Posts Tagged ‘Culture’

I was introduced to the phrase life out of balance decades ago when I saw the film Koyaanisqatsi. The film is the first of a trilogy (sequels are Powaqqatsi and Nagoyqatsi) by Godfrey Reggio, though the film is arguably more famous because of its soundtrack composed by Philip Glass. Consisting entirely of wordless montage and music, the film contrasts the majesty of nature (in slo-mo, among other camera effects) with the frenetic pace of human activity (often sped up) and the folly of the human-built world. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian word, meaning life out of balance. One might pause to consider, “out of balance with what?” The film supplies the answer, none too subtly: out of balance with nature. The two sequels are celebrations of humans at work and technology, respectively, and never gained the iconic stature of the initial film.

If history (delivering us into the 21st century) has demonstrated anything, it’s that we humans are careening out of control toward disaster, not unlike the spacecraft in the final sequence of Koyaanisqatsi that tumbles out of the atmosphere for an agonizingly long time (in slo-mo), burning all the way down. We are all witness to the event (more accurately, the process) but can do little anymore to alter the eventual tragic result. Though some counsel taking steps toward amelioration (of suffering, if nothing else), our default response is rather to deny our collective fate, and worse, to accelerate toward it. That’s how unbalanced we are as a global civilization.

The observation that we are badly out of balance is made at the species and civilizational levels but is recapitulated at all levels of social organization, from distinct societies or nationalities to regional and municipal organizations and associations on down to families and individuals. The forces, dynamics, and power laws that push us off balance are many, but none is as egregious as the corrupting influence of interrelated wealth and power. Wisdom of the ancients (especially the non-Western ones) gave us the same verdict, though we have refused intransigently (or more charitably: failed) to learn the lesson for hundreds of generations.

What I propose to do in this multipart series is explore or survey some of the manifestations of life out of balance. There is no particular organization, chronology, or schedule for subsequent entries. As an armchair social critic, I reserve the luxury of exercising my own judgment and answering to no one. Stay tuned.

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off

Magnitude

Posted: January 6, 2020 in Artistry, Corporatism, Culture, Science
Tags: ,

Something I read somewhere (lost track of what and when) sparked some modest inquiry into the mathematical concept of magnitude, or more specifically, the order of magnitude. I suspect, consistent with the doomer themes of this blog, that it was a statement to the effect that the sixth extinction (or Holocene extinction if you prefer) is proceeding at some order of magnitude faster than previous mass extinction events.

Within various scientific fields, magnitude has specific and specialized meanings. For instance, the Richter Scale, used to denote the power of earthquakes, is a familiar though poorly understood measure reported in the aftermath of an event. Magnitudes of distance and time are more immediately understood in the mundane sense of how far/long to travel somewhere (via foot, bicycle, car, train, plane, etc.) and more exotically outside Earth orbit as depicted in science fiction. Perhaps the most cognitively accessible illustration of magnitude, however, is scale. Arguably, size (absolute?) and scale (comparative?) are intertwined with distance, or even more broadly, time-space. I’ll leave that discussion to someone who knows better than I do.

All that said, I recalled from boyhood a short film depicting scale in terms of Powers of Ten. Unsurprisingly, I found it on YouTube (embedded below).

Perhaps it’s just my refurbishing of memory, but this film (now video) has a sense of wonder and amazement, sort of like how Disney properties (e.g., films, TV shows, theme parks, merchandise) from the 1960s and 70s retained an innocence from the time when Walt Disney himself was in charge. Early NASA orbital missions and moonshots had that quality, too, but NASA’s wonder years dissipated around the time space shuttles went into service, demonstrating that NASA’s primary objective was neither technical innovation nor exploration anymore but rather commerce, namely, putting satellites into orbit for communications services. Just this past year, the risible U.S. Space Force, wished into existence by 45 single-handedly over all reasonable objections (not unlike the border wall with Mexico), demonstrates a similar loss of innocence. It’s essentially an attempt to patrol and/or weaponize the commons. I’d like to believe that military personnel are dutifully obeying a pointless command from the commander-in-chief and will abandon or scuttle the new military branch once 45 is out of office. Time will tell.

Loss of innocence may be inevitable in the postmodern world given our jadedness, cynicism, and oh-so-hip ironic detachment. It’s not a good look on us. For instance, once Disney went corporate, the aesthetic pioneered and guided by old Walt changed for the worse. Relatively recent acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars (among others) and expansion of theme parks and resorts reveal an entertainment behemoth geared more cynically toward money-making than artistry or inspiration. The apparent insufficiency of earlier incarnations of NASA and Disney find a parallel with an updated version of Powers of Ten (not embedded), narrated by Morgan Freeman (because … why not?) and using the same basic script but employing whiz-bang graphics considerably enhanced over their 1977 counterparts. Even the pop-culture digital network Buzzfeed (not exactly a venerated news source) gets some action with its derivative, examination-lite of cosmic scale (ignoring the microscopic and subatomic):

Going back to the idea of magnitude, I’m aware of four time-scales in common use: human history, evolutionary time, geological time, and cosmic time. Few contextualize the last 2–3 centuries this way, but human activity has had substantial effects that collapse events usually occurring over evolutionary or geological time into human history. We unwittingly launched a grand terraforming project but have yet to demonstrate overriding care for the eventual outcomes. The, um, magnitude of our error cannot be overstated.

