Posts Tagged ‘Recent History’

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”

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Although disinclined to take the optimistic perspective inhabited by bright-siders, I’m nonetheless unable to live in a state of perpetual fear that would to façile thinkers be more fitting for a pessimist. Yet unrelenting fear is the dominant approach, with every major media outlet constantly stoking a toxic combination of fear and hatred, as though activation and ongoing conditioning of the lizard brain (i.e., the amygdala — or maybe not) in everyone were worthy of the endeavor rather than it being a limited instinctual response, leaping to the fore only when immediate threat presents. I can’t guess the motivations of purveyors of constant fear to discern an endgame, but a few of the dynamics are clear enough to observe.

First thing that comes to mind is that the U.S. in the 1930s and 40s was pacifist and isolationist. Recent memory of the Great War was still keenly felt, and with the difficulties of the 1929 Crash and ensuing Great Depression still very must present, the prospect of engaging in a new, unlimited war (even over there) was not at all attractive to the citizenry. Of course, political leaders always regard (not) entering into war somewhat differently, maybe in terms of opportunity cost. Hard to say. Whether by hook or by crook (I don’t actually know whether advance knowledge of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was suppressed), the U.S. was handily drawn into the war, and a variety of world-historical developments followed that promoted the U.S. (and its sprawling, unacknowledged empire) into the global hegemon, at least after the Soviet Union collapsed and before China rose from a predominantly peasant culture into world economic power. A not-so-subtle hindsight lesson was learned, namely, that against widespread public sentiment and at great cost, the war effort could (not would) provide substantial benefits (if ill-gotten and of questionable desirability).

None of the intervening wars (never declared) or Wars for Dummies (e.g., the war on poverty, the war on crime, the war on drugs) provided similar benefits except to government agencies and careerist administrators. Nor did the war on terror following the 9/11 attacks or subsequent undeclared wars and bombings in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere provide benefits. All were massive boondoggles with substantial destruction and loss of life. Yet after 9/11, a body of sweeping legislation was enacted without much public debate or scrutiny — “smuggled in under cover of fear” one might say. The Patriot Act and The National Defense Authorization Act are among the most notable. The conditioned response by the citizenry to perceived but not actual existential fear was consistent: desperate pleading to keep everyone safe from threat (even if it originates in the U.S. government) and tacit approval to roll back civil liberties (even though the citizenry is not itself the threat). The wisdom of the old Benjamin Franklin quote, borne out of a very different era and now rendered more nearly as a bromide, has long been lost on many Americans.

The newest omnipresent threat, literally made-to-order (at least according to some — who can really know when it comes to conspiracy), is the Covid pandemic. Nearly every talking, squawking head in government and the mainstream media (the latter now practically useless except for obvious propaganda functions) is telling everyone who still watches (video and broadcast being the dominant modes) to cower in fear of each other, reduce or refuse human contact and social function, and most of all, take the vaccine-not-really-a-vaccine followed by what is developing into a ongoing series of boosters to maintain fear and anxiety if not indeed provide medical efficacy (no good way to measure and substantiate that, anyway). The drumbeat is loud and unabated, and a large, unthinking (or spineless) portion of the citizenry, cowed and cowering, has basically joined the drum circle, spreading a social consensus that is very, well, un-American. Opinion as to other nations on similar tracks are not ventured here. Running slightly ahead of the pandemic is the mind virus of wokery and its sufferers who demand, among other things, control over others’ thoughts and speech through threats and intimidation, censorship, and social cancellation — usually in the name of safety but without any evidence how driving independent thought underground or into hiding accomplishes anything worthwhile.

