I have had a lot of strange jobs. I’ve written about some of the important true things I learned working as a technician, which are still widely ignored (and in some quarters outright despised – like thermodynamics). I’ve also mentioned some curious lessons which came to me from trying to be a leftist rebel in a time when the left was very much on the back foot, politically.
Today I want to anchor my ideas in another area where I spent many interesting years – education. Along the way, I hope to touch on some key (and non snooze-worthy) Canadian history, and help some quiet but still crucial tendencies become more apparent to others.
One of the saddest chapters in Canadian history has to do with our treatment of Canadian born citizens of Japanese ancestry, during the second world war. Like our American neighbours, we rushed into an orgy of disgusting and often violent racism, destroyed generational businesses and livelihoods and traumatized huge numbers of loyal citizens based on their appearance. It wasn’t just years of living that were stolen from those who were imprisoned and forcibly relocated (90% of the Japanese-descended in British Colombia) it was their growing sense of belonging and acceptance, which had to be restarted all over again from zero, out of the pyre of a bonfire of racial hatred.
I know for certain that Mr Trudeau taught his students about this, and I’m willing to bet he taught them it was wrong (as he was supposed to).
Now let’s be really clear here – the idea that China is Canada’s enemy in any way at all is utterly insane. China is simply not an expansionist power, our best friend does most of that. When a Canadian politician indulges in that sort of rhetoric they aren’t representing Canadian interests, they are serving racist foreign killers-for-profit – faithfully and with great big smiles!
All talk of conflict with China (which is very popular again on K street) is a betrayal of Canadian citizens of east Asian descent, guaranteed to increase racism and decrease the sense of complete belonging which their extraordinary and ongoing contributions to Canadian society have fully earned them.
There were also some grotesque examples of racist rhetoric in the first world war, many Canadian towns with German names changed them, to avoid the stigma (thankfully, most still celebrate Oktoberfest to this day). But there was no concerted federal governmental effort to use political rhetoric to create a class of instant sub-humanity out of Canadians of Germanic descent until just after the war (indeed, thousands of the German descended fought in Canadian uniforms).
Where was “Kaiserite Influence” cited, in order to justify the use of state violence and anti citizen terror? That would be the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, when workers in the steel and building trades failed to reach a fair agreement with employers and walked out in unison, demanding safer working conditions and enough pay for basic dignity for workers, and pretty much the entire city of Winnipeg walked out in sympathy with them, looking for a better deal for the little guy.
Arrogant imperial Ottawa saw no reason to sit down and talk with workers, in order to improve conditions for all Canadians – instead they smeared the angry workers as agents of an evil foreign power and then sent armed Royal Canadian Mounted Police to put down the workers demonstrations by force – which they did by firing their 45s directly at the assembled crowd.
Many of the leaders of the strike were prosecuted (persecuted) by the state and effectively destroyed, but elections following this catastrophic failure of respect and listening in Ottawa brought unprecedented numbers of leftist and unionist leaders into office, and the state was scared into changing policy for workers for all time (and the whole country) as a result (one could also convincingly argue that this was the workers political power base which brought universal healthcare first to the western provinces, then the nation as a whole).
Mr Trudeau taught this ‘unit’ also, but one really has to wonder if he ever read it himself, or if he was just using the answer guide in the teachers edition, when marking homework.
We must also remember (as those strikers certainly did) that Manitoba, the province of which Winnipeg is the capital, is the location of the greatest tragic missed opportunity in all of Canadian history.
I wrote about Louis Riel awhile ago (go check out the exhibit at the Fort York ‘vault’ – heartbreaking and terrific). The short version is that back when Canada was made up of what we now call Ontario and Quebec (then upper and lower Canada), Riel proposed the creation of a new Canadian province to the west of Ontario (much as America was gradually extended westward by the incorporation of new states and territories). As a Metis (a cultural group created by the intermarriage of early French settlers and trappers with the indigenous citizens of the first nations), Riel was uniquely positioned to create a genuine respectful accord between the Metis, First Nations, French and English.
As with any piece of history which is controversial, there are a lot of ideas about “main reasons” for what happened. Riel’s strong insistence on respect for all, definitely irritated the powerful in Ottawa, who ignored his assurances that he would never seek American help (and risk Canada itself) but wanted only to negotiate a fair deal for his people in good faith. (All of which was, we should remember, entirely consonant with Simcoe’s original anti racist anti slavery mandate for the foundation of Upper Canada).
Ottawa’s first attempt to put Riel down by main force failed in a humiliating and disastrous way. The troops which were sent from the east to quell the restive westerners were badly hurt by the cross country journey in winter (railway link still very spotty), and then utterly routed when Riel’s force of four hundred trappers took their main fort and sent them running!
Property rights were a big issue. The system they were using (and Riel intended to continue, since so many had already established their homesteads and farms) was the old French system which cut land into long but somewhat narrow strips, which guaranteed everyone on either side of the river direct access to water (in other words, self sufficiency, instead of dependence on some commercial entity with the ability to restrict and exploit their exclusive access).
Racism was a big issue too. The Orangemen (who pretty much ran Toronto politics for about a century, until Nathan Phillips broke the new ‘family compact’ for good) sent some especially odious provocateurs, one of whom outright demanded to be hanged (and by the standards of the time, more than deserved it). Riel resisted, knowing it would be misunderstood, but in the end the local demands for just punishment of this racist thug overwhelmed his political intuition. The man was hanged, and was then instantly made into a false martyr by the determinedly and proudly racist (and politically powerful) press in “Culturally Sophisticated” Toronto and Ottawa.
Religion also played a part in the grand schism – which is why the established political and economic centres of Quebec were far more favourably inclined toward the idea of an inspiring new Catholic friendly compromise, whereas the protestants of English Canada in particular feared any diminution of their own control.
If you look at the news that people in the East were getting at the time, you find Riel – literally the last chance Canada had to avoid a fundamentally racist foundation – portrayed as a murderous racist madman. Never mind that the man he reluctantly had hanged was himself a racist murderer. Also – even though he was fiercely devoted to the idea of adding Manitoba to Canada, and absolutely not the US – he was again and again portrayed as a foreign agent. Because, well – why just hate for racist and religious reasons, when you can add incendiary and completely honourless lies as well?
All of this lead to Riel twice being overwhelmingly elected to sit as a member of Parliament to represent his newly incorporated constituents, even though he was also being actively pursued by the maniacal RCMP for conspiracy to murder.
By the time Riel returned from an extended period of forced exile to try to lead a similar rebellion in the next province west (which would become Saskatchewan) with his much younger ally and protege Gabriel Dumont, he was suffering from a fair amount of mental illness, and his much wilder messianic rhetoric now worked against the native/settler alliances which he had once been able to create so easily and make so powerful.
Also the railway was more or less done, which meant troops could move west in days and arrive fresh, instead of the journey taking weeks, and weakening all involved greatly.
Also the large eastern corporate landholders had asserted even greater political influence. Citizens rights were a clear threat to profit, and the assumption of rights to water access was still seen as deeply corrosive to their own preferred ‘block’ system in which some got fantastically valuable land with all necessary supports, and some just got badly screwed.
Riel was hanged to death by the racists in Ottawa for daring to believe Canada could transcend old European racism violence and imperialism. Nobody out West forgets this.
And once again, there is no such thing as a teacher in Canada who is so mediocre, that they have never had to read and consider a student paper on Riel (always a fave of mine). So we can say with absolute certainty that mister Trudeau has ‘access’ to the kind of information which might guide a sensible statesman to wise action. He just ignores it – completely.
I have to admit I was among the idiots who was hopeful when Justin entered politics. I voted for him for one reason in particular – he promised a new deal for our first nations people (who do not all yet even have access to clean drinking water – let far alone things like fair justice and outright prosperity, to which they can be no less entitled than anyone else).
He sounded as if he was serious about the environment too. I was more cautious about my optimism there, but expected him to at very least hold the line.
I also liked his talk about returning decision making to parliament (where it has always belonged) and returning to governmental transparency, something which suffered a lot under our previous conservative prime minister. That is, showing some respect for the fact that we are supposed to be a representative democracy. Prime ministers aren’t meant to be kings.
But we have to remember something here. Justin’s father Pierre Trudeau was an extraordinary politician, but remains incredibly divisive to this day, because he was the one who started that kingly subversion of parliament, in favour of an undemocratic concentration of power in the PMO (prime minister’s office). When I visited the magnificent Cathedral which hosted his funeral in his home town of Montreal, they made a sour face at the mention of his name, and much preferred to talk about the funeral of the hockey great Maurice Richard. Many out west regard Trudeau pater with outright hatred to this day, for his nationalization of Albertan oil projects, after which followed decades of mismanagement.
But the positives of Trudeau’s legacy are almost all stolen. What was really unique about him was that despite his keen legal mind, what he offered to the Canadian people above all was a Kennedy sort of celebrity charm. It wasn’t so much what he was going to do for us in terms of policy, but rather how he would make us feel about the country, with him at the helm.
I don’t want to say he didn’t get anything done – but Lester Pearson is the true hero of post war Canadian politics. Not only did he enshrine universal national medical care – with a minority parliament – he personally solved the single most challenging problem in Canadian politics. How do you deal with our slightly crazy pal next door? I’ll quote an American, Michael Moore, to make the point in pithy terms: “Canada is like a really nice apartment with a meth lab downstairs.”
I’ve ranted enough about the military industrial complex to make clear my complete and profound opposition on every level – moral, social, economic, political, environmental, judicial, cultural, even aesthetic. Eisenhower had it spot on, and in his original speech actually wrote military industrial congressional complex, before an aide suggested he delete the word congressional, a change I can’t help thinking he regretted, since this statement still rings so powerfully in the historical record.
Now and then, for reasons I have explored elsewhere several times, American corporations decide American courage should be abused to destroy a country they don’t even understand.
It took almost forty years for the American policy establishment to admit that they never believed the Domino theory at all, that was a false story designed to win public support for the war in Vietnam. Fear is always a good way to make people assent to things they would resist on moral grounds in calmer times. Variations of “If we don’t fight them over there, we will have to fight them here” are still used to this day, even though in the post world war two period no one has attacked anyone nearly as often as the US has itself.
I love a ton of American people, and I don’t know a single one of them who voted for – please send Raytheon Boeing and Lockheed Martin enough money to completely solve national homelessness forever, because I want to make sure that we still have tragic numbers of homeless friends family and neighbours in five years, and still in ten also, because what is much more important is that we have more and more lovely missiles with which we can kill people overseas, when they get out of line (or are standing in the way of available profit).
That never seems to be on the ballot, but somehow it is always on the agenda. The same creeps keep coming back, over and over again, with the same evil racist madman (and madwoman) schemes.
Since Canada is nationally just as close a friend as many Canadians and Americans are personally, we have long sought a balanced accommodation with American excess. Specifically, how do we stay friends, even when our pals are having one of their crazy-times? I grew up around sweet-hearted hippie American refugees, known then as draft dodgers, and was profoundly glad we offered our American friends (so many important artists, especially) that all-important safe refuge.
Before he was prime minister, Lester Pearson was the foreign minister under Louis St Laurent, where he worked with the early idealists of the UN to create something entirely new – the idea of a peacekeeping force which could come in after a conflict, allow partisan troops from both sides to withdraw from civilian areas, and give peace some time to take root again.
Every war has to end, which means every place where two armies face one another could make use of this new intermediary, and indeed the idea of an organized neutral stabilizing force has made a serious global contribution in many places around the world, usually without adding to conflict (though it has definitely sustained it unhelpfully, in a few places).
This gave Canada a key role in world events which would aid our American friends again and again, without drawing Canadians under arms into their outright aggressions.
Later, as Prime Minister, Pearson not only kept Canada out of the Vietnam war, he cautioned Johnson from the very outset that that war was a terrible mistake which would lead to tragedy for all concerned.
In response, Johnson (who was both tall and hot-tempered) actually lifted Pearson by the collar and almost throttled him, “How dare you come into my house and piss on my carpet!”
We dared the truth because we’re real friends. Because we knew that exerting power in Vietnam, in a struggle which was always far more about nationalism than communism, was not a great way to send a message to China about western resolve. Especially because the war could never be won, since they fought it against people who would never accept defeat.
What message exactly was sent, other than order after order to the aerospace firms for more planes, bombs, napalm, helicopters, guns, ammo and bodybags? Will to spend and kill?
Does anyone believe that anyone in Vietnam is EVER going think it was reasonable that millions of them had to die, just because the Democrats and the unelected National Security Council were afraid of Mao?
Canada’s job is to say, cool it my friend, you’re running too hot there, step back, you’re risking way more than you should, for a goal that isn’t really there to be won anyhow.
We were in South Korea, but could not follow into Vietnam. We were in Afghanistan (under false pretences, to our eternal shame), but knew Iraq was pure disaster from before it started.
We have failed in some peacekeeping and stabilization missions quite spectacularly, and had considerable success elsewhere.
We are a minor power and sinking fast in relative importance, in every respect except our obligation to offer key resources to the world like fresh water and hope for genuine multicultural harmony.
Adding a reliable step back, a safe pair of hands, a corps of experienced de-escalation diplomats, a safe refuge for those driven out by conflict, and the all important steady remittances back home, have all helped in uncountable situations around the world. Not solved, but helped.
Turning Canada into an obedient honourless twisted lickspittle lapdog for demented American PNAC warmongers (who have now made their home in the democratic party, two decades after brilliantly leading the W team to utter ruin and war crimes in Iraq) is as great a betrayal of our national legacy, and the liberal diplomatic legacy in particular, as can be imagined.
Seven years in power now. And Trudeau recently cheerfully announced that the first nations people would have to wait five more years before all would have clean drinking water.
What we can do right away though, is find forty billion (actually a hundred billion, if accounted honestly) for American attack aircraft (you don’t need to waste all of that extra money on stealth, for bomber defence or territorial patrols) which are defective anyhow (congressional committees are currently debating whether to authorize BILLIONS for a whole new engine to replace the lousy original and try to rescue the FUBAR F35 project, or whether they should instead find some face-saving ‘out’ and quietly kill the pork-barrel behemoth altogether).
And this just a couple of years after Boeing tried its best to use deep pockets and Trumpian trade disruption to completely massacre the (peaceful) Canadian aerospace industry. (No one serious could conclude that any current plane in the world is more suited to Canadian conditions than the latest from SAAB – which we could also have built here under license).
Oh, and those environmental credentials? Yeah, not only massive new deep ocean oil projects, the idiot went and nationalized a multi billion dollar boondoggle pipeline that will probably never pump a drop (but will certainly be paid-for plus massive profit at taxpayers expense, as will all of the corporate bonuses paid out to the shareholders and executives).
I’m honestly confused at this point. Who is this guy working for? Canadians? Which ones? (no one i know). Or is it more like some combination of Lockheed Martin and the CIA? Heck, maybe those goofy old Angleton paranoids at “The Agency” had it right all along, and he’s really a glassy eyed Castro flunky. Darned hard to say at this point. No plan or character in sight, just endless patronizing contempt and unprincipled expedience.
I was especially impressed by his insistence on lockdowns, then his call for a snap election a year before schedule, just to try to advance his personal power by one notch (this folly right in the middle of the particularly lethal delta wave, mind you). The results? Still a minority parliament – plus an absolute certain boost to covid spread, thanks to his insanely timed idiocy.
Who or whatever it is which has guided his actions in government – as our leader he has made it very clear that the homeless can just fuck off (and get ready for way more company). The West of the country can just screw itself (and with force instead of talk? OMG, you idiot!). The first nations don’t really count after all, even after thousands of unsolved murders the RCMP recently said it wasn’t even worth looking for the victims of a serial killer of indigenous women, because it was too expensive. I’m struggling to imagine a murder investigation about a white middle class person in Toronto that the police would or could ever dare say that about.
Clearly, the only thing that matters with Justin is the momentary but glorious glint of Celebrity gamesmanship. Great hair is his best trick. At least his dad had hilarious one-liners.
If Trudeau Jr wants to reject the national interest, betray our long forward thinking diplomatic heritage, sabotage our economic future at the centre of the fast growing economies who all have established thriving expat communities here, and throw away much of our remaining prestige (dented though it is), all so that he can bend over and turn himself into a prophylactic for the war crazies who our best and most courageous Americans friends are always trying their hardest to rein-in, then that is his right, in his capacity as a human being.
But dude, if you want to be that stupid, please leave office first. Bleat as a citizen, not as a representative – because toadying to American warmongers does not represent us.
We probably do deserve the peals of international laughter and derision (condescending preaching about human rights elsewhere, while in the process of uncovering mass graves of children really is especially rich, even on the clueless-cosmopolitain-imbecile-technocrat scale), but please dig deep and find one tiny bit of class and spare us instead.
We have an enormous amount of work to do to repair the damage your lack of wisdom has already cost the entire country, in unity dignity and sovereignty, most especially.
Which tempts me to go back to that lovely pithy send-off they gave Chamberlain, but we are Canadians still, so I think I’ll paraphrase instead.
There are quite a few libraries in Toronto which hold a special place in my heart. I’ve shown the lovely Yorkville and mentioned the even more original and architecturally exquisite Wychwood library, both of which came from Carnegie’s still reverberating library building program. Hundreds of those beauties are still in use around the US and Canada roughly a century later – truly effective (as opposed to the modern affective) philanthropy.
I spent more hard-librarying hours at Raymond Moriyama’s once superb reference library than any other (now sadly much diminished by crude later additions). He also designed our still futuristic looking Science Centre, which my international friends might have seen rather perfectly used not long ago in Del Toro’s poetic “The Shape of Water”.
By hard-librarying I mean they knew me in the Music Department (where I dutifully checked out decoy classical piano scores, so I could book a bit of delicious playing time in their electric piano studio), Science (lifelong maniac), Literature (where I was into “the stacks” every day for months, when I got obsessed by the lovely and silly Frances Bacon / William Shakespeare “Bilateral cipher” conspiracy, and went in search of my own typographic clues and evidence in reproductions of the original folio editions) and the fantastic cinema department, tucked away at the back of the ground floor (where they would cheerfully run a few real 16mm film-movies for you on a projector – or for you and a pal – just for the asking). Nothing like greasy clunky Koss headphones with tangle-cords!
I should stop to note a bit of chronology and morphology. Even in my early twenties when I was working as a “tower walker” (downtown courier), I was still getting teased for being a scrawny waif, by impossibly well groomed corporate secretaries. And the hard librarying I’m talking about was mostly between my 12th and 15th birthday, so you can add short to scrawny, and wide-eyed to waif.
Nevertheless, being part of a crazy educational experiment that involved a lot of smart kids with creative parents and way too little supervision, a whole troupe of us “older kids” used to not only visit several different libraries a week, but even sneak into libraries to which we were in no way entitled.
The Crown Jewels for knowledge and sneakery were the libraries of the University of Toronto – not only lovely and excellent, but also within easy biking range from our home turf in the always book crazy (and back then, run-down and cheap) Annex neighbourhood.
OISIE (Ontario Institute for Studies In Education) was super easy, all you had to do was wait and go in with a whole gaggle of students. Some days when I was bored I’d go there just to have a bit of peace and quiet in one of their especially fantastic study carrels – soundproofed rooms on a raised half-floor, with big outward tilted windows in front of your built-in desk, looking down and out onto the library and busy Bloor St beyond.
“Sig Sam” (The Sigmund Samuel Collection) an especially ugly new building on the lovely old campus, was the one that always scared me the absolute most. They actually had security and the team there seemed to outright enjoy rule enforcement. Fantastic medical science and psychology collection though (yeah, weird kid, tell me about it).
But the structure in my header picture – known to most Torontonians as either “Fort Book” or “The Giant Turkey” – which was designed by Mathers and Haldenby and opened in 1973 – contains the superb John P Robarts Library of the Humanities in behind (the body of the turkey) and the incomparable Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library out in front.
As my friend Michael Cafferkey has pointed out (with his typical contextual courage) despite many depressing examples of cheap and dirty brutalism (CAMH/Clarke OMFG!), there really are genuine masterpieces in the form, and we lose a lot when we oversimplify our way around such recognition (and useful design learning). With all due respect to Le Corbusier and the other early maniacs, this beauty is my absolute favourite (pretty) piece of Brutalism anywhere in the world.
And that’s not even counting what you find inside. The Librarians of the Fisher (one of whom lives down the hall in our building) are rather tired of explaining that contrary to internet rumours, they do not have Darwin’s annotated original manuscript of Origin of Species – they do have many of his other important (and yes, personally annotated) manuscripts, but not that one (the Mona Lisa of the Natural Sciences?)
They also have original folio editions of Shakespeare (if only I still believed!) and the extraordinary Nuremberg Chronicle – as close as there was to a European encyclopedia in 1493, before the modern approach was arrived at by none other than dear old Francis Bacon (there really is no escaping the guy). ;o)
They have the best collection of material on early leftism in the country (25,000 books papers and pamphlets donated and named after the Canadian Communist Robert S Kenney) and they even have the archives and papers of more recent Canadian notables like Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen.
In all, they have 15 million items of historical interest and importance – and beyond that, the interior is utterly beautiful (and low light and no photography, so I haven’t got a good image to share – but I will invoke my sneakery when I am next able, because it really is beyond delicious – a true temple for books!)
If all of this is brutalism, then please – don’t go too easy on me! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
For a few decades now, many in the west have asserted that our feelings are of incredible importance. As an especially weird example, we have tried to teach self-esteem in the abstract, without also imparting competence and confidence – or delivering the natural (because true) sense of usefulness which usually came from those reliable and tested strengths.
More recently we have made great efforts to teach children to be “natural learners” and social rebels, instead of recognizing that finding the structural contradictions ourselves and then rebelling AGAINST school, is how the ‘think for yourself and act accordingly’ muscle was built by every previous (and certainly every truly revolutionary) generation. Compliance CAN’T teach that.
And we have most recently begun to assert that even as “adults” we have a right to be protected from things which upset us – though it only takes a minute to realize that there is someone alive who can find a reason to be offended by any point of self-expression any other human could ever make (even among comparative infinities, this one is truly boggling).
If any of this had resulted in a clear and steady increase in happiness, fairness, creativity, good parenting, high educational or even great moral accomplishment, I would be incredibly delighted about that, and I would be working hard to understand why and how.
However, we are not just a little but a lot more unhappy than we used to be, our educational standards are in the toilet, and children’s mental health is so messed-up at this point, a sane and compassionate society (of the sort we all keep loudly pretending we are) would regard it as an outright emergency.
I grew up in the sixties and seventies, so I definitely still remember when we were way too far in the other direction – when men were discouraged even from expressing positive emotions like affection and warmth – and women were discouraged from seeking fairness and a real balance of emotional work in their relationships.
Men can hug now – and express love and respect far more openly. This has had an absolutely revolutionary positive impact on them – and all of the people around them too. For decades now, women and men have been seeking and finding all kinds of new ways to balance their aspirations, without our old stoicism of suppressed pain and lifelong denial.
But somewhere around the mid nineties, we stopped growing outward toward one another – and toward love trust and growth itself. Our alienation (already a problem for our whole society for many decades) and our newly discussable interior pain, combined to put many of us into a permanent state of emotional deficit. Definitional malaise.
My hurt is important, my anger is important, my depression and despair – feelings of loneliness and inadequacy – and so on. All of which may be absolutely true subjectively, but only with that really important qualifier.
Because the thing about our feelings is that they happen inside ourselves only – and the thing about the world is that it is not only outside of us, but also always beyond our ownership or control – and that is how it MUST be – because it just so happens to be shared by everyone else on this whole crazy/beautiful planet.
Maybe it’s the feisty old revolutionary in me, or maybe it’s the hurt kid, but though I have found myself there many times, I have never been able to sit in a “blue funk” of depression like that, without considering it to be an error-state, and asking myself what clues I am still missing to prove that, so I can keep pushing where that push might have some positive effect. Even when my depression feels firmly proven by both my best facts and truest feelings, I outright reject the idea that armageddon/hopelessness is a place where I can stop, get comfortable and live.
Wow though – the last few decades have really not been easy for this one.
I don’t think I have to tell any of my friends that the weather used to be more friendly to us, when we didn’t insult the atmosphere quite so much. The economy also used to be nicer to almost all of us, so much so that many of my older friends still really do not appreciate how consistently young people are now asked to make sacrifices which once reliably won long term dignity and security, without any dignity security or even certain minute advance on offer. The whole freakin’ world runs ‘on spec’ now. Work first, then we’ll decide whether to pay.
In some areas, some social programs have nudged forward just a bit – but there are also examples of genuine horror along this theoretically “Progressive” line. My enlightened Canadian government now offers “medically assisted dying” (state sponsored suicide) as a solution to homeless veterans, the mentally ill and the poor – all while portraying itself as compassionate, instead of shockingly casually murderous. Yes, killing the poor is cheaper than addressing poverty – no, that does not represent progress, enlightenment or even ‘economy’.
A part of me wants to say we should have long ago instituted primary income support programs to help many millions more – but that thinking actually takes us toward a state of normalized poverty and dependence, and means accepting an incalculable loss of human spirit for the very same class of workers who built every good thing we enjoy. Turning those who earned a right to dignity into permanent wards of the state. To be clear, I think much more should be done to address immediate poverty right now. But the long-term outcomes are crucial also.
What we really need (here) is for the rich to be effectively restrained by the rule of law – a key function of all good government which we don’t even bother to ask for anymore, because we fight all our political battles about feelings now – rather than feedings.
Now the last puzzle piece – which explains why I have not ever been able to let this one go.
I am of course as subject to delusion as anyone, but because my early life made me accustomed to pain and patience both, I seem to be a bit better than average at facing things which hurt me to know and accept.
In the last century, I saw the path of humanity as dangerous and risky, but it was just barely possible for me to imagine we (humans) would snap out of it in a whole new way, and create the basis for the sort of new compassion which would make our necessary sacrifice feel like righteous solidarity, instead of horrible top-down oppression. (The difference between fellowship and yellow-vests).
I still figured we were probably lemmings heading gleefully for the cliff, but I had several ‘strong maybe’ ideas in my head, which felt like distinct hope.
That hope has been destroyed for twenty years straight now. When the US decided it would put its maximum national effort into invading and destroying Iraq, instead of transforming and reviving its own economy (productively and ecologically), I was no longer able to sustain those ‘strong maybe’ ideas – they just looked like the sweet or sometimes even heroic motivational fantasies of the utterly and horribly doomed.
On a personal level, I also went from being a skilled working class professional (repairman) to being a professional bowl of fruit (art model) and arranger of words (writer). Which was a big loss of income and dignity both, and set me back to that teenage state of wide open wondering.
The weirdest thing is – my own small collapse (shared and repeated many millions of times across our economy, to be sure) lead me to new and useful discovery. The simplest way to put it is that I hit bottom and then began once again to push actively upward, because of what I found down there. Gratitude.
When you’re comfortable and something goes wrong, you feel fear and anger. But when you are uncomfortable anyhow and something goes right, it is almost impossible not to notice that this arbitrary good that lifted you, however slightly, was someone’s choice.
Another part of it was about engagement. Even being a model, for which the starting qualification is simply being a human with a body, there were all kinds of ways in which the particular strengths I had built in life could be brought into my work, and add benefit to the students, teachers – and to me as well. And I don’t just mean my club-kid vintage closet and deep love of history.
I rediscovered my old Kundalini pain control exercises, so that I could “Extend” a pose far longer than many are able. I was also set back into voracious student mind again, as I soaked up all of the lessons around me – both those taught being deliberately, and those being discovered by individual students and teachers as they worked through their challenges.
Similarly – my feelings about my home town were becoming mostly tragic. Every time a great old music club, fine bookstore or classic greasy spoon was lost, I felt that loss heavily and added it to the sad running total of erosion of our store of local enchantment (as if this was itself a fixed sum).
But then I had the incredible fortune of making a new and amazing friend who was not interested in inertia, but in action! We have walked the city together with our cameras our curiosity and our love of interesting people for almost a decade now, and even though I have lived in Toronto almost forty years longer than she has, she has taught me my city all over again, by proving to me that new hope keeps springing up, and new inspiring tryers keep trying – despite all of the reasons any one of us can find to feel it isn’t worth it.
However, despite all of those lovely and unexpected personal discoveries, I know I am not alone in finding the question of our survival as a species the single most depressing and unavoidable thing we can wonder about nowadays. Even for people who combine high levels of rationality resilience and compassion, this can end up feeling like objective grounds for never-ending despair.
One thing that might help, would be if we each, as individuals, experienced an explosion of compassion for people we’ve never met, and were thus able to restrain our appetites for disposable consumption, on behalf of people we were newly capable of truly feeling are our family.
As I said, my childhood trained me for weird capability when it comes to patience and pain both, and a big part of how I overcame those early traps of all-consuming negative feeling really was growing my love outward. But I was young and vital and relentless and in love with an amazing woman – (who, to my incalculable fortune, still loves me to this very day) – all of which greatly boosted my chances for clearing that heart-growth hurdle.
My friend Nada gave me my very favourite way to explain this idea. She said, “If I had to become a vegetarian, I would just think about the beautiful cow we had when I was a little girl – she was so nice!”
