Letter To Graham Allison

To: Graham Allison

From: Ralph E. Melcher

Dear Mr. Allison,

I am one of the two winners of the Belfer/Politico Bet Book prize for predicting the state of the world after almost a year into the Trump administration. It has taken me too long to thank you for the gift of your book, ‘Destined For War,’ along with your very kind inscription and the check.

Your book gave me considerable insight into both the present global alignments and their historical antecedents. It helped me to appreciate the potentials and the dangers of the present from a much wider perspective than the daily dramas that inflict our political institutions. I’ve always tried to be a wide system thinker and have found that history gives us an opportunity to pull back from the apparent crisis of the present and appreciate the landscape of choices and possibilities that emanate toward various futures.

The factors in play between the United States and China are of bewildering complexity. Are we truly ‘destined for war,’ or are we actually already in the midst of one? It occurs to me that our common conception of war, which involves ships and planes and missiles and troops on the ground, has been overtaken on the larger stage of world powers by the tools of weaponized information flows. On this level it appears to me that the ‘next’ world war is already being waged with ever increasing fury. While more conventional ‘proxy’ wars are fought in developing nations that find themselves caught between the boundaries of more powerful actors who themselves are often proxies for bigger powers, the information war could result in more far reaching destruction.

It appears to me that the whole conception of ‘nation states’ is under assault, as the interests of corporate players that transcend all national boundaries has begun to erode the boundaries of language that historically defines the divisions between people’s self-identity as ‘citizens’ or ‘patriots.’ Ironically, as state powers attempt to exercise military or political dominance through the manipulation and exploitation of corporate entities like those of social media, they actually contribute to the erosion of their own identities.

America, the ‘melting pot’ where all national and regional identities are subsumed under a collective mantle based on a set of common principles, may provide the template within which a new world order will be forged. While we generally speak of ‘identity politics’ as a factor at play in racial and sexual relations, I contend that the term has a much wider and deeper application on the world stage. When foreign players interfere in an American election in an attempt to erode the cohesive social agreements to which Americans ascribe, and successfully do so by using the tools of corporate influence and profit, the particulars of national policy and politics can no longer be seen as separate from our ability to define ourselves as a nation apart.

I recently watched a series of Chinese ‘Independent’ documentaries that illuminate the sectors of society that one never sees in officially approved media. What they show are the true conditions of those on the margins of a rapidly developing society, the rural and urban poor, the harsh exploitation of workers, the ‘ghost’ cities, the bureaucratic incompetence leading to tragedies, in short the darker side of the succession of ‘Five-Year Plans.’ As quickly as China has grown, it’s encountering in spades the enormous challenge of maintaining long-term stability in the face of rapid growth. However, through all of the tribulation one has a sense that the Chinese are less challenged in terms of their sense of national identity. At the same time, one can see in the artifacts of popular Chinese culture the powerful influence of American culture. Even in remote communities the walls are plastered with images from American movies and fashion magazines, the t-shirts are covered with American logos and American franchises abound. Significantly, the physical infrastructure of rapidly growing cities and towns dosn’t appear to be much different from that in America.

It’s been suggested that the term ‘artificial intelligence’ can be applied to the corporation, an entity governed and regulated by a set of laws (like algorithms) that determine the parameters of its activity. As corporations grow to blanket the world with their functionality they aggressively reshape the manner in which states relate to one another, weakening traditional boundaries forged by common identity and common language. Indeed, the international order is redefined by a common language defined by business and increasingly dominated by images rather than words.

On the surface, America and China embody contrasting responses to this challenge. As a liberal democracy, the United States opens itself with less hesitation to influence from outside its borders, assuming that this results ultimately in an enrichment of culture and strengthens its influence on other nations. China more strictly enforces the cultural, commercial and technological boundaries that enable it to respond to development and its challenges in a more unified and centralized manner. The advantage of the American model is its encouragement of innovation through the constant creative mixing of disparate elements and ideas. The strength of the Chinese model is in the managed response of the collective to altered conditions. In America the social fabric is continually challenged by conflict between competing social and political philosophies. In China an enormous centralized bureaucracy is continually challenged by internal corruption as its members look for more ‘flexible’ options.

I believe that all political change is driven by cultural change, and that cultural change arises out of technological innovation. The world of nation states arose out of the technology of print and the ability to communicate through a common language. The new world is emerging out of a digital revolution in which the language of sound and image transcends the limitations of the printed or spoken word.

The wars of tribal and national identity that characterizes the struggle of civilizations since long before the Greeks is perhaps being overshadowed by a new struggle. The increasing dominance of artificial intelligence in the form of international corporations and their structural links is a growing challenge to state systems that aren’t able to adapt to the new international environment.

War is the most rapid driver of innovation. While some states find ways to weaponize parts of the new structure, in response those weapons are modified and weaponized by their enemies. The effect is a steady state of degradation within the familiar international order. Meanwhile a new order is relentlessly emerging and most of the wars raging in the world are the result of cultural resistance to this emergence.

Well, this turns out to be a longer ‘thank you’ letter than I originally anticipated, but I’m happy to take the opportunity to give a glimpse of the thinking to which your book has contributed.

With deep regard,

Ralph E. Melcher
Santa Fe, 2018

In Defense Of The OSCARS

One of the most prominent features of OSCAR season is the sheer volume of snarky commentaries by everyone from the film snobs of academia and the New York media to the ideological ranting of political junkies on Crooked Media podcasts. Now, I admit I’m a film junky if there ever was one. I fell in love with film in High School and watching Jean Luc Godard movies in college. I’ve been to film festivals. I even helped to get a couple off the ground. I subscribe to MUBI. I live in one of the best little towns in the USA for viewing the full range of diversity in the world of film. I’ve rubbed shoulders with filmmakers and with the snarky elite and have myself been among the snarkiest.

Every year we read and listen to dozens of movie critics complaining about the terrible choices the Academy makes in terms of the ‘art’ of film. Traditionally, reviewers focus on how the nominees are chosen more on the basis of popular taste and promotional hype rather than on true and timeless artistic value. They point out that the awards are more a self-congratulatory celebration of the mainstream industry than a tribute to true quality. More glamour than grit.

Fair enough. The awards are after all a mainstream Hollywood event, and the voting is been done by predominantly male and mostly white industry insiders. The spectacle of wealthy Hollywood royalty in gowns and tuxedos frolicking on the carpet brings up for some a bit of class resentment. Yet, for anyone who enjoys the movies on almost any level the Oscars are like the Super Bowl. (It’s a long ceremony and I confess that I just watch the highlights on YouTube the next day.)

Notably in the past couple of years, and this year in particular the selections have been deliberately widened to include a bit more diversity. In the top categories are films directed by women and minorities, films including both spectacular Hollywood extravaganzas and more modest independent productions, films by old Hollywood hands and first timers, films about both gays and straights, and even that touch the edges of politically sensitive subjects.

But in the year of Trump, to venture into politically relevant waters is to open the doors for even greater explosions of criticism and pent up resentment directed against an industry that has done much to support and maintain a status quo that we’ve all grown uncomfortable with. The movies and television after all are the mirror and lens through which a culture sees itself these days and most of us are addicted to the screen in one form or another.

This is one of the years when I actually managed to see most of the films nominated for major Academy Awards (7 out of 9) and enjoyed all of them to various degrees. Of those nominated for Best Picture my personal favorites were ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘The Shape of Water.’ My favorite performance was Sally Hawkins in ‘The Shape of Water.’ This isn’t what I want to write about.

When I opened my ‘New Yorker’ app the day after the ceremony I came across what struck me as a bitter diatribe against the Oscars by their film critic, Richard Brody. I confess that I found it mostly appalling, and now It’s my turn to snark back. Brody’s essay to my mind appears to abandon an appreciation of the art and spectacle of film to replace art criticism with ideological rant. It struck me as little more than an ideological tantrum filled with invective and spite, perhaps triggered because the author’s choice of best film didn’t get the prize, or maybe it was just part of the collective hangover we all have after a year of Trump, looking for a convenient outlet for letting off steam.

To begin Brody goes after the winners for being ‘flashy’ and ‘showy’ and “flaunting design…and drama.” This represents to him “…the Academy’s brazen self-celebration of the old-school pomp of classic moviemaking, as well as the Academy’s general obliviousness to the moment.” I wonder exactly to what ‘moment’ he is referring, and what, beside ‘design and drama’ is the missing element by which we should judge these films. Movies, after all, are artifacts of design and drama that attempt to evoke feelings of empathy and emotion and maybe a little intellectual awakening. These are the elements of a visual medium that differentiates itself from unpolished ideological bluster. As a popular art form, like opera or theater, it avails itself of whatever formal means is at it’s disposal. Even a director like Godard, who attempted more than anyone to blend film and political discourse, understood that his audience comes to be entertained as well as enlightened. No matter how modest the production value or unpolished the performance, film is an inherently spectacular medium when seen in a theater where the lights are low and the figures on the screen are 15 feet tall.