Again, motivations and endgame in all this are unclear, though concentration of power to compel seems to be exhilarating. In effect, regular folks are being told, “stand on one leg; good boy; now bark like a dog; very good boy; now get used to it because this shit is never going to end but will surely escalate to intolerability.” It truly surprises me to see police forces around the world harassing, beating, and terrorizing citizens for failing to do as told, however arbitrary or questionable the order or the underlying justification. Waiting for the moment to dawn on rank-and-file officers that their monopoly on use of force is serving and protecting the wrong constituency. (Not holding my breath.) This is the stuff of dystopic novels, except that it’s not limited to fiction and frankly never was. The hotspot(s) shift in terms of time and place, but totalitarian mind and behavioral control never seems to fade or invalidate itself as one might expect. Covid passports to grant full participation in society (signalling compliance, not health) is the early step already adopted by some countries. My repeated warnings over the years of creeping fascism (more coercive style than form of government) appears to be materializing before our very eyes. I’m afraid of what portends, but with what remains of my intact mind, I can’t live in perpetual fear, come what may.

/rant on

The ongoing epistemological crisis is getting no aid or relief from the chattering classes. Case in point: the Feb. 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine has a special supplement devoted to “Life after Trump,” which divides recent history neatly into reality and unreality commencing from either the announcement of Trump’s candidacy, his unexpected success in the Republican primaries, his even less expected election (and inauguration), or now his removal from office following electoral defeat in Nov. 2020. Take your pick which signals the greatest deflection from history’s “proper” course before being derailed into a false trajectory. Charles Yu and Olivia Laing adopt the reality/unreality dichotomy in their contributions to the special supplement. Yu divides (as do many others) the nation into us and them: supporters of a supposed departure from reality/sanity and those whose clear perception penetrates the illusion. Laing bemoans the inability to distinguish fiction and fantasy from truth, unreality masquerading as your truth, my truth, anyone’s truth given repetition and persuasion sufficient to make it stick. Despite familiarity with these forced, unoriginal metaphors, I don’t believe them for a moment. Worse, they do more to encourage siloed thinking and congratulate the “Resistance” for being on the putative correct side of the glaringly obvious schism in the voting populace. Their arguments support a false binary, perpetuating and reinforcing a distorted and decidedly unhelpful interpretation of recent history. Much better analyses than theirs are available.

So let me state emphatically: like the universe, infinity, and oddly enough consciousness, reality is all-encompassing and unitary. Sure, different aspects can be examined separately, but the whole is nonetheless indivisible. Reality is a complete surround, not something one can opt into or out of. That doesn’t mean one’s mind can’t go elsewhere, either temporarily or permanently, but that does not create or constitute an alternate reality. It’s merely dissociation. Considering the rather extreme limitations of human perceptual apparatuses, it’s frankly inevitable that each of us occupies a unique position, an individual perspective, within a much, much (much, much …) larger reality. Add just a couple more axes to the graph below for time (from nanoseconds to eons) and physical scale (from subatomic to cosmic), and the available portion of reality anyone can grasp is clearly infinitesimally small, yet that tiny, tiny portion is utterly everything for each individual. It’s a weird kind of solipsism.

I get that Harper’s is a literary magazine and that writers/contributors take advantage of the opportunity to flex for whatever diminishing readership has the patience to actually finish their articles. Indeed, in the course of the special supplement, more than a few felicitous concepts and turns of phase appeared. However, despite commonplace protestations, the new chief executive at the helm of the ship of state has not in fact returned the American scene to normal reality after an awful but limited interregnum.

Aside: Citizens are asked to swallow the whopper that the current president, an elder statesman, the so-called leader of the free world, is in full control of this faculties. Funny how his handlers repeatedly erupt like a murder of crows at the first suggestion that a difficult, unvetted question might be posed, inviting the poor fellow to veer even slightly off the teleprompter script. Nope. Lest yet another foot-in-mouth PR disaster occur (too many already to count), he’s whisked away, out of range of cameras and mics before any lasting damage can be done. Everyone is supposed to pretend this charade is somehow normal. On the other hand, considering how many past presidents were plainly puppets, spokespersons, or charlatans (or at least denied the opportunity to enact an agenda), one could argue that the façade is normal. “Pay no attention to the man [or men] behind the curtain. I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!”