If someone in Peoria or Osaka could reliably do that simple empathy trick with people in East Africa, we would really be on to something. Contagious good ideas really can have socially transformative effects. But it isn’t just the idea-seed. The soil has to be ready to sustain that growth through seasons fair and foul – and on that front, we’re not in such great shape for outward growth.
One big part of the rise of personal feelings over world-in-common, is that as a society we are still trying to work out what families are and what personal freedom means. Electric light bulbs made working class education possible (the modern left would not even exist, without them).
Birth control took a key aspect of the arc of any human life, which used to be almost entirely outside of our control, and made it somewhat subject to our will (and no less subject to our even more chaotic feelings). Which means a whole bunch of things became viable options, which never used to be choices at all – which is why we are still trying to work out just what really are our new good and bad choices, and why exactly should we feel that way about them?
In the meantime, while we are asking all of these new questions, a truly heartbreaking number of people have experienced abuse and neglect.
My childhood commune was formed to be positive and aspirational, and degenerated into an environment where the few who escaped abuse almost feel ‘survivor’s guilt’ because of their rare fortune. But as soon as I broke free of the commune, my apartment (as a sixteen year old) quickly turned into a drop-in and refuge for teenage runaways from all over town.
This taught me, in quite excruciating detail, that the abuse my friends and I felt was not confined to crazy communes, but applied just as well to kids from upright religious families, kids with artistic and creative parents, and many kids whose folks just plain ‘weren’t into them’. (I still struggle to think of anything more fundamentally cruel and unfair than not dancing with the one you brought).
So no, I am not one of those people who says the pain is about nothing, or that we should just “Get over it” – as if it takes no more effort than an alternate purchase decision. The weight of pain is real, and the extent to which so many are trapped, makes a rapid expansion of our compassion unlikely in the extreme. Our soil is too tired, and our seeds are too old.
So are humans just a kind of cancer then? Are we a plague upon the world, which will not cease in destroying, until we have consumed ourselves entirely?
Man oh man, this feeling is incredibly easy to get into – and no less difficult to escape, once you get your head stuck inside it.
But wait a second though, whose interests are served when we feel that?
Does despair inspire greater compassion? No, but it definitely interferes with the slow and gentle formation of our greatest gratitudes and most fundamental life-pleasures.
Are the rich making great personal sacrifices for the sake of the environment? Really really not. Actually, at this point they see a future where they can make more and more money with less and less workers. Profit windfall! All they really need now is a philosophy which makes workers consider themselves utterly despicable and worthy of extinction!
Better still, when workers are so demoralized and so captivated by depression that they have difficulty maintaining love friendship and gratitude (the only sure ways out, that I know of) they haven’t got the resources of emotional strength needed to fight for others far away anymore. In fear, they react only to the felt priorities in front of them, and can thus be easily and reliably manipulated to serve the interests of the powerful, by demanding the hopeful (profitable), in the (false) name of something which is emotionally resonant.
We pretend our way out of this, but the conquest of Africa was outright demanded by the general public out of their abhorrence of the slavery which their culture had only just barely given up themselves. Repeatedly, political leaders in European democracies faced huge pubic outcry, and were compelled to commit the state to action, just to make themselves electable. Smiting those foreign devils/evildoers has always been extremely popular. One might almost think of this (and not sports, as so many bourgeois leftists smirkingly suggest) as what Nationalism does with that proudly vicious old witch-burning and heretic-hanging impulse. Another thing we pretend away, is that the day of an auto da fe (public person-burning) was always a huge high-spirited celebration for the entire community. Celebration of punishing cruelty is a bug that seems to go with civilization as far back as we have records (cuneiform).
Of course the rich and powerful quickly pounced on the opportunity for profit presented by colonialism, but they needed those popular “moral” demands for cover, and without the general public being so sure they were investing national treasure blood and effort on being moral, none of that staggering exploitation and slaughter could ever have got started.
So – when we allow our feelings to say that humans (or any subset thereof that you might want to select) are just a bad idea altogether – we MUST as responsible adult people ask ourselves – okay, but – what use could a rich psychopath make of that feeling? Especially when millions of us are feeling it, all together at the same time?
I wish I could say just watch the news and start adding two plus two. But we don’t do news anymore, we are presented with official newspeak press releases, which are accepted without any serious or probing skepticism (usually by reporters who haven’t a clue about the greater context of the story anyhow – like a gym teacher trying to teach math with macho bullying).
If we did news, you would understand why so many people really like Modi, or how so many voted for Trump and then voted for him again – hint: it really is not because the working class are all Nazis, but the working class really are sick of being screwed-over by smug corrupt bourgeois urbanites with a cosmopolitain (contemptuously patronizing) line of bullshit.
If we did the news, then you would have already been deeply concerned about war in East Africa, long before you got worried about Europe, and you would probably be a part of an organization putting pressure on every cellphone manufacturer in the world to invest their BILLIONS IN READY UNUSED CASH (no kidding, biggest pile of liquid lucre in history) to develop a safe mining industry in the Eastern Congo, from which would inevitably flow many other key (and long overdue) developmental benefits.
You would be protesting the latest US deal to make sure Africa does not develop independent battery manufacturing capability (and inevitably, myriad downstream industries with the capital and expertise generated), despite having the key required resources and millions of willing workers, because you would remember that our corporations have been standing in the way of economic progress in Africa for more than half a century now (you MUST watch “Black Power” from Adam Curtis’ brilliant series “Pandora’s Box” – about the first nation to escape the colonial grip (Ghana) the upper Volta dam and Richard freakin’ Nixon).
Funny thing though. What brings population growth-rates down? Development.
So here we are on the one hand feeling as if our numbers are a plague upon the earth, but not doing a thing to help bring those numbers down in the only humane way it has ever been done (and the way we did it ourselves, and would not renounce for anything – all of our sweet romantic nature based delusions notwithstanding).
Yeah – there’s the clue. We keep accepting the idea that the way all of these (and us) people are structured, tasked, organized – all of it, is inevitable. Just the way of the world.
What makes us depressed, what makes us doubt our worth, or even our right to be here, is that we have become so beaten down and emotional we forget to look up – so we have forgotten we are still on a leash and aren’t meant to have a nasty mass murderous master – or any master at all. (The new state-pilfering aristocracy as Charlie Brown offstage trombones?)
So then – is capitalism the game plan for an all-invited suicide pact? It definitely feels that way sometimes, and I can make a better argument for that case than most.
BUT – why on earth do we think we’d even know that?
We don’t do capitalism. Haven’t for generations. We steal materials from the poor of the world, and then sit alone, isolated, seeking amusement by gadgets instead of deep connection.
Corruption is a different thing from capitalism. Monopolism (especially state monopolism, a command economy of the sort the US is now even more clearly, through its vast military budget, than the USSR ever was through central planning) is almost the exact opposite of the conditions in which markets can (arguably, and for some purposes) really work.
I am really really not saying I am sold on capitalism, only that we haven’t tried it, so maybe we ought to think hard about what we actually are doing which sucks so bad and change THAT.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, the political revolution of the eighties which most associate with Reagan and Thatcher, made speculative investors the best rewarded human beings in the world. They shifted the balance away from old industrialism, where at least a business only made money if it produced something people wanted. Now, the only thing money had to do was make more money – as for decent jobs, the tax base, community – all of those old attendant goods were thrown overboard. And sure enough, before too long it became clear that their best profits were made by gambling. No building, no reliable advance for the community – just pure downside. Take a local firm a century old, load it up with debt, and bet it all on red.
Our collected money, our jobs, our communities, our risk – their profit (and if they lose catastrophically – they just hand over that bill to the taxpayers too, without even sacrificing the performance bonuses they ‘earned’ for screwing over millions of hard working honest citizens). Honestly, does this sound inevitable? “In the beginning was the casino?”
It is not impossible to have a system in which our governments restrain and pursue corruption. It is not impossible to have a system in which people who produce genuine value for others are rewarded, and those who do harm to many, are roundly punished for widely understood and agreed reasons.
But we aren’t likely to find the energy for that work, the heart, the compassion, or even the love for our dear sweet childhood cow, as long as we consider ourselves a blight upon the earth.
That whole line of thinking isn’t just disempowering, it’s disembowelling (makes us gutless).
But this ain’t ridicule. It isn’t that our depression isn’t valid and real.
All I’m saying is that it is a very serious obstacle to the gratitude we can all harvest from having a grand piece of work before us, participating in the broader world beyond our subjective emotional reality, and earning every last sliver of hope we treasure and share with the other beautiful humans around us.
Yeah, you heard me, I said it. Bad as we are, we are still beautiful.
As understandable as it is, we hurt our loved one’s hopes, every time we get so submerged in our grief, fear and anger, that we forget they are also and in every way the real world.
For which the only sensible response there has ever been is enduring and energizing gratitude. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And one important note about the many fascinating Adam Curtis docs – they were made for the ad-free BBC, so there are always versions close to an hour long. Never settle for a forty-five minute cut-down version if you can find the longer one (they literally edited out Daniel Ellsberg doing a brilliant ironic reading of TS Elliot to explain the hubris which lead to the Vietnam war – criminal!)
For those who are up for a long, surprising and highly educational read, “The Scramble For Africa” by Thomas Pakenham is where I got my ideas about popular sentiment working in tandem with evil. Strongly recommended (yes, only the Euro side of the story – but this is the story from which we might (just possibly) learn something about our own collective recklessness and complicity).
And for some broader context about how recently our ‘advanced societies’ were effectively insane (brutal beyond our easy imagining) “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes (about the founding of Australia) is quite incredible – a literary achievement, as much as an historical one (delicious from start to finish).
I am almost sixty now, and I have been obsessed with history ever since I was a kid. There has always been a lot of lying going on – especially from liars who are already very powerful, who want us to be afraid enough that we eagerly offer them authority over us which they do not deserve and cannot be trusted with, along with hard earned money from our pockets which they deserve even less.
But I have to say, this really is a time of lying taken to extremes. As a result, the reliable middle ground, where the most sensible, practical and cheerfully skeptical people used to be able to meet to make useful compromises, from which could flow stable policy with broad benefit (and thus, enduring public support) – is now almost extinct.
In my recent essays and podcasts I’ve been working on the outlines of my next book – a departure from my previous works – which were all about gratitude, learning, love and prat-fall wisdom (the hard-way lessons which really do stick). This new work is still aimed at promoting more understanding, and ultimately happiness also – but some hard things have to be said, urgently – and I am convinced that our standard models of happiness-seeking (broadly: escapism, sanctimonious tribalism and self-medication) are just not working, and actually haven’t been for quite awhile (when a quarter of the population is on psych meds, and another third at least self-medicating, something is seriously wrong which needs more than just meds to fix).
There really are some genuine lines of serious contention in the modern world, but the popular models of division we are offered are not just wildly impractical, but outright fraudulent, which means that my serious love for my readers comes with a duty to be fierce and truthful on your behalf.
For today, the particular real split I want to discuss is a difference of general approach to (and understanding of) the whole world.
Like all of the strange divisions I’ve been looking at recently, this really is not a split between those who are “with us” and those who are bad. The fact that many people who are given a lot of airtime now insist that our struggles involve exclusive truth or even basic humane morality on one side only, is not simply a fraud against their listeners, but also a disgusting betrayal of the basic understanding which allows us to form societies in the first place.
That is – it is not just foolish – it is dangerously ignorant, and blindly and often willfully destructive! Belongs in the general category of killing the baby outright, so as to be more eco-friendly about bathwater consumption (and being proud of it).
Just as I know and love people who are serious atheists and serious believers, and people who are serious conservatives and serious leftists, I also love people on both sides of this divide of approach and understanding. But here even more than with those other splits, I find myself frustrated by how many refuse to learn the lessons they need for their very own personal balance, because the clues and learning seem to them to be tainted by a whiff of what they falsely perceive to be opposition, (instead of simple and understandable experience-borne difference).
We do so much of this ‘cooties thinking’ now. “That can’t be true because I heard an icky person might also have said it.” Except of course, thinking is exactly the wrong word for any kind of conclusions which proceed from such passionately held ignorance.
Now – here is the split – as clearly as I can present it. One approach is to feel strongly, study a lot of ideas and seek to make these ideas work in the world by feeling strongly. That is – boosting those who claim to represent the feelings – and punishing those who disagree, so as to assert what is felt to be a superior (because Ideals-based) morality.
The other approach is to work diligently, learn from those who have done difficult things already (which requires that we are able to show respect for them), and then take into account every real factor which has been proven important to outcomes – and then keep working, keep sharing expertise with those who have accomplished, and keep checking for new clues to how well the plans are working, and whether there are any new variables which we should have been paying more attention to.
Because I read too much, I sometimes jokingly refer to this split as the Eloi and the Morlocks, but I have to explain the reference for my younger friends. In his book “The Time Machine” HG Wells, who amongst other things was a socialist and feminist already in the late eighteen hundreds, described a world of the future where the haves and have nots had achieved complete separation.
The Eloi (haves) lived a life of fun and pleasure in a huge lovely garden, amusing themselves with games and culture all day long without a care for the practical.
The Morlocks (have nots) lived underground in vast caverns filled with machinery, knew nothing but toil their whole lives, and every now and then, when pressure got too high, they would come to the surface to carry off one of the Eloi – to eat them.
Now – to be clear – I have lots to say about wealth splits elsewhere – and today the point I’m after is really about understanding. People who spend their lives with tools in their hands, solving real problems for people all day long, learn some things about the world which vast numbers of other people never have to learn – because they can always call a Morlock, to do it for them. Go ask a plumber how many people show them serious respect before they actually need (and I mean NEED) them.
I have a foot in both of these worlds, I seem to be wired up ‘creatively’ (based upon my proven inability to cease creating), but I trained hard to become and enjoyed being an expert technician, which is not only a hard science discipline, but also one in which you either achieve a more or less perfect result (that is, a once again functional unit) or else you have failed completely.
Even for a smooth talker like me (some of my invoices were legendary) no one ever cares if you spent six hours perfectly restringing the tuning dial on their old stereo and only charged them half an hour for it, if it still gives off a big cloud of noxious smoke and blows a house fuse, when you power it up!
That kind of zero bullshit environment was incredibly helpful for me, and has also done my romantic art head a lot of good over the years. It is unbelievably easy to dream up a project which would require a hundred lifetimes to execute. Much harder to assemble all the ingredients and effort to get a finite but ambitious project DONE – and then do another, even more ambitious.
Now here’s a funny thing I’ve noticed about how this split plays out in the world. There are places where one or the other basic approach dominates – there are a lot more Morlocks than Eloi on construction sites, and education is almost exclusively staffed by Eloi now (one of the reasons their tribalism is so infuriating, because it really is disrespectful to other valid visions).
But one of the few places where we often see a transition between these modes is in business. You might think all businesses require practical hard nosed Morlock thinking above all else, but the idea of starting a new business is itself an act of daring creative imagination (apologies to the romantics, but credit where it is due). I have known and worked for several small businesses which were started by idealistic dreamers, who also had a decent streak of the practical in their back pocket.
Being able to see that people really want something, and no one is offering it to them, can be powerful for the customers who suddenly find themselves well-served in a way they never have been before. A kind of recognition, made practical in the world.
So some of these dreamer-started businesses do very well and grow fast in their early years, because more and more people are happy to find that somewhere out there, is a shop or specialist trade which ‘gets’ them. We call this ‘organic’ growth (and it is the side of capitalism which does respond to communities better than any other system so far – at the very far end from the monopolism and extortion we more commonly mean to indicate nowadays, when we use the word capitalism pejoratively).
Thing is, growth begets change (always) and at a certain point, the startup dreamer either recruits a serious Morlock, or the business grows out of responsible control (like say, cancer) and then inevitably dies. Not because the dream stopped being useful, but because systems become more and more complex as they grow, and the practical realities and necessities of these complex systems cannot EVER be dreamed away.
Which brings me at last to my title – which comes from the weirdly early moment in my life when I first recognized, and was at once deeply troubled by, this hard split in our ways of thinking about the biggest questions and concerns there are.
As I’ve mentioned before, my education was way beyond what is nowadays meant by experimental, and in many ways crazy. However, in any radical program, there is always the possibility to uncover useful lessons our more conventional approaches do not ever examine, let alone confirm or refute by testing.
Early on in the experiment, when there was still a serious educator involved (to help stabilize the unsound megalomaniac) the school was moved for a time to the commune owned farm. We would be bussed up at the start of the week, sleep in dorms, and return home on the weekends – which meant that a few dozen downtown city kids got some serious (and to me at least, life-changing) exposure to nature.
The most memorable thing about dorm living was that one of the dads would read to us boys every night (just as one of the moms would be reading to the girls in the next dorm). We had Lord of the Rings read to us by John, a dear man with a classic Irish tenor voice, and all other presentations of this work have paled for me ever since (he even sang Tom Bombadil’s rhymes).
The most memorable person-lessons from that phase of the experiment were theatrical (always improv) – the biggest barn had a proper stage setup for the many seminars and events the commune held. I was a genuine ham as a tyke – and when I wasn’t onstage myself, I could always be found side-stage, working an ever expanding range of acoustic sound effects, to add zip to the day’s show (how I first got to know Long and McQuade music store, where I would work for a decade, many decades later).
The most memorable lessons of all though, were taught to me by a small bird who lived in a tree which stood about halfway along the pathway from the old school house, to the renovated (think Frank Lloyd Wright in Barn-board) barns, stables and milking sheds, which were now dorms, seminar rooms and smaller temporary residences for visitors and commune higher ups.
Every day when I passed this bird’s tree, he would whistle at me, and as I had just learned to whistle (and was pleased about this, because my previous inability had been terribly embarrassing and frustrating) I tried my best to learn each new melody, and whistle it back to him. He was patient with me, and would repeat his call several times, waiting for me to answer, to make sure I had it right – but it was always a different call the next day. I felt sure he was slowly trying to teach me an entire vocabulary.
At one end of that path, in the old schoolhouse (where most of the coolest Montessori and geography gear was stored) I had an argument which has never stopped bothering me. Like my early inability to whistle, my inability to explain my way past it, drove me crazy then, and still frustrates me today (where oh where, is my patient instructional bird for this?)
I should actually say debate, really – we had a mini craze for them for awhile. You remember how it works? You choose a point, and then you poll the audience to see who agrees with it and who disagrees, and then two people try to make their best case for either side of the argument, and then you poll the audience again. It isn’t about majorities, but how many minds are changed.
As a general smart-ass, I always liked to try to devise the most difficult problem which I could still just barely solve. And so it was that I came up with an intentionally challenging formulation. Resolved: if it should become absolutely necessary for the survival of the human species, to kill all of the dolphins, then we should do that.
For my Eloi friends who are instantly angered – please remember what I just said about spontaneously developing a deep respectful relationship with a songbird. I love animals, always have. The point was never that we ought to kill dolphins, but only to say that we ought not to kill all the humans, and if we are faced with a stark choice, we should stand up for all the people of the world – all the men women and children, all the wealthy and cultured, all the challenged strugglers, all the sad cases who need more help. The opposite point SOUNDS compassionate, but endorses complete human extinction. Omnicide.
My point was to really frame the argument in a way which would force us to talk about comparative moral infinities (of which there are quite a few, most of which we have been trained to sneeringly dismiss as settled, along ignorant and tribalist lines).
Thing is, no matter how many times I tried to say “You’re choosing genocide, the death of every single man woman and child, your parents, your brothers and sisters, all the great artists, all the poor people overseas, all the people who have never been born…” none of the kids I was trying to convince, would even try to get their heads past my opening sin of moral cooties. “Kill the Dolphins? – That’s just so eew!” (And once again, to be super clear, I agree it absolutely is, unless it is so horribly conditional as in my of course only rhetorical formulation).
Which left me wondering – what if society gets to a place where the majority feels an Eloi “eew” even though plan B is genocide?
It is honestly impossible for me to convey just how much I hate it when I’m on to something. A real life test case finally hit my in-box the other day (and it is actually so perfectly and precisely absurd it would be hilarious, if only it wasn’t so desperately tragic).
For days now I’ve been listening to critiques about European politics, especially disgust at how the German Green party, which originally came out of the anti nuclear movement, had been transformed into a party of outright warmongers. Disgusting stuff. That great movie line comes to mind “You had ONE job!” (practical ecological advance with ZERO tribalism).
So now what am I supposed to say about Greenpeacers championing a plan to drive the right whales to extinction? Where can I go to scream at an appropriate volume, without being detected by googlebots and then chased down by ‘helpful’ mental health apps with discount Fountain-ill and Oxy on offer?
Yeah no – trust me, I wish I was joking, or exaggerating, but this is where we really are actually AT folks (Murphy help us).
What I was saying about Eloi and using tools? Energy is one of those things which stopped being dreamer and small business scale more than a century ago (the scale of argument on this ground is such that many cemeteries have been filled, ‘debating’).
Windmills sounded nice, but are in fact way less durable, reliable and useful than we first hoped, they hurt way more wildlife also, and are way more capital and materials intensive than their unreliable returns justify. Germany built its wind fleet very aggressively, and are now building freakin’ COAL plants at warp speed, they care so damn much about the environment. They have even decommissioned reliable Nuclear assets with decades of life left in them – again, because the Greens have more or less lost their now-Eloi-only minds. Feeling superior is the only point – being practical enough to improve the world? Screw that!
Canada has its own similar silliness, politically and economically. It took a decade of steady political effort, but my home province of Ontario completely did away with coal power generation years ago – a huge material gain for our citizens. The air in Toronto (biggest city in Canada) used to be unbreathable for weeks in a row in the worst heat of every summer, and now we get a pollution day at a time, and those, only occasionally – this program has saved countless lives and improved quality of life for many more than that – about the best you could say about any government action.
But the way it was done – by Eloi thinkers with the help of Banker viziers (and yet still widely regarded as leftist, to this day) – was a real disaster for the Morlocks who actually carry tools, and operate value added manufacturing businesses, employing many. (Our province is also home to the greatest concentration of productive industry).
The sleight of hand our local Eloi still pretend-away is that Ontario had been building toward a mostly nuclear future for decades, and still has a robust and reliable nuclear fleet, so even though our investments in wind-power proved poorly judged – driving many important businesses out of business, because electricity (that we didn’t need and couldn’t sell) became too expensive for them to compete in what are now always global markets – we won’t have to go back to building coal, just to keep the lights on.
What we lost in the deal is also extremely hard to calculate. The government which did it was such a financial disaster that they destroyed trust in leftist governments as a whole, in a deep way. Never honest about the books, they added vast debt to burden us far into the future. But the lost positive has also been obscured. Back in the eighties, when I was a courier who delivered to spiffy Ontario Hydro headquarters regularly, they proudly boasted that they were the most valuable publicly held asset anywhere in the entire world!
China has built out a ton of hydro-electric and other capacity since, so that title has long been lost to us anyhow. The point is that the millions of citizens in Ontario used to be the owners of something worth dozens of Billions. Now we have programs to subsidize outrageous power rates by taking on ever more government debt, and still we have been forced as individuals to retire the debt of that titanic asset, without any of us ever having seen the flood of wealth we should all have realized, from the rendering of this prize sow. Like I say, these idiots chose Bankers as “helpers” – and what a coincidence, we wind up buried in debt! And still the Eloi here see a pure and heroic leftie only. (I typed puer the first time, and maybe should have left it).
The latest ‘great’ feel good stupidity plan is to build a massive offshore wind farm in the primary breeding ground of the right whales, already dangerously endangered (down to just a few hundred, which is already constraining genetic variation dangerously). Not only does this mean years of heavy ship traffic and violently noisy construction (they actually want to build a hotel over that same water, because the construction crews will be so huge) the windmills in operation produce the same sorts of low frequency disruption to whalespeak for which Greenpeace used to angrily and relentlessly attack the US Navy!
I am a poor fool, to be sure (which really does boost one’s monastic abilities, in an un-earned way), but I don’t drive or fly, I don’t eat a ton of meat or keep a pet that needs it. I go on tiptoes (and with a giggle). Not so that I can look down on anyone else, but just because I hate the way it feels when you step on something innocent, because you didn’t even bother to notice.
I really do not want us to kill off all of the right whales so we can feel false virtue, and we shouldn’t destroy for feelings anyhow.
WRONG. Cleaning up our own mess would be morality, what we do instead is contemptuous dishonest and unfair (and you can add racist and colonialist to that list, if it makes you feel better). We make our problems into the problems of people who haven’t got enough political power to say no to us, and we lie constantly, because we are convinced we have a right to feel great about ourselves, even when the known consequences of our actions bring absolutely certain harm to others. (This unconvincing but universal moral sleight-of-hand is an Eloi speciality – almost definitional – even Morlocks love their excuses – see: Hollywood).
A memorable classroom moment – I was discussing the eastern Congo with an instructor, and the millions who have died over wars funded directly by our consumer demand – not so that we could have cellphones at all, mind you – but so that we could have cellphones cheap enough to throw away. A student overheard and said, “I didn’t know anything about all of that.” And I said, “That’s entirely understandable, but it’s also what the German citizens said about the Jews just after WW2, so we ought to be doing better by now, don’t you think?”
We could fairly call this violent bullying, we could call it exploitative, and we could even call it imperialist (old lefties will remember the phrase “The exportation of poverty”). Reasonable, moral or helpful to any human being on earth? Absolutely not. Not even to ourselves, because FAKE CONSOLATION DOES NOT WORK!
And still it continues – our Prime Minister (Eloi in chief) recently banned plastic bags, instead of changing something important, like mandating that all plastic sold in Canada be degradable by known and cost-practical chemical processes, and that all producers of such plastic invest proportionally in this ACTUAL recycling infrastructure. Then we could finally really recycle – for the first time ever – and finally see how that actually works as a plan, rather than a sleazy lying bullshit feel-good distraction. (quite a lot like praying, technically – but considerably less uplifting, and demonstrably less useful to the participants).
And yes of course, many other decadent jurisdictions are also wildly dishonest and rely upon taking sociopathic advantage of the overseas poor for the foreseeable future – but Canadians take way too many cheap shots outward, and anyhow, as a ratio of sin compared to sanctimony, no one can touch us Canucks! (Worst garbage per capita in the world – we’re number ONE!)
The word performative comes to mind – though my technician head insists “But it’s still broken!” is really the key point missed.
We’ve actually got so locked into the tribalist mindsets now, that according the dominant Eloi-speak, you are now officially suspected of being a “White Supremacist” if you don’t demand that we risk outright nuclear war in support of CIA sponsored ethnic cleansing militias which were banned as openly and proudly fascist (and incidentally LOVED training far-right ATOMWAFFEN members from the US in battlefield tactics), right up until the day the war started. None of the citizens involved deserved any part of this disaster, but we in the west opposed peace with all of our diplomatic and economic might – and we aren’t even interested in asking why.
So now I have to deal with former peacenik comrades shouting “Kill those sub-human reds!” Honestly. Where does one even start? CUI BONO? (who profits?) Check weapons contractors stock prices, if I’m still being overly subtle. And be very clear here before you accuse me of missing the point. The American policy establishment is already turning against support for Ukraine, and in favour of the exact same sort of treaty which would have prevented the war in the first place – minus a whole lot of incredibly valuable industrial Ukrainian territory – because destroying Ukraine to keep Russia from uniting with Europe and undermining American energy and economic hegemony was always the goal, and that work is now effectively done. (Saint Cy Hersch comes through again – with an unexpected late-game touchdown!)
And somehow all this madness is STILL seen as better than admitting the truth that everyone on the left already knew, twenty years ago – that the Clinton Democrats spent all of their energy betraying their loyal Morlock members for the sake of Wall Street and War Hawk corruption, trading away respect they once earned, for the exclusive magic bean adulation of the self-obsessed Eloi horde.
The Morlocks build it, fund it, fix it, and ALWAYS get stuck cleaning up every kind of mess there is – but increasingly, it is only the Eloi who can afford to live in it. Does that sound like a sustainable political and economic system to you? A moral one?
Mind you, if this willful blindness keeps going for long enough, I must admit that it is true – we really won’t need any plumbers anymore. We can finally all be united and Eloi-ish, squabble over shacks, shit in holes in the ground and live to twenty (if we’re lucky, and not too badly mutated).
And you know for sure that even then, millions of those smugnorant superior narcissists are still going to be whining, right?
Glowing in the dark and keening away, “Eww though!” atop the fading call of the wild boomer “No but me-me-me, no but me-me-me.”
Like I say, where is that freakin’ Byrd?* ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
*Senator Robert Byrd was a fascinating weird complex human who began as an arch conservative (KKK/Dem) and grew over his decades in government to realize the harm which conflict in particular brought to his nation and the whole world. I hated most of what he said for decades, but when he alone rose to oppose the Iraq war with extraordinary eloquence (and prescience) I wept with gratitude, and was also forced to recognize principle is quite distinct from tribe (a key truth which categorical thinking obliterates).
Cojones des bronces
Glenn Greenwald is perhaps the single most dogged and authentic journalist alive. His new Rumble show is almost ridiculously good. He does what journalism is supposed to – calls out all the bullshit, regardless of the team. He was also so widely (and unfairly) attacked, because of an FBI deception campaign (they actually knew for sure Hunter’s laptop was real, BEFORE they told big media it was Russian disinformation) that he has truly left tribalism completely behind him – and with more of his humour and energy intact, than any other public figure I know of.