In his next paragraph Brody credits the Academy for honoring those in the industry that have been subjected to sexual harassment and violence, and then criticizes the presentation for “…keeping the tone of the proceedings cheerful, optimistic, and, above all, commercial.” Then he dumps on Kumail Nanjiani’s “…exhortation of Hollywood professionals to pursue diversity not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s profitable to do so.” The real crime of Hollywood is “…the intersection of doing good while getting rich.” When reading this I thought of one of Sam Rockwell’s comments about being in a lot of ‘indie’ films and being happy to have been in one that people actually come to see.

So now we get to the nitty-gritty of Brody’s objections: Hollywood is corrupt because while it may tell some valuable stories, it makes money while doing so.

After praising Francis McDormand for her acceptance speech and tribute to women in the industry, he goes on to dump invective on the film she starred in, Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which he characterizes as “…cavalierly, brazenly racist, not because it depicts racists but because it treats the very subject of race and the political effect of race on black individuals as a mere backdrop for the personal growth of white characters.” Yes, the film was a drama about angry white people in Missouri, and black characters, although treated sympathetically, were marginal to the plot revolving around three white central characters. Is this now the criteria for ‘blatant’ racism in film? Have you ever been to a small town in the Ozarks?

Then he goes on to stomp on The Shape of Water, which won the Best Film Oscar.

“It’s a movie that struggles, by means of ludicrously and garishly overwrought decorative and narrative complications, to endorse an absolutely minimal baseline of recognition of the “other.” It’s exactly the sort of wan and impotent message of bland tolerance that gets Hollywood to join hands in a chorus of self-congratulation.”

This is to me exhibits a degree of obliviousness to the actual nature of the film medium that I find astonishing. Brody attacks the director, Guillermo del Toro, essentially for his style of addressing current social issues through allegory and fairytale, claiming that this adds a level of sentimentality that avoids the seriousness of real issues. The writer is so wrapped up in his ideological cocoon that he apparently isn’t able to actually see the film he’s watching. The ‘fairytale’ elements of this movie, instead of obscuring the issues, make them more universal and timeless. The ‘sixties’ in this film are a stylized version of the film images of that time, not of the ‘real’ sixties, and by juxtaposing romantic images of our film memories with characters and situations that would not then have been portrayed so plainly del Toro subtly ‘tricks’ us into a fresh way to view the present. And aren’t all movies in some sense ‘fairytale’ reconstructions of real life?

Of course to Mr. Brody this summons a vision of that ‘classic’ Hollywood filmmaking that he apparently abhors. This is a style that approaches its themes much like Opera, incorporating elements of fantasy, stylization and pure emotion in order to construct something that conveys universal feelings and values and stands up to time. He criticizes del Toro’s film for being a ‘surrogate’ version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is somewhat ironic given that the movie on the top of his own ‘year’s best film’ list, Gordon Peele’s Get Out pays deliberate homage to that very film, portraying the situation of an interracial relationship, albeit with radically different consequences.

I saw Get Out and liked it. It was an outstanding film, particularly as a first film written and directed by director Gordon Peele. I didn’t think it was one of the best movies I’d seen all year, though I particularly liked the performance by actor Daniel Kaluuya. (I first saw him in the Fifteen Million Merits episode of the series, ‘Black Mirror,” one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the small screen.) “The predatory destructiveness of white people’s self-love for their good feelings…” may indeed be the subject of the film, as Brody claims, challenging white folks inherent sense of privilege and an inability to see the humanity in the “other,” but at the same time it avoids taking itself too seriously. I would also add that by the writer/directors own admission it’s an homage to the Hollywood tradition of Grade B horror films that he grew up with.

We come back to the problem of the movies themselves. “The history of Hollywood is, in part, a history of depredation, of abuse, yet the celebration of Hollywood’s traditions and the assertion of continuity between the classic era and today’s movies was on view in the ceremony from the outset…” Well, yeah. The history of Hollywood is also the history of the evolution of an art form and a mode of storytelling that involves whole communities of artists, technicians, promoters and business people. As with every business in America, there has been and continues to be abuse and injustice, the disenfranchised having to struggle for rights and representation, and its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. There has also been progress, not only in the world of film but in the world that it attempts to mirror.

Finally, Brody refers to the real root of all this resentment, which arises out of “the…shock of life under a depraved new Administration…” and what he perceives as Hollywood’s weak and misdirected response to the depredations that we all now face. Instead of making films that are a direct assault on all of America’s failings and injustices it continues to make movies with the intention of making money. “Ultimately, the self-deception that Hollywood fears most involves the box office, which dropped six per cent in 2017.” The “most frightening foe” for Hollywood, he claims, is Netflix.

True, the structure of the industry is being radically challenged. Streaming services are threatening the Multiplex and the mainstream theaters are seeing a decline in attendance for everything but the cgi blockbusters. At the same time more movies are being made than ever before on every scale and are being seen by many more people in many formats, both inside and outside of Hollywood. The long form of extended television series has given actors and directors a whole new narrative structure to explore. The transport and projection of movies is evolving exponentially. Some aspects of the business will fail and some will thrive, but the people who love and make movies are creative and resilient and what inspires them is a uniquely human endeavor, the telling of stories, and this will always endure.

So if the people who make the movies indulge in a little ‘brazen self-celebration’ in between telling our stories, and they try and entertain us in the process, I don’t begrudge them. Tomorrow a lot of them will get up early and start setting up the lights, the cameras and the magic.

Hollywood’s Brazen Self-Celebration at the 2018 Oscars

Thumb Diary – Part One

I’ve decided to reduce the time I listen to most strictly political podcasts for a time. It’s a kind of voluntary (probably temporary) fast for the sake of good health. For a while there will be less “Pod Save America,” “NPR Politics,” “Quorum Call,” or even “Lovett Or Leave It,” not because they aren’t entertaining or informative or deliver the dopamine rush that allows one’s brain to rejoice in the knowledge that there are others in the ‘Resistance’ out there. I’ll probably stick with “FiveThirtyEight” for now. I appreciate the skeptical approach coming from a standpoint of statistical analysis rather than partisan cheerleading. It helps to ground me.

I’m certainly not rejecting my interest in politics. I’m aware of the headlines and these days they pretty much tell most of the story. I’m doing this semi-fast in order to curb an obsessive attention that leads inexorably to a narrowing view of the world. I guess this is the definition of an addiction: the obsessive narrowing of view.

What I’m concerned with after all are the changes we’re all navigating as the speed of technological innovation continues on the up ramp. Changes in technology drive changes in culture and so the revolution inexorably rolls along. Politics get pulled along at the end of a thin cable, making lots of noise generating thick smokescreens and never truly leading, only reacting and usually falling further behind. The government of today struggles to legislate the changes of yesterday. Getting fixated on politicians and their dramas is like getting lost on a back trail leading to nowhere, a passionate defense Of realities that are already fading away.

America will never be the place it was again, great or no. It will either become a seamless part and no greater than the rest of the world, or it will be overcome and reformed in the hurricanes of global change.

And then there’s the thumb.

My difficulty with writing has always been the opposite of my difficulty with life in general, or maybe it’s a mirror reflection of it. Once inspiration strikes it flows until encountering an automatic tendency to scale up my vision to include everything to which that particular idea might be connected. The natural flow of particulars gets lost in the wandering tangents and complex bayous of a Big Picture. Having started with a clear and solid inspiration I’m too easily distracted by the scenery, losing sight of an ultimate destination.

The situation became worse when I switched from handwriting in notebooks to keyboarding on computers. At first this led to rambling overwritten pieces that took way too long to say too little. Then came a phase of over editing and ‘word processing,’ moving phrases and paragraphs around like puzzle pieces until I got bored with the puzzle.

When I began posting on Facebook I confess that I rarely read anything’ that anyone else posted. Crossing the long dark abyss of 2017, when feelings of acute anger and disappointment allowed for little that wasn’t a primal scream, I found social media to be the perfect vehicle for exercising passion and angst without excess wordage and a minimal of discipline. The fact of having a small and growing audience was a bonus.

I also found that writing on an iPhone size tablet requires attention on the level of word and letter rather than paragraphs or pages. It inhabits more directly the stream of thought as it flows from letter to letter, word to word, idea to idea. It’s harder to get lost or so far ahead of myself that the words never catch up. The thumb can only move so fast.

Starting with slogans and captions to articles or short summary phrases, I gradually found myself extending comments into longer paragraphs and then into short essays. At some point I realized that I’d become as comfortable with the thumb as I’d ever been with pen and paper.

There’s also the question of ‘style.’ Most of what I have to contribute has already been said many times over. How can I say it differently, or if not, what’s the point? When you’re as self critical as I am and so easily influenced by the voices heard all around, this can be a major hang up. When I look at my writing and see all the elements I’ve pirated from others it can stop me in my tracks.

The thing is that no matter how I’ve been influenced I’m writing in this moment out of my own experience, no one else’s. The trick is to keep focused on the moment, moving forward, hearing the words as they come. The trick is to have a little faith and to take chances. There’s not much else that makes the effort pay off.

