theory that were not easily distilled in speech. Greta Thunberg is another more recent public figure whose cognitive character allows her to recognize rather acutely how human institutions have completely botched the job of keeping industrial civilization from consuming itself. Indeed, people from many diverse backgrounds, not hemmed in by the rigid dictates of politics, economics, and science, intuit through diverse ways of knowing (e.g., kinesthetic, aesthetic, artistic, religious, psychedelic) what I’ve written about repeatedly under the title “Life Out of Balance.” I’ve begun to understand Peterson as a mystic overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of existence but simultaneously horrified by unspeakably awful evils humans perpetrate on each other. Glimpses of both (and humor, a bit unexpectedly) often provoke cracks in his voice, sniffles, and tears as he speaks, clearly choking back emotions to keep his composure. Peterson’s essential message (if I can be so bold), like other mystics, is aspirational, transcendental, and charismatic. Such messages are impossible to express fully and are frankly ill-suited to 21st-century Western culture. That we’re severely out of balance, unable to regain an upright and righteous orientation, is plain to nearly everyone not already lost in the thrall of mass media and social media, but so long as the dominant culture remains preoccupied with wealth, consumption, celebrity, geopolitical violence, spectacle, and trash entertainment, I can’t envision any sort of return to piety and self-restraint. Plus, we can’t outrun the climate emergency bearing down on us.

Was surprised to learn a while back that West Side Story (1961) was being remade by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, that Steven Spielberg. Among the spurious reasons (I gather) for the frankly unnecessary remake was a desire to recast with actors of the proper ethnic origin. Ugh. Sure, the original actors who portrayed Bernardo and Maria were Americans of Greek and Russo/Ukrainian descent, respectively. So what? Spielberg’s casting didn’t get much closer (Canadian and American/Colombian, respectively), though the newly cast actors certainly look like they could be Puerto Rican. Any further updating of this particular adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (one of many) for today’s woke sensibilities was also foiled considering the plot (starry-eyed, ill-fated, would-be lovers divided by rivalrous families/gangs) remained essentially unchanged and the original 1950s NYC setting was kept. In addition, the original musical score (altered — more on that below) and choreography (updated? I can’t tell) were used. It wasn’t a shot-for-shot remake, and I presume some of the dialogue was changed, but I didn’t make direct comparisons. Lastly, considering the 1961 original won numerous awards, who exactly was crying out for a remake? Unsurprisingly, the remake was also nominated for awards.

Aside: In arts and entertainment media, remakes are restricted to cinema. No one rewrites a book. Restaged theater and musicals are merely new productions. Rerecording a pop song is understood as a “cover” of the original, not a remake. The rather large discography of classical music includes many, many different versions of the same works, e.g., Beethoven symphonies. (Some suggest, “Does anyone really need yet another version of Beethoven Symphony No. 5?” That question loses legitimacy when asked about live performance.) One might argue that those, too, are remakes, except that there is rarely such a thing as a definitive original. Moreover, consider that music is a dynamic art typically practiced live, in real time. A musical recording fixes that experience, whether live in concert or in the recording studio, on a playback medium intended for repeat play. Comparison of different performances can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Further, a recording of a sporting event might be made for more convenient rebroadcast shortly afterwards and/or for archival purposes, but repeat experience (i.e., rewatching the 1985 Super Bowl vs. listening repeatedly to a favorite music album) is anathema when the outcome has already been seen. Similarly, repeat viewing of TV shows and movies is best at wide intervals, after memory of original viewing fades. Cinema, in contrast with music, has always been a fixed form. Cinema is also not understood as a recording of a live experience. Its genesis as playback differs from stage theater or musical theater. (Some critics and superfans — especially the YouTube variety — don’t wait but instead immediately go back in search of Easter eggs and continuity errors.) Finally, only a modest number of TVs shows have been remade or rebooted, whereas remaking and rebooting movies is comparatively commonplace, which has been characterized as “Hollywood out of ideas.” Take note that West Side Story was first a stage musical and only later committed to film.

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