With some dismay, I admit that the tiny sliver of reality to which many attend incessantly is an even smaller subset of reality, served up via small, handheld devices that fit neatly in one’s pocket. One could say theirs is a pocket reality, mostly mass media controlled by Silicon Valley platforms and their censorious algorithms. Constrained by all things digital, and despite voluminous ephemera, that reality bears little resemblance to what digital refuseniks experience without the blue glare of screens washing all the color from their faces and their own authentic thoughts out of their heads. Instead, I recommend getting outside, into the open air and under the warm glow of the yellow sun, to experience life as an embodied being, not as a mere processor of yet someone else’s pocket reality. That’s how we all start out as children before getting sucked into the machine.

Weirdly, only when the screen size ramps up to 30 feet tall do consumers grow skeptical and critical of storytelling. At just the moment cinema audiences are invited to suspend disbelief, the Reality Principle and logic are applied to character, dialogue, plotting, and make-believe gadgetry, which often fail to ring true. Why does fiction come under such careful scrutiny while reality skates right on by, allowing the credulous to believe whatever they’re fed?

/rant off

I’ve often thought that my father was born at just the right time in the United States: too young to remember much of World War II, too old to be drafted into either the Korean War or the Vietnam War, yet well positioned to enjoy the fruits of the postwar boom and the 1960s counterculture. He retired early with a pension from the same company for which he had worked nearly the entirety of his adult life. Thus, he enjoyed the so-called Happy Days of the 1950s (the Eisenhower era) and all of the boom years, including the Baby Boom, the demographer’s term for my cohort (I came at the tail end). Good for him, I suppose. I admit some envy at his good fortune as most of the doors open to him were closed by the time I reached adulthood. It was the older (by 10–15 years) siblings of Boomers who lodged themselves in positions of power and influence. Accordingly, I’ve always felt somewhat like the snotty little brother clamoring for attention but who was overshadowed by the older brother always in the way. Luckily, my late teens and early twenties also fell between wars, so I never served — not that I ever supported the American Empire’s foreign escapades, then or now.

Since things have turned decidedly for the worse and industrial civilization can’t simply keep creaking along but will fail and collapse soon enough, my perspective has changed. Despite some life options having been withdrawn and my never having risen to world-beater status (not that that was ever my ambition, I recognize that, similar to my father, I was born at the right time to enjoy relative peace and tranquility of the second half of the otherwise bogus “American Century.” My good fortune allowed me to lead a quiet, respectable life, and reach a reasonable age (not yet retired) at which I now take stock. Mistakes were made, of course; that’s how we learn. But I’ve avoided the usual character deformations that spell disaster for lots of folks. (Never mind that some of those deformations are held up as admirable; the people who suffer them are in truth cretins of the first order, names withheld).

Those born at the wrong time? Any of those drafted into war (conquest, revolutionary, civil, regional, or worldwide), and certainly anyone in the last twenty years or so. Millennials appeared at the twilight of empire, many of whom are now mature enough to witness its fading glory but generally unable to participate in its bounties meaningfully. They are aware of their own disenfranchisement the same way oppressed groups (religious, ethnic, gender, working class, etc.) have always known they’re getting the shaft. Thus, the window of time one might claim optimal to have been born extends from around 1935 to around 1995, and my father and I both slot in. Beyond that fortuitous window, well, them’s the shakes.

Watched Soylent Green (1973) a few days ago for the first time since boyhood. The movie is based on a book by Richard Fleischer (which I haven’t read) and oddly enough has not yet been remade. How to categorize the film within familiar genres is tricky. Science fiction? Disaster? Dystopia? Police procedural? It checks all those boxes. Chief messages, considering its early 70s origin, are pollution and overpopulation, though global warming is also mentioned less pressingly. The opening montage looks surprisingly like what Godfrey Reggio did much better with Koyaanisqatsi (1982).