There’s actually a place in the head where the words come from, like a river that constantly flows in consciousness. Writers put an antenna into that river and transcribe the voices they hear. If you listen real good the words and phrases never stop and they’re almost always clear as ice. Writers love to swim in that river, it being the place where they feel most alive.

Nowadays there’s a little bit of arthritis at the base of the thumb, a reminder that I’ve seen substantially more than a half century of back and forth, and it’s taken me this long to find the right instrument to talk about it.

Writing is a little bit like talking to yourself, and the act itself fosters a condition of loneliness. When I find that I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room, I realize that the fact of loneliness and of talking to myself is likely to be on the increase.

When I was about 24 or 25 a friend of mine who was a writer and had already published a book told me that I’d better get on with it…time doesn’t wait. “You haven’t got so much time…if you want to get your ‘literary’ Jones on you’d best be at it.” So here I am still caught in a writer’s dream of unattainable perfection, barely fulfilled, and almost seventy.

Nothing left to do but to bare my thumb and speak.

II’ve decided to reduce the time I listen to most strictly political podcasts for a time. It’s a kind of voluntary (probably temporary) fast for the sake of good health. For a while there will be less “Pod Save America,” “NPR Politics,” “Quorum Call,” or even “Lovett Or Leave It,” not because they aren’t entertaining or informative or deliver the dopamine rush that allows one’s brain to rejoice in the knowledge that there are others in the ‘Resistance’ out there. I’ll probably stick with “FiveThirtyEight” for now. I appreciate the skeptical approach coming from a standpoint of statistical analysis rather than partisan cheerleading. It helps to ground me.

I’m certainly not rejecting my interest in politics. I’m aware of the headlines and these days they pretty much tell most of the story. I’m doing this semi-fast in order to curb an obsessive attention that leads inexorably to a narrowing view of the world. I guess this is the definition of an addiction: the obsessive narrowing of view.

What I’m concerned with after all are the changes we’re all navigating as the speed of technological innovation continues on the up ramp. Changes in technology drive changes in culture and so the revolution inexorably rolls along. Politics get pulled along at the end of a thin cable, making lots of noise generating thick smokescreens and never truly leading, only reacting and usually falling further behind. The government of today struggles to legislate the changes of yesterday. Getting fixated on politicians and their dramas is like getting lost on a back trail leading to nowhere, a passionate defense Of realities that are already fading away.

America will never be the place it was again, great or no. It will either become a seamless part and no greater than the rest of the world, or it will be overcome and reformed in the hurricanes of global change.

And then there’s the thumb.

My difficulty with writing has always been the opposite of my difficulty with life in general, or maybe it’s a mirror reflection of it. Once inspiration strikes it flows until encountering an automatic tendency to scale up my vision to include everything to which that particular idea might be connected. The natural flow of particulars gets lost in the wandering tangents and complex bayous of a Big Picture. Having started with a clear and solid inspiration I’m too easily distracted by the scenery, losing sight of an ultimate destination.

The situation became worse when I switched from handwriting in notebooks to keyboarding on computers. At first this led to rambling overwritten pieces that took way too long to say too little. Then came a phase of over editing and ‘word processing,’ moving phrases and paragraphs around like puzzle pieces until I got bored with the puzzle.

When I began posting on Facebook I confess that I rarely read anything’ that anyone else posted. Crossing the long dark abyss of 2017, when feelings of acute anger and disappointment allowed for little that wasn’t a primal scream, I found social media to be the perfect vehicle for exercising passion and angst without excess wordage and a minimal of discipline. The fact of having a small and growing audience was a bonus.

I also found that writing on an iPhone size tablet requires attention on the level of word and letter rather than paragraphs or pages. It inhabits more directly the stream of thought as it flows from letter to letter, word to word, idea to idea. It’s harder to get lost or so far ahead of myself that the words never catch up. The thumb can only move so fast.

Starting with slogans and captions to articles or short summary phrases, I gradually found myself extending comments into longer paragraphs and then into short essays. At some point I realized that I’d become as comfortable with the thumb as I’d ever been with pen and paper.

There’s also the question of ‘style.’ Most of what I have to contribute has already been said many times over. How can I say it differently, or if not, what’s the point? When you’re as self critical as I am and so easily influenced by the voices heard all around, this can be a major hang up. When I look at my writing and see all the elements I’ve pirated from others it can stop me in my tracks.

The thing is that no matter how I’ve been influenced I’m writing in this moment out of my own experience, no one else’s. The trick is to keep focused on the moment, moving forward, hearing the words as they come. The trick is to have a little faith and to take chances. There’s not much else that makes the effort pay off.

There’s actually a place in the head where the words come from, like a river that constantly flows in consciousness. Writers put an antenna into that river and transcribe the voices they hear. If you listen real good the words and phrases never stop and they’re almost always clear as ice. Writers love to swim in that river, it being the place where they feel most alive.

Nowadays there’s a little bit of arthritis at the base of the thumb, a reminder that I’ve seen substantially more than a half century of back and forth, and it’s taken me this long to find the right instrument to talk about it.

Writing is a little bit like talking to yourself, and the act itself fosters a condition of loneliness. When I find that I’m almost always the oldest guy in the room, I realize that the fact of loneliness and of talking to myself is likely to be on the increase.

When I was about 24 or 25 a friend of mine who was a writer and had already published a book told me that I’d better get on with it…time doesn’t wait. “You haven’t got so much time…if you want to get your ‘literary’ Jones on you’d best be at it.” So here I am still caught in a writer’s dream of unattainable perfection, barely fulfilled, and almost seventy.

Nothing left to do but to bare my thumb and speak.

A Strange Year

I was laid off once from a computer software company with the boss saying to me, “You’re kind of a liberal arts sort of guy.” He had a point, and it was true that I didn’t really fit in with the climate and culture of the place. What he wanted was more on the STEM side of things. More about numbers and programs and accounting and less about words and magic. I’ve always had trouble with numbers but have never veered from a fascination with the hidden underside of things.

This was a year when all of the lessons I should have learned were taken out of the theoretical realm and brought rather severely to earth. The barriers between the worlds of wishful thinking and the awful realities that threaten our planet no longer held. It was time to put aside hopeful speculation and face down some awful truths.

It was a bad year for dilettantes. From January on it was as if, after the numb horror of events had begun to give way to the appalling normalcy of daily assault, an enormous dark sinkhole had opened in the collective psyche, and absolutely everything was sucked down into its depths so that all one looked at was somehow infected by the dread and anger that issued out of an unavoidable hellmouth, like something in a painting by Heironymous Bosch.

Now that we are past the initial shock and have accommodated ourselves somehow to the steady degradation of our public life we can perhaps leave it to unfold (and degrade) without the need to push or pull. It will unfold anyway, and perhaps someday the dirty tide will recede a bit of its own accord and meanwhile we can take stock of what’s going on in the world that lives inside of us.

I’ve always been compelled to take in everything there is in order to see the links between. To pursue one object or another to the end of its particular tunnel is an activity left to those so inclined, while my own interest is to follow the branches as they lead back from twig to trunk, fascinated less by the fleeting detail than by how it all connects. I could be called a ‘dilettante’ or perhaps a philosopher or something equally ‘iffy’ in terms of consistently reliable income streams. In the long run this generally places me somewhere at the ‘bleeding edge,’ or slightly on the outside of things that occupy most people from moment to moment. I often feel as if I’m looking on, observing with fascination, from some distance this or that quest for particulars and rarely feel fully engaged with those who spend most of their time in the weeds. Instead of attending to the particular I’m obsessed with the thread that connects this particular to another, and anot!
her, along the long and almost mystical yarn that comes from the past and stretches ahead to the future.

In this old year waning and new year dawning I’ve decided to go ‘cold turkey’ in terms of politics, hoping to free up energy for something a bit more connected to larger and longer streams that portend the creative or at least the positive. This past year felt like a full-on war, fought with words and images rather than missiles and bombs. All the words flung back and forth hammering relentlessly at any sense of civility or even responsibility, for the purpose of differentiating ‘us’ from ‘them,’ breaking the branch from the tree. All having a deeply corrosive effect on the bonds that make us feel connected in a way that makes some kind of collective sense. Most of us are reduced to sitting helplessly observing, trying to apply the old rules of civility to a situation where they’ve apparently become irrelevant. We are like mad children in some re-enactment of ‘Lord of The Flies,’ let loose to trample the bonds of the social order like they are brittle fur!
niture left around for us to trash.

I tell myself in better moments, when my mind isn’t so mired in the details of our day-of-horror unfolding, that out of chaos comes creativity. On other days I want to join in with the trashing.

Why should I even care? Even if politics and war are more entertaining than any other sport I could name, its become the sport by which we the people tear each other to pieces. My new thought is that I should stop being concerned or finding myself in any way responsible for the outcomes. My fellow citizens after all, dug this grave for themselves. Why should I not allow them to shit in their own hole and then lie down in it? Even if I must share the hole with them (there is no true escaping in this world), perhaps I can hold my nose and look away toward the sky.