In one week, he challenged the war hawk complicity of the supposedly socialist “squad”, then turned around to attack the Republican fervour for their own cancel culture, when it comes to any criticism of policy on Israel. Fearless and relentless.
But the recent show you MUST watch is his incredible interview with Sarah Wagenknecht – (show starts at 12:24) who remains a staunch leftist, but is now winning huge support from the disaffected right for her brains and her serious principles. May even be the next Chancellor (yes Virginia, there is still some hope for Europa becoming far more than just a gang of squabbling vassals).
He is one of very few who still bother trying to speak with fairness to everyone who is curious, instead of playing the sneering power-serving ignorance-flattery game now sold on most of the mainstream media (why public trust in mass media has completely imploded, very rapidly, very recently).
Disinformation is not our problem folks. Speech which challenges or offends us, is not what threatens us right now.
The way we are all so very proud of our own hatred and ignorance, is a heck of a lot closer to the right spot to dig. (If we really would actually like to find some treasure as we keep claiming, instead of just endlessly whining about what a contender we should have been, as we seem so far to greatly prefer)
I have mentioned many times that I love a lot of people who would really hate each other. Because of this, I understand very clearly that no team on earth is being completely fair, honest or truthful about their description of whoever they think is their greatest opponent. Instead, we now insist on defining others, in ways which provide emotional satisfaction to ourselves – mostly in the form of flattering our rage. Very sad and wasteful stuff, not just a damn shame for human relations, friendships, families, love trust and honour, but also a real insult to truth and integrity.
It’s actually even stranger than that though – because for the most part, the really passionate groupings which like to call themselves political now, are also completely wrong about who and what really is their greatest challenge. And they seem quite determined to stay wrong, again, in order to serve entirely negative emotional purposes.
Are ‘the Jews’ screwing the blacks, as Ye insists in his ever more obviously imbalanced manic tirades? Nope. Some Jews screw blacks over, some help them plenty, and most have other things to do with their time – because there is no such thing as “The Jews” that’s a construct designed to obscure real humanity and wide and wonderful variation. Thing is – exactly the same goes for white people. Simple as. (OMG the ‘new righteous definitions’ of whiteness and blackness are beyond horrible for both supposed teams – and also emotionally simplify many other people right out of existence).
Likewise (and yes of course I am sorry to wade into this sky high cow-pie) I have never met anyone who conforms well to the new definition of cisgender – and the assertion that any form of feminism which does not concern itself with people born male is evil, is bonkers (outright dickish, in fact). Humans are not abstracted rigid theoretical categories or logical types, and all of the hysterical attempts to insist that such categories are more important than real and always contradictory and highly complex people, inevitably take us in a dehumanizing (which means incredibly dangerous) direction. We simply could not be acting like this if we still understood the basics of compassion, principle, psychology, history and humanism. Even if the mob is sometimes right (rare enough) it does not ever MAKE right.
But now, rather than getting bogged down in these great lines of super-popular false contention, I want to go right past them to get PRACTICAL.
What are we trying for? What tools are we using? How often do we check if our plan is working? What can we learn from other tryers?
I don’t want to be a bastard here, but at this highly stressed moment, I think most of us have been so spun-around that we are actually mostly looking for who we can be mad at, so that we can explain our deep unease and fear in simple, far less emotionally terrifying terms.
I know, I know – what could be scarier than x? (you can fill-in the blank here – the Armageddon buffet is so well stocked these days, I’d hate to leave out your favourite flavour of doom). Simple, what is scarier than ANY x is not knowing. Not having an answer or a clear enemy. Mystery is as scary as it gets for us humans (and if you don’t believe me, ask someone with a serious illness and an incomplete diagnosis).
BUT – even though this means it is perfectly understandable that we would seek a comforting simplifying explanation for our stress – we are all in serious danger of forgetting that down this path we stay stressed forever – unhappy and almost completely powerless, too.
It seems to me that a very big error entered our thinking a long time ago, and we’re still struggling to separate this damage, from many positive changes which seemed to come along around the same time. An error along the lines of confusing explanations like that, for why weakness or fault is understandable, with justifications, which has lead us into decades of wrong-headed rationalizations for unhelpful behaviour, ever since.
The explosion of personal freedom of expression in the sixties and seventies – which was very much continued and expanded in the eighties and nineties – though under ever tighter economic circumstances for the working class and poor especially – is so compelling an approach to life that the general idea of it has become a part of middle class aspiration for many millions around the world.
Defining yourself, instead of being defined by family, society, bosses or priests who do not seem to really understand you, is all about allowing your own unique qualities to have the kind of full expression that no one else but you, can even understand is there in potential.
The thing is – this isn’t actually easy stuff – not at all. You have to have a plan, and you also need serious relentless self-belief, to be not only the person who can do something – but also their coach, their agent, their housekeeper, their bookkeeper – etc. In a screwy way, it is almost the creatives version of the high pressure entrepreneurial mindset. GO GO GO! Because no matter what unique creation we might want to contribute, we can never ignore the fact that there are eight billion other uniques out there, with no less right to their own stage time and self realization.
I have seen a lot of people on personal quests which they thought were heroic, who were actually forcing others – people to whom they had what should have been unbreakable duty – to make their sacrifices for them. Self belief can easily become toxic, when it overwhelms things like honour and love in our lives. I am pretty sure this is why modern industrial capitalism loves this model of self understanding – marketing to the selfish obsessive is EASY.
Weirder still, even though so many feel they crave it – very few of us are actually suited to living like this in every phase of our lives. What’s more, millions of other good people do not even seek it – because they are at their happiest when they have an honourable well-defined (what some might smugly call conformist) lifestyle option, which involves contributing in established understood ways, and earning respect by pleasing the community with genuine contributions of value. This is bedrock stuff and still of great value to us all, even if it does not get the respect it once did.
The spirit of unfettered individuality which has risen so widely and proudly does not get along that well with the spirit of tradition and community. We don’t like to talk about this much, but this is one of those genuine social tensions, which a lot of passionate huckster misdirection takes advantage of.
But both of these modes are absolutely necessary – and I mean for absolutely everyone. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to have to wait for inspiration to strike before they could begin, and then always try to come up with a completely unique and individual surgical technique, every time out. That kind of approach is what you want to see at a concert, or a great comedy or improv show. You want your surgeon to conform absolutely to best practises.
Individualists rely on traditionalists for crucial life-sustaining services and reliability throughout their lives, but they also create a ton of economic and artistic activity by turning over the soil and trying new hybrids, to see what might grow well in the climate of any given cultural moment.
You have to be a special kind of modern crazy person to think that one is simply good and the other evil. But most of us do, in one form or another.
And to be fair, large numbers of people have been this foolish for at least century now (READ Ortega Y Gasset for proof – it’s a mind blower!). Once basic survival needs are met, people begin to explore second order problems, and delve into their complexity. But when we concentrate too hard on what we feel and want, we can all too easily forget that many in the world still lack basic survival stuff like clean water, power and sanitation.
This is hugely simplifying – but in a way, the twenties thirties and forties were about the poor in the industrialized nations organizing and pushing many workers up into a broad middle class – because the middle classes of the time felt precarious, and their sympathies were with the poor, not the owners.
I’ve done a few pieces recently about the history in between, but let me bookend that solidarity with the poor feeling, with something which shocked many at the time, but is now so much an accomplished fact that we don’t even question it anymore.
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher did indeed make changes to tax codes in particular, which favoured speculative investors, and put both workers and also old-school productive capitalists at a disadvantage. But if we stop there, we are missing their slickest and perhaps most damaging trick.
What they achieved politically was to flip the sympathy of the middle class, by in-effect, dangling lottery tickets to the new speculative capitalism in front of them. From that time to this, the middle class has stopped being the dependable allies of workers and seeing them as the part of their family which is trying hard, but hasn’t yet got the break they need, to make it. Instead, they now see themselves as rich people who haven’t quite made it yet, and the working class and poor as heads that must be stepped on, for them to keep or hopefully enhance, their own already advantageous position.
The word privilege belongs here quite solidly – because this attaches to sustained material advantage, which seeks to perpetuate that advantage at the expense of others. But we should note, though this key group of steady hard workers who so often carry the balance of social aspiration still skews somewhat white, it is really chaotic, and large numbers of people who were born elsewhere and taught to be more focussed dedicated and hungry than we usually teach our kids to be, also do extraordinarily well in this social class.
I mentioned recently that Nietzsche said “god is dead” many years before, but it was popular writers like W Somerset Maugham who sent millions into new questions and questing. Likewise, I can’t help thinking that there was a clear and frightening foreshadowing of this celebratory shift in middle class sympathies in the still debated (and mostly obscured) tumult of the anti Vietnam war protest era.
A whole lot of free thinking individualists with the money for higher education or other deferments, ended up denouncing a whole lot of honourable traditionalist folks who were sure they were pitching in for community, and felt profoundly betrayed when they came home to find themselves regarded with active and seething contempt.
Taking the components apart one step further than we usually do – the war really was a disaster and a tragedy for all concerned. Being upset and angry about the war was entirely understandable. So was the extra emotional edge added when we feel helpless, against forces which are incomparably more powerful than us – literally demonstrably and unapologetically lethal.
But the people who were drafted and SERVED never came up with the idea that America has the right to tell other people how to run their country, and they sure as heck never designed a plan which would end up killing millions of Vietnamese civilians, to punish them for disobeying American oligarchs with delusions of godhood. That was all about the super powerful lying to both the middle and working class – and to both the aspirational individualists, and also the faithful traditionalists. Of course, they needed two major sets of lies, one to effectively pacify each – BY SATISFYING AND DIRECTING THEIR FEAR AND ANGER AT THE OTHER – which of course also meant sustaining that anger indefinitely, and in the process enshrining the division between the individualist middle and the loyal working classes, permanently. (When you wonder – WTF happened to the dems?)
This same screwy game maps rather well onto a personal bugaboo of mine – the extent to which the boomers went too far, and our failure to notice this and repudiate it, has meant many harmful social games based upon the ego-overshoot still persist, long after the evidence of their harm is clear.
In a funny way, by becoming the largest richest middle class in all of history (and not incidentally, the first generation raised with television based mass marketing), they became the greatest marks ever seen, for that con job about identification. With the combination of extreme individuality and extreme self-belief, the idea that they were ripped-off rich people, instead of lucky poor people, was immensely appealing, even more so when combined with the idea that they earned every advantage by personal merit, none by luck.
As soon as advantage is won always by merit (or as soon as we begin to believe this widely) the converse becomes true by default – poor people just aren’t trying hard enough – therefore they deserve it – therefore screw them. Reagan didn’t win because those sixties individualists all stayed home, he captured large numbers of them from their former home in the Democratic party, just by promising them more personal advantage.
The really messed-up thing is that if you talk to most boomers, they STILL haven’t noticed that the economic circumstances they encountered in their early and mid career weren’t normal at all. Not only was economic activity boosted by post war reconstruction and infrastructure expansion, the sheer size of that baby boom from which they got their name, has created markets around them, to suit (and bilk) every new stage of their life. Nobody else has seen a sustained surge of prosperity since the mid seventies – except for the super wealthy, who have done fabulously well.
But of course – it has to be a complete coincidence that when the middle class began to see themselves as hard done to, instead of fortunate – and began to identify with the wealthy not the poor – the wealthy began to rake it in, and the poor suffer more and more loss of work, dignity and even housing.
As our active gratitude was diminished and our egos boosted (freedom as inebriant?), we found whole new ways to overcome our own compassion.
Which leads me to another subject where absolutely everyone is wrong, because they oversimplify – immigration. When a government says they want to bring in a half a million new citizens a year, starting in less than two years, they must also say they will construct three quarters of a million units of housing before that time – or else the unambiguous unsaid part of that statement is SCREW THE HOMELESS – LET THEM FREEZE.
People who are starting out in a new place usually start out with the basics, the cheapest place they can find and whatever work is open to those without local degrees and qualifications. They aren’t competing for middle class jobs and housing, most live and work first with the poor and working class.
Historically, the left has always understood this. Capitalism likes to keep wages low and job insecurity high, and so to serve the working class and not just the corporate masters, you need to make sure you have surplus economic activity (jobs), housing and all other necessary infrastructure growing, so newcomers can be welcomed friends right away, instead of becoming, through absolutely no fault of their own, the sacrificial pawns of the wealthy, in their long and vicious game of screw the poor.
A lot of immigrants move out of this basic economic phase in a few years, a lot of locals do not. That isn’t about anyone being better or worse – just as I was saying before – there is not one ideal type of perfect human, but rather tons of different ways to live a life which contribute to life for all of us.
Amongst other things I’ve been a soda jerk, a dishwasher, a salesman, a courier, a repairman, a school librarian, a trade school teacher and even an art model. I took a lot of pride in trying my best to do all of these jobs well, the simple ones just as much as the fancy ones – not because I was well paid, respected, or bound for careerist glory of any kind (not in any of those roles). Just because we only get the moments we get – and using them to do things well and feel good about it, really is more satisfying than slacking-off and then feeling like crap later on, instead. Tempting as it often feels, we really can’t win any advantage from a game in which we cheat our own integrity.
Reminds me of the questions I was teasing about earlier – I am clear about seeking some usefulness and satisfaction in my finite moments, and so I do my best to notice things that help me learn, build capacity, or be of use to others, and also to note the things that make me feel lazy, ashamed or dull.
As always, I’m just trying to bear humble and specific (hopefully somewhat relatable) witness here, really not offering myself as any sort of model (just because I’m not a parallelogram, that does not make me a paragon) ;o)
I get scared and angry a lot too – and very very sad. Like most people I know, I have personal reasons for anger fear and sadness (the damage done by child abuse really does not ever go away). I also know that I’m incredibly lucky to be in love, still, after almost forty years as a couple – but of course my heart is pained by every pain she feels and challenge she faces – we cannot help but connect to both the joys and the sorrows of our closest hearts.
But even when confronting such mortal fears, I once again have to ask myself – what do I want to do with my minutes/hours/days/years?
Do I want to seek to overcome obstacles and find more happiness, wisdom, usefulness, satisfaction, compassion, knowledge and joy?
Or do I want to find explanations in the world around me, for the emotions which cause me the most pain (and were almost all the result of the unkind actions of people who had no right to have that much impact on my life and thought), so that I can LIVE INSIDE THAT PAIN FOREVER.
The news, politics, capitalism, the deep state, the Rand Corporation, the CIA, Bezos, Goldman Sachs, the patriarchy, whitey and the jews – pick your favourite form of emotionally entertaining demonic expression however you will – “they” all say CHOOSE PAIN! (sucker).
I say, maybe we are kind of addicted to that easy candy sugar-rush hit, maybe it is too much to ask, to get past tribalism, all in one go.
But you eat your damned vegetables first, and get your proteins down your gullet – starches too – slow burn fuel for activity.
And then, once you have made a complete meal of striving, compassion, curiosity, openness, forgiveness (for the bugger in the mirror, as well as the buggers out the window) and a constant spice of humble humour to give it all flavour. That is – once you have taken in what you NEED.
Well then, if you really feel sure you still have some room left over – by all means, enjoy a fun little tantrum for dessert. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Toronto lost a genuine hero-artist a few days ago, and with all the chaos nowadays in the news, many barely noticed his passing.
There are so many different things one can say about Michael Snow (born Dec 10 1928 right here in Toronto – died Jan 05 2023, still in this city he loved) that I’ve been trying to write about him for years, without ever even being able to decide on an ideal angle of approach. Since duty now compels my timing, I find what I would most like to say is first a bit about the man, and then also a bit about what his life as an artist says to all of us.
It is kind of funny to say this, but even in the art world things have become so divided and hyper-specialized, that when someone makes an impact in many different fields of art, it is now easy to forget their full range of expression, and even easier, to forget the way they first found their way into creative discovery.
Snow began his life as a working artist as a jazz pianist – and for a fellow who was twenty in 1948 – it is hard not to feel a glow of excitement about that timing. Bebop grew almost in secret during the war and more or less exploded right afterward, so new technique, artistry, excitement (and also a popular market) was growing everywhere.
Toronto of that time had a superb jazz scene, anchored by local talents like Oscar Peterson, with packed clubs which were regular stops for the best performers in the world. Louis Armstrong played the Colonial Tavern at least twice a year for decades, and that place of sublime musical pilgrimage was only the crown jewel of dozens of busy and well booked clubs and concert venues. Players were WORKING.*
I still think of Snow most as a musician myself – though by the time I first met the man (mid 1980s), he was playing synthesizer in the spectacular long running free improvisation ensemble CCMC – Canadian Creative Music Collective – who were the driving force behind the creation of Toronto’s extraordinary “Music Gallery” – a home for outsider and non commercial music (especially avant garde) since 1976, and an artist directed institution which has enriched our city greatly. Snow remained the one constant member in the CCMC’s lineup over its many years, and what surprised me most about his playing (always truly improvising, never working off patterns and previous ground) was how playful and open he was, every single time (it really is much harder to be consistently cheerfully curious in your fifties, than it is in your twenties – because you know so much more about how many hopeful guesses absolutely won’t work out!)
But I’ll come back to the Music Gallery – first I should note some of his other work. He was working obsessively on illustration in the 1960s, when a good friend first insisted he should consider trying his hand at film. The result of this jump in media was his 1967 film “Wavelength” which singlehandedly created a whole new genre in experimental moviemaking. He followed that up with “La Region Centrale” in 1971, to prove it was no fluke, and then got interested in other media again, until he made “Corpus Collosum” in 2002 – which arrived in a far less heated cultural moment, but was still regarded as groundbreaking all over again.
So like – who does that? Has a breakout artistic critical hit which makes an international splash, and then doesn’t get seduced into spending the rest of their life chasing after that first exquisite high? Michael Snow, that’s who.
Words have funny properties, and I think our modern habit of using the word artist for popular musicians and actors who owe their success more to image and marketing than inspiration and mastery, has weakened what used to be a more clearly spiritual word.
Any person who thinks of their creative arc as a job in a business is a different thing. Talent isn’t even the dividing line here – the important distinction we’ve lost has to do with intention.
Some people want people to love them and give them money, some people want to say something they feel inside themselves, but some lovely people want to discover something they haven’t seen heard or felt before, and then come back and share that discovery with the rest of us.
The fact is, Snow got into sculpture and visual art for a long period. He followed where his ideas and interests went – and the fact that he didn’t make another film for thirty years – not until he had another great reason to – perfectly explains how he managed to be just as radical and interesting at the age of 74 as he was when he first made an artistic splash at 39. Just three movies, all masterpieces – COOL.
I grew up around a lot of artists who were involved in that creative tumult of the sixties and seventies, and I was later mentored by a lovely Saxophonist who, like Snow, grew through Bebop into free improvisational music. A huge part of my heart lives in that spartan and courageous terrain. But as a writer with a sense of humour, I have never been able to ignore the fact that this challenging art has long struggled to find a large audience, or even a steady source of sustenance.
So one might think a guy like Snow who made a mark in Avant Garde film, and played Avant Garde ensemble music relentlessly and joyously for many years, would be semi hidden from the public eye – elite – the proverbial artist’s artist.
Nope – you could only think that if you haven’t seen his sculpture!
Long before I met the man himself, I fell in love with one of his best sculptures – depicted in my header photograph – Flight Stop – which has been installed in the Toronto Eaton Centre (our most important downtown shopping mall) since 1979 (when my wonderstruck eyes were only fourteen).
To stand by the railing in a building so modern (by Eberhard Zeidler, of Ontario Place fame) and yet so crassly commercial in purpose, and see a whole flock of sixty Canadian Geese approaching the exact spot where you’re standing for a landing, really hits you – you can’t not hear “We were here first.”
In 1981, the Eaton Centre tied red velvet Christmas bows around the necks of the geese – Snow sued them to protect the artistic integrity of his work – and won that very important artist-rights case. Of course the desecration of powerful meanings for marketing purposes remains woefully common, but that doesn’t ever make it right (and it’s always nice to know the little guy with a point can still beat the corporations sometimes).
But of course, Flight Stop was a later work – his earliest famous sculpture was his Walking Woman series, which were famously exhibited at Expo ’67 in Montreal, and have been part of the Canadian pavilion of world’s fairs ever since. Though these are much reduced in detail, again we see his fascination with repeating form and variation – almost a personal typography. These particular walking women currently live in the entrance of the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario).
Even though they are more simplified still, I rather like this piece outside the Provincial Courthouse on University Avenue. Not only has he given us the edifice itself, held up by the upstanding nature of the twelve jurors, he has, even in simplicity, avoided any symmetry (even differently asymmetrical on each side) giving us no less clear an indication of our difference and variation in view being key to our strength.
But for Catherine – and for many sports fans in the city – Snow’s most beloved works are the cluster of sculptures collectively known as “The Audience” which adorn our downtown Skydome (later renamed “The Rogers Centre” even though taxpayers footed most of the bill, and already gave it a perfectly good name).
Finally, I want to return to the CCMC at the Music Gallery again – back in the eighties when they had a lovely performance and recording space on Richmond (then semi-derelict light industrial – now pricey condo central). As I mentioned, I was playing a lot with my own improvising mentor Maury Coles in those days, and we both came to hear the CCMC many times. To this day I have never attended any musical performances in the city which had such a consistently high proportion of culturally interested European Tourists (as in so many fields, many Toronto musicians are far better appreciated elsewhere, than they are by the home crowd).
I remember one particular night when a dear friend of mine – a gifted multi instrumentalist with a unique musical voice – announced excitedly that he was going to bring his vibraphone along to one of their shows, and see if they’d let him sit-in with the group.
But I was also friends with another (much later joining) member of the ensemble, and when I mentioned this idea to him, he responded with great hostility, insisting that this work they did was rarefied stuff, and they didn’t need anyone without what he called “Extended Technique”.
I felt heart-sick about it, honestly. My vibraphonist friend was so excited about playing with these creative heavyweights, but my other grumpy friend made it sound as if his ambition would be taken as an insult, by the entire ensemble.
Come the night itself, Michael Snow not only greeted my vibraphonist friend like an old pal and immediately had him set up on stage, front and centre, my grumpier (late joiner) friend pouted! Revealing instantly that his so-called ‘artistic concerns’ were actually a whole lot more like sibling jealousy!
The performance was outright delicious, and my friend absolutely SANG (he’s a bit Glenn Gould, that way) ;o) I swear, while I was watching this middle aged man with decades of professional gigging behind him play I saw the years absolutely melt off of him in an almost psychedelic way, until he was standing there as a lanky twelve year old kid, who had found wondrous entry to a whole different plane of existence at the end of two (and sometimes four) cloth wrapped mallets.
I had to work early the next morning, so I couldn’t go for drinks to celebrate the great show with my vibraphonist pal and a few of the original band members, but I was overjoyed that he’d had such a warm reception, and that the performance had been such a success, fully justifying their easy open faith in his unexpected contribution.
And then Michael Snow asked me if I had a ride home, and I said I did not, so he said he’d drive me to the Subway at least – a very nice gesture considering the heavy rain outside. My sax mentor Maury was another guy in his mid fifties whose eyes had the kind of sparkle we are more used to seeing in babies. So I was delighted to find this same active life-sparkle in Snow. Just as excited and interested in the world up close, as his music made me sure he’d be – but I was even more surprised by his mind.
He didn’t want to talk about himself or any of his work, he was completely unlike that sort of an artist who works mostly to chase praise. We did talk a bit about recording and synthesizers, since we both shared an active interest there, and I was actually studying the latest technology, on my way to becoming a professional audio technician.
But what he really wanted to know most was what kind of creative stuff I was working on – and at the time (my early twenties) that included drawing, comics, improvised music, poetry essays and fiction, tons of meditation, architectural models, philosophizing and computer programming. All powered largely by macaroni and cheese for many years, natch.
He responded with intelligence and encouragement on every point, like he was genuinely rooting for me to learn and grow in every direction I could – which, for a confused young person especially, is an attitude so powerful helpful and rare, that I get a little teary to this day, just thinking about the generosity and the quality of his attention.
He lived ninety four years like that. Not to be adored, not to put anyone else down or to compete. To discover, play with and in the world, and then ‘show his work’ (as they used to say in school) to prove to us all that even in all this chaos, we can still create meaning for ourselves, still dance, and no matter what they say – we can always play.
Toronto still has some of the finest jazz musicians in the world (David Woodhead, Neil Swainson and Kieran Overs can go up against anyone, and Daniel Barnes and Brian Barlow never fail to bring me heart-lift and joy) – but we no longer do their talents justice with anything like the amount of work (and pay) they deserve.
I know I’m not the only one who finds it outright painful to watch the news, nowadays. So much obedience, conformity, foolishness, proud ignorance and hatred – and this creepy stuff can be found on every side of every subject you can name.
And yes I know right away I’m in trouble, because we are all upset and have an urgent need to feel good, even if it means closing our eyes, since this is an age of non-stop fear and panic. Pandemic – Inflation – Housing Crisis – War – Famine. And all that piled onto our plate before we’ve even had a chance to repair the extraordinary damage done to our spirits, finances and social cohesion by the 2008 financial implosion, two straight decades of war for corporate profit, and the slow tragic death of skeptical, smart, locally informed media for everyone.
That last part is actually key to our levels of panic, frustration and division. We can’t tune-in to a common and embracing voice on Television or in a newspaper anymore – which despite the many trade offs, still had huge value as a common meeting place from which to start. Even the majors no longer broadcast, because the only revenue model which still makes any money is the radical disruptor model Fox introduced years ago – Pick one audience only, then tell them a curated version of the news which favours the sort of things they want to hear – in other words – narrowcast. Thanks to the internet, advertisers now practically demand it. And the piper always calls the tune.
Personally, I find this familiar, though also disappointing, because I have been digging into important stories which were missing from that consensus middle for more than four straight decades now. The nature of the clues which were kept out of that restrained and sometimes rather gutless middle ground story was always very revealing. Some power operates in an obvious way, and some is profoundly corrupt and destructive, and so naturally goes to great efforts to hide and misdirect.
The reason government censorship of citizens speech is self-evidently evil for anyone with a combination of intact principle and historical awareness, is that the secretive and powerful covet tools like this most of all, and no matter what cause we believe justifies such extreme interference with free citizen communications and debate (outrage is always used as a wedge here), such tools will inevitably be used against everyone with any challenge or serious critique to offer. If we build it, they will come.
In my recent podcast “Lost and Found and Lost Again” I tried to indicate something which we deny as a society, because it is painful and somehow shameful to admit, but it shows up in how our societies act, again and again, decade after decade.
The simplest harsh-truth version of my point? Western Civilization is a (recovering?) trauma victim. Has been for a century.
From this position, people who have never skipped a meal in their lives feel very comfortable telling people who have never known running water and plumbing that they are essentially bad people, unless they prioritize the rights of social groups which we only began to work on seriously here, long after we had raised up a solid middle class and given plumbing even to our workers (who did still have some backyard urban outhouses in major industrial cities, as late as the fifties).
In other words, we feel sure they are bad because they are not doing things a whole lot better than we ever did them ourselves.
There are few things more universal than this sort of contempt for foreign others, based not on knowledge, but on maliciously flattering curated rumour. Can this be anything other than the most grotesque sort of racism? (Yes, even from supposed ‘anti-racists’). Is there any more precise word, coupling the narcissism, hatred and ignorance involved? And yet this is our brand, one of the very few places where we Westerners all agree. (Brother against brother – but brother with brother against the cousins).
Ah – but what prize do we win from such thinking? We get to hate and feel good about it. Feel right and superior – hooray!
Yes I know this seems simplistic (and yes YOU know, that I can and will tease this out in a thousand more details, every one of which might raise new objections, from those who are determined to keep missing the central unifying point).
But the fact that we all so desperately want to find ways to be proud of our contempt for others, is what proves we are emotionally SICK.
We don’t actually want to be kind, modest, curious, open, interested, honourable and good. We want to find ways that we can be righteous, by being our own special kind of customized hateful bigots.
The key thing is to find a way to explain our latest fashionable bigotry, always a way to dehumanize others, that really feels nice and solid, so that we can wholeheartedly enjoy our hatred.
I actually jumped on for a round or two of this righteous fury myself a couple of decades ago, thinking myself compassionate for hating on behalf of the real and often forgotten victims of war – but I’ve been kind of horrified to see where those upstart threads have gone in the years since. Hate is not just poisonous to the hater, and a way to kill pleasure and satisfaction in life, it is also politically inadequate.
Protests against the war in Iraq were some of the largest the world has ever known. The American government became extremely paranoid and hostile to criticism during this time, and there was real fear and shock still being felt. But many citizens understood there was nothing to be won by this new madness, except by the war corporations which essentially transferred taxpayer billions directly to their already wealthy shareholders, as millions of others paid in blood and generational suffering.
The broadcast ‘consensus’ news did not ever adequately reflect the widespread skepticism of the public, not just on the left, but also from many veterans, who understood the strategic errors underlying the whole misadventure, all too well. But there were still many other vital print, radio and even some television outlets which were very interested in the stories which were being hidden, so there was still a ton of critical information available to the curious, throughout this period.
Funny thing is – back then, simple disinterest did the job many would now like to see done far more comprehensively by censorship. When people began to question the new war in Afghanistan, they realized there was a whole bunch of public material which raised serious doubt.