Soylent Green is set in 2022 — only a few months away now but a relatively remote future in 1973 — and the Earth is badly overpopulated, environmentally degraded, overheated, and struggling to support teeming billions mostly jammed into cities. Details are sketchy, and only old people can remember a time when the biosphere remained intact; whatever disaster had occurred was already long ago. Science fiction and futuristic films are often judged improperly by how correct prophecies turn out in reality, as though enjoyment were based on fidelity to reality. Soylent Green fares well in that respect despite its clunky, dated, 70s production design. Vehicles, computer screens, phones, wardrobe, and décor are all, shall we say, quaintly vintage. But consider this: had collapse occurred in the 70s, who’s to say that cellphones, flat screens, and the Internet would ever have been developed? Maybe the U.S. (and the world) would have been stalled in the 70s much the way Cuba is stuck in the 50s (when the monumentally dumb, ongoing U.S. embargo commenced).

The film’s star is Charlton Heston, who had established himself as a handsomely bankable lead in science fiction, disaster, and dystopian films (e.g., The Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes series). Though serviceable, his portrayal is remarkably plain, revealing Heston as a poor man’s Sean Connery or John Wayne (both far more charismatic contemporaries of Heston’s even in lousy films). In Soylent Green, Heston plays Detective Robert Thorn, though he’s mostly called “Thorn” onscreen. Other characters below the age of 65 or so also go by only one name. They all grew up after real foodstuffs (the titular Soylent Green being a synthetic wafer reputedly made out of plankton — the most palatable of three colors) and creature comforts became exceedingly scarce and expensive. Oldsters are given the respect of first and last names. Thorn investigates the assassination of a high-ranking industrialist to its well-known conspiratorial conclusion (hardly a spoiler anymore) in that iconic line at the very end of the film: “Soylent Green is people!” Seems industrialists, to keep people fed, are making food of human corpses. That eventual revelation drives the investigation and the film forward, a device far tamer than today’s amped up action thrillers where, for instance, a mere snap of the fingers can magically wipe out or restore half of the universe. Once the truth is proclaimed by Thorn (after first being teased whispered into a couple ears), the movie ends rather abruptly. That’s also what makes it a police procedural set in a disastrous, dystopic, science-fiction future stuck distinctively in the past: once the crime/riddle is solved, the story and film are over with no dénouement whatsoever.

Some of the details of the film, entirely pedestrian to modern audiences, are modestly enjoyable throwbacks. For instance, today’s penchant for memes and slang renaming of commonplace things is employed in Soylent Green. The catchphrase “Tuesday is Soylent Green Day” appears but is not overdriven. A jar of strawberries costs “150D,” which I first thought might be future currency in the form of debits or demerits but is probably just short for dollars. Front end loaders used for crowd control are called “scoops.” High-end apartment building rentals come furnished with live-in girls (prostitutes or gold-diggers, really) known as Furniture Girls. OTOH, decidedly 70s-era trash trucks (design hasn’t really changed much) are not emblazoned with the corporate name or logo of the Soylent Corporation (why not?). Similarly, (1) dressing the proles in dull, gray work clothes and brimless caps, (2) having them sleep on stairways or church refuges piled on top of each other so that characters have to step gingerly through them, (3) being so crammed together in protest when the Tuesday ration of Soylent Green runs short that they can’t avoid the scoops, (4) dripped blood clearly made of thick, oversaturated paint (at least on the DVD), and (5) a sepia haze covering daytime outdoor scenes are fairly lazy nods to world building on a low budget. None of this is particularly high-concept filmmaking, though the restraint is appreciated. The sole meme (entirely unprepared) that should have been better deployed is “going home,” a euphemism for reporting voluntarily to a processing plant (into Soylent Green, of course) at the end of one’s suffering life. Those who volunteer are shown 30 minutes of scenes, projected on a 360-degree theater that envelops the viewer, depicting the beauty and grandeur of nature before it had disappeared. This final grace offered to people (rather needlessly) serves the environmental message of the film well and could have been “driven home” a bit harder.

