I just imbibed two healthy pints of Scotch Ale, a small handful of psychedelic mushrooms and a chunk of potent marijuana brownie…while printing 32 greeting cards so that I can replenish my rack at the grocery store and contribute to my gasoline fund for future trips into the present.
I’m hoping that some combination of the above will somehow blast me out of a sense of helplessness in the face of all the craziness and suffering, although I know it’s not really my responsibility and that I’ve done my part to advance this whole contraption…
I’ve been watching VICE NEWS documentaries looking into the darkest corners of the world, watching ‘Severance’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, reading a Jonathan Franzen novel about a Christian youth group and reliving so many moments in the deep past in order to write about them, and writing about them, and wondering if this voluntary isolation from all the world matters anything at all.
Listen to the sound of tree limbs clashing deep in the primeval forest. ‘Klick!’ – It’s Doctor Strange on the offense, striving – ‘Klack!’ – to drive off the nefarious mystical spell castings of Baron von Mordo. My brother and me among the giant virgin pines in a Pennsylvania forest in 1963, acting out our favorite comic book fantasies as our parents set up our overnight camp. In those days we played at adventure and wandered magical worlds that are always open to imaginative travelers and children. Our family roamed the highways from Cleveland and the Midwest, circling the Great Lakes into Canada and driving south to Florida and east to Maine and the coast and along Appalachian ridges. We stopped at ocean beaches, floated in ‘glass bottom boats’ among the Everglades, gazed across rural landscapes from high mountain perches, peered up at the tall canyons of Manhattan and took in the futuristic wonders of the New York World’s Fair in 1965.
Growing up in the shadow of World War, I remember military aircraft flying in formation over the neighborhood when I was very young. Every Sunday we drove past an enormous parking lot filled with surplus tanks parked in the General Motors lot on our way to church. The weeks were punctuated by air raid sirens and school was interrupted by ‘duck and cover’ drills designed to stimulate the vivid nightmares of those of us who could contemplate the final fate of humankind.
An older boy who lived down the block kept pigeons in a coop on his upstairs back porch. The pigeons would circle over our houses every day. We kept a turtle in the back yard that our grandparents brought back from the road on one of their exotic yearly trips to California. This was before the Interstates were built, and the turtles were found crossing the two lane highways that made America interesting. In the winter the turtle would dig a hole in its little enclosure in which to hibernate. Every spring we anxiously awaited the resurfacing, coaxing the displaced beast with offerings of earthworms. Sometimes the turtle wouldn’t appear and that year our grandparents would bring us another.
My mother told me stories late in life about my very early childhood as an infant caught in the midst of a rivalry for attention between her and my grandmother, her mother-in-law. I carry almost no conscious recollections from those very early days when my parents shared a house with my grandparents. I have one dim memory of being pushed in a baby carriage by a very nice young woman who was my babysitter. She died of leukemia when still a teenager. Perhaps this was my first taste of grief. It could be that my mother only told me these stories in dreams. Maybe I’ve mixed up her stories with those of other relatives who are long gone.
The house I remember growing up in was located in an older part of town across the street from my great grandmother’s large corner dwelling. I spent hours upstairs in her kitchen, drinking coffee tempered with evaporated milk, listening to her tales of coming to America from the old country with her brothers early in the century. They opened a butcher shop in the neighborhood, when that part of the city was still mostly rural, the streets mostly dirt, yet to be covered in red bricks and later with asphalt when I was a teenager. There was still a butcher shop on the corner downstairs in the front of the large house, run by another family at the time. The large back yard was full of fruit trees and flower beds that my family would help her maintain. Just outside of the second story kitchen windows was a cherry tree that became the centerpiece of every summer when we climbed and picked the ripe and sour cherries. My younger brother fell from it one year and broke his leg, spending the remainder of that summer as an invalid perched in a bed that was set in our narrow downstairs dining room.
When I’ve gone back recently to visit the old neighborhood our old house still stands, in the very center of the block, slightly raised above the neighbors, and incredibly small. It’s hard to believe that four kids and two adults occupied that space for so many years, while my mother dreamed of the suburbs and argued with my father, who always hesitated, not one to take chances risks. Only after I had moved on into my independent life and my father died of lung cancer did my mother finally make the move that she dreamed of.
An Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser careens through the night along the rural roads of northern Ohio carrying three boys, almost men, probably stoned or drunk on something, composing poems out of the romantic words on road signs; “Pass With Care”, “Soft Shoulders”, “Narrow Curves.” The car was borrowed from someone’s parents. With the windows wide open and the moist breezes of northern forests wafting over us, we exulted in our futures and the promising scents of freedom and all things that grow.