Zbigniew Brezhinski, who was the national security advisor for Jimmy Carter, the organizer of the Trilateral commission (that is, a lifelong ally of David Rockefeller) the reorganizer of the National Security Council, and the most powerful influence on American foreign policy after Kissinger (very possibly still, to this day) openly boasted in a 1998 interview that he had deliberately provoked the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan by arming islamist rebels, and thus drew the Soviet Union into a disastrous conflict – their own equivalent of America’s invasion of Vietnam – which fatally undermined the Soviet State as a whole. He didn’t just consider this secret support for terrorists which provoked a horrible war to be worthwhile, he was outright proud of his accomplishment.
Now there are a bunch of important things which must be said here. The Afghan war did indeed do huge damage to the Soviet Union, though it did far more horrifying damage to Afghanistan, of course. What no one here ever hears about, is that Gorbachev wasn’t just an internationalist – he was also a moralizing teetotaller, who was convinced that the potential accomplishments of Russia in particular, were being held back by widespread alcoholism. Using a typically crude Soviet approach, hoping to achieve a positive moral result, he drastically reduced the state production of alcohol.
Not only did this strain the economy instantly (massive loss of revenue) it also said to many citizens, that their government was suddenly directly opposed to fun, or their right to a bit of escape and relief at the end of a hard day (mostly depending on age). Naturally, at the same time as the government was suddenly struggling with the bills, there was an explosive growth in the black market and underground economy, and a further lessening of trust in the State to provide basic necessities.
Kind of like the case of Egypt, where decades of persecution had cut down all opposition except the tough as nails Moslem Brotherhood, who of course were the only group capable of mass organization, when the state’s tight control finally slipped. When the Soviet Union finally began to come apart, these newly enriched criminal organizations were the only ones standing with deep pockets – literally billions in cash to invest – meaning the crazy, chaotic and corrupt power games which followed, with a great deal of poorly conceived American “help” were actually fairly easily predictable. Trying to use force to compel people to be better in the way we want them to be, really does not often work out.
Another important point is that the Brezhinski story is extremely believable for anyone who understands the history of American foreign policy. The theories explaining strategies vary widely, but the primary functions of CIA are data collection and analysis on one side, and “Operations” on the other. “Operations” almost always means arming somebody else’s worst nightmare. That’s the basic job.
Then again – we also have to note the persistence of simplifying mythology. The left loves to talk about the Spanish Civil War – and I discuss it myself rather frequently – Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” and Malraux’s “Man’s Hope” are both on my must-read list for anyone with an interest in history, politics or revolutionary change. So many lessons and clues can still be found concentrated there with unusual density.
The Spanish Civil war began when fascists within the Spanish Military decided to attack and overthrow a democratically elected socialist government. The fact that the nations of the rich west were too afraid of leftism (even fully democratic) to help, and pretended to be ‘neutral’ against an insurrection against democracy (and also that Stalin’s Soviet Union “helped” the leftist resistors in a way which was anything but helpful) gave Hitler a huge boost of confidence, and accelerated his plans for the oncoming second world war. Many of the German commanders who would soon rise to fearful fame, tested their part of the new blitzkrieg doctrine in Spain first.
But just because the Spanish fascists were clearly wrong and bad and remained that way for decades after the war, that doesn’t automatically mean that the leftists were all pure sweet goodness.
In Spain, the conflict between the leftists and the Church was so bad that there were numerous atrocities committed against parts of the church which had nothing to do with state power or corruption, and these atrocities provoked many people in the middle who were not so politically engaged, to throw in with the fascists. When families start warring internally, good and evil get weird.
In the case of Afghanistan, the west speaks in such crude terms so often that we speak mostly of our fantasies and emotions, not often about them at all.
What we can say for sure is that many regular people were very upset with the way the newly elected leftist (and Soviet friendly) government treated traditional religious establishments – some of the outrages rolled out in the first few months were so great that even the Soviets were horrified, and tried their best to restrain their new ‘friends’ – and to be clear, absolutely UNLIKE the Spanish case, these institutions were not deeply involved in state corruption or odious fascism – what they absolutely were though, was key to Afghan culture and stability.
So – while we can reasonably assume the CIA went looking for the most motivated and organized factions they could find (as is their professional habit) we absolutely cannot assume that all who took their side were radical or extremist, many were simply outraged about really outrageous events.
The first phase of the Afghan war involved America arming the still always outgunned and out-spent Afghan Mujahideen, a loose alliance of diverse groups of rebels, some of whom were committed to specific local leaders, and some of whom were involved in more ambitious factions like Al Qaida, which the CIA adored and enriched greatly.
For the Afghan people to finally defeat the occupying Soviet Military was just as impressive a feat of arms as the stunning way the Vietnamese people had defeated the Americans, not so very long before. As an American veteran friend of mine once told me “We had the best technology in the world – and they beat us with pointed sticks!”
But, having served its strategic purpose, American interest in Afghanistan waned – and the rebel groups which had become so expert at violence did not prove capable of establishing central government and a functional economy. We have a memory about six months wide, so we forget this – but when the Taliban, (who had been trained in Saudi Funded Madrassas in the Tribal Areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, mostly to serve the geostrategic needs of Pakistani intelligence) first swept aside the chaos of old mujahideen groups left over from the war, many citizens were hopeful they represented stability and peace at last.
Roads could be travelled, without having to pay a bribe every few miles, as you passed through another bandit’s territory. Economic activity began to pick up. The cultural cost, which was almost entirely due to the fact that the Taliban had been schooled in intolerant Saudi style Islam, instead of the far more open and diverse approach to Islam which was long established in Afghan tradition, began to weigh more and more heavily over time. We forget this too, but some parts of Afghanistan resisted the Taliban successfully and maintained what many would argue was a more genuine Afghan approach, throughout this period.
When the United States was attacked on September eleventh, the government took huge pains to make sure no one could accuse the Saudis of involvement. Not because they weren’t involved, but because they had no plans for how to run the American economy well enough to get re-elected, without Saudi Oil. On the other hand, the population was really upset – someone had to feel a big dose of wrath, to soothe all of the people who were shocked to find themselves suddenly afraid.
Again – because we don’t do memory here anymore, I have to remind people – the Afghan government did not in fact refuse to hand Osama Bin Laden over for American prosecution. All they did was ask for some (literally any) evidence he was involved. This was made to seem shocking and outrageous by our even then hysterical media, but it is a diplomatic convention rightly followed by most modern states, mostly to prevent corrupt regimes from extraditing legitimate refugees, or unjustly persecuting political opponents. It’s a freedom thing folks, which they honoured and we then declared war against.
America responded as if the Taliban had planned the attack themselves – which is absolutely not true in any way, nor did any in American government ever think so.
The largest group who had held out against repressive Taliban rule, the “Northern Alliance” were used, some say quite cynically, by the Americans, as a powerful and flexible ‘irregular force’ to help drive the Taliban out of power. I can’t help thinking of the way the Kurds were used by the US in Iraq, fought so bravely for decades, and were betrayed yet again. Their saying “We have no friends but the mountains” ought to be top of mind, whenever American ‘consultants’ offer their help.
To be clear, the plan was always to betray the Kurds, Turkey is a key strategic ally, they were always expendable pawns by comparison (in terms of American geostrategic thinking – very much NOT my own). But since that betrayal happened on the watch of the Donald, some momentary attention was paid to the tragedy and the vast and lasting stain of dishonour.
But what no one in North America seems to have noticed is that those who did manage to defy the Taliban right through their ascendancy, and then fought courageously with the Americans, to drive the Taliban out, were betrayed no less thoroughly in the end by their supposed ‘friends’ from afar. And yes of course the Taliban remembers who gave them the most trouble, and so of course these people, most interested in the rich diverse tradition of Afghanistan, and most sympathetic to us in many ways, are suffering in particular, as we cozy westerners now enjoy casually fulminating against the entire Afghan people, instead of objecting to the specific policies and damaging influence of radical Saudis and Pakistani spies.
If we cared about Afghan women, we would have punished Joe Biden for stealing the national assets of Afghanistan, to use them as repayment for a war crime which Afghanistan had nothing to do with. Somewhere in the state department (and then again somewhere else at CIA) there is a nice little graph showing how many human beings will for sure starve to death, and how many will simply suffer lifelong damage from malnutrition, as a result of this “Bold Ethical Move” by that geriatric hack.
Seriously folks – when we smile and say seizing assets, or imposing sanctions – what we really mean is – lets lynch way more foreigners. And hooray for that, right? Isn’t killing how we cave-people have always sought to be sure that good triumphs in the end?
Or is that whole idea – that force is how right is achieved in the world – not just wrong, but proven wrong a million times? (Honestly, are we just doomed to repeat it? Should we say dumbed, instead?)
I’m not even done with the complications yet – because the world changed so fast between 1998 when Brezhinski gave his interview, proudly claiming credit for using the devastation of Afghanistan to bring down the Soviet Union, and the post 9/11 era of “Homeland Security” and a permanent war state, that there has been a determined effort since, to pretend he actually never said any of that.
You can read the book he was promoting at the time “The Grand Chessboard” it you want to get a detailed sense of his geostrategic ideas in that moment. But since we all move fast, I have a super critical link below, which includes all the controversial quotes, as well as a whitewashing tribute from his former colleagues (again – there are always clues in the account we least favour – and that is for sure where we are most likely to be ignorant).
The fact that such deep criticism of the war was suppressed by mainstream media, gave many anti-war people on the left the feeling that the state and the media were in cahoots to promote war itself. Sadly, many identified supporters of these wars in a very crude and stupid way as simply Christians, and then began an especially vitriolic attack on religion from a highly questionable (that is, still proudly murderous) “high ground”, which to this day willfully misses the point of faith altogether.
I mention this specific curiosity, a sort of ‘dog whistle’ misdirection code on the left, really, only because it is an example of how things can become mixed together in ignorance, and then solidified into a form of proud bigotry which has absolutely nothing to do with understanding, compassion or reality. Let alone any genuine or useful goals.
Just to review here for one second (since education really has gone to shit) – civil rights advances in America were accomplished mostly through the outright heroic organization and participation of massive volunteer Christian associations. Without them, there is no solid basis to believe it would have been accomplished. (Their non-violent approach won their movement overwhelming public sympathy, just as surely as later hippy tantrums completely squandered and then lost it).
I’m not trying to be a jerk, or to mess with anyone’s head here. I’m just saying, commitment to a higher good and a deep sense of moral purpose are not without their great and proven value for society as a whole. Forgetting this is disrespectful of their sacrifices, of history, and is also the kind of ignorance which keeps us locked in emotionally satisfying fantasy, instead of learning to better and better address the real world we all share (for fetters, or for bourse).
For some people, opposing the agenda of corporatist Republicans still means simply hating Christianity (and outright savouring that contempt). We who can hold two thoughts at once, should help those lazy people overcome that bias, so they stop their ignorant bullying of powerful natural allies, and maybe even learn a bit about commitment and purpose themselves.
Opposing war, opposing corporatism, opposing neoconservatism and neoliberalism? Religion ain’t that. Apples and ions.
EXCEPT in that our one true (and almost post-hypnotically denied) religion remains consumerism (again, see my recent podcast).
We who say we hate pollution and industry so fervently, still insist that industry must offer us a pre-packaged form of environmental virtue which does not even cost us significant inconvenience. That’s how much we’ll sacrifice in the name of saving the planet – we’re willing to switch brands. Take that, capitalism! The Yellow Vests already proved that more direct citizen controls are not going to cut it – NEXT! (and please go listen to Brel’s “Au Suivant” for the full spirit of this particular next).
Can we call a spirit of unrelenting fury and resentment progressive? Can we call it righteous humble and faithful? How many leftists have deep abiding love for the poor here and overseas, and how many really just hate rich people? How many Christians still humbly overcome their resentments, to champion even those members of the great family who don’t yet see it?
It isn’t about the team or faction anymore, my friends, we are all cheering for dehumanization and lethality, and we are all actively fooling ourselves. Doing it wrong. Rude, I know – but it has to be said.
We want to be able to follow, obey, conform, hate and cheer and jeer. We want to remain stupid angry children our entire lives, and yet we demand that no matter how messed-up, we must be regarded as the best thing ever seen on earth. The most perfect template for the entire world. Yikes!
Like I say, watching news now is like standing under a waterfall of never ending clues to a diagnosis which we would not in any case accept, for a potentially curable illness that we are firmly determined to let fester – even knowing this means forcing a thousand times more suffering on to our grandchildren. Painful.
Because this is a time of fear, and we are just as determined that it simply isn’t reasonable to expect us to open our eyes and get to work growing. Not yet, not us.
We’ll get to it, though. We’ll save that sorry world – after all who else but us, in all our righteous magnificence, possibly could? Yes indeedy-do, we’ll get to it just as soon as we can stop shivering in the corner in a fetal position sucking our thumbs, banging our heads comfortingly against the wall, wishing we were dinosaurs, and humming lullabies that used to scare us when we were wee tykes.
We got this. We really are the greatest thing on earth, just as long as we keep our eyes closed.
And if the poor people of the world don’t want to run their lives the way we tell them to, we should smite them but good! That’s a project worth billions, for sure! Like Hillary’s great mentor Madeline Albright famously said “What’s the point of having such a fabulous military if you don’t ever use it?”
Why build schools, when we can manufacture war machines and bombs instead, right? Just think of all the good our confidence in our righteousness can still accomplish in this world.
Because we’re um, the good guys. Just ask us (but please be kind and wait awhile until the meds kick in, before you actually go ahead and pose the question – ’cause neither one of us is liable to like the real answer you might accidentally get, if you don’t). ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Finally – to all my Muslim and especially Afghan friends – my apologies for all errors and omissions in tone, timing and detail – still grossly oversimplified I know, I’m just trying to take a very big block of Western igorance, and break it down into smaller (and hopefully somewhat less damagingly foolish) pieces, for which we still have some few memory anchors here.
In case you think I am off base in remarking on the depth of the rot in modern media, I have a recent gem of rare quality to offer. Taibbi has taken heat recently (no, the author of “Insane Clown President” is really not a Trumpie, folks), but he speaks for his smart skeptical independence rather well here.
I think this is one of the most entertaining debates in years – fun to see Malcolm Gladwell, representing the smug self serving institutions, more or less fill his diapers with manipulation, deliberate distortion and even repeated cheap-shot insults – and then be roundly (and deservedly) punished by the voting audience! (So rare you get to see just feedback, arrive that fast). For the impatient, the annoying Monk clip-reel is precisely 2:30 – introductions at 4:55 and the debate proper gets underway at 10:00
I’ve mentioned Scott Alexander before – he is both ridiculously smart (a physician and computer scientist), but also (far rarer) very open to being corrected, and thus getting smarter – and his readers help him and each other examine all kinds of interesting and unexpected perspectives on modern questions with unusual scientific rigour (they also often shed light on the very interesting conflicts between theories based on different conceptual models).
And finally – since it still takes us thirty years (at least) to begin to learn a lesson and admit we were lied to (and even then, we often retract that candid honesty later, in favour of more tactical and power serving stories, after the fact), here is the hard stuff on Brezhinski.
Whereas this one is a loving tribute (from another Rockefeller associate?) which makes him seem a great (but still thoroughly whitewashed) hero. Talented guy, for sure – but then, so was Edward Teller, right? (Are you loving the bomb yet?) ;o)
I had several ideas about how to approach an introduction for this podcast, but since I have compiled an unusually deep and rich trove of references this time, I will keep it shorter than my usual.
My subject today is huge and important – what happened to our hearts and souls during the twentieth century, and why does that damage still hurt us all so much now, despite all the changes since?
I have at least a dozen books on my shelf with pieces of this argument, but I haven’t seen anyone take this particular run through before, and I hope you find it both stimulating and ultimately inspiring.
But as usual, I’m not interested in denial or ignorance. I think we find hope with our eyes open, or we are really only magnifying fantasies, and thus failing in our duty to enjoy and enhance the actual world.
Fury is incredibly popular stuff right now, so are hopelessness and alienation. I am convinced that we can do much better, and I don’t ignore thermodynamics, capitalism, or cultural strife to get there.
I fear I will test my political friends in some places, and my religious friends in others, but I hope that you will be patient with me, and understand that I am trying to show you new foundations, allies and possibilities, and not ever just casually offend your sensibilities.
I love the world, and I love a lot of people in the world, who can’t stop hating each other.
Believe me, I know I’m an idiot. But even for an idiot like me, that still feels like duty.
Love and learning to all (and ENJOY the special treasure trove of links below the podcast)
Alan Watts may be one of the sweetest most helpful and completely misunderstood people ever.
Robert Bly is above all else a truly superb and genuine poet. The fact that his poetic quest lead him to ask what happened to our rituals of becoming, in a very deep way, revealed a strange schism in the progressive left which yawns wider today than ever, and does great damage to many worthy causes. Can you make progress just by labelling one group bad and another victims? No you can not. I do understand many are again convinced that this approach is helpful, but they should have been taught a bit of history, so they could put their energies into something less utterly doomed.
In Bly’s case, he formed a men’s group to explore the question of passing into man-hood, leaving behind childish Peter Pan fantasy and taking on duty of care and strength for others, happily and well.
Every culture in the world which has lasted for more than a few generations has some kind of ritual for this, and it is extremely helpful, psychologically. In our culture we no longer give men respect when they behave responsibly, or even encourage them to grow into strength and caring for others.
The crazy thing is that when he began this work, he found himself in the middle of a firestorm of opposition from feminists, who objected to the idea that men needed any help at all (that is, not feminists who see all people as people – but that weird subset who see men as morally less-than, in other words, proud and unapologetic progressive bigots).
Bly was not a sexist, and he wanted men to be better to women, not worse, so the objections in every way missed the intention and effects of his work, which is still carried on today, and still helps many.
On the other hand, he was not impressed with the state of our caring and our thinking.
Something smart and juicy, that you really haven’t ever heard about the Inklings!
I shared this truly important essay with my facebook friends not so long ago, but I want to offer it again here, because it belongs in this context especially. The ideas which CS Lewis explored in his unknown novel (discussed herein) again give us an especially bracing anchor in time, for a whole complex of horrors which sometimes feel as if they just snuck up on us yesterday.
Is another incredibly early clear view of the mess we are in – and describes a lot of our cultural and governmental problems brilliantly, without any of the distracting specifics of our technology needed.
What I said about Alan Watts in the talk, this guy says in a whole book. It’s not him, it’s us!
Take this one in small sips or at a gallop – just drink some, then come back and drink some more (you won’t ever stop thinking about his insightful and shockingly early arguments about our folly).
And here’s another ‘tone of the times’ gem – from a couple of names many will recognize.
Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries – give a remarkably rich and nuanced look at the strange colony of refugee European artists who all found themselves drawn to Hollywood, during the second world war, and then used their wonderings and means to draw others there, for answers.
W Somerset Maugham is one of the great writers of the twentieth century, sometimes overlooked (out of fashion) but perceptive in a way far in advance of his time. Master craftsman too – prose clinic.
The Razor’s Edge may have aged less well that some of his other work, because our age knows far more of other faiths, than his. But part of that is due to his influence, curiosity and compelling heart.
Kipling is a library unto himself. Impossible to say all the must reads (especially because every time I lend a gem away, it becomes too beloved to the borrower, for them ever to return it). ;o)
“Kim” for sure. Proof that you can write a book about adult themes, in a way that engages kids fully.
Langston Hughes Autobiography contains inspiring witness of the cultural jewel of the roaring twenties – the Harlem renaissance, along with much else of value which we too easily forget, when thinking about times we have struggled, risen, and then been done down again.
Finally, I can’t help mentioning Norman Spinrad.
His eighties novel “Little Heroes” had more insight into the social consequences of social media than I have yet seen reflected in – drumroll please – the sum of all the critiques on social media itself!
But then, science fiction always was for saying the thing that was so true it was rude (and hilarious).
I have several large projects about history, spirit, art and understanding underway right now. I am learning a great deal as I work on them, and try to resolve the many contradictions raised, and it feels as if I am making some genuine progress in difficult understandings. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the curious results, soon. But for today I want to talk just a bit about the weirdness and difficulty many questers face, just by setting out at all.
To be clear, there are plenty of quests which are misguided, foolish and even counter productive, and anyone who is always entirely certain that they are NOT in this camp, is really tempting the Murphic forces of the universe to find some hilariously dramatic way to prove otherwise (strictly for educational purposes, of course). ;o)
It is also really important to note that not all quests take a loud dramatic attention-seeking form. Some truly heroic effects are achieved through modest patience and dedication, applied over a long period. But if you are wired up in that funny way that makes you want to do something difficult and unusual, which might help to make the world a bit better, you need to gather a few key elements together, before you can really get started.
Most importantly, you need to have enough love to be bothered. This might sound corny, but I put this one first for a reason. There are lots of people who want to change the world who do not anchor this in love. But that is really about achieving our own emotional satisfaction, often at the expense of harm done to others. An exercise in ego and cruelty is not a quest. That’s cathartic at best (and sad, too).
Confusing these two very different feelings and forces is incredibly common nowadays, I’m tempted to say that advertising works against us, but I really mean the self-advertising falsity of social media. On some low days, it feels as if the counterfeit quester is a hundred times more common than the genuine article. But the genuine article still exists, and even though any of us might be deceived and taken-in by haters for awhile, it isn’t that hard to feel the warning undercurrent, if we check our hearts with modesty and remain steadfast lovers always.
So yes, I’m talking about love quests here, and I don’t care a bit how sappy that sounds.
Trying to make the world a little better isn’t trivial. We do this right, putting the world ahead of our emotions opinions and attitudes, or we shouldn’t do it at all, because doing it wrong just puts us back in that chaos boosting camp of narcissists, manipulators and sadists.
But having good contact with the vivid reality of our love, and having a sense of something which we might make better with some effort, are still not enough for us. We also need to feel that our effort will be understood by, or at least useful to, other people.
My younger friends will not remember a time when the left was the eternal laughing smart ass, and the right ever scowling, full of rules and categorical judgement. Nor will they have met a lot of people who believe that how you treat the people around you is way more important than which ridiculous and corrupt political sports team you favour. But these were both very normal, even in the late 20th century.
So it is important to understand that the whole idea of appealing only to our own little faction, and seeing everyone else as a dupe, an opponent, or an outright enemy, is not just socially destructive, lonely-making and bad for our metabolism (alienation just is), it again pushes us into the team of tantrum throwers who don’t care who gets hurt, instead of people whose love is more important than their anger.
In fact, if we step back and look with fresh eyes, we quickly realize that changing the world for the better HAS TO BE about learning how to respectfully and effectively address those who are not already convinced. Preaching to the choir is practise, not the big game. We’ve all had so much practise lately, we’ve almost forgotten the rules of the game itself, and lost the nerve and heart to play it anyhow.
The reason I talk so much about this ever-narrowing faction trap is that our senses have become badly distorted by electronic media, which amplifies some signals, dampens others, and channels most of our arguments into a format where both sides are importantly wrong and also completely unwilling to listen – all of which serves no one but that same American oligarchy which has grown grotesquely fat off two straight decades of using this internal division to cover continuous overseas warfare by corporate subcontract, and regrets absolutely none of it – not one shareholder dollar, lost hope, wasted chance, or innocent corpse.
So – when we’re thinking about the kind of distortions social media (and the multinational corporations which drive all ad media) set in front of us – making the moral consequences of war (which are always inescapable) seem invisible, whether it is to improve the way we see ourselves, or to improve the corporate profits of weapons pushers, proves outright evil effects very clearly, regardless of intent.
But my point is not to wind up with a gloomy insight here. My point is that in the old days we knew and spent a lot of time with people. We met for coffee, in bars, in parks, at libraries and bookstores. We talked to strangers, we read, we got a sense of how other people in the world felt in a sweet slow way that required effort – but those efforts also gave us huge and durable emotional connection rewards.
Now, when we ask ourselves “how many hearts out there, would be reached by this piece of work?” for example, we can very easily end up with an impression that owes a lot to greed-heads like Bezos and Zuck, and a whole lot less to our favourite greasy spoon server, or the newsagent down at the corner (a now extinct tribe which once had an uncannily sharp sense of urban reality).
What I’m saying is that all of us (me, very much included), are suffering from an artificial and manipulating vision, which is now so powerful that it can very easily displace our more balanced and human centred senses altogether, if we let it. Which means that the bleakness we so often feel is proven and obvious, is actually itself a part of an engineered falsehood. The manipulation of our voices does not and can not ever give us a more moral world, but instead produces a false sense of isolation which can transform our most sincere and hopeful aspirations into bitterness and anger, if left too long alone to fester.
I know I’m sort of dancing in circles here (and apologize for it, truly) but the reason I ended up with this particular thought is that after writing a series of books about saving love, kindness, inspiration, forgiveness, art, wisdom and understanding (with a few choice small business tips thrown in, for good measure), and now stuck in the middle of jumping never ending technical hoops to bring out new editions, (and also multi-format standard vendor available Ebook editions) I find myself with a nagging doubt as to whether there is any meaningful group of people left out there that still cares much about any of those old ideas. Sometimes it feels as if I am merely footnoting the poetry of a vanished age and approach to life. A few details of value to future archaeologists, perhaps.
But to let my head get out there is crazy, of course. I know so many people who still put heart first, and thanks to my wonderful long city exploration and photography walks with Nada, I have confirmed that even in this weird new century, heart is still out there to be found any day of the week, all over the place, in every form you can imagine – if only we are willing to bring our hearts out and share them also.
Beyond that, I began that big project out of gratitude and appreciation for a whole group of beautiful friends and mentors, as a way for me to try to bring some tiny echo of their special quality to life for those who could not ever meet them. Nothing there has changed at all. And I bet this same heart-source anchor point is true for many of my creative friends, who might also be struggling right now.
I remain completely convinced that love is the point (both for how you live your life with others, and how things should be organized on a larger scale). Mind you, I am definitely and happily biased, since I am still completely head over heels in love. I also remain certain that any project begun from gratitude is worthwhile – my intention was never commercial – the point is not to address a ready market, but rather to add one small piece of sustenance to a quality of faith in the many good hearts around us all. Again, anchoring there helps – a high storm can rock you, but you will still be there in the morning.
DB Hawkes, a dear friend of mine who has introduced me to more of my favourite music than the next three keeners combined, and has been broadcasting on CIUT FM since 1987, maintains that you never want to dumb down your act, just to chase popularity. When you make your thing smart, you show your audience respect and you really do make them smarter also, by taking them along on your own learning journey. Do it long enough, and like him, you might even bring in an audience which is sick and tired of dumbed down (and/or Manichaean) everything, and will love you twice as much for being so inspiring, caring, wide-ranging and discerning.
Same thing applies to love – top to bottom. As I said earlier, we do our thing with open and caring hearts, or we should stay home and learn more, until we finally can. (be signal – not noise)
My audience isn’t muttering unwashed loveless web-trolls in basements, cynical policy wonks in back rooms, or any of the million other flavours of modern narcissists, who actively and continuously isolate themselves behind a wall of loneliness, by treating everyone around them as a resource, an obstacle to be defeated, or a mere thing.
My audience is not only numerous and all around the world, they are really beautiful – people like you – who have always been growing and are still trying to grow, and who, like me, want us all to actually DO better, and not just get in one last stupendously great round of “I told you so”, as the whole grand creaky edifice of civilization implodes around us. (not with a bang or whimper – but an offstage Big Bird prat fall, concluding with that one tin can lid that doesn’t ever quite want to stop doing circles). ;o)
So, when I take a deep breath and still my mind I know I have to be a little more patient with my old-man brain, take the time it takes to learn the necessary new tools and systems, and then bring you finely crafted new and true good things, with all the love and intelligence I can put into them, so that I can then move on to finishing the next set of projects with a light heart and step, unencumbered by unspoken residue or unmet duty.
Anger might be the spirit of the moment and even of this century so far. Criticism and division may well seem more important than building bonds of love and loyalty to some, though I am convinced that many young people are now coming to realize their hope and joy are always intertwined, and not ever to be given away lightly to any dogmatic preaching oldsters.
But love? Love is not ever going out of style – nothing else can replace it – and love has not ever been the wrong place to start and to finish.
My friends, please remember that and take heart, the next time you sit down at the keyboard, uncap the pen, open the drawing pad, lift the brush, click the shutter release, or purse those lips to blow true sweet and clear.
Of course love wants you doing this – and all the lovers in the world are on your side also. Sneer as they might, it is the doubters and the mud throwers who are the real losers, for outrunning all the love in their own lives, when it has always been ready and waiting to embrace them too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Here are two links for endless happy new stimulus – the first for DB’s superb and eclectic two hour Wednesday afternoon show Music with DB Hawkes – and the seconod for Club Ned – his amazing (and epic endurance) Saturday Midnight six-hour extravaganza, which he very deliberately times to go with the hour and the season. For many years, he even checked that he has his mood right, by bicycling around the city and listening as the (pre-recorded) show aired, to make sure that his two AM selections went down well at two AM, and especially that the dynamics of dawn were made far sweeter for any of his listeners who were also watching and experiencing it with him. Both of these shows are worth downloading regularly (and when he gets into a theme especially, you may very well find yourself with a whole folder of keepers with ultra-rare treats, that you just have to play for someone else who loves music).
