A few years ago, I wrote about creating a cover version of an obscure song called “Sonny the Monster,” originally written and performed by the band Anacrusis, which ended up as part of a box set of songs by the legendary Dayton, Ohio-based indie rock band Guided by Voices. That experience grew out of another: my brief stint as the drummer for that band in the late 1980s. Even before that, though, I had brushed elbows with the band.
Have you been reading some of the news items I’ve been seeing? Politics in the United States have deteriorated to the point where a large and growing proportion of partisans actually hate people who don’t share their views.
A large part (though not all) of the population in the United States, and the West more generally, is gripped in a crisis of faith. Not so much faith in God, Buddha or Krishna, although religion isn’t what it used to be. Nor faith in the state, although that’s waning too. If anything, we probably put too much faith in it.
Nope. We’ve lost faith in each other.
It’s no wonder. When news outlets and social media posters tell you, over and over, that some “others” are out to get you, it’s easy to feel paranoid.
In that kind of world, everything you don’t like is “fake.” There’s no such thing as “win-win.” If I gain, you must lose, and vice-versa.
You wind up with silly arguments, like the one where conservatives say that no “socialist” system has ever worked, and progressives say that of course they have. But take a look at North Korea. Recent reports suggest that lurking just under the surface of the communist DPRK is a vibrant, capitalist black market that makes up two-thirds or more of the actual economy. Workers cut deals with their bosses to skip work in exchange for a piece of what they make outside the “official” workplace. That requires a degree of mutual empathy and trust that I bet is missing in a lot of American job sites today.
It’s not the system that matters. Some systems make things easier than others, but if we have faith in each other, we either make whatever system work or we work around it.
In short, we are the system, the ones failing ourselves, and each other.
When the Great Tao is forgotten, doctrines of justice and mercy prevail.
When wit and cleverness prevail, hypocrites rule.
When kinship falls into discord, piety and rites of devotion arise.
When the nation is in crisis, all the patriotic ministers appear.Sam Hamill, translator. Tao Te Ching, Chapter 18. Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2005
It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow, the date changes to January 1, 2019. Sure, this is all arbitrary. We could call it August 10, or April Fools’ Day or Cinco de Mayo. It’s just another day, except that this one is loaded with our emotional baggage around the passage of time. Birthdays and anniversaries are the same way. So be it. The biggest impact for most of us is that we’ll probably forget at least once and input “2018” for the year on whatever form we’re filling out instead of “2019.”
There are some rituals that go with this arbitrary change of the calendar. One is resolutions. I don’t do those anymore, because, well, why? You can resolve to do something any time you want. Another is looking back at the past and forward to the future. I don’t really go for those, either, since the only time I control is now. Besides, the future is determined to an extent by what’s happening now (barring the occasional future black swan – again, out of my control). So I woke up this morning and felt like talking a little about now. I feel like I know something about it, at least from my perspective.
I was going to post this on LinkedIn, but I don’t know that anyone there would understand, or care. So it’s here. You can take or leave it. Here, in no particular order, are my observations.
Chickens are still coming home to roost
We continue to fulfill Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting something different to happen. We want more, waste more, and keep waiting for the next big thing. Meanwhile, we ignore the little thing that is this moment. with all its dangers and opportunities.
While we pretend – that the things we think we’re recycling are actually being recycled, that debt (public and otherwise) will somehow take care of itself, that we can wish all our risks away without managing them – the chickens keep on coming home to roost.
Still crazy, after all these years.
Most of us are the slaves of fear
There’s a little walnut-sized doodad in the back of the human brain called the amygdala. It’s where a lot of fear and pleasure impulses sit. When stimulated the amygdala triggers emotions like wanting to fight or run. Under normal conditions, the brain’s frontal lobe steps in to moderate the impulses. But when your amygdala is bombarded by fear-mongering messages, that moderating process gets overwhelmed.