Not so easy this for me, to be mired and yet to turn away as if nothing’s amiss. It’s like a sports addict deciding to turn off ESPN and ignoring the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Olympics. Actually not so hard for me to imagine, as I’ve ignored these things for most of my life, politics being my ‘sport’ and the one interest that ties me to the things that apparently matter to the people around me from day to day.

I’ll turn to my only real audience, which is this presence inside of me, this all-judging voice that measures the world that I see and most of all that measures me. Instead of the usual ‘Politico,’ ‘FiveThirtyEight,’ Pod Save America,’ today I listen to ‘The Paris Review,’ and ‘The New Yorker Radio Hour.’ Instead of Netflix I find myself in books: Jack Kerouac’s Scroll, Haruki Murakami, Dave Hickey. I am edified and entertained, inspired even. I rearrange my apartment, twice.

Then, of course, there are all the counter voices, telling me, “You’re being irresponsible and arrogant. How can you be so uninvolved when the country is going to shit? You have to be INVOLVED, even if it’s only being aware and passing your awareness on. And I realize there is no way to be uninvolved, as the slippage we all feel is like some gravimetric beacon bending every current and pulling everything toward itself. We are all at some level compelled to respond, as we walk an ever narrowing collective path toward the future.

And of course, all things are political. “We’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.” Is there no escape? Of course there isn’t. The world moves on and we come around on our endless loops of self-doubt and over-confidence, trying to find that median place called ‘decision.’ We decide, we move on, we face the crisis brought about by yesterday’s decisions.

Amazingly, these two days off without once checking the news beyond the headlines, which are reliably and predictably grim, begin to feel like an actual weekend (even though my ‘weekend’ days these days are in the middle of the week). I realize that for the past year I’ve been living outside of myself, disembodied, a ghost on social media, juiced on the rage I see and feel all around me there, feeding it back in return, almost forgetting that I ever had a real life or that there are real people out there who are just living.

And yet, over the year I’ve written over a thousand words, mostly captions and short comments, an occasional thumb-length essay, and always in reaction to something OUT THERE. You can look at my Facebook page and find a running chronicle of anger and despair that’s book length and illustrated, a veritable museum exhibit of the Year in snapshots. But, very little of what you see goes beneath the armor. It’s merely a chronicle of suffering, as if every move we made was constrained by the straitjackets of fear and rage.

I fell into the very traps I’ve been warned to avoid and have warned others about. In my studies of magic and media and the dangers of astral space (where ideas and images are born and fed) I was aware of the potentials for getting lost in the endless gulf that opens between imagination and matter. Into that gulf is where the ‘enemy’ projects his tricks, his spells, his signals of doom. The tragedy is that we gave him the biggest platform from which he could play his tricks.

So we were played.

On the bright side, I learned to write with my thumb. This was entirely written and edited on my iPhone.

Arclist

Sex and Politics: The Resistance

Fox News is, more than anything else media headquarters for patriarchal resistance and institutional racism in America, just as the Republican Party is headquarters for it’s political arm. In the past few months Fox has lost their former ringleader (Roger Ailes), their leading female commentator (Megan Kelly), and now their biggest moneymaker (Bill O’Reilly) due to a pervasive climate of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment.

Given that the prevailing attitudes at Fox and in the Republican Party are basically throwbacks to an era of ‘Madmen,’ which educated and aware Americans have grown out of, but Fox/Republicans and their constituency have not, this should be no surprise. While commentators like O’Reilly rail at manufactured bugaboos under the banner of attacking ‘political correctness,’ women broadcasters at Fox are evaluated according to their measurements and how closely they match some male’s beauty pageant ideal. Intelligence and competence must be overmatched by ample exposure of ‘legs and cleavage’ and the job description should read: Applicants preferred: blond and buxom (and very white).’

When news becomes a front for sensationalism and entertainment and government becomes nothing more than performance art the abuse of persons follows inevitably out of the abuse of truth. We have gone very far down that road, but the dumping of Bill O’Reilly demonstrates that the popular and political resistance in the Age of Trump is mounting and is indeed effective. While the forces of reaction circle the wagons a wave is growing with every abuse, every revelation of corruption and every broken promise.

New York Times: ‘Bill O’Reilly Is Forced Out’

The Pipeline Is Rape

In his first days Trump has moved to reboot the Dakota Access Pipeline. His first acts in office have made it clear that his prime motivation has nothing to do with serving the people. He serves only his own threatened ego and intends to take revenge against anyone who challenges it’s dominance.

The Pipeline is an act of rape. The attempt to push it through has little to do with necessity or economy. It’s the clearest effort by an administration of white male supremacists to show their dominance over all the earth and all people. 

This confluence of cultural and historical forces give the struggle rare symbolic resonance. It delineates a spiritual crisis as much as a political one.  

Resistance to the Pipeline will define the political will of a generation, as Kent State defined that of another and the Battle of Little Big Horn and it’s aftermath defined yet another. The ultimate outcome will define America’s image to the rest of the world for many years to come. 

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

“…my only regret is that I stomped too softly on the bastards.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

So, what did I do on Inauguration Day? Well, I  spent the day at work. My only link to what was going on was an occasional scan of Twitter on my iPhone during breaks and the sounds coming off a YouTube feed on the receiving guy’s computer.

The best moment was just as I was getting out of my car in the morning and the NPR reporter started talking about an “escalation” in the protests involving hordes of black clad demonstrators running down the street breaking windows with hammers and overwhelming the cops who they outnumbered at the time. It brought me back to my own younger days when we trashed the streets of Washington and outran the tear gas from the National Guard as they gathered to take back the city one traffic circle at a time. That was during the bombing of Cambodia. This one is about the inauguration of a human being to be president whom I find so repulsive that I can’t even bear to watch him on tv.

I understand that this sense of angst is more personal than political, harking back to the days of my youth when I had to deal with bullies in my neighborhood and at school. Still, the prospect that I’ll have to reckon with the fact that this abominable fool is pretending to be my ‘leader’ for the next four years is enough to allow me plenty of space to indulge.

Near the end of the day as I searched for more news of the demonstrators and their fates I got caught up instead in a long series of letters from Hunter S. Thompson printed in the Paris Review. This was exactly the therapy I needed in this bizarre space where more than half of America stumbles along in a mind numbing trance struggling to make sense of the insane turn the nation has taken and wondering, “What to do next?”

Ah Hunter, we could certainly use your unvarnished take on our failing dream these days. The closest we can get is Keith Olbermann, another former sports reporter like yourself, who comes from that parallel universe of hyperbole that only sports fans can comprehend, but that so keenly lends itself to political commentary. But Keith lacks your style of genius that rides the fine edge between the serious and the surreal.

But just to read your voice once again in these times we are in somehow reassures me that resistance is possible even in the worst of times. So, I think I’ll pass this on.

“Fuck the American Dream. It was always a lie and whoever still believes it deserves whatever they get – and they will. Bet on it.” 

Paris Review – Fear and Loathing in America from The Paris Review’s Tweet

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“They won’t see this coming.” – Malcolm Reynolds

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A Hard Rain Falling

I’ve finished Slavoj Zizek’s book Living in the End Times” and have gone back to reading William Irwin Thompson. I find both of them valuable in aiding the acquisition of a longer view of history that puts the almost universal hysteria and despair of the present in clearer perspective. Even though their respective points of view might appear to be in opposition, Zizek being a materialist and Thompson being more of a mystic, for me the two of them round out the circle of my own understanding about where we are and what may be an appropriate response.

Zizek is a rationalist and a materialist. His understanding of the trends and movements going on in society are strictly derived from a process of carefully weighing alternative ideologies and critiquing them from the platforms of philosophy and psychology. Although his revelations can be both down-to-earth and fairly esoteric, drawing as he does from the traditions of Hegelian Dialectics and the European penchant for seeing signs and symbols, they are unmatched in pointing out the repetitive habits of mind and social behavior that keep us locked under key and most often asleep at the wheel. I find his critique of the Left particularly valuable, as he asks the most important question, “What do we do the day after the revolution.”

Thompson, although partaking of an equally rational tradition steeped in the scholarship, philosophies and science of the West, brings in another level of understanding, one that takes in the background to all of this noise and calls it Myth. His analysis owes much to the radical dissection of media by Marshall McLuhan, the understanding of archetypes and their influence by Carl Jung and leading edge explorations in the studies of biology, brain science and cognition. More importantly Thompson acknowledges the ongoing interplay of myth with history in the spiritual and mystical traditions of both East and West. Zizek would undoubtedly dismiss him as a ‘mystic’ who dabbles in the muddy realms of the unconscious trying to draw meaning from chaos. For me Thompson offers a method for penetrating the fog of time that more fully acknowledges and embraces the irrational and creative forces upon which we all float.