Message – as distinct from presentation (top photo)
Over the last few years, I have spent a good bit of time and energy objecting to some of our most popular dehumanizing narratives. Some have been offended, and loudly insist that their own anger and theories of essential wrongness-by-category are more important than the real human beings they find around them. I will always oppose narcissistic thinking like this (the thinking not the people, as important a distinction as the sin not the sinner), because it is so far disconnected from compassion, that when heads are turned this way, and they are properly flattered (far more often with assurances their rage is sacred, than their character and aspiration) they will countenance any manner and scale of crime done in their name and feel themselves entirely virtuous, even as the casualties mount. Mob man is not that hard a mental disease to get going, but you can look a long way back in history for positive examples, in vain. Not our best trick or look.
As for spoiled westerners who are convinced their outrage is itself precious? We can argue fine points and angels on the head of a pin all day long – and I will always insist that we cannot ever solve (any of) our problems by increasing our hatred of others. Wrong tool, which really have no right to anyhow.
What’s more, for all our modern assertions of unprecedented moral awareness, we (people in general) actually used to know this stuff. We recognized the hazards of mass fury, because our dads, grand dads or great grand dads had been traumatized by the consequences of this mass-mind madness let off the leash, the last time whole societies forgot we mustn’t simply hate, but instead must always seek, refresh and revere a broad practical and welcoming middle ground.
But once you take direct experience of disaster a few generations out, people begin to lose their connection to the lessons we were not ever supposed to forget. We start to think ourselves different – assert that those old limits do not apply to us, because we, uniquely in all human history mind you, no longer contain those old psychic poisons.
Sadly, this is the exact most-foolish delusion which creates and then grows the dangerous conditions we find ourselves in once again.
What humans actually are is bigger more complex and nuanced than any modern popular theories allow for. We are far more beautiful, tragic, amazing, despicable, hilarious, outstanding and mediocre than we are now capable of acknowledging out loud, and some have lost the capacity to even see this richness, as we insist that our representations are more important than what they are representing. Understanding takes work, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to suspend judgement, to allow for more subtle and insightful forms of witness, it needs empathy.
None of these are convenient, they don’t flatter us directly, or give us an instant homoeopathically dilute hit of dopamine. Nor are they useful for the purposes of marketers who want to bamboozle and exploit us. They require slow cumulative effort – and this work is exactly the stuff from which human character has always been built, as we overcome our own pettiness, and gratefully appreciate the extraordinary richness joy and understanding which is added to our world, as we learn to better respect and connect with others around us, no matter their backgrounds, experience or beliefs.
You might think I’m making too big and unflattering an assertion about too many of us (and I am always open to questions there), but the symptoms of this popular style of thinking by dehumanized categories, rather than with compassion and direct reality first, are everywhere around us.
I’ll give you a little one first, then get everyone way more mad at me with some sacred cow tipping, afterward. ;o)
Wrought Iron Nature
The other day I saw two young reporters discussing a study which found that middle-aged men prioritized close friendships much less than women of the same age. They bantered just a bit, then lightly decided we just didn’t think it was worth the bother.
Because men can now be casually summed-up as emotionless oppressors, rapists in waiting, exploiters, colonizers, male-gazers – just contemptible shit-heaps, really – or so one insanely toxic line of thinking runs (as if the widespread psychological abuse of young boys, by gleeful believers in this vicious paradigm, many of whom enter the teaching profession, is not absolutely guaranteed by every psychological and spiritual principle we know, to perpetuate pain and trauma for another generation, and still further beyond that).
Now – that point about male friendships thinning-out in middle age is not only true but socially important. There is (always) the question of underused potential for contribution, the scale of which is staggering beyond our imagining (and proportionately hopeful, in a backhanded sort of way), and also the never before so well understood mental and physical health consequences associated with the general social isolation which is now normal for so many of us.
But since I am a middle aged man, let me try to respond to that point in a way which might actually help increase the understanding of others. Even in ‘sophisticated’ western cultures men have far fewer basic social conventions than women, which allow us to acceptably express our affection or to assert any kind of weakness or need. This is a long term project we men must work on and ultimately solve ourselves, of course (though the emotional progress of men in my lifetime, has been truly staggering), but young men in particular, would certainly have a far easier time of it, if there was more kind sharing from people who do have compassion expertise, and a great deal less sneering and categorical dehumanization (always foolish and dangerous anyhow, practically and spiritually).
As far as I’m concerned, the reason for this friendship problem is beyond obvious. Once you get to a certain age, you have been hurt so often, by so many failed attempts at connection, epic misunderstandings, backstabbers and false starts that you just stop trying. Not because you don’t consider friendship to be precious anymore – but because you just can’t take the heartbreak you can all too clearly anticipate.
It isn’t because we men don’t feel, it is because we feel way too much, but have no reliable ways to express any of this painful feeling, or common understandings with which we might overcome it together, and rebuild those deep nourishing friendship bonds in the process.
Too personal? No worries – let me try something far more general, which you can confirm for yourself in front of the television or computer tonight (and I bet you’ll laugh, if you try).
Do you like documentaries? I love them, and have my whole life (though they are no longer the important inspirational cultural events that things like Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” once were, long ago). But I have to say, even as our technology has improved by multiples, our viewpoint approach has actually gone backward, to an extraordinary degree.
If I see one more smug middle class westerner travel to the exotic anywhere, and describe to me its fabulous wonders, I may just puke!
Please don’t get me wrong – I LOVE the wonders, but why the hell don’t they ask someone who actually knows the whole culture?
If we really wanted to learn about say, India, we would listen to what intelligent and insightful people who live in India, (who also have enough experience of our culture to understand where we are all complete idiots about them), tell us what they think is interesting about their part of the world. Something which reveals a clue about our rich adaptive humanity.
What we end up learning all too often, is what sort of things an ignorant idiot like us finds titillating. Which is all about celebrating our ignorance, not India.
Conversely, if we westerners really wanted to learn a few helpful and interesting new things about ourselves, we have a vast resource which we either gag, or else trot out for performative ceremonial purposes, mostly to put other institutions down, for not having thought of it first.
What is England, Canada or America really like? Why don’t we simply (that is respectfully and sincerely) ask the people who now live here, who also understand how life works elsewhere? Many of them are aware of options which we smug westerners consider impossible, and have seen them work practically, to benefit many. They have also seen other forms of social foolishness, and understand our popular madnesses are not unique, but more of a home brew flavour of a basic human thing. They see what we get right far more easily than we do, too.
I’m now following a few different journalists who were hired precisely to provide some minority commentary, but were then fired because they weren’t being ‘the right kind of’ whatever they were hired to represent, according to the (of course smug western idiot) management.
Even the extraordinarily charismatic (and superb) Canadian national news anchor Lisa LaFlamme, who won the hearts of the entire country by going grey on national television, (becoming twice as beautiful, with her courage and solidarity) as we all suffered through covid lockdowns, and the loss of so many of our usual rituals and vanities, was fired as soon as the panic ended. Because, one can only conclude, to those smug idiots, she was no longer ‘the right kind of female’ voice.
What is this foolishness? Why do we keep finding ways to put abstract (albeit passionate) symbols, ahead of precious genuine human beings and reality?
I am convinced that a big part of it is a general loss of hope. When you start from hope, you know the responsible thing to do is plan. When you have a problem before you which has never before been solved, that means studying your ass off, to learn how things work, and then trying to figure out how to make them work better. My weird generation X was right on the interface between some lingering glimmers of childhood hope (already slightly nostalgic, but still accessible to us, because of many older folks with much wisdom and experience) and the brutalizing hopelessness with which every generation after us has been bombarded from the cradle.
The boomers did have the shock of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the future of their childhood was supposed to be a wealthy scientific utopia. For my generation, we worried desperately not only about the cold war nuclear threat, but acid rain, overpopulation, industrial contaminants and air pollution, for many years of our young lives – long long before we could vote or drink.
I am still trying to think of some way in which all of that worrying moved the needle (aside from inspiring a hilarious song about political corruption and pollution, when I was eleven).
Brute Force Delicacy
I can remember when recycling was introduced in our jurisdiction, with a ‘generous’ contribution from the coca cola company. I also noticed that other provinces which were holding out, were insisting on a high proportion of the soda in their region being sold in recyclable glass bottles.
Not us though, we got a free round of blue boxes from the soda giant (cost them less than a quarter million dollars), and in exchange we lifted our own glass bottle proportion rules, and let the whole industry flood the market (and world) with megatons of aluminum and plastic bottles instead. (megatons really is the right scale-descriptor for this, isn’t it?)
I’ve watched people respond to this public virtue program for years now, with great interest. I’m sure you all know a few who are recycling scolds, and will give you shit if you don’t get every single package in the correct container, even if they just changed what goes where a week ago!
But it never occurred to me to ask – how do we close this loop, and bring all of this material back into use again?
The answer is, we don’t. We’ve been lying about this program for years, shipping our ‘recyclables’ overseas to make them someone else’s problem. As if the Philippines, (which finally had enough of this, and sent an entire ship load back to us) has a better technological infrastructure for high-end low-pollution materials conversion than we do in Canada.
Way beyond crazy, (colonialist, to a tee) and also grossly dishonest. To do this right, we would be mandating specific materials with known chemical conversion paths and follow-on uses (with proven commercial viability, to truly close the loop), and also requiring adequate processing capacity to destroy the exact same volume of material as that produced and sold within any given region. That is, we would clean up our own mess, (instead of being psychopaths about it) by using hope, planning it carefully, and making it all actually work for real.
Some recycled material is brought back into the production cycle, but there is always a serious energy added cost to doing this. The main thing we ought to realize is that even if we were doing recycling ideally and entirely honestly (which no one is, anywhere) that would still only accomplish three percent of the materials consumption change which many now say is required, to keep the atmosphere from getting even more dangerously unstable.
So – wait, what? The same people who tell us the world is doomed if we don’t let them start throttling the economy and throwing billions into severe food scarcity and poverty (yes, more smug idiots, but this time insisting that the only moral course is genocide) also know perfectly well that the only direct tools they’ve given citizens so far, are completely irrelevant, compared to the damage done by the destruction of recycling requirements which were already built into legislation which was utterly destroyed, right when we started it? WTF?
We’ve now spent decades feeling virtuous and involved, while making no significant difference at all (in fact, making things worse, by drifting ever further from reality).
Makes me think of that legendary marketing campaign by Duncan Hines. They were trying to get women to stop cooking from raw ingredients, and instead use far more profitable factory packaged food, but no matter how great they made the flavour of their cake powder, women of the time simply did not find it satisfying to bake it for their families.
Not until they changed the directions and required that the baker crack one egg and add it to the powder and water. That was it, just one egg – but on a psychological level, that one cracked egg felt like putting care into the baking, and made their product an early breakout factory food hit.
We all love to feel we’re really doing something. Very few of us bother looking all the way upstream to see whether it actually achieves the results we suppose.
If you believe farmers (who want to feed people) are radical kooks, and the WEF (who want to radically reduce the human population) are sweet progressives, Well then buddy, have I got a bridge for you!
Let’s try something to upset those self-obsessed clean-fingernail spoiled middle-classsers who fraudulently call themselves left, nowadays. You want to know the most perfect definition of ‘settler mentality’ or ‘colonial arrogance’? Their assertion that what is wrong with the working class is that they have not had their racist sexist ableist classist morality interrogated and judged by a Spanish Inquisition of unqualified alienated imbalanced ignorant theoretical university blowhards, who are convinced that things like vocabulary and morality rise always in direct proportion (absurd). And far worse, that virtue is achieved not by developing capability and overcoming our own limits, but through causing damage to others, proudly and repeatedly. Power-Tripping Juxtapositional Visigoths.
The basic presumption of individual rights within working and educational institutions is now almost completely gone, in favour of a denouncement and grievance priority. Cui Bono? Who Profits? Institutional power, which finally has the trap door of doom they have always wanted to silence dissent. Anyone deemed unprofitable, (or troublesomely principled and moral, for that matter) can now be reliably ejected without anyone daring to stand in their defence, for any moral flaw which can be found anywhere in their long semi-permanent online record. (this is actually worse than the Spanish inquisition in a way, because we are denied the defences of personal growth and merciful forgetfulness – and our lives are falsely compressed into a single besmirched moment, like no actual lives ever are).
My friends, healing and compassion are incredibly important social priorities (far more about this, soon), but you do not stop the farmers from planting the crops, just because people who like to pontificate in fashionable bakeries are upset (not unless you want a whole lot more people to be upset in a much bigger way, very soon after).
If this whole pretend-morality of denouncement wasn’t a bourgeois, destructive, dehumanizing, working class oppression play, it would feel like loving outreach and growth, the only forces which have been proven to reliably heal, educate and bind us humans in love. Not fear, intimidation and what a poet friend of mine once brilliantly described as “Theft of pleasure”.
Every time someone types the hashtag # symbol, they are breezily asserting that the six million human beings who died (so far) in the Congo, thanks to weapons and bullets that our consumer demand absolutely paid for, just to make our cellphones cheap enough to be disposable, do not matter. To begin by saying six million lives don’t matter at all to you, but then follow that with the assertion that they do matter, is just weird. Not paying attention to reality. Not noticing that words are not a logic-puzzle game, they are supposed to attach to meaningful behaviour.
And I’m truly sorry to be so harsh about this, but, every time someone who says they ‘hate big oil’ pulls into a gas station, they are saying, “Bomb a Yemeni kid for me today, frack something, and in a few years, please flood a few pretty coastal holiday towns for me, will ya?” This by their own stated moral framework mind you, not mine. How do we close THIS loop?
The destabilization of atmospheric homeostasis (a still simplified, but more representative way of describing our challenge) has been roughly understood for decades now. We have so called green parties, so called environmentalists, a whole ton of brats and media tantrums – and the result of decades of heroic posturing and hopeless youngsters is that our emissions are still steadily rising.
So how come the tantrumistas are still buying cars, and remain pathetic junkies for Congo-cidal cellphones? Still enjoying air travel vacations and consumer luxuries? Do we really want to save the planet, or do we actually want to assert our absolute right as westerners, to personally benefit from what we, in other contexts, describe as outright murder? There is a limit of one per customer.
Seriously – if we’re so concerned about the environment, how come we haven’t even got a campaign to completely ban gasoline leaf blowers yet? No technology on earth is more immediately obnoxious or more widely hated – and the motors on those damnable things are so inefficient, they give off more pollution than modern CARS (I wish I was kidding). Surely someone who truly gave a shit would at least propose that one tiny step as a good and wildly popular start (and then keep hammering on it, until it finally passed, so we could all get a bit of sleep on Sunday mornings again).
Lull in midtown weekday traffic
Tragically, the end-point of popular environmentalism as it stands, is actually a demand to end democracy. The sentiment is “I want someone to force others who don’t agree with my principles to live by them anyhow, even though I don’t believe in them enough myself to choose to make those sacrifices, and demonstrate sustained lifestyle contentment without the perks.”
Even the widespread idea that the earth has a ‘natural carrying capacity’ of around five hundred million people, which I am guilty of having said myself, I must confess up front, is based on the idea that those people must of course keep on behaving stupidly. What about the option where we show better behaviour? Demonstrate some character and principle?
Yes our western rich have ripped-off our domestic middle and working classes for decades, but we’re still rich compared to many overseas. We have surplus. You should see the other guy.
Problem is, if we keep on pleading for that “Stark Fist of Removal” long enough, there are plenty of rich and powerful scumbags out there who will be happy to take things away from us – our political voice in particular – and then gather up all those proxies, and use them to press home the vicious and sustained economic attack we have so long pursued against the global south.
They will give us an egg to break, and we can throw shit at a painting and be widely celebrated, because this is a world of shallow performative imbeciles. But they will not ever sell us a hammer that can break through their door, or a digital tool, with which we can truly challenge their power.
If there really was a mass movement for environmental sanity, anywhere in the western world, you would know that because they would have spent the last thirty years straight, acting from (and cumulatively building) hope, which is to say planning and working their asses off. Not on “this makes me feel good” projects, but on actually following all the way down to the source, and making sure the entire system actually WORKS.
I hate to say it but – planning like a responsible manager (who wanted to deserve to keep their job).
The difference is simple. One way we get to feel heroic and grandiose, as we keep losing ground (and biosphere resilience) forever, until we finally hit crop failures and mass scale human die-offs. (might we fairly dub this the righteous genocide path?)
The other way, we get over ourselves and train the heck out of ourselves, to be the kind of people who can (and do) actually make it. (That is – way less whiny and self-important, way more capable, scientifically literate, patient, cooperative and compassionate – which, not incidentally, also means living incomparably happier and more meaningful lives).
The panic we so widely feel, comes because we refuse to see our true hope – each other – as brothers and sisters – and instead seek righteous hatred and division most and first, even where nothing but our own overcoming love would ever suffice, by our very own moral standards.
We can do better than this. Where we are most ignorant, a real person that a powerful creep or corporation has trained us to hate or dismiss, can easily teach us and help us grow.
This is completely symmetrical, to be clear. Those who start from emotion can often heal hurt hearts who the more stoic and practical could never reach. But I can’t help noticing that the people I know who are gun owners, also tend to own and know how to use advanced tools in abundance. The very range of practical techniques which are required to make hopeful visions into manifest realities.
So many potential community resources are turned sour with our mutual suspicion and simplification, instead of understood and respected for both difference and high capability.
Now I’m going to be a really dumb white boy for a minute and ask a question of my Chinese friends. Was there a movement in Chinese history which sought to abolish one half of the monad? A cult of Yang only perhaps, and a grand assertion that balance was no longer necessary?
I honestly don’t know the answer to this question, and would not trust the English language internet to give me an answer which would seem relevant in a Chinese context anyhow (why I put it in the form of an actual, not just a rhetorical, question). But I would predict the results (even if Yin alone was favoured) to be disaster.
And I can’t help thinking that we’re pretty much running that experiment in the mirrorless neolib free-fall breakdown west right now. Arrogantly pretending that we, unlike all previous self-designated sophisticated humans, have finally transcended any need for humility and balance.
Which actually makes a pretty sweet and economical definition of hubris, doesn’t it? Goeth before a fair? Goethe before a fart? No wait, I’m close though, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I’ve been thinking for many years about how we westerners with many more comforts and luxuries are consistently less happy than many people overseas, who have a great deal less stuff than us, but still tend to put considerably more emphasis on people and relationships. On a certain level, it might seem like I’ve answered the question in posing it that way – but there is nothing about our circumstances which actually prevents us from finding and creating joy with and for one another. We could do that with this, we just don’t.
Somehow, we sophisticated modern people find other things we’d rather do with most of our time (other than those few things which have always given humans the greatest, most consistent and lasting satisfaction, that is).
But why is that? What is the circuit in our head which interrupts the easy natural social connection many others still consider normal, so very often? (And I say this, allowing for the also important consideration that different generations here have had their own distinct characteristic expressions of and problems with alienation, for more than half a century now – ranging all the way from sociopathic narcissism and entitlement, to crushing insecurity and an emotional inability to face or participate in the public world at all).
I think a big part of it has to do with a crisis of belief in the west, which goes back a full century – to the still reverberating trauma of the first world war (and I’ll have much more to say about this, in my next podcast). But today I want to discuss a habit we continue, the advantages of which may actually have been conditional on a quality of belief we now lack.
“Adversarial Reasoning” is what we usually call it. And we are obscenely proud of ourselves for it (particularly considering its highly questionable results). There are certainly some cases where our primary considerations might be – what things are wrong with this statement, proposal, idea, or especially, deal? But there are also many more situations where we unwittingly burst a hope with this crude combative reflex, and thus deny ourselves the sweet humane thing which was to follow. And that thing could be anything slow and delicate, from a deep insight to a sensitive but profound human sharing, which might well have changed our life.
Now to be clear, I have done this foolish reflexive-derailing myself countless times, and it was only when I was old enough to find myself in the role of teacher, that I really began to understand how dim a student I had been, so many times in my early life. When we have a wrong idea stuck in our head, and someone else has a better one to offer us, there will always be a moment when we bristle.
The question is – can we slow that adversarial reflex down enough to learn to say – “What do you mean, exactly?” Which can be said respectfully, inviting new information which the other may have to offer us, rather than our far more common modern sneering variations of “Why should I?” (even consider a new idea). A cultural habit of creepy (and self-harming) arrogance, if ever there was one.
I actually had a funny new insight on this from a little feedback interchange, not so long ago. I have shared four longish things about the New York Times as parts of essays and podcasts in the last few months, and made one much shorter point most recently, to which I appended a few extra sources for further reading.
One of my friends objected that to disparage a great institution because they ran a guest editorial was “unhealthy.”
Now – let me first qualify here – I may slip, but I try very hard to draw clear distinctions between people and ideas. I also resist the Stalinist idea that political dissent is a form of mental illness – fun rhetoric, in a pugilistic sense – but this concept leads us in a direction none of us would enjoy – and so, is probably a linguistic habit worth avoiding.
Now, let me examine what’s wrong with the idea – this analysis having nothing to do with the worth, intelligence or mental health of the individual in question. (In fact, he speaks in a sort of aggressively confident clever-guy voice which I used myself for many years, but now regret, so precisely, that I am embarrassed by how much I need to hear, and think more about it).
Firstly – I must note that I never suggested a single article was itself a conclusive logical proof. But that approach is in any case a logical operation on abstracted word symbols, which ignores the specific meanings history and context the words are pointing to. Again, I try my best not to fall into this trap (which Korzybski characterizes with exhaustive (and exhausting) science (Semiotics), though William S Burroughs’ “Language is a virus from outer space” comes close, with admirable concision).
The editorial in the Times suggested that the United States (which now spends more than the next ten countries combined on defence) does not yet spend enough on war. The idea that this position is just an editorial like any other, at a time when the world is facing a serious threat of nuclear war, largely because arms companies like it that way, is quite simply bizarre. Disconnected from an inarguably crucial aspect of reality (survival itself).
Nobody I know ever once voted for perpetual nuclear brinkmanship. This whole century has been dedicated to never ending and unapologetic war-for-profit madness. Those with a memory will recall that the Times published plenty of CIA misinformation which helped justify first the Afghan and then the Iraq war (the Iraq war before that, too, come to think of it) – even though neither country had anything to do with the attack which so terrified America. They did later publish retractions and begin to question the false narratives they had originally promoted, years after entire countries were devastated, mind you – but they have consistently started from a war-positive (paper selling) position, again and again for decades. As I noted in one of my earlier swipes at the ‘Grey Lady’ the Times ran regular front page stories in the run-up to the American entry to the second world war, which they absolutely knew were written by a fervent Nazi – just because he had such great access!
I oppose war because I love people, human culture, and the workers and poor whose lives are always devastated by it. I am overjoyed that there are still many of faith who oppose conflict, just as I am heartened by many others who feel simple solidarity for those overseas who do not always make the news, but face hardships beyond our imagining and experience.
To be thorough – I will include a few links at the bottom, which come much closer to being ‘proof’ of the Times having a long history of complicity in Imperial violence, and to be clear I offer the interview only to introduce and direct toward the even more thorough book which is discussed therein.
The other referent my friend invoked was even funnier to me, in a way. He thought the WEF (Davos crew) were being unfairly disparaged because of that infamous “You will own nothing and be happy” (or black helicopter riding robots will be sent to your house to deal with you) editorial.
First off – allowing the “One bad apple…” principle – do we still remember what editors are, and are for? Does anybody think they ran that article for shits and giggles, or perhaps as an April Fools prank? And again – leaving aside the question of just how many terrifyingly out of touch articles an institution has to share before we consider it malign – let us please once again invoke specific context, and not pretend this is a problem of symbolic algebra, with a bunch of still undefined variables.
As far as I can tell, the WEF (World Economic Forum) was originally a way that NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations – like Greenpeace) tried to get a seat at the table with governments and industry, and has in recent decades, (NGOs now largely corrupted/coopted) become much more clearly focussed on reducing the legal power of national governments relative to international corporations – specifically, to lift them out of a position where any one nation can restrain them.
I’m not saying this because I read paranoid rantings (I do, but not on the subject of economic policy), I’m saying this because I read a whole bunch of their own literature, going back many years. Basically, the WEF are Bilderbergers who like photo ops – this public facing faux-friendly posture being yet another gambit for advantage, which has yet to prove it’s comparative worth in the field.
Ultimately, you can’t escape sounding like a conspiracy theorist when you talk about people who operate an international street gang on a level this rarefied (the American Legislative Exchange Council – ALEC – is another creepy project in the same general dystopian family, serving Americans of that same elite clientelle, by pitting money and lawyers directly against the public interest).
I triangulate my interest in the Davos group with my long meandering quest to figure out the quite extraordinary ‘great gaming’ working class elitist Canadian, Maurice Strong, who may yet be proven a hero or a skunk by history (and was one of the NGO-side founders of the WEF). I also return regularly to a sweet quote from that infamous socialist Adam Smith (yeah, the “Wealth of Nations” guy) who famously observed: “Gentlemen of the same profession do not meet together, except to conspire against the general public.”
So – no, that one editorial does not prove the institution is evil – but the institution declares itself so outright and explicitly, if you will only grant their own officially issued tripe the required patience (unless one actually does have a problem with the idea of democracy being more important than multinational corporations – in which case you have every possible reason to adore them).
Unsound ratiocination (rational=sound assessment of ratios of importance), I can’t help thinking, lies in mistaking an incomplete proof, for a proof of the opposite – and/or in completely ignoring what many would characterize as deliberate, mass scale, overtly anti-democratic evil, because a point of cleverness presents a chance for a “dunk”.
As an even better yield for this musing, I had this general insight hit me. One of the biggest problems with our adversarial reflex?
We use our cleverness, to defeat our wisdom.
And we don’t just do this half of the time, or some modest proportion like that – it’s more like the opening rudeness problem I was talking about above. When someone is trying to tell us something difficult and we insult their attempt, so we not only don’t hear it, but never even realize what we missed, by jumping-in with our own quick and confrontational insistence.
When our wisdom is trying to form a slow deep insight that we need, it can all too easily be derailed by our spring-loaded hostility. In fact – if we stay stressed (fearful, caffeinated, greedy, furious) most of the time, and use that stress to power our adversarial approach to new ideas people and thinking, we can rob ourselves of most of that wealth-in-life for years on end, without ever noticing we are actively doing anything. From there it is very easy to end up thinking the whole world is mean, or just plain hates us, even though we’ve actually been telling it we haven’t got the patience we’d need, to listen.
Now I opened with something kind of provocative, and I want to touch on it again, before I close (though I will go much deeper still, soon). I suggested that perhaps our adversarial mindset conferred an advantage when we began from common beliefs, which has faded steadily, as the depth of our western faith has eroded (over roughly the last century).
I am not saying anything for or against religion(s) here – I’m just saying that people with a central narrative which gives their lives meaning, live in a different world from people who cut and paste their meaning out of any old scrap they find – which is to say, the majority of us modern westerners. Like no other people on earth, our ideas, locations, relationships and viewpoints change rapidly, and for many, continuously, over our whole lives. Which leaves us comparatively rootless, with only the anchors we declare. (And again, like the questionable benefits of our adversarial reflexes, the assumption that abstract platonic ideals are adequate anchors for humans, looks less and less reasonable, the longer we run the experiment. Some might even suggest the soul-ache increases with each subsequent ‘floating’ generation which has been forced to participate).
I often think of a couple of African friends, the incredible weight of responsibility they shouldered, and their fantastic ability to laugh and savour, without getting lost in our modern games of spiralling self-doubt (a kind of negative narcissism, really). They never did stop being amazed by how miserable we all found ways to be, even though we enjoyed extraordinary plenty and opportunity compared to most. Both of these guys worked roughly twice as much as most of my (urban) Canadian born friends too, because they both had many family members here and back home who were counting on them.
Curiously, they also seemed to enjoy everything twice as much. As if to demonstrate that if you face the real stuff head-on, you needn’t disrupt your pleasure with malign introspection, as some form of grand abstract penance (as even a majority of atheists here are wont to do). That outward facing habit also leaves you looking up and out instead of down and in, which means you are far better positioned to notice life’s transitory offerings – so often in the form of a new and instant friend or chance.
Their beliefs were complicated, impossible to simplify clearly, within our cultural frame – but they both absolutely knew they had precious extended family in their dear home place, two real anchors entirely distinct from abstract beliefs. Anchors which the majority of us modern westerners lack. (I even proposed to my dear wife on the steps of an actual castle, because I was worried that anything less spectacular and unique would be knocked down and replaced with something hideous, long before we had a chance to get old and sentimental together).
For a man like them, who fetishizes no extra doubt, because he knows exactly what he is struggling sacrificing and working for – and it is self-evident duty to others, and not mere service to his own ego – an adversarial approach is almost like a sense of humour. A life-enhancing spice, which works best when we feel well anchored in care and broader meaning, and so know just where it belongs.
With that love-grounding we humans know when to confront, when to be quiet because it’s time for the little ones to go to bed, and when to set such adversarial thinking aside completely, because making new friends, having simple fun, and truly experiencing awe with our whole being – are not things that poor people do, because they can’t afford the latest big screen televisions.