From They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (2014) by Paul Street, which I’m just starting to read:

The contemporary United States, I find in this volume, is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy. It is something in between or perhaps different altogether: a corporate-managed state-capitalist pseudo-democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit. It is a corporate and financial plutocracy whose managers generally prefer to rule through outwardly democratic and noncoercive means since leading American corporations and their servants have worked effectively at draining and disabling democracy’s radical and progressive potential by propagandizing, dulling, pacifying, deadening, overextending, overstressing, atomizing, and demobilizing the citizenry. At the same time, American state and capitalist elites remain ready, willing, and able to maintain their power with the help from ever more sinister and sophisticated methods and tools of repression brutality, and coercive control.

I’ve grown rather tired of hearing the financial 1% to 0.01% (depending on source) being called the “elite.” There is nothing about them most would recognize as elite other than their absurd wealth. As a rule, they’re not particularly admirable men and women; they’re merely aspirational (as in everyone thinking “wish I had all that money” — the moral lesson about the corruptions of excessive wealth rarely having been learned). The manner in which such fortunes are amassed pretty much invalidates claims to moral or ethical superiority. In the typical case, “real” money is acquired by identifying one or more market opportunities and exploiting them ruthlessly. The object of exploitation might be a natural resource, labor, a product or service, or a combination.

Admittedly, effort goes into exploiting a market niche, and it often takes considerable time to develop and mature (less these days in overheated and overvalued markets), but the pattern is well established. Further, those who succeed are often mere beneficiaries of happenstance from among many competing entrepreneurs, speculators, financiers, and media types putting in similar effort. While capitalism is not as blind as rock-paper-scissors or subtly skilled as poker, both of which are designed to produce an eventual sole winner (and making everyone else losers), this economic system tends over time to pool increasing wealth in the accounts of those who have already “won” the game. Thus, wealth inequality increases until social conditions become so intolerable (e.g., tent cities across the U.S.) the masses revolt. How many resets of this deplorable game do we get?

Meanwhile — and here’s another thing I can’t grok — billionaires seem discontent (alert: intentional fallacy) to merely enjoy their wealth or heaven forfend use it to help others. Instead, they announce their ambitions to rule by campaigning for high office, typically skipping the preliminary step of developing actual political skills, because (doncha know?) everything worth having can be bought. Few sane people actually believe that a giant fortune qualifies someone for high office, except of course them who gots the fortunes and have gone off the deep end. They’re so use to being fawned over by sycophants and cozied up to by false admirers that it’s doubtful anyone is ever bold enough to tell them anything resembling truth about themselves (notably including major character deficiencies). So the notion enters the noggin that the next big project ought be to squat on high office as though it’s a right bequeathed specially to the ultrarich, whether one is Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, or (gasp!) that trailblazer who demonstrated it’s possible: 45. In a pinch, mere millions will have to suffice, as most congressfolk and senators can attest.

According to Anand Giridharadas, author of the book Winners Take All, seeking political office and practicing philanthropy is not at all the public service or “giving back” it pretends to be. Rather, it’s an attempt to maintain the status quo (funneling money upstream to those at the top), thus forestalling one of those nasty resets where the rabble overwhelms their betters with a fury known in past centuries to get quite out of hand. A few supposed elites riding herd over the great unwashed masses sounds rather passé, no? The bygone stuff of barbarian hordes and robber barons? But it describes the current day, too, and considering these folks are basically taking a giant dump on billions of other people, sorta gives a new, inverted meaning to the term squatter’s rights.

Holiday creep is observable in at least two aspects: (1) those who can (i.e., those with enviable employment benefits) use additional time off on adjacent workdays to create 4-, 5-, or 6-day holiday spans, and (2) businesses that sell to the public mount incessant sales campaigns that demand everyone’s attention and participation as good American consumers. Since I’m a Bah! Humbug! sorta fellow, these expansive regions of the calendar take on the characteristics of a black hole, sucking everything into their gravity wells and crushing the life out of any honest sentiment left to cynics and curmudgeons like me. We’re in the midst of one such holiday span, and my inclination (beyond appreciating the time off from work) is to hide away from bustle and obligation. Nonetheless, I show up and participate in some small measure.

