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?”)
The self-designating popular groupings which now call themselves “left” and “right” are beyond incoherent. No unified vision, understanding, principle or program in sight. This sad reality has already been quite conclusively proven to anyone eccentric and determined enough to insist upon reading about the world from diverse viewpoints. Willful and dangerous misunderstanding of others is now outright fashionable (in every camp). The dominant modern ‘house style’ you might even say.
We are all constantly bombarded with “Straw Man” arguments, when an excitable idiot tells you a dishonest version of their opponent’s views, and then refutes their opponent solely on the basis of their own dishonesty. Sickening.
Recently I’ve seen more and more people calling for “Steel Man” arguments instead, which means I finally have a handy term for something I have insisted on (and found supremely useful) for a few decades now. Not going after an opponent where they are weakest, but instead taking on the strongest best and most useful parts of their thought. That is, showing some basic respect.
Why do this? Isn’t the point of an argument to win? Only for a juvenile idiot.
I know there are a lot of ways to frame an idea this big, and I strongly defend the value of allowing for multiple viewpoints and attitudes. But that still doesn’t make our dumb craze for absolute and unlimited relativism (that is, utter pointlessness) any kind of a foundation for happiness, understanding or effective action.
As far as I can tell, the point of life is to be as capable and happy as we can – which means steadily improving our understanding awareness and skills as we go, so we can become more and more useful to the people around us.
I’m being both general and specific at the same time here. People define happiness many different ways, but whether it means having healthy resilient kids who respect you enough that they want you in your grandkid’s lives, or making a huge pile of money so you can treat your pals to luxury, we do not ever get serious value from the world without offering it something it wants.
So no – the point is not to win arguments, the point is to keep getting smarter, stronger, kinder and wiser (more useful on all fronts) and this means being not only willing but quite happy to lose any argument where you encounter a better idea. This is an incredibly rare approach nowadays, but it still holds up.
In fact, if we think it through we soon realize that any other approach means we have decided in advance to support some foolishness and stupidity for reasons which have nothing to do with its validity. That is, no common measure of value.
This idea – I knowingly choose to support errors indefinitely for emotional reasons – is a pretty clear, because strictly functional, definition of tribalism.
What does the other way look like? There are several important distinctions, but the biggest are that it acts less like a brat, and it has deeper friendships based on shared aspiration, instead of shared anger (cross training our best selves with others, instead of helping one another stay mired in pain or resentment forever).
Now here’s the important bit that all tribalists get wrong – their go-to technique for recovering self-sabotaging ignorance, right on the edge of new understanding.
YES FRUSTRATION IS LEGITIMATE. Anyone who believes that there is any large class of people who have nothing at all to complain about right now is ignorant. Simple as that. If they are young, this is entirely forgivable (but we want a word with their teachers), if they are not young, we can’t help recognizing that this ignorance is the consequence of choices they have made, to deliberately withhold their humane compassion, based upon a notion about the moral value of a general category.
This is called bigotry – and it is wildly popular on both the left and the right. Absolute shite in all cases too, whatever the target.
We should remember that public hangings and burnings of heretics used to be incredibly popular events. There were plenty of merchants with souvenirs, snacks and drinks on offer – a genuine festival air. Hooray, we can all hate together today – what could possibly be more fun – or a better social bonding experience?
I mentioned before that Jane Goodall strikes me as a heroic humanist and scientist because she spent years as a humanist trying to refute her findings that higher primates in the wild regularly engaged in warfare against neighbouring groups, hoping that the results were due to contamination from the study itself, or something artificial about the conditions she was observing.
Those years of hard effort at self skepticism on principle were impressive – but she became a truly heroic scientist when she finally did publish her findings – even though they upset centuries of (racist) ‘sweet-savage’ romanticism – and her own strong philosophical and emotional preferences. No, capitalism doesn’t make otherwise entirely innocent humans go to war – though it absolutely does love to make tons of money, every time industrial killing can be promoted – we moderns just really like to do both war and greed in combination.
What we wish is a sort of creative imagining at best. A ghost which we feel strongly about, but isn’t even fully resolved inside our own head – and gets vaguer with every pass-along generation until the replicated errors overwhelm the original message.
What is true can be shared with everyone, because it is just as true for them, every time they check for themselves.
I wonder – did the Enquirer ever run a quiz “What Late Night Show you enjoy most, reveals your secret inner personality”
When I first moved out at age twelve, I found an old black and white tube TV in the garbage – actually I found two, but managed to get one of them working pretty well, only after I spot-welded my favourite screwdriver to the better candidate by arc-ing the flyback transformer! (Hey, what’s 20KV between friends, right? Answer in this case? EDUCATIONAL!) ;o)
Next thing I did was take my newspaper route profits (all eighty one cents an hour of them, by my calculations) and head to Radio Shack! An affordable and reliable stop for all kinds of electronic parts and tools – a genuine geeks wonderland in fact – very much missed (and like the even longer ago lost Heathkit, a para educational support of enormously unappreciated value).
Of course they had plenty of antennas on offer, and I had already got some results from a cheap FM dipole (that old “flat, two-wire T” we all used to tape to the wall behind the stereo), but I was big on calculating value/per back then, so when I saw they sold fifty foot spools of that same flat wire, I could not resist. I made a giant antenna around all four walls of the bedroom I shared with my roommate, and the two of us felt incredibly decadent watching Buffalo TV every night without any cable bill, and especially sophisticated for watching Carson.
Back then (mid seventies) Johnny Carson’s show pulled in a huge unified audience – left and right, upscale and working class. He had something to please everyone. Celebrities raised their profile and his ratings at the same time, and many comedians and musicians had their careers officially ‘made’ by a successful appearance on his very carefully mass market show.
Nothing like that show now exists on television. Some sports do still draw fairly wide groups together, but the conversation and exchange there tends to be rather limited. Structured in advance, like the rules of the game itself.
I saw an interview with Carson once where he talked about how his monologue jokes had to change over the years. He said when he started out he could make a joke about the minority whip in the senate, and everyone would get it and laugh, because people were actively interested in how they were governed, and who exactly was doing what to (or for) them. Engaged citizens.
By the time he wound up his show, the writers weren’t even sure they could rely on people remembering who the last president was.
Now here’s something weird. Looking back on reruns of his show today, I can’t stand it! So much of it feels fake and shallow, and you can tell that Ed and Johnny really did not like each other very much. There were many great performances, to be sure, but a lot less great talk than my childhood mind was sure it remembered. To a modern eye, the many compromises made to stay firmly in the centre and hold an “Everyone” audience look like intolerable concessions to mediocrity.
But what happened when the audience started to split apart? When, over time, the institutions which were once mass market broadcasters became target-market narrowcasters instead (quite deliberately, to chase the best possible rate of return they could see in the numbers). We stopped having hosts who seem pleasant but fake to everyone, and started having people we felt represented us better (more flatteringly). And these appealing new post-middle hosts in turn, began to welcome not equally respected guests, but instead friends and enemies.
I have to confess that I hate Jay Leno with a special passion. I want to say I hate him because he single-handedly damaged the stand up comedy ecosystem, and made it much harder for new comics starting out – which is true – but the fact is, I found out that deplorable stuff about his early career only because I already hated him, and was curious if I could find a better than emotional reason, to back me up.
What I hated about his TV act was that he spent all of his time sneering at anyone younger than a boomer. “Ha ha, those stupid whiners, when we were kids we only had…” constantly showing complete contempt to others, and celebrating that contempt with his audience. To me, I always thought about all the child abusing boomers I knew laughing in delight – and how much they all needed crowbar dentistry.
What do kids have to complain about anyhow – crazy rents, no more careers, no more pensions, no hope of job or housing security, lousy and horribly overpriced education leading to debt for life, a massive infrastructure deficit (thanks to boomers voting to make everything someone else’s problem) and a collapsing environment. Stupid spoiled ungrateful whiners obviously, right?
Pretty much borderline sociopathy really – every night – and it not only made him obscenely rich, it made sneering the new gold standard model.
Of course the big broadcasters have completely lost their old audience dominance, but we still very happily sort ourselves into cultural groups based upon who sneers in a way we find most appealing – never stopping to wonder if we aren’t being the whiny brats ourselves!
“People who I have chosen not to care about shouldn’t complain,” is clearly something only an asshole can say repeatedly. When they say it with a great big self-satisfied smile, they are a delusional and quite possibly even a dangerous asshole, because they are inviting us to celebrate the very worst instincts built-in to our basic selves (evil capacities shared also with chimpanzees at their worst).
Anyhow, the statement itself is a complaint of the most ignorant and hostile sort. An example of what it pretends to be refuting.
I’m not sure who first said “The opposite of a petty truth is false, but the opposite of a great truth is also true” but it really works here especially well, because the fact is that gratitude is ESSENTIAL TO LIFE. Unless you actually want to be bitter cruel and unhappy every hour day and year until you die.
The trick is that you don’t ever prove your own gratitude, or loyalty, or goodness, or helpfulness (or rightness, or social-justitude) by denouncing the failings of others. You do it by living a positive example of your own gratitude (etc) – or you do not ever in any way do it.
Our opinions, our feelings (no matter how passionate) our approvals, celebrations and withholdings – these happen only as movies projected on the inside of our skulls – that is not the world, that is the small blurry window we view it from – and we can make this window clearer and bigger.
But only if we are trying to be smarter, stronger, more capable, kinder, wiser and better – all of which are the exact opposite of trying to stay angry, to win every fight (even where we have encountered better information than we had – which means defending our ignorance) to sneer at people about whom we are largely ignorant, and insist that their needs cannot possibly be valid compared to those of special tribe B.
Like I said at the opening – less like a sneering narcissistic overgrown brat, more like a striving, modest, open, curious and helpful adult.
I must fairly allow that all of the comforting majorities are still to be found in the land of the miserable rabid overgrown infantile – you can even pick your favourite flavour from a vast array, to best suit your own personal snark aesthetics. But despite all the difficulty involved in shucking-off the truly heavy and persistent yoke of tribalist acculturation, I swear that genuine old-fashioned laughs, loyalty and love are all more easily found and fully enjoyed on the other (out) side of those blindingly tall and depressingly grey, self-constructed prison walls of sneering-brat dogma. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And now once again – here are a couple of incredibly brilliant people making far bigger points, much better than I do (or could)! ;o)
Caitlin Johnstone is a brilliant social and political critic – scathing and courageous – but offending only to increase clarity, not ever for cheap-shot catharsis. Her Substack posts are always smart, challenging, informed and even when you disagree – stimulating! A fantastic antidote for “I just read what they put in front of me” journalism, and the corporate experts they rely (if not dote) on, constantly spinning everything their way.