They are things truly rich people do, because they haven’t had their heads trained for sneering, emptied with alienation, or filled up with doubt. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And now – here are a few links with some extra information about the specifics invoked.
Their bulk-upload feature is welcome, but decidedly imprecise, so this means a lot of editing and locating of lost pictures, to fill in embarrassing blanks
However – because they do not (yet) hassle me about charges for storage space or traffic – I have also been able to restore my full set of “Hard Truth and a Big Hug” podcasts, all the way back to the first episode(which retroactively-amusingly proves Catherine and I were well ‘ahead of trend’ on funky masks – and also includes a nice long bedtime reading from “Stymie and Toffel” at the foot of the post) – I’ve added new links to those now-live podcasts pages here, so you can finally listen to shows which sounded tempting, but proved most vexingly deleted! (apologies – always turned over to make space for newer shows, never dropped to spare myself embarrassment or to self-censor).
Still working on fine tuning all of the earlier stuff (quite a bit more than I realized), but the last three full years of posts (essays, podcasts, artists, photos, songs, poems, and politics) are now complete and looking rather pretty over on substack.
I will have some big announcements about Large Ess books and more, very soon. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, thank you all most sincerely (always, even when I don’t say it) for your thoughtful attention.
I can’t make my current flow without your connection to complete the circuit!
Cheers, grazie, danke, xiexie and merci beaucoup mon amis! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This is a very passionate moment – a lot of people are incredibly upset – and there are a lot of good reasons to be upset. But our peculiar western vanities and self-delusions have never before been quite so dangerous. Truth actually does matter – you can’t steer without a clear view of what is outside your windshield – but right now most of us have our eyes closed in panic and/or rage. The question of where we went wrong to get to this furious place is very complex, and I have far more nuanced and detailed things to say about that coming soon. For today I mostly want to make a few functional observations to set up my main point.
Humans are animals. We have finite life-spans, capacities and attention. We wish a lot, but we get much less than that done.
There were a lot of things wrong with older models of citizenship – and there was a lot of unfairness built into the old power structures which sat at the top of them (imagine having to ask your manager for permission to get married, or risk losing your job – that kind of petty paternalism is only a bit more than a half century back, even in the advanced and ‘freedom loving’ Canada and the US).
BUT – in the old model of citizenship (which has been deliberately eroded by corporatists and monopolists for roughly a century now – but really started to be obliterated as our dominant culture only after the second world war) we were citizens with rights. Government was not our boss or parent, they were the structure to which we as adults granted (or from which we withheld) our collective will as citizens, depending on how well they were serving our greater interests (or, especially more recently, how good a PR team they could deploy).
I’m not saying anything about levels of honesty injustice and corruption (a separate, vast topic) I’m talking only about our attitude toward the nation states of which we are a part by birth or by effort.
You don’t meet very many CITIZENS anymore. But if your eyes are open, you know it when you do, almost instantly. They laugh, they listen, they are interested, and they like to do useful stuff that helps – especially if they can cooperate and help build teams in so doing. And they are happiest of all if they can help get some inertia going, so more good work, learning and cooperation flows from that well founded start.
Almost all of us now spend almost all of our time thinking like consumers, but a consumer is an altogether more feeble and helpless creature in every way. When we don’t like something, we think our only job is to complain to the supplier. We don’t think like builders whose work was thwarted by a slacker team-mate, we go directly into asshole customer mode. Demand that our (most often conflicted and thus nonsensical) consumer preferences simply be met – by that vast whatever that we don’t really want to think about or have much to do with. Star Trek fans will remember the haughty deity’s idea of a practical solution “Well then, just make a small adjustment to the gravitational constant of the universe.”
Even stranger (and so pathetic it is heartbreaking) we westerners have now spent generations bolstering our infantile fantasies of self-importance – assuring one another gravely that our deep inner feelings about things are all incredibly important. Perhaps for a brand, our feelings really are a key consideration. If life actually was nothing but a cluster of marketing relationships, our cultivated and maximized petulance might conceivably serve some political purpose.
The problem is – the government isn’t the supplier – WE ARE. They only have the tax money we pay them, the authority we vote for, the resources we consider theirs to distribute and the rules which we (citizens) are willing to authorize. Nothing is theirs but what we allow them.
We can clearly see that they do not care at all whether we respect them, they require only our compliance – and they outright love our imbecilic branding mentality, because it means they no longer have to deliver the slightest bit of governmental competence to win our votes – all they need to do now is to reach in and make us ‘feel.’
A citizen doesn’t operate like that, because a citizen is an adult with met needs and understood limits, who knows – how I feel inside is almost irrelevant – using whatever strength I have to help solve our common problems in the external world is what really counts.
As I mentioned above, a citizen also laughs a lot easier, this is because they recognize how often and easily our feelings can trick us, and how important it is to practise surrendering those deceptions with a laugh, when confronted with superior reality – so that we can always courageously engage in the most direct possible way with that reality and thus have the best possible hope of pushing it with our efforts. The alternative means circling endlessly inside our own hearts and heads in a private worrying whirlpool we consumers tend, almost like a garden!
You won’t ever get an abuser to suddenly become a helpful and nourishing life partner by complaining, pouting or begging, not by most powerful reason and almost never even by extended therapy – in fact, you usually need to seek out a new and healthy relationship before you can even begin to clearly see the extent of the hurt which you distorted your whole psyche, to so long accept.
Similarly – when you have two parties who are completely bought and paid for by sociopathic monopolists, it would be ridiculous to think one need only express the correct formulation of consumer demand to them, to have these demented and incestuous scoundrels suddenly say “You got us” and surrender the corrupting, lethal and parasitic scams which have served their tiny clique for generations.
We need a whole new relationship, where we don’t spend our political energy stomping, pouting, and looking for powerful tribal psychos to smite enemies. We need to rise as citizen-builders, demand government get out of the way of solution, and remember what democratic politics are for. (Not ever perfection – though pursuit of happiness was certainly mentioned. Death-cult for investor profit? Really not so much).
We have to find new ways to stand up on our own feet, so we can all help build the sort of strong and thriving society we all want to live in. Making it ourselves, is the only way we can live in something which reflects us. When we beg the powerful to make us feel better, they will always say yes, then create another (often even bigger) problem, to balance any advance they ‘generously’ give us (all the while taking full credit, as they use and skim OUR tax dollars and state power to do it). Sigh.
Now – before someone tries to miss the point by referencing finicky history, let me stop you right there to agree with the skeptical – yes, one very big part of our problem is probably built-in to humans in modern (that is, literate and industrial) societies. This part of it predates advertising, consumerism and all of our modern infantilizations – real (and cumulative) though those newer effects also are.
Here’s an observation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), which goes to a very similar place, without needing any of our modern arts or delusions.
“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts…
…The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. He is supported on crutches, but lacks so much support of muscle. He has a fine Geneva watch, but he fails of the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe; the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. His note-books impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit; the insurance-office increases the number of accidents; and it may be a question whether machinery does not encumber; whether we have not lost by refinement some energy, by a Christianity entrenched in establishments and forms, some vigour of wild virtue. For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?”
I’m too burned out to attempt a transposition today (and anyhow, western leftists are determinedly crazy and racist on the subject of 20th century communism) but I can’t help feeling there is an important clue to what went wrong with the USSR in Emerson’s question about Christianity. At what point do we delegate so much of our own necessary will and power to institutions, that our individual instincts for responsibility and general compassion begin to atrophy? When does the machine of society control so much of our range of thought and action, that our hearts are fundamentally oppressed, and we stop even hoping for real significant participation?
Long before we start caring more about our pets, than the dying children of the starving poor overseas – that’s for sure. And so, a great many years back for us modern westerners in all our conceited glory, without a doubt. Not so long ago, we really did care enough about famine to act to help the poor and suffering – go look up Biafra, and then ask yourself – how did a bunch of disgusting old time unreconstructed racists, sexists and capitalists manage to care so much more and more effectively than us? Do you see Tigray on the news every night? Do you know more about Taliban sexism, than the calculated starvation of Afghan women thanks to American theft of assets? Why do you think that is?
As I have been steadily fulminating against tribalism these last few years, I have had one excellent question put to me again and again from sincere friends in the middle, on the left and on the right, which deserves to be answered well. (but I’ll just have to do my best at it, in the meantime) ;o)
“Okay fine. Say everything you’re saying is true (and I’m not saying it is). What Can We Do About It?”
One part of the answer is to start thinking of ourselves as citizens instead of consumers. We are the ones who are supposed to steer, and learn to organize and cooperate to build the changes we want to see. We aren’t beggars – we aren’t serfs – and though some have been trying to push us in that evil mechanical hive direction for a century (go watch Chaplin’s “Modern Times” again) we are not the docile, threatened and invasively surveilled work units of a seamlessly propagandized and inescapable digital police state (quite yet).
I know – “still way too general, dude” – but don’t worry, I agree with you!
What can we do today that will actually help? I’ve got you there, too.
Break a pattern. Step outside your comfort zone. Leave the whirlpool which worries you aside for awhile and learn something new.
Most importantly MAKE A NEW (and different) FRIEND!
The reason we are so frightened right now is because we (correctly) feel that great forces are working against us, which we are too small weak and helpless to oppose. But the reason we are so angry right now, is because we are so proud of our ignorance about why we feel so small and divided.
We keep investing all of our energy into difference (tribe) and petulance (war) instead of civilization (compromise and cooperation – flawed as they always are), which remains a better answer for all of us, than any tribalist’s paranoid and vengeful agenda, fully realized.
Vast numbers of people on the left mock Q as a dangerous delusion. You know an even more dangerous delusion? The idea that Donald Trump owed his presidency to Vladimir Putin. Millions are now pushing the world directly toward nuclear war and thinking themselves righteous, because of that idiocy. The hazards of January sixth are NOTHING on this scale. I mean that seriously. Ratiocination (from which we get ‘rational’) is about clearly perceiving RATIOS OF IMPORTANCE.
The idea that Putin put Trump in power is simply not true. Plenty of things are wrong with Putin, but Trump isn’t one of them (and vice versa, for that matter).
Exactly like (and exactly as creepy and weird as) Q – that whole Russiagate conspiracy theory was the work of political operators – psychological warfare agents. Good ones, too. The Pee tape, the Alpha bank back-channel, secret meetings of an illegal treasonous or conspiratorial nature – all of these were completely fictional – and yet they were reported as if they were well-sourced fact for years, as if wishing and hating can make a thing so (not a position reporters, even at their worst, ever used to take). This alone should tell you corporate media is beyond rudderless and completely untrustworthy.
Trump did have more regard for Putin than most US presidents, and that struck many people as creepy. But we must also allow that as extreme as the full Q goes, Jeffery Epstein was real as can be, and he was not the only ultra rich person with ultra rich friends who got away with serial pedophilia for many years, while hundreds of rich and powerful friends willfully looked away. Weinstein’s predation was an open secret in Hollywood for decades, and the Nygard case is no less creepy than Epstein’s – though Nygard seems to have been a personal creep – whereas, from all the clues we have, Epstein was almost certainly operating an industrial scale honeytrap and blackmail ring for a foreign intelligence service (which is not likely to be named later). So shocking that he “killed himself” before he could testify, isn’t it? (one can all too easily imagine two or three independent assassins from different agencies bumping into one another in the hallway, in the interval between bed-checks.) This kind of real life weirdness makes people prone to consider a lot of possibilities they would have confidently ruled out, in a world without so much coverup lying and corruption. Those games actually make us paranoid.
Because I am a history nut, I have to note that the Democrats have used shrill red baiting and accusations of treason repeatedly, for electioneering purposes. Kennedy ran on a missile gap that did not ever exist (they literally suggested century old churches were actually disguised nuclear silos). Historians also widely agree Kennedy won against Nixon in 1960 because of corruption – Bill Daley, as much the boss as the Mayor of Chicago, absolutely did stuff the ballot boxes in his favour, and that was the thing that tipped the numbers in that cycle decisively. Sorry to bust up your Camelot This is the boomer equivalent of my younger friends heartbreaking discovery that Barrack Obama couldn’t even be bothered to forward a bill to codify Roe (though he ran on it) and called senior bankers (foxes) before he even took office, to ask them “Who would you like me to hire, to supervise you?” (run the henhouse) – we always sort of knew the glow was a fantasy, but it is still sad to lose such lustre, even for the sake of education and clarity.
I’ve read a couple of biographies of Nixon, so I can say he was already a paranoid and unprincipled operator (won his own first election by dishonestly smearing a woman he later described as one of the most honest politicians he ever knew). But you don’t have to be a psychologist to see that having massive corruption used against him, made him all the more determined to use any corrupt means he could, to win. Hyper paranoid and competitive people are like that. Poking the bear with a stick, is what the kid does in the fable, just before they are eaten (and then everyone listening to the story laughs, because the kid so obviously deserved it). Watergate was absolutely nuts – also – and an historic transgression in terms of cultural impact (the birth of modern cynicism). But in another way, a canny observer might almost have thought it inevitable. A simple Newtonian reaction.
As I have noted before – Any weapon you bring onto the battlefield which works, will very quickly be adopted by your opponent.
Curiously, there are still many ‘culture critics’ who assert that Nixon lost the election to Kennedy because he looked sweaty on television, and Kennedy looked great. Specialists have a funny tendency to think their special thing just has to be the most important factor in everything. (Psychiatrists, at their most patriarchal and power-mad cold war moment in the mid 1950s, asserted they should be put in charge of every branch of government – with a very similar restraint and modesty).
Trump was elected because he channelled working class anger effectively. The Democrats said the working class were deplorables who should shut the fuck up, then sabotaged their own best hope of channeling working class energy – Bernie. Instead they offered a grand shit sandwich – one of the most widely hated politicians in the history of America – who also happens to be a resolute and unwavering war monger. (A proud “Goldwater girl,” from way back).
When people from all over responded – “but we already told you we hate her, like, a lot” the rudderless idiots announced that anyone who didn’t love her was clearly a sexist, or a racist, or a Day-Glo vampire who drops kittens into toilets and leaves bottles of tabasco sauce uncapped, everywhere they go. You know, any contemptuous sneering bourgeois pile of shit thing they could think of to smear long screwed-over workers – who the sophisticated and professional modern Democrats obviously now consider disgusting unwashed peasants who should know and keep to their place. So much for a mainstream ‘left’ party. It isn’t privilege they miss – it is much simpler stuff like hope and dignity. (all common causes expressed in dissonant language, where we should be continually finding and emphasizing that common citizen interest, in the most wide open and embracing language we can find).
The main thing is – whatever you might think of Biden or Trump or Q or Russiagate – your neighbours did not suddenly become crazed brain eating zombies during covid lockdowns – notwithstanding the uncountable (and fast multiplying) panicky reports to the contrary. They are still about ninety nine percent like you (and ninety five percent like every other human on earth). Conflicted, worried, trying.
For many people around the world, the last couple of years have forced us to spend way too much time in our own whirlpools of worry – and we got fed lots of fear filled propaganda treats to churn the water enough to make our malign fantasies threaten to outright sink our happiness. But as a wise philosopher once said “DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE.”
The thing about making a friend who has a lot of ideas you don’t already agree with, is that no one on earth can teach you more of what you’re missing. What makes it challenging, is that we must break our habits of lazy toxic tribalist sneering, and figure out how to listen to them and share with them respectfully. That’s also an adult part of being a citizen – recognizing that this real person in this real moment is infinitely more important than any emotion-laden logical categories we have already established inside our heads. We are music, patterns of movement and relationship – not rocks!
I shouldn’t have to say this part – but I will, because we have become so bad at friendship in the west (and I have been fortunate enough to get a heart-filling reminder-lesson myself). Friendship takes time. It means spending time, and showing care. Almost any mutual interest will open the door. A craft or project of common value is a great way to start. A community barbecue? A citizens campaign for a new crosswalk? Fundraiser for the local rec centre? Photo club? Or maybe you just all enjoy playing poker on Saturday afternoons for nickels! The point is – don’t stay in your regular gang – make it an all-outsiders club, people who don’t quite ‘get’ each other, yet.
When we get spiritually lazy and allow ourselves to think in tribalist terms, we always reduce and dehumanize real human beings. Crude sorting categories help us more easily assume we have nothing in common – but that is very rarely true of any two people. Humans are amazingly complex, and over the years, I have found ways to connect with and build mutual respect with many, with whom I had very significant disagreement, in other areas. So and so was a lousy manager, but a great father, which I can respect. Or a great teacher but a shitty father (which takes more work). Thing is, if I want to help a great teacher become a better father, I have to find that respect path into his life and friendship, before my words become wise counsel, instead of an attack from outside his trusted circle.
I have spent my life on the left, and still go by the same principles of putting human needs and humane values ahead of the often destructive and capricious dictates of capital. But I have to say, the common tribalist assumption that there is nothing to learn from challenging thought from the other team is bizarre. This is not a wisdom of the left, as it is far too often thought, but a widely shared smug and ignorance-reinforcing form of bigotry (and yes, of course there are similarly unhelpful patterns on the right – but I’m speaking to the side of it I know).
You definitely can’t even try to claim to be the science team, if you don’t cheerfully invite any and all kinds of criticism and analysis of your theories, paradigms, proposals and policies. As anyone with half a memory will remember – the anti-allopathy left invented the long established anti vaxxing mania, not the right – hence the recent resurgence of Polio – people stuck inside their own whirlpools of pain, and not thinking like well informed and responsible citizens about their part in steering the whole community.
I honestly believe that neither of the paranoid and restricted mindsets now popularly known as the left or the right are adequate for a compassionate and functional approach to reality. Put another way – both teams are quite correctly concerned about some genuine threats the other ignores, and also fearful out of proportion about some other stuff which is actually mostly a whirlpool of feelings. Each has half the puzzle, and half of the required technique.
You know the set of concerns we all share? Why doesn’t the money flow fairly anymore? How many of us will get decent work with which we can afford to buy a house – and how come investors get to skim the cream off every damn thing, and somehow we struggling scrabblers are stuck paying for their gold plated yachts? Why do we have competitive kill-or-be-killed capitalism for working and middle classes – and cushy taxpayer risk-buffered corporate welfare for the old money and investor classes?
I mean it. You really want to bring some people from the left and right who care about the state of the world together? Try meeting to talk about how citizens who do not have wealth can cooperate to regain their democratic power to steer their own governments and hold them to account, so that governments can again be made to restrain those corrupting monopolists who always try to use capitalism to profit most, from the greatest harm. We should remember that not so long ago such war profiteers were considered treasonous scum and shot – for established, excellent and socially beneficial reason.
Yeah, okay, maybe work on Saturday nickel poker for a year or two first – but you get the idea here, right?
Don’t start with your favourite angry flashpoints. Start by getting all the kids together to make preserves for everyone from that old fruit tree out back. Or perhaps cleaning out the garbage from the vacant lot, so they have a nice safe spot to play. Do something that makes things a little better, together.
And then wake up the next day and do it again.
As for the spirit to bring, each and every time? I can’t help thinking of one of my all time favourite ways to welcome a stranger into a warm fireside circle (from the Sufis – and I humbly paraphrase)
“Come sit with us and share what you have learned, and we will share our best with you.”
Because of two straight decades of unending criminal and corrupting warfare and a more recent revenue-model implosion (thanks mostly to the internet, which stole all the ad money), even the great reliable old commercial news outlets have been turned into servile dishonest propaganda shite pushers, for whirlpool obsessed consumerists. You can pick your favourite flavour of lifestyle outrage. Plain truth? Sorry, that model has been discontinued! (To be clear, the servility to dangerously unrestrained power thing happened to most outlets in a general way twenty years ago now, as an adaptation to war mentality, but the disappearance of objectivity has got much worse and more intense over the last five, thanks to the revenue drying up).
So – for those who aren’t satisfied with wide eyed pretty folk who read press releases uncritically and always ask the advice of (retired?) spies and military man(iacs) on all matters of importance, here are a few things with which to helpfully stretch the head.
I absolutely do not agree with all of these folks (and I have a few categories worth – to which this applies) but even when I find them completely wrong about almost everything, I find their arguments sincere and intelligent enough to be worth the exercise of refuting rationally. (And in some cases, as with all learners, I must adopt some of the insight I formerly despised, in order to address a reality which was helpfully expanded by the engagement). THIS IS THE POINT OF AN OPEN MIND (an approach to life, like friendship, which is rather moribund of late, hereabouts).
First off – in the completely useless category – you have to feature the Guardian, Mother Jones, and CNBC. At least as heartbreaking, the formerly useful ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Centre (which really did do sterling work for many decades) have all lost their way, with respect to science math and reciprocality. Institutional capture is real, and they are some of the really painful casualties of it.
NONE OF THIS IS ACCIDENTAL. The Guardian (and Glenn Greenwald in particular) made the US security state just as furious by publishing Snowden’s incredibly important revelations about recent American lies and war crimes, as the New York Times once did when it published Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers about corruption in the then ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. Both revealing in a way so clear it is grotesque, that just like every other damn war which has ever happened – especially in the last century – we citizen/consumers were all sold a giant pack of lies, and the liars turned decades of death into money and power for themselves (our expense and bloody hands, always).
For almost half a century, leftist publications ‘on both sides of the pond’ were (usually reasonably, and with historical grounding) consistently critical of the secret intelligence state and the great war machine at the heart of America and the European Colonial powers. I read reams of this stuff, from the subdued and rigorously sourced, to the somewhat imaginative theories, where available facts were incomplete. This is what free speech is for – challenging the abuse of power BEFORE it kills again. So we are not stuck as critics, endlessly complaining about the criminality of already accomplished recent history, but can finally advance one tiny step to the project of ending the ongoing damage and violence being done in our name and by our nation states, right now – along with that being planned long into the future.
To the paranoid power-freaks in the intelligence state and that tiny rulership class they serve, this sort of intelligent skeptical and perceptively critical media represented an existential danger. A force which kept trying over and over again to inform and energize the populace – and threatened to mobilize significant citizen opposition to their long habit of subversion and cooption of popular democratic will ‘for reasons of National Security’.
The really scary thought (for fogeys with a memory, like me) is that the Obama team has proven far better at effectively suppressing politically embarrassing dissidents than ultra paranoid cold war Nixon at his worst. The fact that Assange and Snowden are still being persecuted to this day (in Assange’s case, for violating American law while nowhere near America – which is beyond insane), quite simply proves that there has not been a principled leftist in power in America in decades. Not one. Please remember, it was the Clintons who turned the Democratic party into ‘Republican-lite’ giving Gingrich a green light to take the republicans far further to the right than they ever could have gone, if the dems still put workers ahead of Wall Street.
Watching the Guardian do a vicious hit-job on Jeremy Corbyn (which I read in depth, daily, with increasing disbelief) was the evidence which finally convinced me they had been completely coopted by a faction of foul war and mammon. (I have since seen far more detailed reporting on the way their wise old hands were all pushed out in favour of credulous new ideologues – very similar to the purging of the NYT, as described by Gurri).
So – here’s the way my mind works. It breaks my heart to see my old favourite paper acting in a determined way to push leftists into frothing and demented support for the war profiteering state, and an outrageously racist geopolitical view so ignorant it is likely to lead directly to nuclear war. But I still read the Guardian fairly regularly – because I want to see the sort of crazy things I can expect many of my uncritical “leftist” friends to believe right about now. We still pay far too little attention to Pavlov.
Okay – now you have an idea of how (and how deeply) I read news, you can make much better use of (or confidently reject) my links, in the spirit intended.
High Frequency Sources (news and reality – as opposed to views and riffs)
I love this show, and while I have not yet subscribed, their free episodes are great, and I’m confident they offer even more to those who do. One person with left ideas I can often relate to, and another person with right ideas I mostly disagree with, but can understand the source and logic of. Both of them hate scammers, liars, idiots and incompetents. Which means they both kind of hate the state of both parties and all servile corporate media! (Not in a mean or petty way, just universally skeptical – like say, I don’t know, one of those old timey reporter thingies we used to have back in the day). The fact that they easily agree on a lot of things is hopeful and fun to watch. Again, there are more places were sane people meet than we imagine. Helps to see it done often and well. They even do really great passionate solo rants from time to time, when one of them has a particularly vexing issue to get into.
Where I tend to disagree with both of them is on American exceptionalist bias – but even there, they are far more considered and self-skeptical than most outlets – left or right.
For my friends who would rather read than watch or listen, Scheerpost is a special delight. As I mentioned recently, Robert Scheer was once a writer for and editor of the classic magazine ‘Ramparts’ and was more recently the main force at the Truthdig website. Much like Greenwald at the once important and objective Intercept, when management wanted to tack toward the tribalist, instead of the truth, he was ousted from an outlet of which he was the beating heart. BUT HE DID NOT STAY DOWN. And the website he has built since is a gathering place for a fantastic array of smart contrarian voices – just the sort of questions we need to hear, from people of serious heart and character.
Scheerpost also has one of the most vicious and excellent cartoonists working today – Mr Fish. With a line that can seem as innocent as Thurber, and a fire which burns more like dear old righteously cantankerous Ted Rall. (love some, hate some – but I salute him either way, for taking it to eleven). There are traces of American exceptionalism in some articles here – but also some of the finest challenges you will ever hear to that toxic (and dangerous, because reality-distorting) mindset
For even more of that most helpful challenge (and the superb Andrew Bacevitch, in large doses) it is also worth stopping at Tom Dispatch from time to time. Principled and scholarly military skepticism from experienced officers and people on the left who have opposed wars on principle for more than half a century, has a great deal of extra authority.
Responsible Statecraft is a far more mainstream (as in K street) take, but still worth looking at, to check on what some of the smarter people in Washington are considering.
Space Daily might seem an unlikely source for important regular news updates, but they have a whole cluster of websites, all linked, which serve the military-industrial-environmental complex in a shockingly direct way. So much more information than I ever would have believed remained open-source, post 9/11. (Old readers of Janes Defence weekly, will know what I mean). If you want to see what armies are actually researching, testing, buying and deploying, you’ll see it here (and if you subscribe long enough, they’ll even start inviting you to conferences on things like Small Modular Reactors and Hypersonic and Kinetic Weapon Systems). The best treat to look for on their large and various site? (tons of delicious detailed and up to date space-keener stuff aside), they regularly post essays on strategic thought from people who aren’t in our local war-cult. The world looks very different to India, Indonesia, Korea, China or Russia, just for a few examples – and we are way too self-absorbed to understand that, unless we apply constant informational correctives (Korean politics are almost as wild as their brilliant television dramas).
Matt Taibbi is a superb writer and reporter who I have mentioned before. Impressively smart and funny is always a charming combo – he is also wonderfully relentless when it comes to going after the powerful, and their special games of corruption. While working for ‘Rolling Stone’ he famously wrote a whole book about how investment banking was hurting America, in which he described Goldman Sachs as “A great Vampire Squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood-funnel into anything that smells like money!”
Like anyone trying to find the truth (and undermine the deceptive and self-flattering press releases from all sides) he has been attacked as both a fascist and a communist – but then nowadays, that seems to be a sign you’re doing something right (which is making liars, scammers and incompetents uncomfortable). Again – just like a – what did we call them? Oh yeah, an investigative reporter. He has also teamed up with some daring young street reporters who bring him stories which are absolutely verboten to the mainstream press. (The Black Lives Matter people marching WITH (not against) an armed white militia group, was a particular surprise, and while unsettling, also weirdly hopeful).
Glenn Greenwald has been attacked even more often than Taibbi, by people who are even more foolish. Why? Mostly because he won’t stop reporting, just because the majors hate the way he insisted that Hunter’s laptop was real, and also offered serious evidence of active corruption of the man who is now the sitting president of the United States. The fact that Greenwald was ABSOLUTELY CORRECT – has so far not made anyone apologize for turning on him.
There are some other reporters who cover the way the unelected parts of the American State bend their own rules in order to treat citizens unfairly – and especially to lie to the public about the realities of American foreign policy, but I don’t know any who have been so relentlessly focussed on this, with such a steady civil rights foundation as their compass. James Bamford and Chalmers Johnson once worked similar territory, in their slower book-paced way, but Greenwald stands rather lonely now.
Millions piled-on to hate him for saying something negative about sweet uncle Joe, just before an election. But the idea that he is a right-winger, when he risked the wrath of Bolsonaro and his supporters and doggedly rescued Lula DaSilva from a corrupt prosecution and brought him back to political viability, is either insanely racist (as if Brazil doesn’t count, only the states) or just insanely panicky (as if no other moments will ever count). He ain’t that. But he also isn’t going to shut up, just because the truth happens to be inconvenient. For which principle and courage I love the guy. His husband (the only openly gay minister sitting in Brazil’s right wing dominated government) has been very ill of late, so Glenn’s reporting has been sparse – here’s hoping hubby will recover speedily and completely, and Greenwald will be back to his best form in short order. There are almost too many kinds of corruption to write about in this moment, and a greater density of power serving lies than I have ever before known in my almost sixty years on earth. This is a job for Greenwald.
I have mentioned the fantastically insightful music (and social) critic Ted Gioia several times recently – you want his stuff in your in-box, smart and unexpected. Cultural insight without wide-eyed fantasy (and with hard numbers)
The giant hearted Caitlin Johnstone has also been mentioned recently – and is also good to have in your morning mail. Helps to know you aren’t the only one concerned about the madness.