I left home with a cloth sleeping bag slung by a rope over my shoulders, on my back my uncle’s old Korean War rucksack, the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an ‘Oxford Annotated Bible’ from my college years, a change of clothes and a few sandwiches and provisions stuffed inside. I’d spent three and a half years at a prestigious institution (Case Western Reserve University), learning much and experiencing much during years of upheaval (1968-1972) and finally left after my number came up late in the lottery for the draft. The experiences I had were mostly outside of classes that were interesting but appeared rather irrelevant at the time.
I said farewell to my mother (my father was at work) and walked down to the embankment alongside the brand new interstate. (As a teenager I’d watched it tear through my neighborhood several years before. We’d watched the bulldozers turn my best friend’s house into a pile of broken pieces, set fires to excavated piles of discarded brush, fought snow battles in abandoned dwellings, stalked and vandalized the huge road builders in the middle of the night.) I put out my thumb and was subsequently propelled across the whole wide land, to Colorado and California and up the West Coast through to Oregon and Washington to Canada, across the Rockies and the great wide flat northern plains and along the pebble beaches of Lake Michigan and back toward Cleveland. (My dad drove out from Cleveland to meet me and we had a glass of wine together in Ann Arbor. Between that meeting and my later departure toward the beaches of Florida I felt our connection deepen as we had grown beyond our frequent ideological conflicts over the war and he had come to acknowledge me as an adult.) I was young during my travels and learned very little, but I took it all in with a feeling of constant awe, collecting inside of me a map of memories, of North America and so many of the people that drift within it.
After all of these travels and all of these adventures, where have I arrived? Who and what am I exactly? Where do I live in relation to the boundaries between order and chaos? Am I descended from the sweet young boy that I see in an old picture feeding the gentle deer at a petting zoo? Am I the instigator of plots to vandalize the enormous machines that cut their way through my neighborhood to build the Interstate? Am I the respectful Zen practitioner bowing before his teacher, or the smartass student telling the President of the University approaching a student occupied ROTC building that I was a ‘gargoyle’ guarding the doors? Do I prefer to wander along the edges of civilization where artists and pirates, nomads, shamans and assassins are created?
I passionately defend what I believe in but hold all beliefs lightly. I welcome the challenge of argument. I’ve always been a terrible student, unable to stick with a specific teacher or any specialized program for very long. My mind is both expansive and contrarian, drawn to whatever knowledge threatens to challenge the prevailing view. Learning for me is a labor to fit what is novel into the larger pattern of what is known. Having found an accommodation between them my intellect has to move on. I’m open to all possibilities and apply equal amounts of skepticism and belief to anything that opens the doors to new encounters. I absolutely won’t tolerate the tunnel vision that substitutes repetitive memes of ideology for actual thinking and I avoid such as I would a reeking mound of decaying garbage.
I’ve been called ‘narcissistic.’ Perhaps anyone who parades their thoughts in public is a bit narcissistic, presuming to believe that anyone else would be interested in them. In a world of so much diversity and argument one has to be a bit narcissistic in order to call attention to oneself.
I’ve also been accused of being terribly judgmental and even intolerant. I believe that the good of the whole transcends the good of the few, but that the few have the absolute right to speak and I have the absolute right not to listen. I can’t decide for others the difference between right and wrong, true and false, sense and nonsense, but I reserve the right to exclude from my presence those who insist on unquestionable absolutes.
Also true is that I possess an undercurrent of terrible anger, passed down to me through generations of injustice, unkindness and the undercurrents of loving abuse. My primary struggle in this life is against being governed by the rage, instead using it as a barometer that fuels a kind of hypersensitivity and compulsion to expose the undercurrents of lies and tension encountered in the environment around me. This has lead to the most profound progress and the deepest damages in my life. It’s a catalyst that moves me from states of stasis to states of movement and change. For those around me and the collectives and organizations in which I participate it uncovers the cauldron, and my passion provides some of the fire and the heat.
My most influential teachers have been the cities I’ve lived in. Cleveland taught me that I could swim against the strongest tides of family, of religious and societal expectations, of powerful and destructive establishments, of accepted reality itself. In Cleveland I first walked through the doors of perception to glimpse the hidden schematics of the brain and its relation to the universe. Denver taught me about the irrefutable strength of collective will and how it can be activated, directed and abused by effective and charismatic voices. In Denver I learned about the secrets of leadership and it’s ability to channel the collective will. Since coming to Santa Fe I’ve learned to approach the world with a larger degree of skepticism and to examine every belief carefully before confusing it with ‘truth’.
In Santa Fe I’ve lived for 35 years, longer than anywhere else. Here all the previous lessons and teachings have coalesced, as I’ve been brought repeatedly face to face with myself and my shadows. Through two marriages, the raising of a child, my interaction with organizational structures both large and small, and in my most recent confrontations with cancer, disunity and extended solitude, I’ve come to view myself more clearly in all of my urgent creative and destructive glory. In the process I’ve gained and lost friends, loved and tormented myself and others, tasted the mechanics and powers of leadership and the dynamics of failure, and come to understand and accept the role I’m here to play.