Matt Taibbi is not just fearless but funny! You would want to compare him to Hunter Thompson anyhow, even if he hadn’t held that manic great’s job as chief investigative reporter at Rolling Stone for many years. Since he’s gone independent, he seems to be taking on bigger and bigger targets, and having more and more fun doing it. A great exemplar for the lift we get, when we shuck the tribalist leash.
(plumbers, technicians, mechanics, contractors and all reality-based retail service workers too)
I am a book nut with a lifelong passion for music, visual art and writing – essentially creative and romantic by nature. But I am also a guy who had zero formal education except for two stints at trade school (George Brown community college). I took a ten month course to become an audio electronics repairman, and then did another four months a few years later to add video gear to my repertoire. Got two decades of decent work from that debt-free education (an unheard of ratio nowadays).
This was back in 1987, which was a very interesting time to become a technician. There was a huge debate about whether CDs would really catch on, or consumers would move directly to digital DAT tape – and DAT would almost certainly have been adopted very quickly, but for massive pressure from the recording industry (then still politically powerful to the point of sector dominance). Consumer preference was effectively thwarted by US federal legislation (though not in Japan, where DAT was adopted widely and kept developing – which lowered the cost and helped legions of budget recordists here quite a bit, even if our consumer markets never saw much of it).
More important than this brand new stuff was that 1987 was long enough ago that the old stuff still hadn’t quite died out. I was fortunate and apprenticed at a small audiophile repair shop which didn’t limit itself to safe, standard or easy jobs. Some days I’d have a four thousand dollar CD player on my bench with a maglev motor for the laser-sled, followed by an old ‘five tube’ wooden cabinet radio from the nineteen thirties, with a Nakamichi Dragon waiting for me after lunch (and SL1200 turntables never-ending – still a DJ workhorse to this day).
I’m one of those people who is happiest when there is always something new to learn. That work was very satisfying to me for two main reasons – every fault is somewhere between a detective case and an algebra problem, calling for clever deduction from limited information. You don’t always even know exactly how the broken thing is supposed to work – you have only the non-functional version for clues – but somehow you have to find the culprit (or conspiracy of bad components) and raise the community of components around them back to full function with the least invasive – or the most practical and reliable – means (whichever best balances cost and future reliability).
The other endlessly fascinating challenge was psychological. I was beyond clueless about how to interact in normal ways when I first broke free from the commune at sixteen, and spending years as an overt visual freak (New Romantic then – now roughly subsumed as a subset of ‘Goth’) helped me learn a great deal about ‘in and out tribes’ and also about how to stand up for yourself even if you enter every (non dance-club) situation at a disadvantage.
But I became a tech not in the middle of teenage insecurity, but as a hopeful and increasingly confident young married man in his early twenties. It only took a few weeks for me to realize that for anyone curious enough, this sort of slower paced retail work presents us with a superb laboratory for learning about the extraordinary range of variation between humans and their dazzlingly widely sourced views.
I mention the brilliant French concept of “Professional Deformation” often, not to make people feel bad, but because my working life has taken me into so many different realms of situational groupthink, retail and academe in particular, and I can almost always see important insights which are common in one broad area of experience, are badly lacking elsewhere.
Some kinds of work sort for very specific types in a way people don’t easily recognize – a professor almost never understands how many stupid people there are by percentage, for example, because they spend their entire lives concentrating on the exceptional at the other end of the spectrum.
But in retail and service work of almost any kind, you encounter pretty much all of humanity. Everyone has a toilet (and back then, a stereo or radio which was made to be repairable, and usually worth repairing). What retail really means is that anyone who walks in off the street gets your time.
Working at a shop that did audiophile gear, but was also surrounded by a lot of entrenched poverty back then (Queen W near Bathurst), I had to find ways to respond to and engage elitists with wild self-congratulatory fantasies of impossible audio perfection, and also help desperate and paranoid hard luck cases – and both groups can very easily turn their whole life’s worth of upset on you, if you dare to disrupt the fantastic or paranoid assumptions they had, coming in.
Problem is, as a service professional, you simply cannot ever offer a service which is impossible, no matter how passionately (and frequently) this is demanded – so the job absolutely requires you to destroy illusions which people rather like, all day long. Learning to do this in a way which was both honest and compassionate, so I could maintain professional integrity, represent their actual interests more fully than their fantasies, but still have them leave feeling I was on their side, was the careful work of many years. Bedside manner masterclass, really.
Years later, in a much busier repair shop, I got my communication skills to the point where I would volunteer to take angry customers from other technicians, and talk them ’round to understanding we actually were on their side. (Not ever by lying, just by taking the time and care to understand the precise point where their technical misunderstanding was damaging our mutual respect). Being able to ‘reach understanding’ with almost any type, despite their state of high stress and suspicion, might just be the rarest skill I ever developed. Probably should have gone into mediation or the law. ;o)
By the mid nineties, things in the world of gear were already beginning to change in a way which was worrisome. More and more equipment was being manufactured by entirely robotic factories, in a minimum-everything way which made it impossible to repair cost-effectively. Worse still, a whole new class of equipment was being offered (in visual scanning and photographic gear also) to the newly crowned “Pro-Sumer.”
As a book guy, I have to stop here and say I deeply adore Sumer – the historical culture has inspired me ever since I was a kid and read “History begins at Sumer” which contained translations of many of humanity’s earliest literary masterworks. In that one specific sense I will always be pro-Sumer.
But as for ProSumer as a marketing demographic? AAAARG! The whole idea of ProSumer is to tell amateurs that they aren’t really, then offer them luxuriously functional equipment which is well beyond their creative abilities (but now had suddenly come within range of their price-point, thanks to mass robotic manufacture).
Of course I am an advocate for art, and I absolutely love the idea of more people having great art tools – IF ART IS WHAT WE GET. But it really hasn’t worked out that way for us over the last quarter century, and it feels as if there is probably a clue to bigger problems in here someplace.
The trouble with “the ProSumer” is not that better gear is now far more widely available (and truly professional gear even rarer and more expensive than ever), but rather that respect for expertise in general is being diluted by a huge boost to our (already dangerously overblown) narcissism. It might be a whole lot of fun if we could run an entire economy by everyone making shitty watercolours and selling them to the person on their left – but genuine masterworks are not ever made that way.
The dangerous flattery inside ProSumerism is the idea that the intentions of an ignorant marketing-flattered fantasist are of the same quality and usefulness as the intentions of someone who understands the real tested and established parameters involved.
This equivalence is not so, has not ever been, and will not ever be. Yes, fully open and unbiased ‘child mind’ is a lovely idealistic goal to work toward for mature creatives – but this stage comes AFTER we have worked to earn mastery of the skills and knowledge demanded for high craft, and can now turn our attention back to re-invigorating the magic which set us out on the long path in the first place.
Alien Hobo Code?
We don’t just wing-it with the plumbing and the wiring in our house, because we don’t want fires or floods (or unaffordable insurance). But we do enter into funny circles of mutual fan-dom (and social media has boosted this effect many times over), and by turning culture into a game of “I like you too,” we have, as a society, largely withdrawn our attention (and our all-important money) from the production of brilliantly accomplished general culture for everyone.
I have been amused by how often I have seen proof that technicians treat their equipment differently from a less well informed ‘user’. Of course they want all the same functionality, but they seek it in ways which are fundamentally sympathetic to the realities of the underlying machine. (Any expert auto mechanics among my friends? I’d love to know if you think this mechanically sympathetic effect applies just as truly to driving).
I also feel incredible sympathy for my friends who are still in retail and service, because it is much harder than ever to convince people who are emotionally committed to their entry fantasies that you have effective command of the suite of realities and skills which they most certainly require, in order to solve their particular problem – and that these informed insights strongly suggest an approach very different from their emotional preference.
A hobby gardener might be sad if their petunias wilt, might even consider themselves a ProSumer if they win a prize at the fair a time or two – but they aren’t going to be destroyed if they get it wrong. A farmer has to care about every single factor they can control, and also study every single one of the realities which they cannot. Otherwise their entire lives can be utterly destroyed in a single disastrous season. There is simply no equivalence between seeking vanity and achieving survival.
Will we ever return to a world in which people (at least sometimes) humbly recognize the difference between their areas of knowledge and their ignorant self-flattering fantasies? I honestly doubt it. The downside effects of our communications technology are emboldening idiots of every kind, everywhere (mostly for sales purposes) and corroding institutions and elites at a pretty furious rate (sometimes for the self-evident betterment of all, and sometimes to our vast mutual shame).
But we can certainly do one small life-hack sort of thing which would help ourselves and those we deal with humanize our daily lives a lot. We can LISTEN!
Things which are beyond of our grasp are not ever what we think dream or hope they will be. People who do understand what they really are can help us, but not until we understand our wishing and wanting is less important than the reality of the problem we want their help or expertise to solve.
Retail workers, service people, technicians, mechanics, plumbers, they are all ready to be our allies when it comes to dealing with life’s many unexpected and challenging curveballs.
Of course, if we choose to enter not by respectfully asking for help, but sneeringly, hostile and full of ignorant confidence, we are extremely unlikely ever to notice that positive potential at all! (It really is very strictly and justly reserved for people who prove they are NOT asshole customers).
Every time Catherine and I go into a restaurant, we remember being restaurant workers, same with every shop and trade – whether or not we have direct experience, we always bring respect.
In fact, I’m still trying to figure out just what one is supposed to be able to save or gain by so easily and often discarding civility and respect – can you actually have too many hard working local people who are always glad to see you? Is that even a thing? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Here are a couple of obscenely brilliant people with much bigger ideas than I, which nevertheless seem somehow related.
I am a little bit nuts and have never denied it, so I expect today’s especially elaborate (and hopefully amusing) proof of that will come as no surprise to anyone. On the other hand, I am curious in a way which is unusual enough to have made me a little bit lonely for an awfully long time. I love to search for proof that I’m wrong, and delight when I find it, where a great many, especially nowadays, seem certain that reason is designed entirely to bolster an already arrived at (and one presumes, immaculate) rightness.