Several recent exposures and references to China brought me back to Pacific Shift,” a book by Thompson published in 1985, in the years just after his The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light” was nominated for a National Book Award. It’s based on a series of lectures given in Europe and is the most concise summary of his major ideas that I’ve read. These lectures were given during the Reagan years and it’s remarkable how well his analysis is both fitting and prophetic.

Here he compares the rise of the Rock concert, with its almost unendurable level of noise and its celebration of the collective, with the similar rise (at that time) of televangelists like Jimmie Swaggart. So, here’s the quote:

“The rise of paranoia, from right-wing fulminations against the Trilateral Commission to Lyndon LaRouche’s hatred of the British Secret Service, is an important signal that the literate, rational citizen of the post-Enlightenment era is being replaced by the subject in a shift from identity through logical definition to identity  through participation and performance. In one form of consciousness identity is seen through similar logical predicates; but in paranoia, identity is seen metaphorically as the participation mystique of common subjects. Looking at the erosion of good pietist values fro electronic evangelical broadcasting, and looking at rock festivals, we can see that democracy is in for some hard times.”

And what have been these past three elections, since the rise of the personal computer, other than a battle between competing rock festivals in a reversion from the rational liberal democracy envisioned by the Greeks to outright civil war between tribes. As with every stage of our technological dream the ‘liberation’ of media from the control of an extremely limited number of channels with similar ideologies has released the dark tides of the mob. Nowadays, every person with a computer or smart phone can tailor the reporting and interpretation of ‘facts’ in any way that appeals to their sense of paranoia or hope.

Among other casualties in this evolution, one that became obvious with the unanticipated (by most in the media) victory of Donald Trump was journalism as it has been practiced for more than a century. The assumption that one can report the news dispassionately, from an objective perch (as much influenced by ideology as any other) has ended the pretense that we are all ‘on the same side’ and that only the ‘truth’ will set us free. For most of us the truth is something that lies behind the facts, something which echoes in a very particular way our own experience and something that offers some hint as to our next step toward the future.

Until we have a firm vision of the society we want to live in we can be bombarded with endless quantities of fact and figures and yet these will never penetrate beneath the surface. Conservatives, in calling up the past as an ideology have made channels like Fox and Conspiracy Theorist websites an extremely compelling destination for those who want to know what’s going on. Liberals and the Left appear to be stuck in cataloging the crimes and misdemeanors of the present and calling for resistance to the ongoing march of ideology, while offering nothing much in the way of an alternative vision for the future. This is simply not enough to carry out a revolution. This is why many more people pay attention to Fox News than to Democracy Now.

I’ve no idea how we will get to where we need to be as a surviving and possibly thriving species although I’ve witnessed some bold and convincing experiments in my day. Slavoj Zizek points to the scientific community at CERN in Switzerland as a remarkable model of the possibility of a civil society that transcends ideology and national boundaries (I recommend the film “Particle Fever” as a truly inspiring journey.) Thompson points to new studies at the edges of biology that show us more and more how each of us is a permeable membrane where the individual and the environment are never really separate. Personally I’ve long admired the artistic and architectural visions of Paolo Soleri.

Perhaps the most we can do in these next four years, when ignorance and demagoguery rule, is to offer continual resistance to the forces that place the survival of capitalism over the survival of the planet. Perhaps this election was needed to more sharply define the stakes we are facing. Perhaps it will force us to get beyond our petty ideological disagreements and recriminations to find  common focus and intent and to imagine a new world beyond capitalism. Whatever we do, the unraveling of a system that cannot possibly last will certainly accelerate, as our elected leader and mascot has little apparent respect for the fragile network of agreements that hold it together.

We should resist and prepare.

A hard rain is falling.

R.E.M.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”  – M.R.

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Chronicle of Discontent

“There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.” – Mao Zedong

I found myself the other day for the first time in a long while listening to an installment of Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” without having to wince at every other word or finally turn it off in disgust or aversion. For the past several years the critical rhetoric on the Left had come to sound like a mirror image of that on the Right and I’d come to wonder how I’d arrived at this point, after supporting revolutionary causes and goals my entire life. How could the prominent voices of the progressive Left put me off as much as the Right wing voices of Fox News? And how exactly did the election of Donald Trump, which I consider to be the third greatest blow against American Democracy (after the Civil War and the attacks on 9/11) bring me back?

During the first part of my recent year in Colorado, before my Denver burnout and during the primaries I found myself deeply involved and participating in a room full of Democrats, mostly Bernie supporters, mostly young, during the county caucuses. I was on the ‘other’ side of the room with a handful of Hillary advocates, mostly middle aged, mostly women, the chosen spokesperson addressing the two undecided voters in the middle, trying to persuade them to join our side. This was months before the convention and the Bernie people were in the midst of a groundswell that brought up reminiscences of the year leading up to the Obama presidency and the summer of Occupy Wall Street. A year earlier the young Colorado Democrats had risen up and organized an overthrow of a Jefferson County School Board that had attempted to radically ‘adjust’ their curriculum to accommodate the agendas of the Christian Right. Colorado was a state that hovered on the edge between red and blue, with the eastern and western rural counties heavily Republican and the exploding urban centers north of Colorado Springs Denver becoming increasingly young and increasingly Democrat. These young people were really inspiring.

Recently I’d moved to Denver from Santa Fe, partly for business reasons and partly to escape what I’d come to perceive as bing caught in a somewhat stifling middle class upscale ghetto where the elderly and connected came to die. I’d become quite disillusioned in regards to my own generation, mostly well past middle age and having left behind the creative drive of our youth. We still carried the vestigial and nostalgic remnants of an activist past which we trotted out reliably whenever a wave of progressive group-think came sweeping through. Perhaps my disillusionment was the result of having packed up my idealism into packages of new age revelation, from gurus to Harmonic Convergence to mushrooms to Zen Buddhism while never having satisfactorily resolved the tensions between seeking inner revelation and coming to grips with the terrible situations haunting the outside world.

When I’d first left Denver, Ronald Reagan was still the president and we faced the weird surrealistic constructs of a fanciful conservative dreamworld. Reagan was then followed by the first George Bush for a total of sixteen years of Conservative reaction against the perceived ‘excesses’ of the years in which I’d come of age. In those anarchistic acid fueled ‘revolutionary’ days after failing with McGovern and having to deal with Nixon, we’d finally elected our homeboy Jimmy Carter, only to see his administration thoroughly trashed by both circumstance and trickery in the face of inexperience. The first acts of political resistance I got involved in when I came south were demonstrations against the storage of nuclear waste in southern New Mexico. After all the noise and protest they went ahead and built it anyway. After that there was the first Iraq war, which ended ambiguously and partly led a weary population to finally shift their allegiance from ‘trickle down’ everything to giving a young and idealistic couple who were the first of our generation the chance to lead. The Clinton years gave rise to the Christian Right and the migration of the southern white middle classes to the Republican Party and all this erupted into a vicious no holds barred cultural insurrection led by Newt Gingrich. Having elected Clinton the new coalition of the educated urban young and rising black middle classes failed to turn up for the midterms. They lost congress to the opposing party (a hard lesson that obviously wasn’t learned as it was repeated in 2011). This led to more years of frustrating culture clashes, even as a new economy arose based on information management through computer technologies. This brought enormous prosperity to members of a new elite, many of whom had been in the vanguard of those who had once dreamed of social revolution. At the same time the industrial economy began to relocate to other countries in order to compete in a newly expanded global market. While the elites got rich the middle class began to fall behind.

Having overstepped their perceived ‘mandate’ to turn America into a Right Wing theocracy the forces of conservative reaction failed to overthrow Clinton but succeeded in dragging the country through years of humiliation and embarrassment. This, along with redistricting by a Republican congress and a conservative balance on the Supreme Court prepared the ground for the narrow and to many, unfair, victory of a second George Bush. He came in with a promise to end the scandals and bring in the dawn of a “compassionate conservatism” that would temper the supply side philosophy that’s part of Republican Gospel.

Then an enormous and in the long term possibly fatal blow to American Democracy took place with the attacks on 911. This was the most outrageously successful terrorist event since the sinking of the Lusitania led to the start of World War One. The event led on one hand to a rise in solidarity among citizens of the western nations. On the flip side it fed a burgeoning sense of paranoia and fear which elevated the fortunes of conspiracy theorists, white supremacist militias and extremist fanatics and lead to a rapid rise in anti-immigration and nationalist sentiment.

The long and the short of all this is that the last forty years have been a rollercoaster ride of hope and disappointment felt on all sides of the political spectrum. The extreme polarities that characterized the clashes in the sixties between the young and the old have been passed on through two generations driven. A mind-numbing acceleration in technology offered hopeful, even utopian possibilities while on the other hand driving us into increasingly isolated camps and echo chambers where perception was processed through more and more exclusive filters.