Like other aspects of the film’s back story, how agriculture systems collapsed is largely omitted. Perhaps such details (conjecture) are in the book. The film suggests persistent heat (no seasons), and accordingly, character are made to look like they never stop sweating. Scientific projections of how global warming will manifest do in fact point to hothouse Earth, though seasons will still occur in temperate latitudes. Because such changes normally occur in geological time, it’s an exceedingly slow process compared to human history and activity. Expert inquiry into the subject prophesied long ago that human activity would trigger and accelerate the transition. How long it will take is still unknown, but industrial civilization is definitely on that trajectory and human have done little since the 70s to curb self-destructive appetites or behaviors — except of course talk, which in the end is just more hot air. Moreover, dystopian science fiction has shifted over the decades away from self-recrimination to a long, seemingly endless stream of superheros fighting crime (and sometimes aliens). Considering film is entertainment meant to be enjoyed, the self-serious messages embedded in so many 70s-era disaster films warning us of human hubris are out of fashion. Instead, superpowers and supersuits rule cinema, transforming formerly uplifting science-fiction properties such as Star Trek into hypermilitaristic stories of interstellar social collapse. Soylent Green is a grim reminder that we once knew better, even in our entertainments.

Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

“Language is dynamic” is a phrase invoked in praise or derision of shifts in usage. Corollaries include “the only constant is change” and “time’s arrow points in only one direction” — both signalling that stasis is an invalid and ultimately futile conservative value. The flip side might well be the myth of progress, understood in reference not to technological advancement but human nature’s failure to rise above its base (animal) origins. This failure is especially grotesque considering that humans currently albeit temporarily live in an age of material abundance that would provide amply for everyone if that largesse were justly and equitably produced and distributed. However, resources (including labor) are being systematically exploited, diverted, and hoarded by a small, unethical elite (what some call “alpha chimps”) who often use state power to subjugate vulnerable populations to funnel further tribute to the already obscenely wealthy top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. But that’s a different diatribe.

Although I’m sensitive the dynamism of language — especially terms for broad ideas in need of short, snappy neologisms — I’m resistant to adopting most new coin. For instance, multiple colors of pill (red, blue, white, and black to my knowledge) refer to certain narrative complexes that people, in effect, swallow. Similarly, the “blue church” is used to refer to legacy media struggling desperately (and failing) to retain its last shreds of legitimacy and authority. (Dignity is long gone.) Does language really need these terms or are hipsters just being clever? That question probably lacks a definitive answer.

My real interest with this blog post, however, is how the modern digital mediascape has given rise to a curious phenomenon associated with cancel culture: deletion of tweets and social media posts to scrub one’s past of impropriety as though the tweet or post never happened. (I’ve never deleted a post nor have any plans to.) Silicon Valley hegemons can’t resist getting their piece of the action, too, by applying deeply flawed algorithms to everyone’s content to demonetize, restrict, and/or remove (i.e., censor) offensive opinion that runs counter to (shifting) consensus narratives decided upon in their sole discretion as water carriers for officialdom. Algorithmic dragnets are not effective kludges precisely because thoughts are not synonymous with their online expression; one merely points to the other. Used to be said that the Internet is forever, so wait before posting or tweeting a reasonable duration so that irresponsible behavior (opinion and trolling, mostly) can be tempered. Who knows who possesses technical expertise and access to tweet and video archives other than, say, the Wayback Machine? When a public figure says or does something dumb, a search-and-destroy mission is often launched to resurrect offending and damning past utterance. Of course, scrub-a-dub erasure or deletion is merely another attempt to manage narrative and isn’t a plea for forgiveness, which doesn’t exist in the public sphere anyway except for rehabilitated monsters such as past U.S. presidents a/k/a war criminals. And the Internet isn’t in fact forever; ask an archivist.

Shifting language, shifting records, shifting sentiment, shifting intellectual history are all aspects of culture that develop naturally and inevitably over time. We no longer believe, for instance, in the four elements or geocentrism (a/k/a the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic system; never mind the intransigent Flat Earthers who need not be silenced). Darker aspects of these shifts, however, include the remarkable Orwellian insight that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” from the 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Here’s the passage for context:

Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past … The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.