I’m not trying to be a jerk here, just point out how hard it is for weirdos to be understood for what they actually mean (and I know more than one of my chums can relate to this). The thing which balances my compulsion to smash my own assumptions constantly is my absolute joy about discovery, play, learning and creation – all very much related, though the ideal mix of these varies a lot, depending on what sort of results we’re seeking.
One of the reasons I’ve always had especially strong friendships with women, is that men often take my enthusiasms as some kind of competitive assertion they must agressively answer, where women far more easily see I’m just plain excited, dying to share the joy-glow of it – no put down in sight, implied or involved!
We really do make the world we live in by how we see and interact with it – and I honestly feel bad that so many guys still deny themselves access to the fun of easy sharing, as opposed to other-defeating competitive play. Mind you, competition is great stuff where it works. I’m not against it, I’m just against failing to see it as a choice (and a matter of self-imposed limits on connection and cooperation, just as much as an advance in other-tested gains).
When I first broke free of the crazy cult/commune in which I was raised I was ravenous for new tools with which to understand. In effect, I was raised with a complete seamless cosmology, which was faithfully reflected back to me by absolutely everyone I knew, and then was shocked to discover that worldview was shared by approximately no one at all in the ‘real’ world.
I have several friends who were raised in Mormonism and in Scientology who seem to have experienced similarly upending culture shock, when first encountering their own consensus culture without the filters they were raised inside. In a way it makes you feel like an alien, exactly where everyone expects you are most easy and at home – but it’s also an important gift, because it forces you to ask a lot of questions everyone else assumes are settled answers, or worse, doesn’t even notice at all, to wonder about.
There was a whole lot of reading which helped me in this period. Idries Shah and Robert Anton Wilson were especially nutritious (and The Book of the Tao an ever astonishing wellspring), but I also have to mention the practise of yoga, which I did a bit as a kid, but took far more seriously as a teenager who wasn’t quite sure who and what he was. To this day, no single change in approach to my life has done more for my mental health – physical also, no question – but the tools it gave me to deal with my physical reactions to emotional situations were the most precious of all.
I was also reading voraciously in this period, with a special emphasis on psychology, mysticism, spirituality and paradigms which were about embracing entire ranges, rather than dissection and reductionism – (an emphasis which is perhaps the funny equivalent in western thought, to that ‘always competitive’ thinking-limitation which many might now call patriarchal.)
Now I can’t help but pull out one of the most useless references in all of history – the unique (and boy did he want you to know it) Aleister Crowley! I call him useless and invoke him anyhow, because for me personally, he dropped a few precious clues, and also did much less than his usual damage (that is, I did read his book about yoga seriously, but did not get sucked into the incantation stuff in his other books – which isn’t really anything but dangerous to a lusty and undisciplined teenage mind anyhow).
The reasons “Uncle Al” is useless as a reference are also funny. He lied about himself in a loud and public way constantly, throughout his life. His enemies and his supporters also perpetuated their own myths aplenty, he wrote books portraying himself as a scoundrel, an individualist hero and a mage. He might even be seen as the modern prototype of a truly media savvy self-inventor and self-promoter. The Alchemist Kardashian!
All that myth makes the man himself very difficult to find underneath – and mostly not worth the effort anyhow. Much like existentialism, which has an immediate hit of intellectual appeal on our first encounter with it – the maniacal devotees and obsessives we encounter as we enquire further, quickly warn us off this turf. Here be dragons!
Aside from his excellent compact book of essays on yoga, I got a few very useful simple ideas from Crowley via Wilson, one of his kindest interpreters. One was the connection between our aims and our training discipline. He insisted that if you wanted to do something genuinely challenging in your life, you ought to train yourself for high fitness and also unusual levels of mental discipline.
This outright romantic but no less productive idea not only helped me practise yoga more diligently (and thus stumble into the unexpected mental-health benefits), it also gave me a lot of courage when I was playing improvised music with guys who were decades older than me and infinitely more skillful. I trained myself for taking risk fearlessly, and that musical nerve has served me well in many places over the years, even though I feel guilty I have not given more of my time to music over those same years, to thank it better for what it keeps giving me.
The other idea I got from Crowley indirectly was summarized by one of his own silly poems.
“I place no reliance on virgin or pigeon. My method is science, my aim is religion”
I could digress and find about a hundred things wrong with his presumptions there, I’m sure you can see many yourself. But I still like the idea of not just accepting with uncritical belief, but instead testing things out experimentally as objectively as we can, to see which seem to have what particular power or potential, and which place somewhere along the pure-belief/placebo axis. But to be clear, I do not mean to invoke customary western scorn when I use the word placebo. Placebos have not only been shown to be extremely effective in many cases, even if powered by nothing but false belief – their effectiveness has been studied carefully, and is steadily increasing, year after year. Both of these insights seem useful and revealing, in that very tricky category of – what we really are – as opposed to – what we like to think we are.
I should stop to add that I remain an atheist, just as I started out – but I have had several very meaningful experiences over the decades which can not be explained by current science.
I am frequently foolish, heedless and silly, but I am definitely not the willfully self-harming kind of atheist who is so dedicated to their ego that they will discard the reverberating magic the universe offers them, just because it doesn’t happen to fit their preferred schema for rhetorical competition and sparring. To me, that pretty much defines arrogance.
Anyhow, what with meditating and doing tons of yoga, reading a lot about mysticism and conducting my own eccentric (that is, dangerously unguided, but luckily still highly productive) experiments, in which I was both observer and subject, I got the idea that I ought to be able to design an interesting experiment around the ancient traditions of divination.
This was not meant as an insult to any existing tradition on earth – quite the opposite. Rather than insult such a great tradition with my own imbecilic experimental blundering, I thought it only proper that I should draw my system from resources I was personally familiar with, and those means only. (also another chance for my deep wisdom to enter the mix, in my creative choices).
The result (after quite a bit too much thought about the whole thing) was PREDICTO – the system with which I lead this piece. We’ve got a bit of D and D influence (I’ve always got tons of dice in the house, yarrow sticks not so much), a number of ideas about knowledge classification which go back to Bacon, some (of course crude) insights about psychology, all overlaid atop a divination system based upon binary rolls to generate hexadecimal characters for further (arithmetic) transmutation, and of course the infinite mysteries of the mighty ETAOIN SHRDLU!
For the sake of whimsical hyperbole I added two dimensions more than the Buddhists’ (always wonderful) octave eight, and anyhow on a technical (game design) level, I needed to arrive at two to the tenth power, or else forgo the joys of “full F” with the hexadecimal. (dare I here invoke Hunter Thompson?) “…which would have been a fatal equivocation.” ;o)
How does PREDICTO work in practise? Let me put it this way, if you set up a tent at a fair, they would be yelling at you long before you finished the rolling and the math – every single time!
Even I don’t like it – though it still makes me laugh to consider it, which is one precious empirical value we can sometimes salvage even from the most wasteful or foolish misstep.
Still, even as a failed experiment it was very productive. Made me ask myself again more seriously (and pardon the game-design head with which I approached the question) “What exactly are the victory conditions here?”
The question I really wanted to explore with my experiment was – could I devise a personal system which helped my conscious mind access some of my deeper, much harder to access wisdom?
By the time I had the giant layer cake of complexity I called PREDICTO finished, I realized that almost everything I had added trying to give it richness and subtlety, actually just made it clunkier and less open to the almost always teasingly vague offerings of my sub and unconscious.
What I really needed for my second experiment was something dead simple, portable and nimble as could be, which still invoked some decision mechanism beyond my own personal conscious control.
Which brings me at last to the self invented Oracle which I actually do use every day, exactly once a day, and have found useful, stimulating and amusing for many years in a row now. Fun, too.
Sikorsky S 42 – photo by Robert O’Rourke (my grandfather)
The technical mechanism and schema for this approach are available to anyone who is reading this. You obviously have a computer. Somewhere on your computer there is a folder full of pictures which you like to look at for no particular reason except that they give you a particular kind of smile or lift. Within that big set of smiles, some are most special and distinct.
I use my folder full of pictures of vintage aircraft, which contains thousands of images I found once, but wasn’t sure I’d ever find again – always best to grab the reference in front of you, before it turns back into a chimera or a rumour! I run a random slideshow on this big folder, then I simply count images until I get to an exterior shot of a Sikorsky flying boat from the nineteen thirties (just before he and his company became obsessed with helicopters). When I see that classic flying boat I stop, I now have my number.
This number is my Oracle’s official answer to whatever question I posed just before the random slideshow.
Now comes the fun – interpreting the meaning of that number – a vagueness designed to allow my deeper wisdom plenty of extra chances to offer me insight, as my creative mind goes to work trying to make that number mean something both catchy and specific, with respect to my question.
Before you roll your eyes, I don’t want to sound utterly wishy-washy here, there are quite a few fixed goalposts in the system, and now and then another presents itself as retroactively obvious and is added forevermore – but we must allow that compared to all possible whole numbers in a random series, the major arcana is a very compact set indeed. ;o)
Six is Si (yes), Nine is just as clearly Nein! Three is Tri “Try”, Eight is “Harmonious” (again the lovely octave). Five is “Clearly” from radio-talk “Five by five”. Two is too (also) which makes thirty-two “Try to” and thirty-nine “Try no”. Four gets a question mark right after to make it serve as “For?” (“cui bono”, for the bookish). Eleven is “Extremely” (as in “this one goes to eleven”). And twelve cannot possibly be anything but “Doesn’t” (from dozen). I even have an equivalent to the death card in the tarot deck (with the important shared quality that it also actually means radical disruptive change, more than outright mortality) for which I could not resist adopting Robert Anton Wilson’s ever so useful (and repeatedly observed as arbitrary) twenty-three! (Or forty six, if you asked two very stupid ‘what if?’ questions at once, which I often do). ;o)
So now the challenging phase – what do I do when my Oracle gives me an answer which bothers me a lot? I ask myself if I’m just being defensive, or if I really do feel sure the answer it gave me is wrong, and then I ask why I’m sure. Which means that even when I disagree with and ultimately reject the Oracle’s latest reply, I have nevertheless done a self-doubting reference check and invited some re-thinking for one of my more emotionally loaded (that is, more illusion-prone) concerns of thatparticular day.
Which really is an altogether excellent exercise – a practise of leavening-whimsy also – plus, wacky old-time flying boats! How can you not giggle with glee?
Hello my far flung and wonderfully wide-ranging friends, new and old, and hello to my somewhat grumpier listeners also – I sincerely hope this podcast will surprise you with new perspectives, unexpected fair mindedness and interesting insights, despite my unapologetically strong (and suddenly weirdly unpopular) anti-war opinions.