I grew up in the lower rungs of the middle class in Cleveland, Ohio in the fifties and sixties. My father did not own a business, he worked for one. He held a white collar position as a salesman, selling hardware to construction companies. We lived in what was then called the inner city, a neighborhood that was formerly rural but had been some decades gone absorbed by the growing industrial port city on the Great Lakes. Cleveland had been founded as an extension of Connecticut in the eighteenth century and as America moved west it became connected to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers via the Ohio and Erie Canals and the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. It was a center of the oil industry run by John D. Rockefeller and others and its prosperity attracted waves of European immigrants and black refugees from the south through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. When I came on the scene the city’s economy had peaked just after World War Two, with every major industry having a presence, from cars to oil to steel, aluminum and even salt.

When I was in junior high school John F. Kennedy was assassinated. When I was sixteen the first urban race riots broke out in the black communities on the east side of Cleveland and in other cities. The new president Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Bill passed and started his “War On Poverty,” to address the underlying causes of civil unrest. I was recruited in high school into a program for students from relatively lower income families who had excelled on intelligence tests but were struggling in academics. We were congregated on the campus of a very prestigious college on the ‘other’ side of town and exposed to a concentrated summertime program of intellectual and cultural education. It was intended to jump start us into college careers, and we were given admission and scholarships to the elite institutions that hosted the experiment. Most of the participants in the program were people of color, mostly drawn from the black and Puerto Rican populations of urban centers like Cleveland.

I came into the university and out of my neighborhood with a different view than most of my peers in the then highly segregated community of Cleveland, divided down the middle by the Cuyahoga River into West Side and East Side. Rarely did the two mingle. Where I had always felt a bit like an outsider I now felt fully accepted and embraced by all of my cohorts in this social experiment and when I returned to the almost exclusively ‘white’ West Side during the regular school year I felt even more like an outsider. My friends were the the ‘exceptional’ students, the ones who were curious and who questioned and explored. We were also the ‘troublemakers’ who questioned authority while we were at the same time being groomed for success.

In the summer I would go back to the east side where I watched the city burn after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The university, being surrounded on three sides by ghetto was the National Guard staging area. I watched from my room as nightly convoys went out to establish Marshall Law. I played board games with black nationalists. I participated in the election of the nation’s first black big city mayor, Carl Stokes. My counselors told me stories of voting rights drives in the deep south. My life was surrounded in cultural dialogue.

I was precipitated fully into the college scene in the midst of the cultural upheavals of the late sixties and early seventies. My black friends were caught up in struggles with white privilege and the social establishment of ‘higher’ education. I took part, but after a while I felt myself excluded by the obvious fact of racial advantage. My new friends were mostly East Coast Jews from upper middle class families who could afford to send their kids to the “Harvard of the Midwest.” There were lots of drugs, and sexual liberation, and parties and revolution in the streets. Everything that was going on around the world of academics made that world seem to me less and less relevant. I stuck it out for three and a half years until my draft number was missed in the Vietnam draft lottery and being no longer personally threatened by the possibilities of being sent to the War I dropped out and started searching in earnest for an alternative to the culture in which I’d been born.

At first the search was all about politics and alternative communities and avoiding the impending doom of civilization. I spent a summer hitchhiking across the West and a year living on the Florida Gulf. Then my father died and I found myself back in Cleveland working as a dishwasher and protesting what would be the final dregs of the Vietnam conflict. Then I hitched another ride West to Colorado where I met my guru and my future wife and became intensely involved in a large intentional community that had taken on the task of reforming the whole world, starting with Denver. Being part of a very large intentional community I experienced first hand the amazing power of focused, collective will. That community briefly prospered and then dissolved, but not before becoming a focal point of what would become a revolution in consciousness about food and agriculture. (We were mostly vegetarians and inspired by necessity to seek alternatives to the traditional American diet.)

The dissolution of the community and of my marriage along with an ongoing feeling of disconnect and discomfort with the world around me led me to retreat south to New Mexico and what I felt were new opportunities. I came to Santa Fe with high hopes for the future and saw many hopes realized and many more dissipate. All along there persisted that feeling of malaise, that something is far from right in a world that appears full of contradictions and hypocrisies and to which I could never fully pledge allegiance.

Which brings me back to that room in Colorado during the Denver caucus. I remember clearly that my message to the large group gathered on the other side of the room was that, “I don’t think you are ready yet.” That is, for the revolution that most everyone wishes were here right now.

________________________________________

I remember attending a lecture by Noam Chomsky in Albuquerque sometime in the mid nineties. It seemed like everyone who considered themselves part of what was being called the ‘progressive’ community, from Santa Fe to Taos was there. I sat and listened to Noam rattling off his inventory of the recent crimes of the American Imperialist Empire for an hour or more, and then I remember coming away feeling completely demoralized. The talk had not inspired in me any impulse toward action. Instead it felt like I’d been bludgeoned with history.

That talk was a turning point for me. In the years since I have became more and more sensitized toward what seemed like inflexible dogma and an almost universal cynicism on the Left toward anything remotely connected to the American government’s actions at home or abroad. I felt more and more like we were moving along like a thoughtless mob, responding automatically to forms of group think masquerading as political critique but in actuality manifesting predictability and conformity.

All of this came to a head after Barack Obama was elected to his first term as president. Here was a young, educated and eloquent black man who had the power with his words to raise the hopes of those who were willing to challenge the future. These qualities I couldn’t fail to admire but I was very doubtful that this country would overcome its’ inherent racism enough to elect someone who wasn’t white. I sincerely thought that a white woman whom I also admired and respected as a fighter might offer a less daunting and more probable step forward. My biggest reservations were not with Obama, but with the movement that propelled his candidacy. Along with the giddy hope that this one man would be able to change the course of history was the kind of blind and unquestioning devotion devoted to a rock star.

I was no longer a young man, but I remembered well the groundswells of my youth that propelled the candidacies of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and I remember the fierce opposition that those candidacies engendered. I remembered how our expectations were crushed by the reaction and relentless opposition and how our own support collapsed when it came to electing the kind of congress that would be at the president’s back. The first of these administrations ended in political disaster, the second ended in embarrassment, and the third in humiliation. Like Many an old codger, I was skeptical of the enthusiasms of youth.

By the time Obama clinched the nomination I realized that here was a fighter and a strategist with not only the words but the will to win and to get things done. I became an avid supporter, although I still held reservations regarding the unrealistic expectations loudly voiced by so many of his followers.

After Obama’s victory and short honeymoon with congress my apprehensions were fully realized. Almost from the beginning the ideological rigidity of the Left joined with the rabid and racist resistance of the Right to challenge any progress toward achieving any realistic reforms that old be made without either compromising or inflaming the passions of either side. By the time the midterms came around in 2011 the Left had retreated into its usual cynicism and the Right had organized itself behind the passionate rhetoric and resistance of extremists and, just as in the Clinton years, a Democrat administration was then faced with a Republican Congress. Over the next six years my admiration for Obama only increased as he faced the uphill fight against criticism and condemnation from both the Left and the Right. More and more the criticisms from both camps became more and more like a single chorus.

My own cynicism and sense of discomfort increased over these years. I live in a community of people who are near the top of the economic and educational food chain. When I hear their protests on behalf of the poor and the disadvantaged I am simultaneously aware that the very system we protest is what makes our lifestyles as consumers possible. I became deeply suspect of the attitudes of privilege and actively distanced myself from movements like “Occupy Wall Street” as I saw it as being without a direction or real vision that would connect it with people’s lives or last longer than a summer vacation. (I was both right and wrong: the movement as such did indeed fold, but its critique of class struggle went on to fuel the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy that has forced the Democratic Party to move in a more progressive direction.)

I began to sympathize with the likes of the brilliant playwright David Mamet, who became so disgusted with the repetitive dogmas and political correctness of the Left that he began to see it as the biggest threat to American Democracy. He reacted by writing a book long screed (“The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture”) declaring his revulsion and newfound allegiance to the voices of conservative reaction (I hope that this is a temporary fever.). I never went that far, but I certainly began to see his point. I found that whenever I listened to or read the words of intellectuals on the Left I began to feel a familiar sense of discomfort and even resistance. It began to feel like the preachings of a religion that assumed everyone shared its point of view but was incredibly predictable and empty of useful critical thought. An exception to this was encountering the Yugoslavian philosopher and activist, Slavoj Zizek, whose critiques of the Left in both Europe and the United States struck me as being both fully engaged in a revolutionary sense and absolutely resistant to the rigidities of ideology. Zizak’s critique of the positivist anarchism of Noam Chomsky helped me to understand my own discomfort. It’s not enough to analyze and catalogue the crimes of a culture and then to expect that the people will see the light and rise up. One must arrive at a clear vision of the future before the people will respond. To quote him in the introduction to the book, “Living In The End Times,” (which has been a very therapeutic read for me in the wake of this election):

“…mere description of the state of things, no matter how accurate, fail to generate emancipatory effects – ultimately, they only render the burden of the lie more oppressive, or, to quote Mao…, “lift up a rock only to drop it on their own feet.”