To them I also have to add the superb “Stoic Observations” by Michael DC Bowen. He challenges my tribal habits more, but as a stoic, one never gets the feeling his takes are about self flattery or rationalization – he isn’t asking us to take any medicine he won’t accept himself, which I respect. He’s also beautifully well read and thoughtful – plus, like all of my favourite thinkers, he shares his process, shows earlier less refined versions of his big ideas, to point out how any of us can take up a weight of thought and interest any time we like, and with steady effort, tease more and more out of it over time.
Astral Codex Ten (Scott Alexander) is almost too smart – and his website is utterly delicious for the clever and well intentioned. His passions (and education) are in medicine and computer science (AI and prediction markets, in particular), and he has so many smart readers that when he asks questions like – “can we achieve the effects of a super expensive breakthrough drug using cheap and well understood off the shelf alternatives?” he not only gets back reams of hard data from practising physicians and researchers, he also gets a following wave of suggestions for more ways to analyze that data, to be sure the clearest and most useful answer is found. One of his long-term obsessions is “effective altruism” and the complexities which are involved in simply doing the most good with finite resources, are alone well worth a regular visit. Almost like a crowdsourced version of Scientific American (back when it was GREAT) only incomparably funnier and more inspiring.
Russell Brand is a happy kind of weird, and he is so enthusiastic he can be a bit offputting at first (especially to anyone with cult experience). But he is trying for something very helpful, with a level of energy openness and sincerity which is ultimately winning.
Very few figures in the modern “media landscape” (ugh, I hate our language) have done a better job than Brand of saying who they are in a way that feels honest and relatably flawed, but also truly welcomes challenging perspectives from others, whether or not they agree on substance or conclusions. Like Joe Rogan, Brand was a comedian first – making him a performer journalist – but I have heard him talk to people on the left and the right, and with his genuine interest, draw out what they have discovered which might be useful to others, where so many of our modern journalist-performers get stuck in a fly-trap of false moralizing and sanctimonious tribalist nonsense – and never do get to the point at all. Surprisingly, he does just as good a job on long pieces about meditation spirit and psyche, as he does on his short and more youth focussed political hits.
I also read some sources which will be particularly challenging for some of my leftist chums (more familiar to those in the centre or right of things) – and particularly energizing and helpful for others. Voices which bear no resemblance to the old left, but are smart as can be anyhow, and important to consider when we are thinking about our principled arguments with our friends with a more conservative perspective (yes there are plenty of rational positions held by many on that team, which have not recently been well represented from on high – just as with the sincere on the left).
Bari Weiss, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and now like Taibbi and Greenwald an independent on Substack, is a crazy good editor. It may be mostly due to the rapid contraction of the industry, and the concentration of good experienced writers into fewer paying markets, but I have been surprised by how many columnists (of widely varying opinions and voices) appreciated her fine work as their commissioning editor. She is also a damned good writer (far rarer now than it should be, in journalism). The fact that she takes a consistently conservative position on Israel means I find much with which to disagree, but her arguments are important to recognize and acknowledge even there, because they are hardly rare, and very rarely more coherently conveyed. Her perspective about the state of the culture wars provides a great deal of challenge which is currently missing from mainstream media. Some might find it outright offensive, but I can’t help thinking of that lovely old line: “To you I’m an atheist, but to god, I’m the loyal opposition.”
We really cannot hope to convince anyone skeptical, if we refuse to listen to them when they explain why they disagree. Like Taibbi and Greenwald, she has also reached out to hire other journalists and essayists to broaden her site and her coverage. I suspect she has the best phone book for this of the three, and she has introduced me to many other excellent writers. It seems even ‘sans patron’ her superb editorship continues, unabated. (Which is itself hopeful, whatever your tribe or thinking).
Tablet Magazine is specifically meant for a Jewish audience, and also has some politics I disagree with – but the quality of stories, and especially essays and editorials is unusually fine (superb design, too – very eye friendly).
Finally, for balance, Jacobin Magazine often rubs me the wrong way for being too (traditionally, and rather romantically) left. That old “They just didn’t do Marxism right” (utterly racist) nonsense. But they do have tons of great articles about leftist ideas and history, all the same.
Now for a few Podcasters who take their time and really get into topics in an intelligent and challenging way. (And yes, thankfully, youtube does remember your spot, when you have to pause a really long one, and finish it off the next day).
Glenn Loury is a regular stop for me, and I especially appreciate his conversations with John McWhorter. Two super intelligent black guys who aren’t interested in fetishizing victimhood, and don’t see the general demonization of American society as a way forward. Glenn is a top flight economist and professor who made his name characterizing social capital, with an eye to raising the prospects for blacks in America (on that old idea that you can’t promote what you can’t measure). John is a linguist with a wry sense of humour, so together they bring both mathematical and critical rigour to their wide ranging discussions. They are considerably mellower in some ways, and Glenn is unashamedly to the right, but their spirit still reminds me of the much missed Tavis Smiley show (curse those PBS racist scum). They want to raise people, hope and aspirations upward, instead of smashing institutions down to achieve cold grey poverty rations for everyone. He usually releases short teaser clips early in the week, but I wait for the long versions on Fridays.
Coleman Hughes is so young that he sometimes comes off as impossibly knowledgable – but I used to be able to do that trick as a young man myself. There really is something about being a maniac for learning, when your brain is in it’s softest, most open and fast-acquiring state. The motivated student (or autodidact) can add many more years of information than the clock might seem to allow for.
He’s also (as Coldxman) a great and very courageous musician. He first came to public attention when he testified before congress, to make a case AGAINST reparations for historical wrongs done to American blacks. The far better known (and senior) Ta Na-hesi Coates spoke on the ‘for’ side, and Coleman took a great deal of heat (from fellow rappers in particular) for his principled and altogether relatable stance. You can watch their actual testimony and feel the weight of the moment, but I especially like the stark super-powerful way he put it in his song “Blasphemy” (Dodging nothing – and absolutely superior “flow” too).
To me, Coleman is a superb reflection of what an especially smart young person can and probably does know about the modern world. There are places where he shows very understandable ignorance (like recent history that happened before he could form his own opinion of events, which we have yet to write into our history books in anything close to an honest way). But the questions he asks and the courage he shows are impressive and very hopeful indeed.
Before I get to some more traditional egghead types – I have to share one other black voice who represents a smart perspective which strongly contradicts the nearly monolithic (and grossly reductive) politics of the black democratic party political machine.
Doctor John Campbell has been the most consistent, scientific and compassionate voice on covid, for a very long time. For those with underlying health conditions which elevate their concern about the state of the bug, he has regular updates on what the latest science reveals, he shows and links to his sources, and he also (most commendably) notices that the world is a whole lot bigger than the rich west.
I can’t help thinking that had he been trusted with the bully pulpit, instead of figures who have clearly become more politician than physician, public trust that the system was trying its best would have been much higher, and always toxic panic, much lower.
Lawrence Krauss is brilliant – I mean that with no hyperbole, he is an accomplished physicist and a refreshingly skeptical materialist. He is also unfailingly civil, without ever yielding an important point, just to be polite (as some of us Canadians are woefully wont to do). But what I like most about him is the breadth of his curiosity. He is interested in art and cinema (his talk with Werner Herzog was superb – especially because Werner is so often stuck talking to half-wits), he is interested in politics and policy (his long piece with Michael Shellenberger is a great introduction to that lively heretic’s alternate take on big humanism. You have to at least listen to a guy who despises Malthus with such fervent passion!) and he is interested in people, and how their lives lead them to discover or contribute the work for which we know them. His podcast is called Origins – and sure enough, for fans of super-hero origin stories, this is a really nice gateway drug to take some of that playful hagiography out into the real world, where we can find models worth emulating (even if you don’t have super-powers).
I am still trying to figure out where Lex Fridman is coming from, exactly, but in just the last week he talked to both Ray Kurzweil and Will Sasso – talk about range! And I have greatly enjoyed many of his long and probing conversations with deep minds. Like Coleman Hughes, Fridman seems a bit young to know so much, but the combination of a comparatively young spirit and an old man’s trove of knowledge is exciting. He is extremely thoughtful and speaks with discipline and deliberation, bringing a perspective combining original and non-trivial insight into great literature and his own work in artificial intelligence. One gets the feeling that he follows debates on a whole range of deep questions and rejects distraction by trivia – wonderful to see in any public figure under fifty!
His conversations are LONG – but because he takes so much time, his guests are never rushed from one point to the next, in a way which makes you frustrated, because they never finished their thought (how is Charlie Rose, anyhow?) If you want to understand a controversial public figure about whom you have heard conflicting rumours, and you see their name on Lex’s site, chances are he can catch you up on their story and thought in a couple (or three) hours, in a surprisingly comprehensive way.
Brett Weinstein is another guy with such a sharp and well developed mind, his Dark Horse podcast is often thrilling to listen to, even when you disagree with him completely. He got in a lot of trouble because, as an evolutionary biologist, he expressed deep skepticism about things which even scientists are no longer allowed to be skeptical about. I have a feeling that the fact that his public career comes out of a traumatic culture shock, has made him a bit too fearless for his own good – and still he tilts – and smiles! (and his partner and wife, Heather Heyer, is if anything, an even more perceptive and fearless critic). If Chomsky was an evolutionary biologist…
And now finally, let me suggest an hilarious experiment I ran myself, just to reveal how much where you speak changes what you say.
Try looking up Jonathan Haidt on any of these podcaster’s sites. His exchange with Loury is almost combative in places – which helps bring a lot of lazy left bias – even in a guy who tries to study such unconscious bias – into sharp relief – as both acknowledge. When Haidt speaks to Hughes, there is a stimulating dialogue. On Fridman’s show, Haidt gets more pushback again, but in a sense clearly designed to prompt answers to questions which Haidt had not fully addressed, for a kind of skeptic Fridman personally best understood. So interesting.
Michael Shellenberger is a similarly varying interview (and fascinating, every time, even when you disagree). A part of me wants to say he is just plain wrong – but I actually know he is definitely right about some things, which makes me ask myself how much of my skepticism about others is long habit (or whirlpool fears) and how much is rigorous rational and principled. We have to ask and test ourselves this way, especially when we encounter someone who says – “No, being humane doesn’t look like what you think at all – it is actually over here, in a place where the scammers just don’t happen to make as much money, and the fools can’t sustain such comforting delusions.”
And if you think I’ve picked too many folks with critiques which are not rooted in the left – try doing that same “where can he say what?” search with the engaging and almost uniquely realistic Marxist, Adolph Reed!
Culture to Condos – not the change they wanted (top photo)
Discussion is one of those things that pretty much everyone can do. Then again, everyone with a voice can sing – but a far smaller set can do so in a way which pleases, moves or entertains others. Skill, study, practise and natural talent all apply.
Catherine first called me ‘Mister Curious’ back in the early eighties, and I consider myself very lucky that I am no less curious and enthusiastic about human effort, wisdom, technique and knowledge now, than I was as a confused but excited young man. It not only makes life itself more fun and interesting, but when curiosity is combined with respect, making new friends becomes much easier. You don’t have to fake an interest to seem cool, if you really are genuinely interested.
Funny thing though, I’m sure you’ve noticed it yourself. Excellence and expertise aren’t what they used to be – not in any field I know of. As an essayist and thinker I am a generalist, which means I try really hard to learn enough about a lot of things, to be able to sketch out some of the relationships between fields and the contexts in which their particular ideas exist, in a way which is not always evident to those who are extremely specialized, or to those too busy to ask such (often weird) questions.
Being any sort of halfway decent generalist comes with a very special condition – I know that at the end of any link I draw, are experts who can go much deeper in describing the anchors across which my link is stretched.
That is – I absolutely must begin with humility, and by conditioning any answer I offer with some ideas about context and about the derivation of my own proposed insight. I also have some fair expertise as a technician (useless though those skills have been rendered by time), so I have also had the experience of being the consulted expert myself, many thousands of times over a period of decades.
But I have to say, as ‘Mister Curious’ I have been repeatedly struck by how often experts I am talking to (in any field), do exactly what I try to do as a generalist – and even did by honourable professional habit as a technician. “Before I answer you, here’s what I don’t know and here’s what I can’t yet tell you.” When you acknowledge the limits to your understanding, you are at least suggesting that you have tested it against reality repeatedly, and taken note of the often humbling results.
The places where the trickiest questions lie, are where we outright need our experts. The question could be “Why won’t my phone hold a charge?” or “What is that lump?” If we actually knew the answer with useful certainty, we’d just stay home and fix it ourselves and save the time and money.
A doctor knows they have to base any firm diagnosis on freshly gathered relevant evidence, which then fits into a greater scientific paradigm, which suggests the results of many oft-repeated techniques as options from which they then must do their best to select the most appropriate, for that one case.
It is now quite common to observe great historical errors made in medicine, as if that somehow calls the entire science of medicine into question. But it is a very different thing to say “They don’t know everything” (which every doctor I know, freely admits), than it is to suggest “This particular technique has been misunderstood, and new and better experimental investigation would invalidate it.”
One is about how we feel, and one is about overcoming very normal human habits like group-think or profit-seeking, to be sure that the scientific method is being applied so as to overcome our anticipated human failings effectively.
Discussions of feelings are very different, aren’t they?
Right off the bat, the first thing we notice is that they aren’t limited. We don’t say, it seems to me, or I feel as if. We say THIS is a THAT! And often, we even believe it. And by THIS and THAT I mean the standard tribal game. THIS thing our enemies like, is precisely the same (in our imagination) as THAT hateful thing that all righteous good thinkers (of our tribe) must conform and abhor. Sinners, witches, heretics – all through history, humans have always loved to hang or a burn a non-conformist. Some might even argue that the celebration of shared cruelty is our most natural kind of festival.
We also start using all sorts of personal slights and cheap shots to insult those who say true things we really don’t want to hear. This is getting especially bad recently, and doing damage to everyone’s picture of reality. Sadly, “La la la, I can’t hear you” still has not been shown to have any measurable thermodynamic effect.
It does indeed limit the useful inputs contributing to the big hopper between our ears – but it can not ever change reality. Not ever. The long ago phrase “greasy kid’s stuff” comes to mind.
But the thing which I find most telling about these discussions, is that when you ask the person who is so very passionate and actively hateful about anyone who would dare oppose their super important ultra-correct position (on whatever), why it is that they feel so strongly about that position in particular, you realize they don’t actually have a working knowledge of the subject at all. No years of deep interest, no hours of challenging discussion and learning from wiser minds. They wouldn’t even know the expert vocabulary they are deploying (repetitively, in word-perfect order) if it wasn’t for the fact that an authority they happen to like ‘told them so.’ Which means, other than a demonstration of obedience to authority, all they really have to offer with their statements is strong personal emotion.
Now let me stop and qualify THIS argument, just for a second.
I’m not saying discussing our feelings about things is invalid, and I’m REALLY not saying that everyone should be like me (I hate that arrogant position more than almost any other I read – and I wouldn’t wish my crazy brain on anyone, anyhow). ;o)
PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT. Sorry, but they just are folks. Any attempt to judge individual human beings by broad categories is a way to make ourselves more stupid and to reject useful growthful and restorative human connection, for absolutely no benefit whatsoever. As someone who loves human beings and human knowledge, I can’t help thinking aggressively defended ignorant lonely unhappiness is pretty close to the worst result a way of thinking can give us. Sadly also popular.
Trust me, long before we get anywhere near to peace – no compassion, no justice.
This applies absolutely everywhere, to absolutely all of the both-sides-stupid arguments we keep wasting all of our supposedly political energy on. Some kids need more discipline and structure to thrive, some kids know exactly what to do with way more freedom. GET OVER IT. A rule that ignores this variance in favour of one idea only, is always very unfair to some.
This is about who the kid actually is – not what ANY adult around them thinks. They aren’t blank canvasses, theories, political footballs, or pets to pose with on insta. They are individual people who need our awareness and our help, to realize their potential. And this isn’t a political position either, I’m just talking evolution. We’re one of those species whose young stay in learning mode for an extended period. The more good stuff we can feed our children and youth, the more they’ll have to share with all of us in later years. No investment has ever been more direct, or more often misunderstood.
Likewise – the vast majority of the people around us just want to have a decent life, enjoy some nice time with friends and be remembered well. The idea that anyone who isn’t an active revolutionary (on whatever side you favour) is instead an evil zombie slave of ‘the hateful machine’ is so cold as to be very nearly genocidal. Definitely deeply paranoid, anti-humane (and probably objectively insane).
THE MATRIX WAS A (silly) MOVIE, folks. Meth-mind and political theory do not mix. (Honestly, didn’t we already suffer enough damage from three full generations of the wildly paranoid influence of BF Skinner, John Nash and RAND-think in general?)
Here is the tricky bit, the one that we either get right as a society, or else gets carved on our (civilizational) tombstone. Discussions about how to keep us all alive have to be the rational kind, and not the emotional. We need robust solutions. And we need to be smart enough to recognize and then demand to be able to vote for reality.
The split now, where leaders consider their populations so ignorant that they must be manipulated by distortions “For Their Own Good” is doing incredible damage to the fabric of our democracies. The leadership class we so long trusted for simple technocratic competence are proving that they have not even that to offer us anymore, but would nevertheless rather burn it all down, than cede power back to the populace itself by reversing the centralizing and authoritarian trends which have been rising for almost a quarter of a century, in what was once far more unironically the ‘free’ west.
Food, energy, safety, and yes, economic performance, are all things which can (and as we are now observing do) go catastrophically wrong, if we leave people in charge who feel things, without understanding or acknowledging the basic realities of their field.
Those strange critters who do know better but lie smoothly, we usually call politicians
Or at least, professional politicians. We also have quite a few in that role now who are very adept at the performance side, but have very little of the necessary knowledge. That is, they lie smoothly without knowing the truth at all, or even being appropriately ashamed that they don’t.
I know a lot of people still like how he feels about a lot of things, and I can still sympathize with that on some level, but many other Canadians are, like me, becoming rather horrified at how grotesquely unqualified, our relentlessly patronizing dynastic amateur boxer/bouncer/school teacher prime minister has proven to be.
It is now quite obvious that he does not understand his most important job as senior statesman is to represent the interests character and voters of the whole country at once. Worse, he is shameless in his sneering Central Urban arrogance, which means his ignorance does double damage to already greatly strained national unity (which was damaged by that same arrogance, at our very formation). Such a waste.
He staked his claim out of the gate on improving relations with our first nations people, but five years later, right on the heels of announcing tens (almost surely really hundreds) of billions in charitable donations to American arms manufacturers for defective novelties, he says clean drinking water for Canada’s first peoples will have to wait five MORE years. We’re not moving on to plans for advanced economic development and a native managed health system, to displace centuries of patronizing western intervention calling itself care, even while it comes at the end of a bayonet of state force – which horror still continues unabated in new forms (thousands still taken into state care every year). Nope – we’re still stuck all the way back at freakin’ drinking water. A competent leader would have done better. Priorities are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.
I’m sure he’s a charmer at a dinner party, but it is obvious that he is missing several thousand hours of history reading, and a deep interest in ethics. I’d have him start on Barbara Tuchman, then do all of Shirer. Everything by Orwell and Malraux as well – and that’s just for a start. Ignatieff could lend him some useful stuff from his library and his own pen also, were (the neither right, nor honourable) Justin sensible enough to seek further growth in the sort of wisdom needed to guide a society.
But of course – he would have to really want to know that sort of stuff – he’d need a genuine natural enthusiasm for statesmanship. He would need to be his own kind of mister curious for that cluster of subjects. Or else, just like any of us when outside of our interests, any crucial functional knowledge which was offered to him would probably just bounce off, mostly unheeded. Because there is no deep and well-nourished mental structure there, for him to plug it into.
Without pointing any fingers, I think my friends in many other countries will recognize their own shallow performers of this type (oddly many of whom have noteworthy hairstyles, for easy branding). ;o)
Which brings me to my last point. I have not yet read José Ortega y Gasset, and so far I have only read comparatively short pieces by Martin Gurri, but it seems increasingly clear that both of them identified something very strange about the direction of our increasingly atomized and conflicted modern take on democracy (particularly with advertising and mass media ascendant). Gurri, in a way which is right up to date with our latest political tempests.
More and more often, on left and right, from middle upper and working class, we hear casual sneering disdain for expertise and mastery.
Social media has a lot to do with this. We LOVE to tune-in to people who feel like we do, and can express powerful rationalizations for those feelings. In fact, we would much rather be lied-to by someone we like, than we would be challenged helpfully by someone whose beliefs we hold in disdain.
The thing is, a real scientist is someone who holds reality as the highest possible value. Their opinions are infinitely more informed than those of us outside their expertise, even their casual insights are often on a level of sophistication we would not know to notice. But still they recognize that a theory must FUNCTION when it is confronted by reality, or they must learn more and do better.
I used to describe this as the difference between a farmer and someone with a hobby garden. The farmer needs to keep the farm solvent and feed people – they can’t afford to try wild experiments with the main fields, or get too distracted to plant and harvest on time.
A whole lot more people can grow a pretty flower, than feed a town. And let’s face it – a whole lot of us struggle even to keep a potted plant going more than a season or two.
Fascinating as the world is, and curious as we may be, we can’t know everything. Some people are just fine without any expertise at all. Kindness and honour do not require it. Some have limited areas of deep knowledge. Some are broad and shallow.
But one thing all of us can do is step back and remember the difference between I feel and I know. From there, we can make an effort to understand that difference in others around us. Before letting your emotions get caught up, try asking yourself – who knows what they are talking about, and who is just really great at trash talking? They are not usually the same people. Mister drama cheers one, mister curious adores the other.
Now here’s another important qualifier. There is nothing wrong with sparring, trash-talking, and competition. That’s why we have sports, fashion, video games, talent shows and a million new kinds of adventuring and experience seeking. Humans need plenty of things which don’t seem strictly rational. Play is good for us! Helps us mark a day as ours.
But when we let the sport-emoting and the trash-talking silence the practical discussions we require to operate the complex systems we rely upon to survive, we all end up suffering (and also enable more damage to be done to others in our name). Not just because we have as citizens, taken our hand off the tiller, but also because even when we deny it, we register a deep inner shame – since we know full well that there are always creeps and weirdos waiting to gather and use our power for their own nasty purposes. The minute we stop paying responsible attention, we let them do that.
Now one more qualifier, in a somewhat more harsh direction. There is no coasting in any natural process – there is growth and there is decay.
I’m not talking about economic growth or growth of consumption – anyhow, it is now well established that past a surprisingly low point, more money does not bring us more happiness. I’m talking about the growth of each one of us as people and of our whole civilization, toward something which we both feel and know would be better to live in. A society in which we can be happier, freer, fairer, more reasonable, and not incidentally survive, long-term. We can’t be happy or sane if we aren’t even trying for it.
I mean the thing that used to be known as hope, a big goal, a forward vision. We cannot get from here to there by wishing, by hating, by tribal games, or by scorn. This is not a moral idea, I mean only that there are no cases in history where smashing magically became the same thing as building.
The only proven way we humans ever do truly do something much better than before, is by finding an aspirational reason we can share, and then learning and cooperating to get there. Simple as. (tee hee)
Growth takes effort, it means being a citizen instead of a consumer. And yes it means accepting the responsibility we all have, whether or not we would rather pretend away our own share, as someone else’s fault, force or fiat. We all must do, to add more of what we are sure there should be more of.
But growth also means never ending possibility for new connection, engagement, deep purpose and worthwhile work to do. All of which are infinitely closer to genuine functional happiness than stewing and fuming indefinitely, as a passive aggressive protest (tantrum). This isn’t a sneering diss, either, I saw this experiment run by many great but broken hearts, in my own generation X – they were very simply steamrollered. Muck on the tracks, a hundred miles back.
Decay? That’s what we’re doing now. Complain more about others we don’t understand, watch more TV and internet, consume more crap for which the poor are exploited overseas, self-medicate.
Elites and manipulators really do abound and they most definitely threaten all of us. But make no mistake, deep knowledge isn’t snobbery or power games, it is life-giving sap.
As for our uncountable popular forms of negative narcissistic obsession with hatred pain and sadness, instead of practical positive forward-looking solution-building?
They are not justice, and they are not greatness past or present, they are flame.
And we my dear friends are drought-stricken tinder (in both infinitely tragic senses) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I’m pretty sure that Matt Taibbi is the most consistently funny writer about serious topics alive, and well worth reading just for that. The fact that substack makes him more fearless than ever just makes him better, and also puts him in a good position to say more than many corporate-shackled reporters are allowed to.
From that odd place where the psychological, political, intellectual and spiritual (are supposed to) meet.
I’m working on my next podcast script, finding myself digging awfully deep and bringing in many other questions which I’ve been thinking about for years. I suppose it was a bit silly to think I could go after the profound without stepping into a puddle which was actually an abyss. ;o)
One small aspect of the big argument (which is itself big enough to want a show on it alone), is the weird (and once again wildly popular) linkage of oversimplification and excited passions.
There is a first order insight which comes to most, easily. We usually agree in principle that it is wrong for one group of people to say that the answers which work for them must become the only answers available to anyone, by legal force and/or social compulsion. State mind control, cults, fanatics, yuck!
The screwy thing about this first order insight is that though everyone bristles at the idea of this kind of a tyrannical majority in the abstract, we almost all have some cases in the real world where we fully agree, and some other cases where we scream blue murder. We actually don’t feel this as a principle, the way we once (arguably) did.
In these last few highly stressed and isolated years (which gave us a starting level of depleted love and humane connection and also badly boosted our bitterness) many have actually become so insistent that our absolutism be made bearing on everyone else, that I can’t even mention the most obvious modern cases.
Things which were once simple have now become pure trigger-land! (and the horizon is filled with pitchforks, and feral grins disfigure a heartbreaking number of familiar faces).
The second order insight is much less often observed.
Why do we mind if others see things differently? Why do we think we have a right to tell them how to interpret their experience of their own lives? What is it about us, that makes us so much better as to be their rightful correctors?
Most crucial of all – why do we so easily assert this idea as a righteous good, even while we are using language which absolutely proves that we hold those others whom we hope to “improve” in utter contempt?
That is – how can you be offering a love gift to someone you actually hate?
The answer is obvious. You can’t, we’re actually just denying our own hatred, abusing words of aspiration, and pretending that viciousness is a form of helping (much as we in the west have been pretending that sneering is a form of political action for a half century now, to our great discredit).
So – here’s a challenge, an experiment, really – just to see if some of my interesting friends and acquaintances can pile-on to refute (or at least moderate) this willful blindness which hurts our ability to cooperate with others, and thus leaves us fragmented individuals and micro-tribes, deeply alienated, resentful and at odds – easy pickings, when the greed mongers come to harvest lives (and souls) for profit. Because as we have known for thousands of years, no resistance is possible with no respect, honour, allies – and their special ultimate product – a unified and purposeful team.
(Why did you think multinational corporations were playing faction games, even while busting unions with a ruthlessness that reminds history buffs of a century ago – a massive upwelling of goodness?)
So – what can a few clever and/or curious seekers say about this foul and widespread inclination (and I mean the western ‘proselytization of pain’ tradition in particular, which is no less active in the left than in any sect of Christianity), which does reflect abundant and serious love for those whose views we would like to influence?
I’m not trying to be fake-nice or worse, do the whole politeness/fascism thing (cheers Bahar, for helping me think even more clearly and deeply about that point). This is not a challenge based on manners or control, but on EFFECT!
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a poor man who gets mistaken for a middle class liberal because I have a decent vocabulary, or if it is because I am of an artistic temperament, but trained as a technician (it has to WORK!) But I swear the part of our whole gigantic complex of modern false moralizing which drives me most nuts isn’t the falsity (though I don’t like that), the waste (again, not a fan) or even the pain caused to others (this irks me very very greatly indeed, but still)…
What drives me crazy about holier than thou false morality liberal nonsense is that it does not and cannot work, because whether we are discussing charity or the low morality of others, the subject is not ever really the people who are being discussed, but always the ego and emotions of the speaker.
If you aren’t genuinely interested in the other guy, then you have nothing useful to say to them. If you outright hate them, then you have decided by accepting your hate, to be their enemy, and they have no reason at all to trust or listen to you.
As long as we enter with (in fact, often because of) our smug bigotry, we aren’t working on creating lasting social change at all, what we’re doing is preening and displaying social plumage!
Now here’s my pitch.
If you need to have just one answer, that answer is easy – love more and grow more.
We aren’t going to get out of this mess smiting enemies, or by pretending that venting bile and bullying others is the same as honest self-expression.
I swear there are still ways (though I cannot attest to the safety of any compassionate act or position, at this late stage of self-involvement, bitterness and ego).
What do you think?
Am I delusional to hope we can still at least aspire to transcend this inner barbarism? Are you fuelling high-power love, in a way you think others could use? Can you share?
Can you say something about your opponent, which reflects a perspective of deeply loving hope?
Or, have we perhaps all decided not ever again to seek that level of maturity in one another on that cynical principle which shocks so many of us when we are young and hopeful, and first enter what we were sure was going to be a serious workplace. You remember the talk, don’t you? From the old timer who has been there forever and knows everything?