I was already well into the writing of this episode when the anniversary of my two year ago episode “Upright Wobblies and Low-Down Commies” came up on facebook. These two should pair well, since that one talked about the earlier twentieth century, and this one takes us on a tour from Reagan to now – with, as usual, several eccentric but I think important stops along the way.
As all too often lately, the big hug for this episode is really the feeling that you aren’t the only one questioning the official story. This was one of the key consolations I was always hoping to offer with this series, but I swear I have always got more episodes about pure uplift in the works than pieces with these harder truths to deliver.
But even though I try not to tie my pieces to current events, the robbery of context and memory can be too dramatic to responsibly ignore. I know it feels to many as if we’ve been living through an endless (and cumulative) series of panicking crises for five straight years now. I often feel that way too, and know that knowledge and open inquiry alone aren’t enough to get us through.
Promise I’ll add something to the whimsy, wonder and giggles pile again, soon. (Absolute metabolic necessity)
For anyone else who is pocasting or recording lectures or narration, I should pass on that the combination of the Schepps Omni Channel and the PuigTech 570 (Fairchild copy) compressor as a drop-in module, make a ‘radio sound’ much easier to dial in (and finally give me precision ‘de-essing’ though I admit I’m a total noob at proper calibration).
Some Waves plug-ins make my ten year old computer creak and stutter, but these are smooth (and Schepps Omni will definitely remind any X-er of the Tascam gear they desperately wanted as a teenager, and probably charm them even now) ;o)
Finally, here is a bunch of serious stuff that you definitely shouldn’t read and or watch, and if you do, you shouldn’t think about or remember it. You know how thought-police work, right? The less you know, the less you can say when they finally drag you in.
If you’re still not entirely comfortable with the Orwellian world we seem to be designing and demanding for ourselves, you’ll get some laughs and again get that crucial big hug of knowing you are not nearly so alone as it can sometimes feel.
Yikes though, I apologize in advance, okay? For mental safety reasons, please be sure to book a visit with a dolphin, a puppy and a kitten, immediately afterward.
(You think I’m kidding, don’t you?)
Russell Brand – offers us good questions and winning exuberance (and I’m a hard sell). He’s taking a lot of heat now, because he’s interested in all sides, and heterodox voices, his whole cause is finding a dialogue so we can make genuine social progress. Which to some now makes him a right winger (which accusation he answers himself quite hilariously, below the first quite interesting post).
Matt Taibbi is a thing of beauty. A gifted writer who, like Hunter Thompson, can often find a hilarious way to put an incredibly depressing truth, without losing the essential quality of the insight and especially the key drama, in the process. America is very lucky to have this guy (and he is very lucky to have Substack – but Scheerpost is a great place to encounter many smart outsider voices gathered and without a paywall!)
Also kind of barfy-hilarious to note this detail – who exactly was doing the double-speak backpedalling for former Darth Vader advisor Victoria Nuland at that time? None other than our dear sweet friend Jen Psaki! (like I say, it is all so damn incestuous, nauseating and creepy!)
Hi folks, I haven’t been sleeping well the last couple of weeks, so please pardon me if this one is a bit rough around the edges – promise it is part of a much larger theme which I will address more thoughtfully and thoroughly soon.
Aside from our personal stressors, like pretty much everyone I know, the state of the world is weighing heavily on me. But as far as I can tell I remain in the minority of ‘soapboxers’ in one weird way. I am deeply convinced that anger ALWAYS enables abuse – and the larger the scale of the anger, the more damage done along the way. So I am actively looking for ideas which are helpful and productive and far more likely to improve things than our recent steady diet of rationalizations, glowerings and tantrums. (I’m not asserting these don’t work, but rather assuming the evidence of that is now quite overwhelming to anyone looking with an open mind).
I have taken a few recent shots at our habits of sneering and disdain for huge groups of people about whom we are shockingly ignorant (to summarize: after spending this whole century slaughtering poor people around the world for cheap consumer loot and strategic dominance – HOW DARE WE!)
Sneering is of course really popular and fashionable stuff, and were I a person who liked money more than people and principles, I would have hopped on that gleefully psychotic bandwagon ages ago. But I’ve lived among the victims of proud angry righteous abusers my whole life, so I know the heartbreaking truth – such damage does not ever end. Which means that to join the haters and celebrate what I know to be their moral mistake, would be a betrayal of my duty to stand up for those at whom every form of collectivized hatred is far too easily directed (almost always someone both comparatively blameless and powerless – so the bully risks nothing and the victim stays down).
One cute phrase we often see in the writings of professional sneerers is “the lowest common denominator.” It is a lovely phrase because it sounds at once scientific and insulting. A put-down from on high most often applied to objects of popular favour. Most remember something vague about the math side of the idea from high-school, but more that it exists, than how it works.
You know who else absolutely adores this basic idea? Marketing people and the corporate masters they serve. It would be lovely if we could say that all the sneering about it is directed in opposition to such cynical culture manipulators – but they are much more in cahoots than it might at first seem.
For a super-quick refresher, when you are dealing with a whole bunch of mixed fractions, you have to figure out the lowest denominator which can be used to represent each of those fractions, and once you have that, you can do all sorts of perfectly simple and completely accurate math on all of those seemingly very different fractions in common. You can see why corporations like this sort of thinking – what is the precise least possible effort we can expend to win the greatest number of customers? We humans aren’t people anymore in that model, just a smeared blob on a probability table.
But when people get too gleeful in their sneering about popular culture, we make a very common mistake and pretend that all of those who like something we don’t personally enjoy, must therefore also endorse all of the worst stories which can be ascribed to any part of it.
Are all fans of Bing Crosby or James Brown misogynists? Absolutely not – those guys worked very hard to create art which was both wildly popular and important in the development of modern music. Not only that, but both of them left us a great deal of enduring uplift and exuberance, despite their personal turmoil – and these are precious resources indeed in a stressful time. We can editorialize about a life or a marketing play, but when we take the next step and sneer at anyone who just enjoys a great tune, we are being jerks (abusers, technically, but the word is so overused, I prefer the pithy definition here).
Anger without compassion ALWAYS takes humans to very dark places. I won’t digress here any further than to say PLEASE READ HISTORY, if you don’t already have a rock solid intellectual and emotional understanding of this. That isn’t an opinion, it is a tragedy we keep endlessly teaching each other.
The absolutely crucial balancers are love and gratitude, of course. Where these are entirely absent, we are dealing with a psychotic (no matter how appealing).
But it occurred to me that there was another concept in math which always went along with lowest common denominator (at least in my reading). This was the concept of the Highest Common Factor. This is when we are looking at a bunch of whole numbers of some size, and trying to figure out the largest number which can be multiplied to accurately make each of them – thus once again finding a commonality between many seemingly disparate values. But in this case looking for the GREATEST (most outstanding?) commonality, rather than the least/simplest.
Might just be my own crazy brain, but it strikes me that the highest common factor in terms of humane thinking (the bridge of fools, almost) is the question of whether or not we have found something which feels obviously bigger and more important than ourselves.
And no – before you get too excited – I do not mean a deity specifically. Some sincerely faithful people absolutely do get there, even if the presence of obvious hypocrites of the same faith makes it feel easy for others to lazily ignore that crucial difference and scorn them all. But I have known atheists who were no less completely devoted to the cause of our one great human family (and conversely, we have all seen some truly outstanding hypocrites from that team in recent years).
In a much less abstract or ideal way, humans have been transcending self for the sake of love, family friendship and community for many thousands of years (that’s on the record – and I have no doubt it goes back to the dawn of abstract thought).
We have all had the funny experience of meeting some people who seem physically grown up, but soon reveal themselves to actually be self-obsessed brats, where others though seemingly young, positively radiate a surplus of care for and awareness of others around them.
As far as I can tell there are nurturing paths that get you to that sort of selfless awareness, and also painful trials which, if metabolized carefully, can break many of us out of our early delusions, and thus give us another chance to try living with greater duty and more open hearts.
The point is that even the simple and still fairly common ability to put someone else ahead of self, gives such a person a whole range of social capability which is not present in those below this maturity threshold. This isn’t a question of insult or blame, this is a distinction of FUNCTION. I know all too well that many who sneer or celebrate the sneering of others were themselves wounded. (Why I can understand, but still think they should know better).
So – why do I pick this one particular part of human growth of character for my own idea of the Highest Common Factor? Because I really do believe there are many paths to excellent thinking and behaviour towards others – from the exalted and high principles, to the simple and yet infinite smile of a baby.
But though I reject all artificial divisions based on categories like faith, culture, race or social class (my technician head insists – each mode of thinking has only one part of the schematic), I cannot imagine a single person who lacks this common caring factor, who could be more reliably persuaded on the basis of compassion, than they could by celebratory hatred – which is always egotistical. A form of negative self-obsession in fact – which is why it so often enables tribalist harm directed toward innocent others.
Now this next part may sound like I am indulging in sneering myself – but again, I’m speaking from my technician head here. Along the lines of – Suppose we were actually trying to fix this thing? Rather than just standing around endlessly complaining that it doesn’t ever work right.
People who feel they are the centre of the universe aren’t actually trying to solve problems or gain greater understanding. They just enjoy performing, and since they consider life a movie, and themselves the star of everything, it might as well all be rather wild, over the top and dramatic, so they have plenty of chances to emote toward their admirers, movingly.
I suppose it might be helpful to remind them from time to time that there are other ways of thinking which make solutions seem more obvious, and the great problems in the world less irresistible and inevitable. But as for trying to make a serious moral/political/social argument to such a group? How would one even start? If you can’t even get agreement that care beats rage, and listening beats yelling, there is no part of a compassionate argument which will survive translation into their specialized lingo. You just end up looking clumsy and obsequious in the attempt – and make the idiots among them think you endorse their distractions and foolishness.
I still can’t ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’ as Camus rather dangerously advised, but I do find myself at a point where I think perhaps we must stipulate humane awareness, and focus arguments there only.
NO WAR and no cozying-up to longstanding war promoters, no matter your current pucker-factor. (OMG how has any of that become controversial?) Don’t slaughter, don’t hate, and don’t burn people’s lives up and then giggle and say you didn’t really, because you had your eyes closed tight at the time. Learn something real and difficult and then use it to make something in the world better. I swear this was all widely agreed upon across all tribal lines, until very recently.