In 2021, the awful lesson is taken to heart by multiple parties (not the Party in the novel but wannabes) who have latched maniacally onto Orwellian mechanisms of thought control specifically through the manipulation of records, history, and language. But as mentioned above, policing mere expression is not the same as policing thought itself, at least among those who retain critical thinking skills and independence of mind. I abstain judgment how effective attempted brainwashing is with the masses but will at least mention that Yeonmi Park, who escaped from North Korea in 2007 before settling in the U.S. in 2014, describes the chilling totalitarian thought control exercised by the North Korean government — the stuff of nightmare dystopianism. The template is by now well established and despots everywhere are only too happy to implement it repeatedly, following an evil trajectory that should be resisted at every turn while still possible.

In my neighborhood of Chicago, it’s commonplace to see vehicles driving on the road with a giant Puerto Rican flag flying from a pole wedged in each of the rear windows. Often, one of the two flags’ traditional colors (red, white, and blue) is changed to black and white — a symbol of resistance. Puerto Rican politics is a complicated nest of issues I don’t know enough about to say more. However, the zeal of my neighbors is notable. Indeed, as I visited a local farmer’s market last weekend, I couldn’t help but notice quite a welcome diversity on display and folks entirely untroubled by the presence of others who didn’t look just like them (tattoos, unnatural hair colors, long beards and shaved heads, nonstandard attire and accoutrements, etc.). I’m actually pleased to see a level of comfort and freedom to present oneself is such manner as one wishes, and not just because of the buzz phrase “diversity and inclusion.” So go ahead: fly your freak flag high! (This same value applies to viewpoint diversity.)

In contrast, when I venture to some far-flung suburb for sundry activities now that lockdowns and restrictions have been lifted, I encounter mostly white, middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who admittedly look just like me. It’s unclear that folks in those locales are xenophobic in any way, having withdrawn from city life in all its messiness for a cozy, upscale, crime-free subdivision indistinguishable from the next one over. Maybe that’s an artifact of mid-20th-century white flight, where uniformity of presentation and opinion is the norm. Still, it feels a little weird. (Since the 1980s, some rather well-put-together people have returned to the city center, but that usually requires a king-sized income to purchase a luxury condo in some 50-plus-storey tower. After last summer’s BLM riots, that influx turned again to outflux.) One might guess that, as a visible minority within city confines, I would be more comfortable among my own cohort elsewhere, but that’s not the case. I rather like rubbing elbows with others of diverse backgrounds and plurality of perspectives.

I’ve also grown especially weary of critical race theory being shoved in my face at every turn, as though race is (or should be) the primary lens through which all human relations must be filtered. Such slavish categorization, dropping everyone giant, ill-fitted voting blocs, is the hallmark of ideologues unable to break out of the pseudo-intellectual silos they created for themselves and seek to impose on others. Yet I haven’t joined the growing backlash and instead feel increasingly ill at ease in social situations that appear (on the surface at least) to be too white bread. Shows, perhaps, how notions of race that were irrelevant for most of my life have now crept in and invaded my conscience. Rather than solving or resolving longstanding issues, relentless focus on race instead spreads resentment and discomfort. The melting pot isn’t boiling, but summer is not yet over.

Coming back to this topic after some time (pt. 1 here). My intention was to expand upon demands for compliance, and unsurprisingly, relevant tidbits continuously pop up in the news. The dystopia American society is building for itself doesn’t disappoint — not that anyone is hoping for such a development (one would guess). It’s merely that certain influential elements of society reliably move toward consolidation of power and credulous citizens predictably forfeit their freedom and autonomy with little or no hesitation. The two main examples to discuss are Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the response to to the global pandemic, which have occurred simultaneously but are not particularly related.