In an age of information, information is a weapon and stoking fear and anger is like the nuclear option, going straight at the old amygdala. Advertisers and politicians have been playing these war games with us for generations. Now, with social media, we can wage information war with each other if we choose. We’re creating a culture like the one James Michener described in his book about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It’s one in which all the living and many of the dead are incriminated through fear and shame. There’s no secret police doing this to us. We’re doing it to ourselves, and to each other.
I think I finally figured out Donald Trump
Yes, the 800-pound orange gorilla in the room.
Since Mr. Trump became something more than a real estate speculator and reality TV huckster, I’ve been trying to understand him. First, I thought he was just crude. Then I thought he was the Antichrist. Then I thought it was like that episode of Star Trek where aliens kidnap Captain Picard and substitute a replica who acts stranger and stranger so the aliens can see what it’ll take to make the crew mutiny.
Now I liken the president to the San Francisco Bay Area anti-hero protagonist in the Steely Dan song “Kid Charlemagne.” He found the magic formula to hook enough people on what he was selling to corner the market.
“Didja feel like Jesus?”
Even as they depended on him, though, he also became dependent on them. In the end, there won’t be enough of them to sustain him as he wants – needs – to be sustained. Now, he’s hogtied by the contradiction in terms he has made of himself. He cannot be “Mr. Art of the Deal” and “Mr. (I alone can) Fix It” at the same time. The only question that remains is whether he will go all-in and try to take over the world, or whether (and how soon) he will meet Kid Charlemagne’s fate:
“Is there gas in the car?
Yes, there’s gas in the car!
I think the people down the hall know who we are.”
Is there hope? Of course, there is! We can start now. After all, it is always now, and it always will be. Happy New Year.
I woke up early this morning, and was scanning news stories when I came across this:
According to the story in National Review, sci-fi author Andrew Duncan opined on a podcast that the treatment of orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels was racist and would have “dire consequences” for everybody down the road. That’s not what I took from it at all. To me, depicting a race bred for fighting and not much else sounds a klaxon warning about the dangers of eugenics. Breeding disposable sub-humans would have dire consequences indeed, but that’s not what Mr. Duncan is talking about.
In my opinion, he’s trying to revise the history of literature. He’s not the first to try, and this isn’t the first time it has come up.
I got to thinking about some other bits of media that have been killed by this Orwellian revisionism. Take, for example, Mel Brooks’ brilliant movie farce Blazing Saddles. You don’t see it on broadcast or cable TV anymore because the use of the “N” word by certain characters has been censored to the point that a lot of the picture makes very little sense.
Here’s the thing: the characters using the racial slurs were the very ones Brooks was lampooning. Furthermore, a major component of the story is how the townspeople evolve to like and respect the black sheriff, despite their racial differences.
I think the same thing is true about the classic 1970’s sitcom All in the Family. Archie Bunker has a slur for everyone who isn’t a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant). Archie Bunker was a bigot, not someone to emulate. I got that. as I think most people back then did.
Except, maybe, Ann Coulter.
If you hear Dire Straits’ 1980s hit “Money for Nothing” on classic rock radio today, you’ll miss an entire verse of the original song. The verse refers to an unidentified pop star the narrator/singer believes to be homosexual, or at least effeminate, and describes said pop star using a homophobic slur. Stations used to just bleep the offending word when it came up; now they just edit out the entire verse. The narrator/singer is ignorant and homophobic, and if you hear the entire context of the song and give it a little thought, you’ll get that.
But folks like Andrew Duncan don’t seem to want you or me to have that chance. They want a world where everyone is exactly the same, has always been exactly the same, and thinks exactly the same. In their view, it kind of takes all the guesswork out of thinking. It’s very similar to people on the so-called “alt-right” except that what they want you to think is different.
You can try to ban all the expressions of thought you don’t like, but you won’t be able to ban the thoughts themselves. Talk about your dire consequences.
In America and elsewhere, hateful and distorted thoughts are like cockroaches; they flourish in darkness. Driven to the darkness and left there, they will eventually manifest in hateful and distorted action out in the light. To change minds you must challenge them, not try to control them. To paraphrase Santayana, those who censor history are doomed to repeat it.