And insofar as recognizing humanity in other humans is now rocket science, study rocket science! (that is – make a REAL friend, eh?)
Love to all. And now – nap time! (fingers crossed)
The planet being rather depressing and hopeless of late, I thought I ought to add another piece to the “Reasons we bother” and “How we power that” file.
A little while ago I posted some thoughts about “Daily Pages” – one of the most self-evident, appealing and useful tips any writer about creativity ever offered. The screwy thing about this fantastic suggestion is that it is really hard to do – but it doesn’t seem as if it should be. Because of this, a lot of aspiring creators experience a small lift from the excitement of the idea of it, and then beat themselves up for a very long time afterward, as they prove unable to stick to it.
Last time I hit this topic, I mentioned that the missing component is a reason, and the reason is usually a person. My best friend was having a difficult time not long ago, and I found it very easy to write a small new magical escape story for her every single day. I shared a six pack of them before, and I will share another selection of them below, when I finish today’s self-forgiveness thought.
Some of you may be thinking – now that I have successfully identified an excellent emotional driver for output, I can be that rare creature who actually makes it and does daily pages forever! But though I have very rarely gone a full day in the last forty years without working on some kind of writing, I have stepped back from that lovely magical series, as my dear friend’s crisis subsided, and I want to share the why of that – just in case it can help anyone else get off their own case!
In my book Structural Happiness I talk about Ed, one of my instructors from the Audio Repair program at George Brown (great community college) in 1987, and one of the most giving hearts I ever knew. The lab had several instructors, we had an ex Nazi (also a superb teacher, but intimidating) a couple of guys who came from the corporate side, and a pure nerd academic type – all of whom had their qualities (several others show up in my later books). But Ed actually played in a band AND recorded bands AND repaired musical equipment with a repair business on wheels which saved many a gig from last minute disaster. He didn’t just think it, sell it, or analyze it – he DID IT! What’s more, he was a genuine enthusiast – which meant his advice was not just fresher and more practical, but also a thousand times funnier. Ed saved all the misfits in the class (me very much included) who were there for the same reason he was – his zeal for and way of life proved there was a space for us in the music industry (of that time – long since obsolete now).
In my years as a technician I saved a few gigs myself, and I even rescued the master tape for a hit album, by disassembling the entire transport of a DAT machine which tried to eat it – but no professional accomplishment ever made me more proud than when Ed began to bring me his own recording equipment to service and maintain.
Like my friend Rick, Ed was also one of those people who lived a second, fortune powered life. He had cancer as a kid and was not expected to make it. Decades of remission were a precious gift to me, his many other grateful students and the whole music scene in Toronto. But though he tried very hard, when cancer came again for him, he was unable to hide it, or power-through with will alone (as so many try, for an achingly lonely phase). I told him I really wanted to help if there was any way I could, and he, knowing I meant it, said, “Actually there is, and you’d be perfect for it.”
I ended up stepping into his role as a teacher of audio electronics for two classes already in mid-term, at post-secondary level. While I had worked in schools and colleges before, I had never been a lecturer or classroom teacher. Straight into the deep-end I went, despite great fear (especially about failing him, or his earnest and heartbroken students). The experience remained frightening throughout the term, but I have rarely in my life learned more, faster. The students enjoyed my active interest in their understanding (simple regurgitation is not enough for safety on the repair bench, and I am all about safety and the responsible coupling of knowledge) they also got a kick out of the fresh insights I could bring from the local music scene (I was working at the largest music store in the city), just as my pals and I had so enjoyed Ed’s lively perspective. I even got one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever had, from a lovely fellow who had a hand in coordinating their superb courses. “You’re a natural teacher, the kids really love you,” he said. Which just about made me cry – because I had already realized that I had to leave. I still had a full time job and more projects on the side as well – too much on the plate to do the job and my marriage justice, long term. But I had seen Ed’s kids through the term, seen their final projects built and tested. I was exhausted, but very grateful that I had been able to do one true thing for him at the end, which was within my personal capability (just barely – but then, I have never doubted that that push and reach was his final profound gift to me).
My dear friend’s recent season of sorrow did not demand anything close to that scale of effort, but nevertheless, as she regained her spirit, she said – “I really appreciate these stories, but you are also very tired, and I don’t want you being nice to me, to be a part of burning you out.” Which was so kind of her, because I could not have turned off that switch myself, without feeling I was letting her down, but I am indeed (like so many, all around the world) kind of exhausted.
What I should have said about daily pages is not just – what you need is a reason, and the reason is usually a person. I should have said, find a way to do it from love, and you’ll be doing it right, whether or not you do it for a long time. Love, as Bacon observed long ago “Is ever held in reciproque…” the love our work proves, loves us back, to complete the cycle. Our pride, ambitions and self image are nothing in comparison to this crucial spiritual metabolism.
I do not consider the series over for good, and I made enough of them to have developed a fond feeling for the funny form, long and short versions (sort of an image or an event, really). The license to use second person so often, really is particularly fun.
But for right now, I’ve got the hose filling the big reservoir again, so that when it overtops, I can spill forth a proper deluge, instead of a wee dram at a time! (fine a thing as that can so often be).
More books, podcasts, essays, songs and other assorted evidence of grand eccentric unravelling to come. In the meantime, perhaps a short visit to the universe next door?
We were pretty sure we were at the wrong place from the moment we got there. I look at the note in my paper notebook, and you check online again with your phone. The address matches, but it still seems wrong.
“Usually if they put a gallery in a warehouse, you can see some signs of studio conversion,” I say. “At least a few poor man’s fixes like fire escapes, if not a grand renovation.”
You look up at the huge building once again and say, “We are here, so we should explore some more. We will find something.”
The building is quite large and at least a half a century old, but it doesn’t look completely abandoned, just suspiciously quiet – and the alleyway doesn’t look outright threatening, just mysterious. Sure enough, as we come around the side we find one precious discovery right away – an orange and brown heap of metal which must date from the second world war, with a Massey Ferguson badge on the rust-eaten breadbox which must once have been the vehicle’s ‘hood’.
“For pulling artillery maybe?” I guess. “Too bad it sat out so long, it should probably be in a museum somewhere.”
“Yes, but it is a good sign,” you insist, then point, “and see! What is that?”
The door is extremely nondescript, and the plaque next to it isn’t very large, we even have to push some ivy back from the sides before we can read it. The engraved letters spell out:
“The Difficult Gallery
please ring bell for service”
“Aha!” You are delighted, but then we share a funny look – neither one of us can find any sign of a doorbell, even after we push the leaves left and right to make sure there isn’t a tiny brass or plastic button hiding behind them. Then we see an old brass chain with a wooden handle. You pull it!
We both jump when we hear a loud foghorn – definitely not a bell! But we can hear someone moving around inside, then they say, “Just a minute!”
The door opens and we see a gaunt young man, perhaps early thirties at most, with a bushy beard and long hair tied back in a ponytail. Both his ponytail and his beard have colourful flecks of paint. He doesn’t smile, but opens the door wide and points us toward a ladder, mounted to the wall.
“Up you go then,” he says, “room for two. Don’t waste time.” I’m really unsure, but climb up to the platform above, and it seems sturdy. You join me, and we can’t help noticing two chairs, bolted to the platform in very particular spots. “One each, come on now, hurry up,” he seems impatient.
One of them has a set of bicycle pedals in front of it, the other one has a pair of joysticks, one built into each arm of the chair. I’m closer to the pedals so I sit there, but I’m a bit nervous when I see the funny viewing window in front of me is completely black. You sit in the other chair and we hear a cough from below. He is impatient again. I start pedalling, and once I get up to a pretty good speed I see a dim light come on, and we can both see that there is something interesting inside our windows, but it seems awfully fuzzy and dim. I try pedalling harder and it gets brighter, and I glance over to see that you are concentrating hard on the two joysticks, trying to focus the image in our windows, as I try to light it.
“Almost,” he says, “but you’ll need to pedal harder.” I do, but my heart is starting to pound, and you are starting to mutter in frustration. Finally I get a nice burst of speed and you get the two finicky lenses aligned just right and for a moment we can both see a truly incredible sculpture. It reminds us of the boxwood miniatures we saw at AGO – an incredibly detailed scene full of buildings, figures, trees and hills – the sort of thing which you could easily stare at for hours. Except in this case, I’d have a heart-attack and you’d start cursing like a sailor!
We realize we had our best look and I let my legs spin down as you relax your grip. Then we both realize that even though it was just for an instant, what we saw was quite remarkable, and we’re very glad we saw it.
That’s when we realize there are two other platforms. “Up for another?” The artist asks with a smirk. “One of you has to pour water, and the other one adjust the inertial damping flywheel, to synchronize the kinetoscope.”
He is of course playing a game, we can already tell that one half of his art is making us jump funny hoops in order to see his art! But we aren’t ‘suckers’ we are eager participants. We intend to earn his respect.
“I’ve got bucket-duty,” I say, glancing down past the crude wooden catwalk to the man’s living space below – yet another part of the art, in a way.
You look at the treadmill on the last platform, “Okay, but I will run!”
We get the feeling that the man is a bit surprised he hasn’t irritated us yet, just from the tone of his question. “So – what do you-two think of the difficult gallery, so far?”
We can’t help sharing a big smile. “Easy to love!”
The sun warmed rock almost buried in the reeds by the edge of Grenadier Pond at the foot of High Park is a very good place to rest a moment. We are visited by dragonflies and curious sparrows, but we just can’t stop watching the ducks.
They don’t care about us at all right now – they are concentrating on each other. The drakes preening and showing-off their shiny green satin heads proudly, with pointless displays and the flapping up of a fancy splash or two.
The ladies circle at a distance, and though they pretend not to care about what the guys are doing, they somehow never let them too close.
Finally one drake breaks free of the group – you can almost hear the other guys egging him on like pals at a bar. “Come on, man. If you like her that much, just go talk to her already!”
She might like him back, she might not – but right now she is with her pals and they are all laughing at the silly guys. He advances toward them only to drive the whole group away. But not all the way away. The ladies turn once more and look back again, once they’re sure they’ve made their point.
The lone drake swims back to his buddies in a dispirited way, and again we can almost hear them. “Hey man, at least you tried. Let me get you a drink!”
Of course in a bar they would mean a barstool and a beer, rather than a funny tufted upturned feathered bum and a big gulp of soupy grenadiers and algae!