When Bernie Sanders decided to run for the nomination I supported him financially, although I never seriously entertained the notion that a socialist Jew from Vermont could win the presidency. My emotional allegiance was to the possibility of the first woman president, which would at least advance the underlying cultural agenda even in the face of political opposition. Also, I didn’t trust in the ‘rock star’ nature of his young followers which too much resembled the fickle support that had first elevated and then abandoned Barack Obama. This younger generation had not yet gained my trust to wage the bloody battle that I knew was coming. By the time I reached that classroom in Denver I had fully declared my support for the campaign of Hillary Clinton.

_________________________________

With the disaster of the Trump victory the fingers are now pointing in all directions. Personally I don’t regret either my allegiance or my support, although I regret being pulled at times into the often rude and nasty infighting. I don’t think in hindsight that whoever was the nominee would have changed significantly the outcome. We will never know this. The salient fact is that an enormous shock has now been thrown into the political system, one at least as significant as the repercussions from 911, and which threatens our Democracy and our very sense of ourselves as a nation. I believe however that in every disaster there lies opportunity. For the first time in years I feel like the basic contradictions that have characterized both the Left and the Right in this country have been fully exposed. Too many have assumed that we can change the system without changing the way that we live as well as the fundamental assumptions and expectations with which we surround ourselves. What we’ve discovered is that many of those assumptions are not only false but intensely hypocritical when viewed by people who do not share them. The revolution cannot only be a revolution of the privileged, who assume that their way of seeing the world is essentially the ‘correct’ way. The failure of the Left has been threefold. It’s a failure to articulate in ways that are understood the concerns of those whose lives exist outside of the confederation of the privileged. It has failed to provide a clear vision that goes beyond the contradictions of the present to outline a coherent vision of the future. Most of all we are resistant to making meaningful changes in the ways we live our own lives.

Once again, when I listen to the voices of the Left I’ve begun to tune in to the indications of real soul searching and perhaps an abandonment of too familiar dogmas inhibiting our approach to creative possibilities. We are faced with a daunting task, one made more critical and urgent by the ascendency of forces in reaction. We can no longer afford to indulge ourselves in cynicism and arrogance. We must be clever. We must question all that we think we know to discover the authentic moments and the ways we must proceed. Enormous changes are upon us whether we act responsibly or not. The outcome for ourselves and for the world will be decided by the choices we make in the face of disaster. Our task is nothing less than the re-imagination of the world, and it is urgent.

R.E.M.

* * * * * * * * * *
“If you want to find pure gold, you must see it through fire.” – Mumonkan

“You’re part of my crew. Why are we still talking about this?” – M.R.

To receive Arclist mailings reply to melcher@nets.com with the word SUBSCRIBE in the Subject.

Feel free to pass this on or post on Facebook (or wherever) by copying the following link.

http://arclist.org/

Other sites of interest:

http://www.photoarc.us

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Reply to Michael Moore

Today I was sent a pretty dire and dismal analysis written by Michael Moore, predicting that Trump will inevitably win the election because Americans are so pissed off that they will vote primarily for the sole purpose of disrupting the system. (I’ve included the piece below, in case you haven’t seen it.)

Well written. Very scary. I think it represents beyond anything a severe hangover from watching too much of the recent Republican Convention.

I’ve long come to take most of what Michael Moore says as containing more than a grain of hyperbole. He’s an entertainer after all, not a politician.

Michael lives in the left-wing bubble, which is almost as deluded as the right-wing one, except for it being inflicted with a sense of bizarre defeatism that derives an almost perverse pleasure from losing and being able to say, “I told you so.”

Here is my point by point response to his analysis:

  1. Believe me, I understand Michael’s pessimism toward America and the American people, which is undoubtedly based in his experience of growing up in the boom and bust of a prosperous and then depressed Rust Belt industrial economy. I also come from from the Rust Belt, growing up in Cleveland, which has a population largely made up of people descended from Eastern European ancestry. There is a kind of innate and culturally derived pessimism that one can sense when walking down the streets of old neighborhoods not yet gentrified. It’s an attitude of expecting the worst outcomes, one that I’ve found myself struggling with for most of my life. To project that pessimism and cynicism on the rest of the nation is probably going a bit too far.
  2. Yes, the angry white male is definitely a central factor here. Beneath issues like the TPP or Superdelegates or the ‘Rigged System’ is the underlying factor of a challenge to white male supremacy. At this level, ironically the only real difference between the Trump supporters and many of the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people is that one movement is spearheaded by old white guys and the other by young ones. The totally unhinged red meat rhetoric raised against Hillary Clinton from both Left and Right goes way beyond disagreements over policy. It apparently emerges out of some deep seated psychological terror topping even the guilt ridden projections that white culture has about race. The question comes down to whether a shrinking minority of frightened old white guys with their wives and spoiled children have the voting advantage to overcome all of the other rising elements in American voting culture. I was once even more skeptical than Michael, before Obama overcame two centuries of deep seated racism to win the popular vote and gain two terms as president. Yes, the middle class is angry and making a spectacle of itself. At the same time the economy is in better shape than it was in many places outside of the Rust Belt. Hell, even Cleveland is looking more prosperous and confident these days, and most of that confidence is from the younger people that are revitalizing the city’s image of itself.
  3. The kids. The portrait Michael paints of millennials is rather cynical and demeaning. Perhaps it’s based mostly on encounters with disappointed Bernie supporters who just can’t get over the fact that they didn’t get what they wanted. Believe it or not, I have encountered young people who are enthusiastic about electing a woman president and who actually respect Hillary Clinton. I also know young people who vote intelligently, for other reasons than that their favorite rock star candidate isn’t on the ballot, and whose motivations are less superficial than what Michael implies.
  4. If the results of the election depended on the millennial vote this would be a more convincing argument. While many politically active millennials may be ‘depressed’ because Bernie didn’t go the distance, they are likely to be even more depressed at the prospect of four or more years of FuckFace von Clownstick  The complex maneuvering exhibited this week by Hillary and her supporters shows an understanding that in order to win one has to appeal to moderate voters as well as progressive ones. (While Tim Kaine agreed to pull back from his total support for the TPP, the progressive favorite Elizabeth Warren appeared with President Obama in the weekly White House Briefing talking about defending consumer rights. Both popular politicians are supporting Clinton.)
  5. Again, Michael presumes that the past eight years of an improving economy under a still very popular Democratic president will drive a majority of voters into a mindset of disruptive anarchy that will motivate them to vote solely for the purpose of ‘upsetting the apple cart’ and ‘making mommy and daddy mad.’ For those represented by the Republican Convention this is undoubtedly true. To extend this expectation to the whole country, it seems to me, requires an extremely cynical view of the larger voting public. This year the Republican Convention, in spite of being hyped as the greatest political show “ever,” had lower ratings than the one that nominated Romney. If the country was as ready for a disruptive revolution as Mr. Moore, the Bernie Bern and the Trump people anticipate, I suspect that it would have done much better.
The one underlying point that Michael makes that I agree with is that the deciding factor in this election will be the degree to which America’s vision of itself has been swallowed by apathy and anger. As far as that goes, I suppose one’s opinion is shaped by who one listens to. If history is of any measure, American voters tend to shy away from extremes on either side of the equation. Are we ready for a revolution? We’ll see.

How many people actually went to see Michael’s last movie?

5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win

Friends:

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I gave it to you straight last summer when I told you that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee for president. And now I have even more awful, depressing news for you: Donald J. Trump is going to win in November. This wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full time sociopath is going to be our next president. President Trump. Go ahead and say the words, ‘cause you’ll be saying them for the next four years: “PRESIDENT TRUMP.”

Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now.

I can see what you’re doing right now. You’re shaking your head wildly – “No, Mike, this won’t happen!” Unfortunately, you are living in a bubble that comes with an adjoining echo chamber where you and your friends are convinced the American people are not going to elect an idiot for president. You alternate between being appalled at him and laughing at him because of his latest crazy comment or his embarrassingly narcissistic stance on everything because everything is about him. And then you listen to Hillary and you behold our very first female president, someone the world respects, someone who is whip-smart and cares about kids, who will continue the Obama legacy because that is what the American people clearly want! Yes! Four more years of this!

You need to exit that bubble right now. You need to stop living in denial and face the truth which you know deep down is very, very real. Trying to soothe yourself with the facts – “77% of the electorate are women, people of color, young adults under 35 and Trump cant win a majority of any of them!” – or logic – “people aren’t going to vote for a buffoon or against their own best interests!” – is your brain’s way of trying to protect you from trauma. Like when you hear a loud noise on the street and you think, “oh, a tire just blew out,” or, “wow, who’s playing with firecrackers?” because you don’t want to think you just heard someone being shot with a gun. It’s the same reason why all the initial news and eyewitness reports on 9/11 said “a small plane accidentally flew into the World Trade Center.” We want to – we need to – hope for the best because, frankly, life is already a shit show and it’s hard enough struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. We can’t handle much more bad news. So our mental state goes to default when something scary is actually, truly happening. The first people plowed down by the truck in Nice spent their final moments on earth waving at the driver whom they thought had simply lost control of his truck, trying to tell him that he jumped the curb: “Watch out!,” they shouted. “There are people on the sidewalk!”