The BLM movement began in summer 2013 but boiled over in summer 2020 on the heels of the George Floyd killing, with protests spilling over into straightforward looting, mayhem, and lawlessness. That fit of high emotional pique found many protester accosting random strangers in public and demanding a raised fist in support of the movement, which was always ideologically disorganized but became irrational and power-hungry as Wokedom discovered its ability to submit others to its will. In response, many businesses erected what I’ve heard called don’t-hurt-me walls in apparent support of BLM and celebration of black culture so that windows would not be smashed and stores ransacked. Roving protests in numerous cities demanded shows of support, though with what exactly was never clear, from anyone encountered. Ultimately, protests morphed into a sort of protection racket, and agitators learned to enjoy making others acquiesce to arbitrary demands. Many schools and corporations now conduct mandatory training to, among other things, identify unconscious bias, which has the distinct aroma of original sin that can never be assuaged or forgiven. It’s entirely understandable that many individuals, under considerable pressure to conform as moral panic seized the country, play along to keep the peace or keep their jobs. Backlash is building, of course.

The much larger example affecting everyone, nationwide and globally, is the response to the pandemic. Although quarantines have been used in the past to limit regional outbreaks of infectious disease, the global lockdown of business and travel was something entirely new. Despite of lack of evidence of efficacy, the precautionary principle prevailed and nearly everyone was forced into home sequestration and later, after an embarrassingly stupid scandal (in the U.S.), made to don masks when venturing out in public. As waves of viral infection and death rolled across the globe, political leaders learned to enjoy making citizens acquiesce to capricious and often contradictory demands. Like BLM, a loose consensus emerged about the “correct” way to handle the needs of the moment, but the science and demographics of the virus produced widely variant interpretations of such correctness. A truly coordinated national response in the U.S. never coalesced, and hindsight has judged the whole morass a fundamentally botched job of maintaining public health in most countries.

But political leaders weren’t done demanding compliance. Any entirely novel vaccine protocol was rushed into production after emergency use authorization was obtained and indemnification (against what?) was granted to the pharma companies that developed competing vaccines. Whether this historical moment will turn out to be something akin to the thalidomide scandal remains to be seen, but at the very least, the citizenry is being driven heavily toward participation in a global medical experiment. Some states even offer million-dollar lotteries to incentivize individuals to comply and take the jab. Open discussion of risks associated with the new vaccines has been largely off limits, and a two-tier society is already emerging: the vaccinated and the unclean (which is ironic, since many of the unclean have never been sick).

Worse yet (and like the don’t-hurt-me walls), many organizations are adopting as-yet-unproven protocols and requiring vaccination for participants in their activities (e.g., schools, sports, concerts) or simply to keep one’s job. The mask mandate was a tolerable discomfort (though not without many principled refusals), but forcing others to be crash test dummies experimental test subjects is well beyond the pale. Considering how the narrative continues to evolve and transform, thoughtful individuals trying to evaluate competing truth claims for themselves are unable to get clear, authoritative answers. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a situation where authorities in politics, medicine, science, and journalism could worked so assiduously to undermine their own credibility. Predictably, heads (or boards of directors) of many organizations are learning to enjoy the newly discovered power to transform their organizations into petty fiefdoms and demand compliance from individuals — usually under the claim of public safety (“for the children” being unavailable this time). Considering how little efficacy has yet been truly demonstrated with any of the various regimes erected to contain or stall the pandemic, the notion that precautions undertaken have been worth giving injudicious authority to people up and down various power hierarchies to compel individuals remains just that: a notion.

Tyrants and bullies never seem to tire of watching others do the submission dance. In the next round, be ready to hop on one leg and/or bark like a dog when someone flexes on you. Land of the free and home of the brave no longer.

Addendum

The CDC just announced an emergency meeting to be held (virtually) June 18 to investigate reports (800+ via the Vaccination Adverse Effect Reporting System (VAERS), which almost no one had heard of only a month ago) of heart inflammation in adolescents following vaccination against the covid virus. Significant underreporting is anticipated following the circular logic that since authorities declared the vaccines safe prematurely (without standard scientific evidence to support such a statement), the effects cannot be due to the vaccine. What will be the effect of over 140 million people having been assured that vaccination is entirely safe, taken the jab, and then discovered “wait! maybe not so much ….” Will the complete erosion of trust in what we’re instructed told by officialdom and its mouthpieces in journalism spark widespread, organized, grassroots defiance once the bedrock truth is laid bare? Should it?