And now the wry feathered ladies are laughing at the spectacle once again.
“You know, he is kind of cute when he isn’t talking so darned much.”
When most people say “Garden Salad” they are not talking about a long leisurely stroll, but then Alphonse is definitely not most people. We ask him how long he has been tending this garden and he shrugs and laughs.
“My grandfather also,” he finally says – not just him, but generations of his line built this. Astounding. No wonder it is so lovely and well cared for.
The garden makes its way slowly up the hillside by way of elegant terraces with stone reinforcement and a sinuous switchback path, up which we follow him, not fast, but not ever stopping long either, except where he indicates – and he is never wrong.
“You must smell these tomatoes before I even pick them,” we almost swoon their sun-warmed flesh is so rich and fruity. “This Basil, run your hand along it,” he smiles, knowing we will be amazed.
“It has the pepper note and the menthol note, very strongly,” you observe.
He is pleased his hard work has been noted, “You will not taste this Basil anywhere else, unless someone stole it from my garden!”
There are onions higher up, both beautiful green shoots and golden bulbs – even the cucumber smells fantastic – I want to take a big bite! But he is putting everything in his beautiful basket as he goes, and it would be rude.
On the other hand, he is a lot older than me, so I offer, “Can I carry the basket? I am an excellent donkey, plenty of experience.” He laughs and hands it over, and I notice he begins to pick more now that I’m carrying.
I get a bit more exercise – and we get an even more incredible salad – excellent deal! As we rise up the hill, the view of the valley below gets more and more beautiful, and we edge into the shade trees near the top.
Are we surprised to see that his house, half fieldstone and half wood, painted in soft pastel colours, looks like an impressionist’s dream? No, we are not surprised – we are definitely delighted though!
We are going to offer to help with the meal, but we have to meet his goat. That is. his goat has decided that he wants to meet us – and he isn’t going to be dissuaded easily, so we enjoy his baaing and funny jumping antics for a minute as our host disappears inside the house.
He returns a moment later and beckons us over to a lovely stone table near the climbing roses, and under the shade of the stately old elm tree.
The vegetables have all been cut into nice bite size chunks – but we see no dressing, and the salad has not been tossed – each pile is separate.
“I know, I know,” he smiles apologetically, “I am vain, but I want you to try each flavour individually, okay? Combine afterward, once you know.”
We are happy to agree, and then see a middle age woman coming out of the house with a lovely worn farm dress and her hair all pulled back. We can tell she lives here too because her arms are if anything even stronger than his, and her face also has that curious combination of weathered by work, and yet made graceful by contact with the cycles of nature.
Strong, unpretentious, beautiful. She scolds me with her eyes before I can say it, so I don’t, but she still smiles as she sets the little ramekins before us. “These ones I made,” she says, pointing, “vinegar from wine, from apples, and of course the oil from our olive trees. Best you ever had.”
She is right and he is right. Best onions, tomatoes, carrots, celery, peppers, cucumber, basil we’ve ever had. And sure enough, each one of them tasted fantastic with each one of the dips, also.
Mind you, when the old man finally piled his vegetables into his bowl and poured the oil and vinegar on top, mixing everything, we did the same.
He smiles knowingly as our tastebuds go into happy overdrive, then says, “Now – next time you have a salad, you will think about Alphonse, this garden and the sun!”
“Monet,” you say. As we walk up the path between tall late season crops toward the town which strides the river and commands the valley pass.
“Yes, or maybe Cézanne,” I agree. “It looks too beautiful to be real.”
Our guide laughs. “I bet your town looks more like a Ridley Scott or a James Cameron movie, right? I’ll happily trade you, any time!”
“Not so many jobs?” I say, sympathetically. “We get that problem too.”
“Yes,” he said, “but you have so many distractions, to pretend things will soon be different. We have only the beauty of the place, something we can hardly take credit for. Who ever had a gallery show of maintenance? When do you see awards given out for stultifying inertia?”
“But the beauty is real,” you insist. “You should be proud!”
He smiles, quietly pleased with the compliment, but it is clear that he is a bit of a smart-ass (probably why we both liked him, right away). “Personally,” he gives us a confessional grin, “I stay for the puppets.”
It is a magic word for both of us – and at first he is convinced that we can’t possibly be that enthusiastic about something so old-fashioned – we must be teasing him! But we are not!
He wants us to see the market – and of course it is beautiful, so colourful, and the people are wonderfully friendly. The sense of continuity is magical, you can imagine this market four hundred years ago – and the beautiful weathered sandstone ‘old town’ – the original walled city around which all else grew – not much different either, really.
He needs us to see the church – and he is right, it is magnificent – we are glad we came. But we will not let him dismiss his comment about puppets!
Finally, after he is sure that we have both appreciated the finest paintings in the local gallery (there are only twenty works in the whole gallery, so that doesn’t take too long), he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Okay fine, I will share my favourite puppets with you. But if you’re rude about it, you can find a new guide, okay? These people are my friends.”
We assure him that we really do adore the medium and the art. He is still wary – and we both realize he must have had a bad experience before.
But we are not that kind of (barbarian) traveller – we are the opposite kind!
The front of the building looks more like a stately Dutch house than a theatre – and it seems too narrow for a theatre anyhow. We proceed through the lovely highly wrought woodwork and into the modestly beautiful interior – dark panelling, brass trim and velvet wallpaper – which doesn’t seem to have changed in a couple of centuries, if not more, except for the addition of electric lights. But even these are incandescent!
The lobby is almost a drawing room – but there is a booth for tickets, and the collector waves to our guide with a big smile. They are old friends, obviously. We are lead through the double doors into the theatre proper and both of us gasp – it is actually perfection!
The height of the narrow building allows the seats a good slope, and there is clearly a spacious superstructure above the stage for props and actors.
The wooden stage itself is worn and scuffed like a vaudeville playhouse – the low stage lights are hidden inside vintage art deco sconces that look like seashells, the curtains are lush and shiny with mauve satin, golden embroidery and braided tassled sashes.
The seats are made of carved wood also, and polished to unnatural smoothness by long wear. They are bolted to the floor, and at first the way the seat part itself folds-down from the back confuses us both.
“For the little kids,” the guide explains, showing us how to make the seat sit high or low, “so they don’t get their view blocked by adults in front of them.”
“It is surprisingly comfortable,” you say, taking your seat.
“It really is,” I agree, “and this playhouse is wonderful. Thank you for bringing us.”
“You cannot say that yet,” he insisted, “you have to tell me after the play. Anyhow, I have to go backstage now. Pierre didn’t show up, so I have to play piccolo. Otherwise no one will know when Pinocchio is coming!”
It has been awhile, that’s for sure – but somehow, even though we’ve never been here before, everything about it is immortal, as if there really was only one playground, and one set of swings which had been waiting patiently for our return ever since the last time we swung up and hopped off with a giggling super jump, only to scamper away toward another game or treat.
The top bar is not as tall as it used to look, but it and the chains hanging down still have that familiar combination of grey weathered metal and rust. The dull worn seat still looks like an ultra-thick and ultra fat seatbelt from a clown car for obese midgets. Even the pits underneath each swing, dug out one tiny bit at a time by small scuffing shoes, slowing down, seem familiar – and in this case, are deep enough to allow us to tuck our legs under.
I don’t know about you, but I was only thinking it would be nice to sit for a moment and rest. But as soon as I feel the seat taking up my weight and that funny back and forth slide you can do with the chains, I cannot help myself. Slowly at first, I begin the motion – pulling back to launch forward, and then tucking under on the return. Even if I didn’t see your blurry running shoes swinging by my peripheral vision, I would know you were swinging too, just from the slow rhythmic squeak of the chains.
There are bicycles and hills in the breeze on our faces when we pull forward – extended almost like a dive, and then that tiny moment of up-top weightlessness and the thrill of feeling just a bit unsafe, and the free ride back, tucked in like a luge pilot.
It is not the view, it is not the exercise, it is not the laughter we feel bubbling up from inside. It is not the excited screams of happy playing children from decades ago. It is not even the popcorn man with his whistling pedal cart.
It is coming back to earth, surrendering motion, donning the yoke of gravity and patience once again by choice, which leaves us feeling as if we have been cleaned and oiled and polished then sent back into the messy world
Mind you, the arrival of the popcorn man doesn’t hurt, those hot little paper bags of delicious smell almost too good – even from across the park.
Anyhow, we have each remembered a tiny friend from when we too were small. Why not introduce them to each other, while we get buttery fingers?
I have talked a lot in my essays, posts, podcasts and even my songs about self-delusion, especially the way our negative emotionality (fear/anger) causes all sorts of destruction which we are extremely good at ignoring, or pretending comes from somewhere else. Some people object because they insist that they have great reasons to be angry – and I absolutely agree that there are many things which are objectively infuriating in the world. The question we have to ask right after that is not “can we justify our upset?” (the pure ego answer) but rather the adult version – “what attitude on our part, best helps improve each of those frustrating problems?”
Horrendously general, I know, but the simple fact is that anger and fear are such old ways of making people act stupidly, and getting them to endorse policies which are against their long term interests, that there are whole categories of specialists who do almost nothing but manipulate the emotions of the general public based upon unwholesome primitive triggers which most of that same public furiously denies they even have!
Weirder still, this deliberately crazy-making game between persuaders and citizen/consumers has been going on for more than a century. The culture at large has made some useful progress in our general understanding of human spirit and psychology over that time, but government, business, advertisers and warmongers have studied those same subjects much harder, which means they have made quite a bit more progress in terms of messing us all up, than we’ve made learning to be happier individuals, more useful and helpful to others.
Part of the missing awareness of how manipulated we are has actually been around for awhile – media criticism was especially vital and interesting in the sixties and seventies, and a lot of stimulating theories were advanced at that time. Problem is, that historical moment was so full of contempt and ego (fear/anger again), that we failed to follow through with the full love insight available. We’ve kept right on failing on this one ever since – and at this point, freezing that error is getting us into real trouble.
The cynical half-analysis which we have popularized and come to believe (without proof, or serious compassionate scrutiny) says “Most people are dumb, they will believe anything they are told, and they can be made to do or endorse extremely foul things, if these things are explained in a way which is adequately dishonest and also invokes powerful negative emotions.”
The sad thing we have to start with is that this is absolutely SOMETIMES true. People can get whipped-up in a fury by fear and anger in combination, which is why political specialists are so good at using moments of real hurt, to make us favour very foolish things.