Well, folks, this isn’t an accident. It is happening. And if you believe Hillary Clinton is going to beat Trump with facts and smarts and logic, then you obviously missed the past year of 56 primaries and caucuses where 16 Republican candidates tried that and every kitchen sink they could throw at Trump and nothing could stop his juggernaut. As of today, as things stand now, I believe this is going to happen – and in order to deal with it, I need you first to acknowledge it, and then maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of the mess we’re in.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great hope for the country I live in. Things are better. The left has won the cultural wars. Gays and lesbians can get married. A majority of Americans now take the liberal position on just about every polling question posed to them: Equal pay for women – check. Abortion should be legal – check. Stronger environmental laws – check. More gun control – check. Legalize marijuana – check. A huge shift has taken place – just ask the socialist who won 22 states this year. And there is no doubt in my mind that if people could vote from their couch at home on their X-box or PlayStation, Hillary would win in a landslide.

But that is not how it works in America. People have to leave the house and get in line to vote. And if they live in poor, Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, they not only have a longer line to wait in, everything is being done to literally stop them from casting a ballot. So in most elections it’s hard to get even 50% to turn out to vote. And therein lies the problem for November – who is going to have the most motivated, most inspired voters show up to vote? You know the answer to this question. Who’s the candidate with the most rabid supporters? Whose crazed fans are going to be up at 5 AM on Election Day, kicking ass all day long, all the way until the last polling place has closed, making sure every Tom, Dick and Harry (and Bob and Joe and Billy Bob and Billy Joe and Billy Bob Joe) has cast his ballot?  That’s right. That’s the high level of danger we’re in. And don’t fool yourself — no amount of compelling Hillary TV ads, or outfacting him in the debates or Libertarians siphoning votes away from Trump is going to stop his mojo.

Here are the 5 reasons Trump is going to win:

  1. Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit.  I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states – but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). In the Michigan primary in March, more Michiganders came out to vote for the Republicans (1.32 million) that the Democrats (1.19 million). Trump is ahead of Hillary in the latest polls in Pennsylvania and tied with her in Ohio. Tied? How can the race be this close after everything Trump has said and done? Well maybe it’s because he’s said (correctly) that the Clintons’ support of NAFTA helped to destroy the industrial states of the Upper Midwest. Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. When Trump stood in the shadow of a Ford Motor factory during the Michigan primary, he threatened the corporation that if they did indeed go ahead with their planned closure of that factory and move it to Mexico, he would slap a 35% tariff on any Mexican-built cars shipped back to the United States. It was sweet, sweet music to the ears of the working class of Michigan, and when he tossed in his threat to Apple that he would force them to stop making their iPhones in China and build them here in America, well, hearts swooned and Trump walked away with a big victory that should have gone to the governor next-door, John Kasich.

From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England – broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the countryside with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. Angry, embittered working (and nonworking) people who were lied to by the trickle-down of Reagan and abandoned by Democrats who still try to talk a good line but are really just looking forward to rub one out with a lobbyist from Goldman Sachs who’ll write them nice big check before leaving the room. What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. Elmer Gantry shows up looking like Boris Johnson and just says whatever shit he can make up to convince the masses that this is their chance! To stick to ALL of them, all who wrecked their American Dream! And now The Outsider, Donald Trump, has arrived to clean house! You don’t have to agree with him! You don’t even have to like him! He is your personal Molotov cocktail to throw right into the center of the bastards who did this to you! SEND A MESSAGE! TRUMP IS YOUR MESSENGER!

And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.

  1. The Last Stand of the Angry White Man. Our male-dominated, 240-year run of the USA is coming to an end. A woman is about to take over! How did this happen?! On our watch! There were warning signs, but we ignored them. Nixon, the gender traitor, imposing Title IX on us, the rule that said girls in school should get an equal chance at playing sports. Then they let them fly commercial jets. Before we knew it, Beyoncé stormed on the field at this year’s Super Bowl (our game!) with an army of Black Women, fists raised, declaring that our domination was hereby terminated! Oh, the humanity!

That’s a small peek into the mind of the Endangered White Male. There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the “Feminazi,”the thing that as Trump says, “bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds,” has conquered us — and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we’re supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it’ll be eight years of the gays in the White House! Then the transgenders! You can see where this is going. By then animals will have been granted human rights and a fuckin’ hamster is going to be running the country. This has to stop!

  1. The Hillary Problem. Can we speak honestly, just among ourselves? And before we do, let me state, I actually like Hillary – a lot – and I think she has been given a bad rap she doesn’t deserve. But her vote for the Iraq War made me promise her that I would never vote for her again. To date, I haven’t broken that promise. For the sake of preventing a proto-fascist from becoming our commander-in-chief, I’m breaking that promise. I sadly believe Clinton will find a way to get us in some kind of military action. She’s a hawk, to the right of Obama. But Trump’s psycho finger will be on The Button, and that is that. Done and done.

Let’s face it: Our biggest problem here isn’t Trump – it’s Hillary. She is hugely unpopular — nearly 70% of all voters think she is untrustworthy and dishonest. She represents the old way of politics, not really believing in anything other than what can get you elected. That’s why she fights against gays getting married one moment, and the next she’s officiating a gay marriage. Young women are among her biggest detractors, which has to hurt considering it’s the sacrifices and the battles that Hillary and other women of her generation endured so that this younger generation would never have to be told by the Barbara Bushes of the world that they should just shut up and go bake some cookies. But the kids don’t like her, and not a day goes by that a millennial doesn’t tell me they aren’t voting for her. No Democrat, and certainly no independent, is waking up on November 8th excited to run out and vote for Hillary the way they did the day Obama became president or when Bernie was on the primary ballot. The enthusiasm just isn’t there. And because this election is going to come down to just one thing — who drags the most people out of the house and gets them to the polls — Trump right now is in the catbird seat.

  1. The Depressed Sanders Vote. Stop fretting about Bernie’s supporters not voting for Clinton – we’re voting for Clinton! The polls already show that more Sanders voters will vote for Hillary this year than the number of Hillary primary voters in ’08 who then voted for Obama. This is not the problem. The fire alarm that should be going off is that while the average Bernie backer will drag him/herself to the polls that day to somewhat reluctantly vote for Hillary, it will be what’s called a “depressed vote” – meaning the voter doesn’t bring five people to vote with her. He doesn’t volunteer 10 hours in the month leading up to the election. She never talks in an excited voice when asked why she’s voting for Hillary. A depressed voter. Because, when you’re young, you have zero tolerance for phonies and BS. Returning to the Clinton/Bush era for them is like suddenly having to pay for music, or using MySpace or carrying around one of those big-ass portable phones. They’re not going to vote for Trump; some will vote third party, but many will just stay home. Hillary Clinton is going to have to do something to give them a reason to support her  — and picking a moderate, bland-o, middle of the road old white guy as her running mate is not the kind of edgy move that tells millenials that their vote is important to Hillary. Having two women on the ticket – that was an exciting idea. But then Hillary got scared and has decided to play it safe. This is just one example of how she is killing the youth vote.
  1. The Jesse Ventura Effect. Finally, do not discount the electorate’s ability to be mischievous or underestimate how any millions fancy themselves as closet anarchists once they draw the curtain and are all alone in the voting booth. It’s one of the few places left in society where there are no security cameras, no listening devices, no spouses, no kids, no boss, no cops, there’s not even a friggin’ time limit. You can take as long as you need in there and no one can make you do anything. You can push the button and vote a straight party line, or you can write in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. There are no rules. And because of that, and the anger that so many have toward a broken political system, millions are going to vote for Trump not because they agree with him, not because they like his bigotry or ego, but just because they can. Just because it will upset the apple cart and make mommy and daddy mad. And in the same way like when you’re standing on the edge of Niagara Falls and your mind wonders for a moment what would that feel like to go over that thing, a lot of people are going to love being in the position of puppetmaster and plunking down for Trump just to see what that might look like. Remember back in the ‘90s when the people of Minnesota elected a professional wrestler as their governor? They didn’t do this because they’re stupid or thought that Jesse Ventura was some sort of statesman or political intellectual. They did so just because they could. Minnesota is one of the smartest states in the country. It is also filled with people who have a dark sense of humor — and voting for Ventura was their version of a good practical joke on a sick political system. This is going to happen again with Trump.

Coming back to the hotel after appearing on Bill Maher’s Republican Convention special this week on HBO, a man stopped me. “Mike,” he said, “we have to vote for Trump. We HAVE to shake things up.” That was it. That was enough for him. To “shake things up.” President Trump would indeed do just that, and a good chunk of the electorate would like to sit in the bleachers and watch that reality show.

(Next week I will post my thoughts on Trump’s Achilles Heel and how I think he can be beat.)

ALSO: http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/michael-moores-5-reasons-why-trump-will-win

Yours,
Michael Moore