“Don’t work so hard, kid – you’ll make the rest of us look bad!”
And then you laugh. And then you see the look on his face and realize “oh shit, he isn’t even joking.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Hi folks, here’s a podcast I’ve been wanting to finish and share for quite awhile – part one of two about the way our sloppy mythologizing about the sixties has obscured notes of genuine promise, and also damaged our approach to legitimate protest ever since.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that when I finally started writing, I found myself with too much material for one single episode. That’s why this time I’m bringing Timothy Leary along to anchor my story. The next episode will go back even further to the roots of new age thinking, and I could think of no one better to invoke for that upcoming sequel episode than the unique “sincere scoundrel” Alan Watts.
There is one important thing about psychedelic culture and all forms of risky self-tempering that I didn’t manage to put into today’s episode – something which is really not said often enough.
Lots of people don’t need to break out of a mental trap. Enlightenment really isn’t for everyone.
The only way to get something from a struggle is to need it in just the right way – not because you want other people to think you’re cool, not because you want to seem something more than you are.
You can’t ever make someone else become enlightened, no matter how much you care or badger. You can’t become enlightened unless conditions inside you are adequate to support growing things.
Anyone who tries to shame you for choosing to decline is proving they haven’t learned the key compassion lessons from it themselves. Their scorn has no weight, since their stance is fraudulent.
Finally, as an enjoyably feisty local writer (Tara Henley) put it quite brilliantly in a recently piece, “Someone has to leave the drumming circle early and put the kids to bed.”
People who think their enlightenment comes before their duty to others are vain irresponsible fools.
Just because tens of millions of people think a thing – that doesn’t make it right. Ask their kids.
Note: The cutaway music in this episode comes from a sweet and trippy improvisation back in 1987 with my dear and much missed friends saxophonist Maury Coles and guitarist Rick Whitehead.
And now I want to link you to a few brilliant voices of the time who speak to it with special eloquence.
Instead he has built a site which gathers many principled and intelligent outcasts like himself so that their contrarian, but ever so important messages, can work together and give us many helpful clues.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” ― Carl Gustav Jung
I am actually a very cheerful, interested, friendly and enthusiastic guy – so I do sometimes pause and ask myself whether my central theme is in danger of becoming “Everybody is wrong about everything all of the time!” a position which, while fairly common, is not very helpful – most often a thinly disguised exercise in ego and tribalism, rather than a contribution to understanding or compassion.
But right away I’m instantly tangled up in a meta problem which we in the west energetically pretend does not exist (because we’ve been soaking in it so long, we truly cannot see it). I am in a minority of atheists for two reasons. First, I do not assume there is any moral difference between people who have or do not have faith. Lazy categorical sneering contempt could not possibly be a mark of intellectual or spiritual progress, though it is commonly associated with the noisiest of modern atheists.
The other thing which is weird about my atheism is that as a lifelong book-nut I have always understood that even if I stand outside of Christianity myself, my cultural inheritance and intellectual context is and has always been Christendom – both for better and for worse.
The hilarious (because obvious) self deception among so many flimsy atheists who hold themselves apart as if they are clearer and more moral thinkers is that they actually LOVE to indulge in the exact things they most often criticize in Christians – sanctimony and hypocrisy.
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” ― C.G. Jung
Now – to be clear, I dislike both of these unkind approaches myself – but I don’t dislike them only when they are used by one particular system of thought – I dislike them as methods, if you will, ways of acting in the world – because bad ideas and unprincipled approaches always hurt good people.
Does that mean that all the people who behave in such an unkind and self centred way are bad people? Hell no! We are all flawed, chaotic, complicated – amalgams of good and harmful drives which we are constantly struggling to steer, tame and balance. That’s the human condition – and has been for as long as we have records and stories to indicate.
The reason I find the ideas of Carl Jung so profoundly relevant for looking at the state of the almost completely alienated (and usually miserable) modern western individual, is that he talked often and wisely about what happens when we deny a part of ourselves, and pretend that a certain capacity or inclination for evil exists only in others. This form of willful ignorance (which also blocks full compassion) is both unbelievably dangerous, and now an almost universal feature of our discourse.
In that one sense I will say that yes – almost everyone is wrong about almost every one of our popular arguments, almost all of the time – because we almost always construct a frame that leaves ourselves out of the causes costs and consequences we wish to condemn. Rhetorically strong perhaps (for an audience of tribalists or children), but fundamentally dishonest – and quite useless for building.
I suspect that one reason we pretend ourselves into this trouble so easily and often is a byproduct of a certain sort of proselytizing confrontational Christian tradition which is every bit as active in the modern ultra-moralizing left, as it ever was in any sect of Christians (please tell me I’m not the only one who now hears bizarre jesuitical sophistry everywhere, even from people who once seemed sound and well-rooted in material reality).
Perhaps the strangest sharp-relief here is the juxtaposition of America spending the entire twenty first century ceaselessly at war with countries which did not attack it, ruining the lives of, maiming and/or outright murdering, millions upon millions of people of colour. While at the exact same time “Vanguard Progressive American Thought” has been lecturing everyone about micro-aggressions and reparations. Not – how about we stop actually killing more real human people right now and pause and think for a minute so we don’t go back to doing more of that again five (political) minutes later – but rather suggesting strongly that some active institutional mass violence is really not important – only that injustice which bothers people close to us or is most easily relatable.
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” ― C. G. Jung
I have spent my entire life reading voraciously. History always, science, math, philosophy and great and pulpy fiction too. I even had a few years where I read almost nothing but plays, as I tried to develop the skill required to write effective radio drama. But even though all of this reading lays down a heavy substrate of knowledge interpretation and theory, I still put personal witness first. The fact that I really like people and I’m not into cliques or BS means I have made friends with people from all around the world, and heard a whole treasury (that’s the only way I can look at it) of extraordinary first hand experiences which very few Canadians or Americans ever go through.
I probably see all of that deep sharing as a treasure because I am a writer, and having a library of sharp realities like that often helps me make points more clearly, even when writing fiction. But I especially adore discovering those key precision insights which can change our view on absolutely everything. Like a ‘telling detail’ or a punchy aphorism – economy and high function is an exciting combo.
One of my favourite laboratories for learning about the world was actually a working class version of a laboratory – the busy service shop of the biggest music store in the biggest city in Canada. Not only did we have a couple of fellows from Africa who taught me a great deal, and a mix of Americans and Canadians from right across the continent, we also had a couple of Russians who challenged me to improve my lazy leftist thinking in a whole range of ways which were very helpful for me (if we can’t distinguish between paths toward oppression and those leading toward liberation with the utmost clarity, the program is in real trouble).
I had particularly deep and interesting dialogues with the fellow who worked at the next bench to me – and over time we both developed considerable respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, even where we disagreed entirely about conclusions.
He gave me a wonderful insight into the crazy shenanigans of early post-Soviet Russian politics, and there again proved that even before we in the west somehow decided this would be a non-stop-war century, our news was already completely (and willfully) ignorant about the realities and perspectives of most people, pretty much anywhere else on earth – especially those people and places about which we editorialize endlessly! (I still return to Haaretz regularly to check local sentiments, for the same reason).
He also told me a few tiny little snippets about Soviet era thinking which seemed utterly profound to me – and then a few years later suddenly collapsed into weighing nothing at all, which instantly seemed EVEN MORE PROFOUND because of that change from seeming importance to utter implosion!
One observation was about how unreal it seemed to he and all his school mates when Brezhnev died. There was something so fundamentally supernatural about the way the man was portrayed to the public of the time that his death seemed almost impossible (on an emotional level).
The other was classic folk wisdom. When I asked how the Russian people were able to tolerate such demented leadership so often, he smiled and said, “Back in the days of the Tzar, the peasants always used to say the Tzar really was a good guy at heart, it was just those terrible advisers around him who were causing all the problems with everything.”
I bet at least half of you just did what I did at first. “Ah, the strange effects of the legacy of a peasant mentality, still active in a technological society!”
I will say first that there actually is a lot more than nothing to be asked or studied in that direction. Always remembering the touchstone “Variation between individuals exceeds variation between types,” the popular idealistic concept that different cultures do not have very different strategies and see different outcomes from them can only possibly be based on theory and ignorance. Talk to more people who are less like you, and you’ll learn better (and lots) real fast!
BUT – and here is where that ‘insight’ imploded – all through Clinton’s presidency I heard leftists excusing the destruction of welfare supports, prisons for profit, massive legislative gifts for the financial sector and the conversion of higher education into a form of financial predation on the young. Even when he sexually assaulted a young woman right in the Oval Office – proud feminist tribalists everywhere found ways to say that all other sexual assault was bad, but he was just being Bill after all. Rules are rules (and proof of character) right up until you need to bend them for the ruler you favour.
More recently, I keep seeing people online typing things like “I think Biden is really a classic centre left liberal at heart.” The Tzar is actually a great guy, it’s just all those darned schemers around him that prevent his beneficent sweetness from being showered upon the people. Peasant mentality?
The Iran Nuclear treaty – which everyone said Trump was foolish to abandon? (and I agreed) Still not done, and the chances for it are receding fast. Peace in Ukraine? The entire American state opposes it – financial, military, strategic and propagandist (media). They see all that death as a market.
The Russian army is doing something which is thoroughly horrifying to everyone who lives in the west – those smashed cities look just like our own, after all. But the clearest proof of the reverberations, costs and pain of that horror is buried in our own behaviour and denial. We are still freshly drenched in the blood of our own two decades of war – fighting resolutely against International law, the Geneva convention, national sovereignty, regional stability and the environment.
And to prove our moral high ground Biden has bespoke kneepads ready for his trip to beg the Saudis – because the stark reality is that when you add up the left and right, rich and poor, blanched and colourful, the American State as a whole remains a desperate pathetic junkie who will do absolutely any shameful thing for another hit of oil.
“Gotta get well!” (sorry, just couldn’t resist).
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” ― C.G. Jung
Where all the tribalists are wrong is in their common idea that there is such a thing as one correct mindset. We can (and should) distinguish between healthy and productive thinking and harmful or destructive mental traps, but as I have observed before – you’d be utterly amazed at how many different approaches you can take to designing an aircraft, which really do fly quite nicely! Same goes for being humane, clever, helpful or productive.
What’s more – and this used to be far more widely recognized – we are all much richer when we are different and cool about it – when we share our best freely, without constant spats about differences of opinion and interpretation. When we actively do freedom by offering it to others in the form of simple respect, instead of falling into the trap of sniping at others from a remote distance for failings which are usually well within the range of error of our optics! (unfair right on the surface of it, and in cases of extreme confidence, outright malevolent).
“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.” ― C. G. Jung
I encountered another mental image more recently that goes well with that lovely line from Jung. “The wake does not push the boat”
There are actually a lot more people asking the question – “what can I do right now which is moral and helpful?” – than any of us can easily understand. This is because the modern tribalist only thinks their own brand of hope is real hope, and we therefore habitually fail to value and recognize (let alone link up with and mutually strengthen) the positive aspirations of those in other cultural tribes.
Nobody wants to see civilization destroyed by global war, nobody wants to see the destabilized climate burn our species off the face of the earth.
I mean that. There are a few bits of corporate math which advocate for the desirability of both of these horrors, and we can all recognize that there is a small group of wildly over-empowered and essentially sociopathic business school graduates who act as a priestly caste advancing those fraudulent (but very profitable) entirely avoidable global catastrophes. But as long as we’re talking about ordinary working and middle class people who are trying to have a decent life and treat those around them well, we are actually way more in agreement than we think we are. So why do we spend so much of our energy fighting each other?
Because it is crucially important to the people who control the economy, own the press and corrupt the government with those outrageously sociopathic ideas, that we do not ever stop raging at one another for long enough to recognize their decadent corrupt aristocratic class for what it actually is – completely without any morality or humane principle whatsoever – and then unite as one in a popular front, to throw them all out!
Not such a sophisticated revolutionary program, I’ll admit. But it is at least clear, directed, purposeful and ambitious. I swear we are not going to get anywhere when it comes to working through the uncountable traumas of our history if we refuse to confront the immediate ongoing mass violence being done in our name all around the world for the sake of consumerism and energy hegemony – to nature, to the future we leave for our children, to other individual precious humans right now, and to the humane spirit itself. Controlling the lethal consequences of our own predation for consumption is job one, folks – and there is no one but us (citizens) who can do this necessary work.
“The System” – the whole creaking structure of our own irresponsibly delegated democratic power – technocratic sociopathy itself (which is fast getting worse, with the increasing content ‘supervailence’ of clumsy and inarticulate AI on behalf of interests already too powerful, and proven to be corrupting) somehow remains a subject highly resistant to precision aphorism – at least thus far.
Perhaps as one small clue to our insistence on math and hubris instead of clear sighted courage and great heart, someone far cleverer than I could provide me with a clear and spiffy algebraic plot indicating pi in the phase? (Got to start someplace, right?) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Hi friends. I have a whole bunch of things in the works which I will have ready to share with everyone soon. A few of them are hard-hitting and political, but the major pieces are all pure uplift – tales of love, gratitude, creativity and overcoming.
But I find myself at a low ebb emotionally, and I have a feeling I’m not the only one. So many things seem to be coming apart at once right now, that the cost of our casual destruction of common 20th century ideas like civility and broad camaraderie is really starting to cut deeply.
Loneliness was already a huge problem for every one of the richest countries on earth – and now it feels not just like distance, but outright and almost unlimited hostility. The only people who are doing just great are the ones who own all the channels, websites and newspapers which tell us that above all else we must always be sure to hate each other – weird huh?
Anyhow, I do more than enough on the state of the world. Today, feeling the sadness and fighting the helpless hopeless direction that feeling can lead to, I had a thought along the line of ‘take your own advice, dummy’.
So – what do I know about being upset and extra frustrated because I feel helpless? I know that when I find the world painful in this way, my best strategy is almost always to find some creative work in which to place some of that pain, in a revealing or consoling way which makes it useful to others.
“Make it count for something” may be a wildly overused Hollywood trope – but we don’t have to be in a dumb action movie to have struggles before us – large and small. We all need ways to wrestle our sadness down so we can get up in the morning and plant more seeds.
Since I have a lot of friends who are, like me, creatively inclined, I thought I’d have a look for some of my unpublished poetry – since I am as a rule much better at codifying clear thought than following it! (and surely not alone there, either) ;o)
I found a few sweet ones which spoke far more to this moment than they did to the moment in which I wrote them. Which reminded me once again that the universe really does give out (always oblique and somewhat wonky) participation trophies whenever we make almost any sincere effort – in the form of an extra funky reality to live inside! (Most definitely not available on InstaMeta or Amazon).
Growing up in a commune formed around ideas from psychotherapy, I’ve been interested in the way emotions work (and the amazing tricks our conscious minds play, to disguise their influence) for as long as I can remember. One of the reasons Sufi literature fascinated me from my first encounter is that they are masters at encapsulating a useful insight in a way so clear you can never forget it. Better still, they choose humour over anger as a primary tool – so the insight doesn’t just make us smarter, it also makes us chuckle in a forgiving way about our own ignorance, and that of those who don’t yet get it.
This is, to be clear, a far lower level and infinitely more obvious point about human dynamics than the subtle and sophisticated insights of the Sufis – but I still hope it is clear, useful and funny.
Here’s one I wrote almost a decade ago, considering the deep meaning of the increasingly hostile relationship between the state at all levels, and the increasingly bewildered and alienated individual. As with the poem above – sometimes we can make an essay worth of points more neatly in a tighter form.
As a guy who experienced a lot of loneliness and setback in my early years, I’ve always been sensitive to those being bullied silenced and misunderstood. One of the reasons some of my less perceptive friends now question my leftist credentials is that I hate it just as much when leftists bully the innocent as I do the other way around. I have seen this sort of ignorant unprincipled political bullying happen for decades, and I stand with (and up for) the bullied one in every case (and regard anyone who is both a bully and a leftist, of which there are uncountably many – as letting down the side).
What does this have to do with Basquiat? Everything, actually. Almost everything we hear about the man is either blind (and in no way respectful) adulation of him with no understanding, or a hostility (just as blind) based upon the fact that the art market made millions off his incredibly raw looking work.
But if you grew up as part of the underclass that came of age in the eighties, his stuff hits you like Goya’s famous “Third of May” which spoke so powerfully to its own time. The anger is visceral, relateable, and the revolutionary passion remains heartbreakingly beautiful all these many years later (still perhaps the strongest expression of this, of our modern age).
Finally, here’s one about coming to understand one’s self in a different way. Recognizing the strength of certain kinds of vulnerability, and the limits we often self-impose, seeking illusory emotional safety.
Be well. Don’t overshoot and hurt yourself. Extend into pleasure again gracefully (so many of us are off our usual levels of balance and fitness) – and for those still unable to go that far (as some dear to me remain) at very least peel off that mental fear-suit and enjoy the moment of great improvement.
Got to save up some epinephrine for next week, don’t ya know! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Here’s something extra which I just have to share. I mentioned before that I think Caitlin Johnstone is probably the most fearless and relevant columnist writing today, but it never occurred to me before that her nerve was powered by the sort of genuine overproof all-in love the Mrs and I also enjoy.
I was nervous when I saw she also wrote poetry. Hearing someone say that is a little like someone saying “I play electric guitar”. The odds are high that we will be unmoved and unimpressed – but instead expected to encourage an amateur (nothing wrong with it – just a different function from sharing art).
But now I’m nervous another way. Her latest poem is so good that it made me cry reading it, then again when I played the version read aloud for Catherine. A marketing-headed fellow wouldn’t attach something this strong to the foot of their own modest efforts. But thankfully, that just ain’t me. I remain a crazy enthusiast above all else. So I want you to check her out, even if she makes me look like even more of a fool by contrast! ;o)
I have written many times about our strange ability to pretend away the malign dominance over human affairs of the military industrial congressional investor complex, and I’ve also mentioned some of the curious ways in which technology has begun to distort human culture itself, in a worrisome oppressive and anti-humane manner.
But I don’t like simply listing concerns or just shaking a fist to make a pose. Plenty of that around anyhow, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t got their own list of infuriations top of mind – especially lately.
What nobody ever seems to want to talk about in any serious way is why we in the western world, who for all our stressors are still by any objective measure the most fortunate and free numerous middle and lower classes in all of history, feel so completely powerless to do anything about our steadily degrading circumstances. As if there is no longer any hope of organization or creation, and the most we can expect of one another is infantile narcissistic whining and an occasional outburst of violent insanity.
I think I can point to something different and very very hopeful which is in no way out of our grasp – but to show what I’m on about clearly, I have to do a few more things that will sound grumpy first – please bear with me (I swear this is specific and purposeful, not frustration-porn).
When we talk about history nowadays, almost everyone can recognize there was a lot missing from the old ways of telling stories. Kings and Queens and wars and religious schisms absolutely are significant to the course of events – but so are the ways ordinary people interact and the way they feel about the world around them.
There is no one left alive who could swear to this from memory, but it is widely agreed that our modern sense of nationalism was impossible, until the invention of radio made it easy and appealing for much larger regions to identify with the same broad common narratives. Thus creating a far bigger in-group, and defining a smaller ‘them’ for that federation of formerly squabbling regions to compete against outside.
But we in the west have a tendency to talk about understanding as if it builds in a clear way and always improves at every step. This idea squares with the faith based notion of progress we are raised with, and it is flattering to our own vanity to think we know better than anyone ever has before – but I think this idea is not only wrong, but harmful to our clear perception, and outright disastrous for our understanding of history.
It seems to me that we have a certain limited amount of interest and caring we can dedicate to a number of areas of reality (and this mix often changes a lot over time). When we get especially interested in one thing (say, whales), we often develop especially stubborn ignorance about another thing, almost as if to balance it (children).
I don’t say this to be mean, nor am I without compassion for it. We are all in fact finite, we really do only have so much attention and caring, and so much time to spend on studying and responding to the world. The question to me is, how do we choose to spend that time – like petulant consumers on the sofa seeking bought gratification, or like determined (and self-authorizing, therefore unstoppable) producers of new good things and relationships in the world.
Last Few Holdouts
Now a grumpy bit – apologies to any who have heard this rant before. When I first started studying and practising yoga in the early eighties, it was mostly sweet old hippies and also rather sweet and charitable communities who wanted to share their beautiful thing with anyone open minded enough to benefit. There were some studios and some professionals, but the teaching of yoga was mostly seen as a calling or vocation, rather than a highly profitable industry. I got into Kundalini yoga, and so went to many classes taught by the 3HO group and always found their welcome and quality of energy modest and beautiful – all of which reflected extremely well on their spiritual mission (I also worked with several folks from their group years later, and they showed just as much integrity as coworkers, as they did as teachers).
Now, before anyone mistakes my gripe – I am not saying that yoga teachers no longer care, or that people shouldn’t be well paid for teaching. I’m also not saying that we should now avoid studying yoga, just because we have effectively westernized it. But I do want to ask you to think about the changes we made to its ancient established character to make it suit us better, and what those changes reveal about who we really are (as opposed to who we like to think we are).
I should also say that nineteen eighty two was not nineteen eighty seven. Our modern commercialization really began with the new age movement, and it’s hilariously narcissistic obsession with individual spiritual status, competition and one-upmanship.
As of eighty two there was no such thing as ‘yoga gear’, there was no social media to boast about your accomplishments, and most importantly, the main point of doing it was not even physical, it was to gradually and steadily work your way out of enslavement to your petty ego. Not to outright destroy your previous self, nothing so macho – just to attain a new and more measured relationship to it, by hooking yourself into a much more powerful system (universe itself).
Now we actually have yoga magazines with cover stories about getting your ‘yoga booty’ in shape for the beach – because nothing says modern western yoga more than vanity and self-absorption. (Or should we leave the word yoga out of that entirely?)
I always found Pilates a bit bothersome for making yoga techniques feel almost like a regimented calisthenic system, but physical excellence is at least a worthy goal.
Raw desire greed and glamourizing the surface self in hunger for the admiration of others though – that stuff is about as far from the still valid and precious point of yoga as it is possible to get.
The way I usually put this gripe is much simpler. If you had told me in nineteen eighty two that yoga would be wildly popular in the west in forty years, I would have been overjoyed, because if that many of us really were getting over our vanity and hooking into universe itself instead, we wouldn’t be having the ridiculous passionate two-sides-wrong fights we keep having, we wouldn’t be so proud of our lack of general compassion, we definitely wouldn’t see the whole world being upended by reckless warmongering statecraft, or millions facing immediate threat of lethal starvation while our corporate war profiteers grow fatter and more powerful than ever.
I mean that – straight up. All of our modern foolishness is supported by our own almost universal and incredibly stubborn ignorance. If we were the kind of people who were open to being changed by yoga, we could not be acting the way we are acting. What we are instead is the kind of people so riddled with insecurity and hunger for reassuring delusion, that we have changed once sacred yoga. Made it a consumer product that serves our need to feel good, rather than to steadily become better.
The strangest byproduct of this mode of thinking is the number of people who think of yoga as something they buy in the form of classes, rather than something they have decided to pursue and practise regularly. But a music student who doesn’t practise in between lessons, but only goes because they find spending time with a teacher makes them feel good, is wasting their money on lessons! (Nothing wrong with mentoring, to be clear – I think that and apprenticeship are superb ways of conveying wisdom and inspiration across generations – but we should be clear about what we seek – so we can be sensible about who we are asking to give it to us).
Okay so – what’s the incredibly hopeful thing we can do differently? Nothing so fancy as enlightenment. In crudest terms, we can do the world, rather than ourselves.
More specifically – think about your friends who always seem to have particular difficulty getting things together. We can all look at a whole complex of challenges which stand in our way when it comes to getting from where we are in life, to where we would like to be. And I mean this emotionally, practically, financially – however we frame our personal goals.
The thing about identifying the vast range of diffuse forces which stand is in our way is – it doesn’t change our frustrating conditions at all.
Learning a new skill, meeting new and very different people, helping someone we haven’t helped before, lending a hand in a modest way, or simply doing more of the good work we know we do best always makes a change in our conditions, because we are treating the world with more respect and offering it more – rather than just staying inside our own personal justifications of frustrations. (Again, I’m not saying these are faulty – only that they are not functional – this is a practical, not a moral point).
So what about the big picture stuff. Can we take a righteous pose, consume a few slogans and thereby achieve useful and lasting social change?
It seems pretty clear now that the slogan “defund the police” was a poor choice. Even places where this was done are now quickly undoing it, and the clearest political consequence so far is a huge election boost for representatives for the right. You tell me – are we learning anything from this, about the crucial difference between the emotions and intentions inside our heads, and the lasting repercussions and results in the real world?
With almost no money at all but tons of spirit and drive, the Black Panthers organized programs to feed poor kids every day, they set up neighbourhood clinics and organized programs to help elderly and infirm people get to doctor’s appointments and visit relatives in distant prisons. They established free education programs at odd hours so that people who worked all day, could still advance their knowledge and ambition steadily.
With millions and millions in private and corporate contributions, black lives matter has bought some choice real estate, and also helped many republicans get elected. No sign of large scale organizing of programs to feed poor kids. No early morning or night classes for struggling workers, no community support for the elderly or infirm. Crimes of the past are highlighted, but there is no sign thus far of any call for reparations for the Congo, where we all just now armed and paid the murderers of literally millions of black lives, just so we could have cheap cellphones.
But they do seem to offer the exact same giant corporations who have been deliberately chipping away at the quality and dignity of work for everyone for decades, a special moral pass in exchange for their performative recitation of the current fashionable catechism. Grotesque exploitation of workers, customers and environment is not a barrier or a serious moral problem, as long as all of those same old evil things are described henceforth only in brand new tightly constrained Orwellian language.
This is hardly the only wonky and deceitful moral measuring being popularized nowadays, the super powerful play this game too. According to the Word Economic Forum, Exxon is now officially rated as an environmental stock, and Tesla is off the list. But the transformation of an aspirational movement into a corrupt and self-serving institution has rarely been quite so whipsaw-fast as this.
Way too much like going to the teacher because they make you feel good, without even realizing that you are supposed to be learning to make your own music!
We can’t ever buy our liberation from a corporation, or a cynical corporate excusing gang like that. Liberation is something we have to DO. And it isn’t done by complaining about how the other guy lives – the point is to model a better way of doing things and then prove with our determination and skill that it actually has superior results in the real world.
Work to Do
I always thought one of the most powerful things Mark Twain ever observed was the way the riverboat captains won their powerful union. They got together and organized a series of lock boxes on every dock up and down the Mississippi (with postal quality locks – the best available) in which each captain who was in the union would leave a detailed record of all of their observations of river conditions on their trip so far, and also look at the latest notes from captains who had just passed the way that they were about to go.
Back then especially (before the army corps of engineers started messing about with it) the conditions on the Mississippi changed very fast, as sediment was moved from place to place and areas that were easily navigable one week, might be completely impassible and outright dangerous the next.
The owners of the riverboats hated the idea of the captains having a union or any clout in negotiating with their bosses at all – but they still had to get insurance for their fleets, and when the insurance industry saw how much lower the accident rate was among union captains, they soon made it unaffordable to hire anyone else!
Organization, shared skill, specific loyalty and excellence. Admittedly, we do not always see such a sweet alignment of possibilities as this, but the principle stands.
Working to demand a hostile institution do more to safeguard us from our own risks can only make us ever more dependant on them, and leave us feeling helpless and weak.
Working to create completely independent associations and institutions characterized by outstanding excellence or usefulness is a whole different play. We get stronger with every step we make (even the errors, as long as we are sincere and apolitical enough to learn from them) and we add new options for others around us also – especially that most basic inspiration we all find, whenever we see proof that the world contains a greater range of choices than we realized the day before.
Am I saying we all deserve this mess? Nope – once again (and I hope I say this as often as the also precious “Variation between individuals exceeds variation between types”) the point I am making here is not emotional moral accusatory or sanctimonious, it isn’t about finding a reason to justify living inside our anger forever, it is about not ever being stopped by it, and therefore making real things in the world around us better.
If we wait for them to sell us freedom, it will not only be a very long wait, but also a product which ultimately offers freedom only for the owning and selling class – at our expense. That’s what they do. THERE IS NO APP FOR THIS!
But – if we finally recognize we aren’t cultural and emotional enemies – the way the rulers insist we see ourselves – but actually the most natural and inevitable practical allies in the world AGAINST THAT SAME ARISTOCRATIC MONOPOLIST CLASS – and then make solid relationships and build our own freedoms and our own better institutions for ourselves, we will be in a position to cut a completely different kind of deal with the sleazy aging and demonstrably insane owners of the modern world.
Of course, admitting we were ever wrong is emotionally hard – many prefer escapism, so we could always stick with our stubborn ignorant pride and “Stay the course” as a concession to the misery we are comfortable with – and just keep right on being both the luckiest and also the whiniest most ungrateful people on the entire planet earth.
But this is really not a great look, peeps – and even less of an answer. (I mean seriously – wouldn’t you rather go out with a pang than a whopper?) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Here’s a light piece I did quite awhile ago about a very early and comparatively crude intrusion of machine thinking into culture (most easily recognized by the depressingly common and objectively reasonable question – “why does so much modern music suck so bad in exactly the same way?”)