But the counterbalancing part we always leave out is incredibly important. People are not nearly as dumb as those who specialize in manipulating them ALWAYS end up assuming (one of those professional deformation things, where over time your work changes your psychology, often without you even realizing it’s happening. As far as you can tell, you’re just getting smarter and smarter – but to the rest of the world your specialization is taking you further and further from consensus reality).
People also have a whole range of personal measures of life, which give them much more important information than the posturing of blowhards ever could. How full is the fridge? How angry is the landlord? How are my kids doing? How are the sickest folks I know getting by? How well are my most talented friends being encouraged and rewarded? How well are my friends with the greatest basic human problems to face, being helped?
We do hear (almost always nauseatingly insincere) attempts to invoke these profound personal caring questions, made by all sorts of specialists who enjoy manipulating large numbers of people for a living. My younger friends probably won’t even realize that before this war-century, the voice of western media used to sound quite a bit different from that of politicians. Much more curious, funny and skeptical, and much more genuinely interested in the humane. Now, you sometimes have to listen for a few minutes or even wait for a caption, before you can tell whether you’re listening to a pundit, a reporter, or a politician, and an absolutely weird number of reporters and editors at the majors are former expert manipulators from malign government agencies. We used to call that gross corruption.
A wise friend of mine once said that instead of saying someone’s name and title on the caption, the networks ought to show their net worth, as a clearer and more revealing filter for the audience to use to understand the context of their ideas. I always loved that idea, but at this point I’d be happy just to know – are you a former spy, analyst, or professional war promoter – and if so, who in media hired you, and why are they still allowed to hire anyone? Separation of war and media may not be specified constitutionally, but it must surely be at least as important as separation of church and state. To allow CIA and the military to use the “free” press to amplify state propaganda and control dissent is a clear and shocking violation of every principle of freedom the cold war was supposedly fought to protect.
So – here’s the invisible question we almost never ask, but really should, and often.
Do we, in the final analysis, believe in democracy or not? By this I mean, do we have faith in human goodness, distributed widely enough in our fellow citizens, that they will steadily try to make life better for most people? (except insofar as their will is thwarted, diverted and corrupted)
I am personally convinced that we cannot hold this belief, and also the belief in the complete stupidity of humans at the same time. When we extend the logic of believing that “People will believe anything” and “People are dumb and amoral” too far, we can’t help but come to the conclusion that an aristocratic dictatorship is the only virtuous form of government. The better people should have extra power, and the ones these elect all agree are stinkers should have their power and their voice confiscated by force, for the good of all. (I don’t like Plato being so relevant here, believe me).
Of course, it is nothing short of amazing how many people now hold the belief that everyone else is stupid, but they and their friends alone are not. Such a schema defies the odds to an incalculable extent, but the commonality of this feeling is still highly revealing.
Now just for a moment – let’s ask where we get when we take serious belief in our fellow citizens (the core ‘faith’ at the heart of democracy, which really does make it worth saving) just a few more reasoning steps. For a start, when we begin from respect instead of contempt, we always ask what we don’t yet understand about our opponent’s views, instead of trying to justify and defend the emotionally satisfying rejection which we have already reached with our (obvious, because functionally proven) ignorance. We look for a reason to empathize, even with the hard feelings of others, instead of a reason to dismiss them as sub-human.
When we make it a constant habit to ask ourselves – what are the best possible reasons my opponents could have? and what are the worst reasons my own allies advance? – we can come a lot closer to overcoming the natural tribal emotional biases we humans all carry around (probably for reasons of brain architecture, even more than our patterns of acculturation).
Here’s one simple example of how we make things much too simple. Immigration in America. For people who are comfortably employed and housed, the question can be represented in clear simplistic moral terms which render all objections hateful. “How can we possibly close the door of freedom and opportunity to people who desperately need it?”
A question with all kinds of powerful emotional resonance not only for kids of immigrants, but for many who hold to an ideal vision. Where is your charity, your pride, your gratitude?
But I happen to know a couple of people who are poor and struggling hard in Urban Southern California right now (LA) and their day to day experience is genuinely heartbreaking. Both trained hard in industries since rendered irrelevant. So many local entry level employers are now eager to take advantage of the desperation of immigrants, that they have built unacceptable working conditions right into their business model, which means non immigrants must either accept standards our whole society considers unacceptable, or be in-effect priced out of the local job market. The question of housing is even weirder, not only are tens of thousands of people homeless and far more housing insecure, many places would rather rent to someone on assistance (steady, if sparse) than someone with marginal employment – even though gig-work (where the worker takes all risks, and the employers get all they want from them, with minimal cost, liability or responsibility) has come to dominate in more and more fields – a trend which started forty years ago, but has accelerated to a dizzying (and disheartening) pace this century.
To say someone wanting a job and a place to live is automatically a racist is insane. But do we passionately ask why we close the door to freedom and opportunity to so many who are already here? Some do, but for most, the inhumane and un-Christian association between poverty and immorality is an easy fall-back. Those people had their chance and blew it. But did they really?
To claim racism is behind any question about the emergency state of inadequate housing supply and the decades long erosion of working conditions which absolutely has been exacerbated by mass illegal immigration is a nice way to manipulate the passionate and comfortable into saying “the poor are rude, should have no rights, and be silenced.” Call that left if you want, but I call you a liar, flat out.
Anti-worker anti poor and anti social progress, in fact. The Democrats (and their Canadian equivalent centrist Liberals) didn’t used to have this gross and growing blind spot. One of our greatest prime ministers, Mackenzie King, entered public life from a background in social work, with the belief that labour and business both had crucial and valid interests, and government ought to work toward helping them compromise in a way which created good conditions for both to thrive. FDR had a similar balance in mind – though he is an extra amusing figure in any political conversation because he is simultaneously a great hero of leftist progressives and the world-oppressive banking industry!
What happened to the ANC in South Africa? What happened to the Congress party in India? They were so completely convinced that their brand was uniquely righteous that they slid further and further into incompetence and corruption, and covered up their errors shamelessly again and again, because of that impenetrable (though increasingly false) moral certainty. They came to feel they didn’t need to DO good, just BE (Sort of like Napoleon’s demented “I am France!”). The once mighty Liberal party has done multiple hilariously OTT cycles of this in Canada over the last few decades also (grist for another post). The deflation of ‘good-guy acts’ seems to be global. I can’t help feeling Brexit owes a lot to the same sort of falsity and smugness on the part of the EU (smugness to which NONE are entitled, after the fraud and following decimation wrought upon the Greek economy, mostly by grotesquely irresponsible and vicious German bankers).
The weird thing is – as ridiculous as the right wing blowhards keep looking to the left, leftwing blowhards keep seeming just as ridiculous to the right. Not even trying to be serious, are they? As out of touch as the international bankers and corporate titans so clearly are (and each conference seems to take them even further up each other’s rectums), there is now no less of a disconnect in the culture of NGOs, mighty academe, or even in the almost anarchistic field of the arts, where we once expected things like freedom, truth, passion and inspiration could not ever again be stifled.
The common mode of address itself says a lot. Complaint, expletive, raise a fist, or a gun – a chant, or a molotov. Smashy/Hate-y. Not what we’re here for, folks (pick a code, I’ll argue that on your terms).
The simplest explanation is that every faction is a bit right about their opponent, but completely utterly shamefully and in every possible way wrong about themselves. The missing piece that would make those angry forms of address at least partially valid? Moral high ground. The poorest people in North America still derive huge advantages from the way our corporations treat even poorer people overseas. In other words, when we complain about the way the rich treat us (corrupting governments, swaying policy their way and screwing us unfairly in huge numbers), we are saying it is morally wrong whenever that is done TO us – but we all still think it is just fine and dandy when it is done BY and FOR us.
This is why I describe our standard indignant positions on almost everything nowadays as egotistical and juvenile – I’m not taking shots, though I can easily forgive anyone who misunderstood me that way (I am capable). I am using those words in a technical sense.
So then where does that leave us? What are our choices? If the left is nuts and the right is nuts and the centre is nuts and the rich are nuts and the poor are nuts and nobody – but nobody – is listening to anyone else at all anymore, just all trying to yell over each other like a bunch of over-excited and badly raised psychotic brats? (There, now that one was a shot) ;o)
GROW PAST DEPENDENCE ON A TEAM! – And I mean that sincerely.
One of my favourite pithy gurus liked to put it this way “Think for yourself, stupid!”
But wait – the world is so complex, fast moving, challenging – you can’t really be suggesting we get past morality itself, can you? No way – not even for a second – I’m saying get past all of this furious reflexive inflexible and inhumane dogma, so that we can finally and at long last get back to real (that is, actively and humbly seeking) morality. It isn’t a checklist, it is a muscle – and we’ve been lazily using checklists instead for so long, that our morality muscles are sagging terribly.
Here’s the hilarious (and/or reason for suicide) twist, to this whole mess. You know who fights back hardest, when you start to use love as your filter instead of anger, and begin to judge based on your best listening and empathy, instead of your angriest ignorance and dogma? A whole bunch of people you used to think were your closest dearest allies. I am really sorry to have to say this, but it goes way beyond apocrypha – this little drama is being played out all around the world nowadays.
When you think and feel for yourself, when you start setting aside fashionable opinion, and working hard for subtle understandings instead of lazy condemnation, a whole bunch of friends who really like clonking other people over the head with their rule-book will start giving you a hard time, and before long, you will find some of them chasing you around with that same rule-book. Because your thinking will now be organic, responsive to the moment and the people in it – it will be humane but imperfect, while theirs is still set in cold stone. Your friendship, kindness and honourable conduct – those precious human things don’t show up in their book, just those same old angry check-boxes you used to love too.
I can’t truthfully say “no loss” in a casual way. Every emotional rending is a loss, and we humans are way more sensitive to the opinions of groups than we can comfortably admit. But I can say with confidence that throwing out the dogma, recovering your full range of compassion and curiosity and rediscovering other humans with new and stimulating views will completely invigorate your thinking, and may very well change a bleak and dismal picture of the future, into a bleak and dismal future with a new component of clear unblinking hope.
Love is not a luxury for afterward, it does not erupt spontaneously when the last foe has been defeated. Love is not a thing we do only for those who please or flatter us. Every great leader of spirit and heart has commended us to set our love before our anger, and find the love in those around us, even at great cost to ourselves.