For more than a decade, I’ve had in the back of my mind a blog post called “The Power of Naming” to remark that bestowing a name gives something power, substance, and in a sense, reality. That post never really came together, but its inverse did. Anyway, here’s a renewed attempt.

The period of language acquisition in early childhood is suffused with learning the names of things, most of which is passive. Names of animals (associated closely with sounds they make) are often a special focus using picture books. The kitty, doggie, and horsie eventually become the cat, dog, and horse. Similarly, the moo-cow and the tweety-bird shorten to cow and bird (though songbird may be an acceptable holdover). Words in the abstract are signifiers of the actual things, aided by the text symbols learned in literate cultures to reinforce mere categories instead of examples grounded in reality. Multiply the names of things several hundred thousand times into adulthood and indeed throughout life and one can develop a formidable vocabulary supporting expressive and nuanced thought and speech. Do you know the differences between acute, right, obtuse, straight, and reflex angles? Does it matter? Does your knowledge of barware inform when to use a flute, coupe, snifter, shot (or shooter or caballito), nosing glass (or Glencairn), tumbler, tankard, goblet, sling, and Stein? I’d say you’ve missed something by never having drunk dark beer (Ger.: Schwarzbier) from a frosted schooner. All these varieties developed for reasons that remain invisible to someone content to drink everything from the venerable red Solo cup. Funnily enough, the red Solo cup now comes in different versions, fooling precisely no one.

Returning to book blogging, Walter Ong (in Orality and Literacy) has curious comparisons between primarily oral cultures and literate cultures. For example:

Oral people commonly think of names (one kind of words) as conveying power over things. Explanations of Adam’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 usually call condescending attention to this presumably quaint archaic belief. Such a belief is in fact far less quaint than it seems to unreflective chirographic and typographic folk. First of all, names do give humans beings power over what they name: without learning a vast store of names, one is simply powerless to understand, for example, chemistry and to practice chemical engineering. And so with all other intellectual knowledge. Secondly, chirographic and typographic folk tend to think of names as labels, written or printed tags imaginatively affixed to an object named. Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be. [p. 33]

This gets at something that has been developing over the past few decades, namely, that as otherwise literate (or functionally literate) people gather more and more information through electronic media (screens that serve broadcast and cable TV, YouTube videos, prerecorded news for streaming, and podcasts, and most importantly, audiobooks — all of which speak content to listeners), the spoken word (re)gains primacy and the printed word fades into disuse. Electronic media may produce a hybrid of orality/literacy, but words are no longer silent, internal, and abstract. Indeed, words — all by themselves — are understood as being capable of violence. Gone are the days when “stick and stones ….” Now, fighting words incite and insults sting again.

Not so long ago, it was possible to provoke a duel with an insult or gesture, such as a glove across the face. Among some people, defense of honor never really disappeared (though dueling did). History has taken a strange turn, however. Proposed legislation to criminalize deadnaming (presumably to protect a small but growing number of transgender and nonbinary people who have redefined their gender identity and accordingly adopted different names) recognizes the violence of words but then tries to transmute the offense into an abstract criminal law. It’s deeply mixed up, and I don’t have the patience to sort it out.

More to say in later blog posts, but I’ll raise the Counter-Enlightenment once more to say that the nature of modern consciousness if shifting somewhat radically in response to stimuli and pressures that grew out of an information environment, roughly 70 years old now but transformed even more fundamentally in the last 25 years, that is substantially discontinuous from centuries-old traditions. Those traditions displaced even older traditions inherited from antiquity. Such is the way of the world, I suppose, and with the benefit of Walter Ong’s insights, my appreciation of the outlines is taking better shape.