Here in Chicago, trains and buses going to the Loop (the downtown business district) are less heavily trafficked at rush hours for several days before the actual holiday. However, I suspect the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway are both quite busy with travelers on the move. This is traditionally the holiday when people visit family for feasting and afternoon naps (or football games, I’m told). I’ve braved air travel at this time only a couple times, which is more miserable than usual due to congestion and weather-related delays. My workplace was a ghost town not only on the eve of the holiday for days in advance. Is it only my memory is that the eves of Christmas and New Year’s Day used to be the only ones that were celebrated? Now many expect to be released early from work prior to any observed holiday. Again, this is a benefit not evenly shared across the population and one I do not take for granted.

Feeding and shopping frenzies associated with holidays are well established traditions. However, subtle shifts to the shopping side are occurring that signal either welcome change or dying tradition, depending on one’s perspective. For instance, in the past few years, it’s been customary to learn of shoppers cued outside various superstores who stampede, trample, and fight like barbarians once doors are flung open. That ugly prospect is apparently disappearing, at least according to this report, as shoppers move away from brick-and-mortar venues to online shopping. Still, one acquaintance of mine relished the chance to among those multitudes and joked about trampling others to score a great deal on a comforter.

Similarly, some recognize the ecological impact of overconsumption (related to overpopulation) and have called for a ban to Black Friday sales, and presumably, other perverse incentives. This second development fits my thinking as I’ve blogged repeatedly how we’re awash in refuse and debris from our own past consumption. Still, my e-mail inbox has been positively pummeled by those few retailers in possession of my address who preview their Black Friday sales for weeks beforehand then offer forgiveness and second chances afterwards. The stink of desperation is on them, as business news organs report that holiday sales account for an impressively large percentage of annual sales but are threatened by fewer shopping days between the two anchor holidays this year (Thanksgiving falls late in the month). While that may have its effect, I daresay the larger problem is income inequality and the absence of positive bank balances among an ever-growing segment of the population. Debit balances on credit cards have already fueled about as much overconsumption as most can stomach.

Does it truly feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” on reflection and honest assessment? There is still enjoyment to be had, certainly. But unless one is an innocent child protected from the harshness of reality or otherwise living under a rock, every holiday decoration is tinged with knowledge of excess and suspicion that this year may finally be the last one we enjoy fully before things spin out of control. For a couple others of my holiday-themed blog entries (less dour perhaps than this one), see this and this.

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

The phrase “violence never solved anything” is a bit of wishfulness many think is true or at least would like to believe. It’s not true, of course. Violence puts a stop to some things while compelling others. While those may not be solutions exactly, things get done. The first lesson in that feeling of power (stemming from violence) comes in early childhood when some toddler in a preschool class hits another toddler for some unimportant reason (e.g., a disputed toy) and crying erupts. Because young kids are so attuned to each others’ emotional states, everyone might start crying in chorus without knowing why. An example of entrainment more familiar to adults is an infectious laugh. So the kid hitting another kid doesn’t solve anything exactly. Rather, hitting puts a stop to everything temporarily while everyone processes what just happened. The disputed toy is often forgotten.

Significantly, the hitter processes events differently than either the hittee or collateral criers. The experience of power to accomplish sumpinoruther takes some figuring for a toddler and is probably not an ecstatic realization like the ape at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey working out how to use a leg bone as a club to drive other apes away from a watering hole. Instead, possibilities open up if one can manage to deploy power via threats or actual punches (e.g., gimme that toy or gimme your lunch money) before someone else comes along and turns the tables. No doubt, some adult caretaker will inveigh against hitting (No hitting, Timmy!), which makes little sense to a toddler except that it’s a credible threat from someone much bigger that consequences will ensue if violence (hitting) is repeated, which makes immediate sense to someone not yet old and developed enough to reason abstractly. Indeed, throughout childhood, kids deal with the threat or actuality of being beaten up by bigger, older kids (and sadly, parents). Bullies and wimps develop out of this basic dynamic, sometimes unpredictably.

Most narrative conflict revolves around people manifesting their power over others. Power dynamics are the root of politics as well, from individuals and small-scale associations up to multinational alliances. Violence can also take nonphysical forms, such as economic violence (e.g., usury and monopoly) and rhetorical violence (e.g., propaganda and hate speech). While some may recognize violence as a tool merely to protect their watering hole and eschew using violence wantonly, others rather enjoy that feeling of power to compel others or wreck things. The latter group risks becoming psychopaths (power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely), of which history has far too many examples to countenance. In fairness, there’s a wide middle ground, too.

Channeling the seductions of power into positive endeavor is a worthwhile project. Sports might be the best example, though many sports revel in destructive powers (boxing and MMA, both combat sports) rather than more wholesome competition (target sports and racing). There’s plenty of overlap, such as American football, basketball, and hockey, all target sports (putting an object into a target) with high quotients of physical roughness and injury. My own sport is triathlon, and I’m racing in the Chicago Triathlon tomorrow, which will be for me the eleventh time. Since I’m not fast or strong except in the swim, the event is really about endurance (thus, endurance racing). I daresay most participants (nearly ten thousand tomorrow) are in it not to win it but for just that purpose: enjoying that feeling of power to endure and cross the finish line.

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.