You can have all the fun and excitement you want parsing each others hateful dogma – and in this cacophonic age, there is plenty of that sort of fun to be had – have at it, by all means. Kind of like burger chains, fighting epic battles over market share – all sound and fury.
Or you can take a deep breath, recognize the door we all like to politely pretend is invisible, step out of that depressing madhouse and get a breath of fresh air instead.
It’s really kind of fantastic out here – so many fascinating new friends and hopeful things to learn. (scary too, I will grant – but isn’t that really only because it has been an awfully long while since we practised standing on our own two feet, instead of riding the shoulders of comforting Ogres?) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This is an extremely difficult time to write about the reality and history of the world and of our various nested cultures, from a standpoint of firm and ever expanding compassion.
I have said it before, but I have to repeat – I outright love a lot of people who could not be left in the same room together without fighting. Because I truly do love them, I am of course always trying to better understand them, more clearly hear what their hearts are all about, and cut past the surface chatter which so many of us now use as an excuse to greatly enjoy misunderstanding each other.
I have some very big themes I’ve been working on for decades: extending genuine compassion and rights to children, understanding of structural poverty and the psychological effects of being pushed into an out-group for any reason. The way in which silencing predictably leads to fury, and also the extraordinary potential we all always have, to become better people. Right now, it feels very near to useless to have ever worked on these themes, and almost masochistic to continue so determinedly in their pursuit. There is simply no ‘market’ at the moment for broad understanding and compassion.
So, since I really do care about love and aspire to ever increasing understanding and awareness of truth (and never was chasing a market), I’ve ended up spending a lot of time thinking about what is going wrong. What is interfering with our hearts’ ability to make connection, to build instead of tear-down society, and make better lives for each other and our children with our most resilient, positive and helpful spirit.
I have a few big themes which are part of how we got here, for which I’m working on big pieces, so I can address them in a helpfully rich way. But there’s actually one incredibly specific mistake which applies to left, right, hyper political, apolitical, and every tribal variation I can think of.
For some reason, pretty much everyone now talks and acts as if their own personal indignation is an important force in the world. They think they can be a politically sophisticated person, just by hating the right list of idealogical opponents, or be a patriot, just by hating the right list of national enemies. The old requirements: care, respect, humility, sacrifice and service to others, are all entirely absent!
First of all, what we feel inside our heads is always strictly subjective and emotional. We feel what we feel because of very specific ongoing biological and experiential processes – and the picture of the world we create in our heads has about as much to do with the true full objective reality of the world as a fairy tale. Absolutely everyone is like this. Our human mindset is FUNCTIONAL. We like to pretend it is rational, because we still foolishly and pridefully deny the obvious centrality of our emotions. But almost every opinion you hear now, actually takes the form – Because I am angry, here is today’s list of things I have decided to blame. We don’t ‘become’ angry for a reason, we use our reason to explain the fact that we have already decided we love our anger, and consider stoking it up daily a personal duty (of fealty?) to it.
I apologize if that sounds offensive to some – and believe me, I am quite angry about a number of ongoing tragedies around the world myself. Heartbreakingly, if I say Tigray, most people won’t even know what I’m talking about – even the ones who swear they care about black lives, and if I say Afghanistan, from which the United States recently outright stole hundreds of millions of desperately needed dollars, many will sneer and think ‘They are mean to women” and thus ignore the staggering scale of famine predicted, or even, with obviously racist and genocidal brutality, consider it somehow deserved.
If we actually cared about black lives, we’d insist that the Congo must be stabilized and epic scale reparations begun at once. We all paid for the weapons and ammunition which caused at least five million deaths and brought ruin to a region the size of Europe, not simply so we could enjoy our lovely cellphone economy, but so that we could make cellphones cheap enough to replace them at our whim. Disposable pocket computers made millions of black lives disposable to us. We haven’t even apologized yet, we just keep destroying whatever stands in the way of whatever we want. This is what a great many others hear, whenever we use the word “Freedom”.
If we actually cared about the women of Afghanistan, instead of just really enjoying our hatred of sexists, we would be incredibly determined that they must not be left to starve to death. Are we?
What we really care about now isn’t the issue we claim, but our own precious anger – the causes we so often take up – even the absolutely righteous and incredibly important ones – are almost inevitably steered in a destructive direction, not by the nature of the cause itself, but by our collectivized hatred. We bring the poison into the mix ourselves.
Just imagine if everyone who said “I love Greta” actually STOPPED DRIVING AND FLYING. That would really help, might even buy us years. But we all know we won’t do it – nor even try. We show up for the exciting emotional part that happens inside our own heads – or sometimes get out to celebrate a big jamboree of fury with others – but when it comes to making a simple serious long-term sacrifice for our principles – even a sacrifice of convenience, or fashion – we won’t do it. Push this point too insistently, and you will be accused of advocating oppression – limitation of the individual.
But of course – oppression and destruction of our precious free-spirited individuals (and our fun) is what happens when society gets past the safe middle zone of balance, and freaks out. Personal restraint, responsibility, respect and consideration for one another, even when our views vary greatly, are all forces which help contain our always present and always dangerous primitive yearning for the comfort of oppression. (Damn I wish people would read more post war psychology – Jung especially – there is nothing trivial about the evil unleashed by mass-denial).
The force of all this gathered and excited hatred is really vast at this genuinely depressing point in history – it is also now regularly turbo-boosted by a whole range of new fears (got to renew that product life-cycle). The sad thing is that it doesn’t even matter what tribe you’re talking about, in every form “Big Hate” is always anti intellectual, anti humanist, anti kindness, anti faith and proudly culturally destructive – its goal isn’t to create a lasting improvement, but to cause pain to opponents.
We’ve got so weird that one can now very easily stir up a lot of anger just for defending principle itself. (A widely valued good, so short a time ago as to be dizzying)
On the other hand (and this is the ‘Big Hug’ bit for today) each piece of that vast force of hatred – which is always passionately convinced it takes different sides, but actually feeds itself, its opponent, and every sort of con-man, huckster, imbecile, tinpot and warmonger alive, equally and endlessly – lives inside one individual human(e?) being.
Each one of us can surrender to the lustful savour of hatred, the thrill of a pitchfork mob, or else grapple with and overcome that ancient foe inside ourselves, and try to help our friends grow past it also, to find their higher capabilities for growth, cooperation, responsibility and advanced work.
This is not, as some fools suggest, abandoning the search for justice or the rebuilding of community. This is about taking these aspirations to a more serious, disciplined and productive level, where our helpful efforts can gain allies from all sides, instead of our cathartic dramas inevitably energizing the very worst of our enemies (and thus helping to silence all of our potential allies among them). *
Which brings me to an odd question. Doris Lessing, who was driven out of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) after the second world war for being a communist organizer (which, in those colonial days, still seemed to many Africans like hope for liberation) and went on to write some truly significant literature advancing feminism, humanism, and the most sophisticated political understanding since Orwell – an atheist with impeccable credentials, no one can argue – nevertheless observed somewhat mournfully that (I paraphrase) “At least when everyone went to church, we all had respect for the way language could move and inspire people. The power of words chosen carefully and spoken well, and the great value of scholarship, which could so brilliantly inform those words.”
When we think about our leaders nowadays – outstandingly incompetent, left, middle and right, really, even after we factor-in the highly corrosive effects of the internet on structures of authority in general – we almost always frame it as if we citizens aren’t getting what we ought to be getting. As if people deserve more from our representatives. But are we really so sure they don’t represent us truly, but seem unrecognizable because they are us, shorn of all our favourite denials?
Of course – history shows that there have always been some incompetents with power – it is the fact that this now seems the dominant mode which concerns people in so many places around the world that used to seem stable and mellow. Modern people have also come much closer to consensus on a lot of basic societal matters than we sometimes realize, which means it is legitimately difficult for politicians to do good things for us that seem substantial, especially within the time-frame of an election cycle. But reading history also shows us that humans are capable of changing the world in gigantic ways quite rapidly when we decide in overwhelming numbers that we really want to.
I can remember many moments in my life when leaders here and elsewhere appealed past our anger or fear as individuals, to our calmer and more compassionate selves. I can remember leaders who said hard true things to their people, even though they knew it would cost them popularity, because they also felt confident that out there in the general public, that appeal to universal compassion and respect would resonate with enough, to really matter in the long run. We were sometimes smart enough to support leaders who would sacrifice themselves, just to smarten us up. Weird, right? But not a myth, I swear, even though we’ve seen almost none of it so far, in this sad and war-full century.
I say we ought to take a moment and seriously ask ourselves – Are we still the kind of people who could be effectively moved by such appeals? Are our better natures still profoundly important to us? Does it take a crude cattle-prod of emotional overexcitement, just to get us off the sofa? Do we require a speech with a sneer, to really cheer? Do we always need to put a foot on a fallen foe, to feel good? Is that what we now are? (And if it is, aren’t we actually being represented rather brilliantly, in all our amoral idiot-splendour?)
Finally, am I a complete idiot for even trying to talk about this stuff, when I am bombarded by clear evidence from all sides that so many love their anger incomparably more than they love human dignity, humility, striving, satisfying contribution, culture, art, or even the other struggling people around them? (Not even rhetorical, I’m honestly and for-real wondering).
Thankfully, I find evidence for love also, and kindness, and spontaneous new forms of humility and learning. I see great hearts old and young, holding out bright beacons to guide others in to safe waters, even as they draw fire with their unashamed brilliance. And so I am able to suspend all of my cynical conclusions, embraced as I am by these clear proofs of bright enduring spirit in dark heartless times.
Will we think of our families, dear ones, the world of our children’s children, overcome the worst within our own hearts and feed the light? Or will we be overcome by our fears and lusts and lend all of our emotional weight to the side of hate?
I dare not begin to calculate, nor even guess the answer by means of my customary whimsy. Upon this question hangs far more than any of us seem willing to recognize, or speak aloud if we do.
But in an age like this, it is perhaps enough just to do one faithful watch, keep one small flame of hope from guttering out, so it is still there to light another candle from, come morning. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
*Which has not ever in history been shown to lead to positive long term change. Seriously. Malcolm X was a revolutionary force and speaker for years, but he did not become an existential threat to the power of those governmental racists (J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, in particular) until he returned from the Haj, having left his racism behind for good on the pilgrimage. Just as the Black Panthers shocked people with their guns and rights protests, but it was their community social programs which scared the crap out of the powerful racists in government at the time, and provoked them to outright state political murder (Fred Hampton most clearly and incontrovertibly). READ HISTORY