Through all of this I’ve learned the deepest lesson of real magic; that it’s primary fuel is the human will. How, like the mysterious force of gravity it can bend and reshape the contours of the universe in strange and subtle ways. I’ve arrived after all these years at the boundaries of a world of perception that my comic book hero would find familiar.
In these days there’s a growing atmosphere that breeds bad mojo – bad magic born out of magical thinking, along with an army of con artists who thrive on fear and fantasy. It feels increasingly like the universe of Doctor Strange, where delusions and demonic forces constantly seek to break through and disrupt all sense of order, enslaving the populace to chaotic forces by encouraging their worst tendencies. In the process those whose greed for power compels them to pull the strings strive to gather more influence to themselves, using the maze of politics to entrap our best collective intentions.
I’ve long observed that the rules of our politics are almost identical to those of magic, both being forms of a somewhat occult practice of weaving spells of language intended to influence and manipulate perception and reality. The tools and technologies are the same, revolving around the language of signs and symbols, fueled by elements of human desire, collective will and the necessity of belief. Neither practice is inherently good or evil, although both magic and politics are concerned with an accumulation of power, and there are inherent dangers in such pursuit. The division between our intentions toward compassionate and self serving ends can become very cloudy when certain rules and cautions aren’t respected.
When battling demons or conjuring new possibilities it’s important to remember that no matter what we do or what we intend, the rule is that any consequences, intended or not, will inevitably come back to us. (This is the rule of karma.) It’s also important to realize that those around us, even our ‘enemies’, are mirrors, and we must strive to show them the same compassion we have for ourselves. It’s most important when exercising power to stay awake, to remember where we are and what is our intention. Aside from these three, all other rules are subject to change at any time and it’s a wild and utterly changeable reality out there.
Ultimately the barriers to our imagination and our creativity will continue to be thrown open. The more they open the faster we must collectively adapt to the changes entailed by new technologies and new ways of thinking and perceiving. I’m optimistic that we will ultimately succeed and survive, only because we always have up to this point.
Meanwhile we drift, moving across worlds of fantasy through the outer space of our imaginations, with David Bowie’s song ‘Life On Mars’ rising behind us, the cold star-flecked blue screen backgrounds making us feel contained within a dark velvet sparkling blanket of the infinite. We travel through imaginary light-years, our sense of security wrapped and belted within capsuled contraptions, religions, ideologies and conspiracy theories, breathing through failing apparatus, imagining new colors and new planets in the dark. At this point we require more than a destination. We need redemption and forgiveness for one another. I know there’s better light far ahead, but I don’t know what remains to be seen. When truth has been abandoned to illusion its anyone’s guess what will survive when daylight comes.
Evolution never passes at a familiarly comfortable rate. The entire world can leap forward in an instant, or else changes take decades and centuries longer than human memory can track. If my great grandmother, who told me stories over the kitchen table, were transported to the present a good part of her sensory apparatus would no doubt go into shock, able only to process small quantities of totally unfamiliar data at a time.
Evolution doesn’t stop for us or for any other part of this ever changing universe, or for anything on this infinitesimal pebble we call the earth. Energy becomes matter, matter becomes atoms and atoms molecules. Molecules evolve to become the elements and elements combine to become life. Life goes through billions of years of creation and extinction, followed by resurrection, and so it goes, over and again. Evolution in matter becomes evolution in biology, plants and creatures emerge out of the earth and perish in amazing spectacles of life, struggling through extremes of hot and cold and countless changes.
Various proposals have been made for the start date of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene, which marks the significant impact of human culture on geologic ecosystems. Some proposals date this as far back as 12 – 16,000 years and the birth of agriculture, and others to the rise of the industrial revolution in the last century. I believe both of these views to be extremely short sighted.
About six million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, heading toward the ice ages, appear the hominins, our most ancient biological tribe, largely defined by the length of our legs being greater than that of our arms as we began to walk upright. While the biosphere was coming to resemble what exists today our ancestors struggled to come to terms with their expanding brains until, age after age, we arrived in our present form of homo sapien around 315,000 years ago, and evolution at long last crossed a critical threshold. While biological evolution proceeded in obscure niches and mostly through extinction, life entered a new phase, one that can no longer be adequately comprehended outside of the mental space of the self-reflective human mind.
Human beings have taken evolution in a new direction, possibly beginning with the emergence of the first tribes and the creation of the first cultural artifacts. When we began to shape the objects around us to reflect the images that appeared in our minds, we moved beyond the instinctive collectivity of the insect colony, the herd and the protective hunting community and began to consciously and deliberately reshape the world around us in our own image. Human evolution can’t be understood in strictly biological terms, for it occurs within the complex interface between the self-conscious individual and the ever changing forms of the collective. Humans are artisans of culture.
What’s become evident in our time is the pervasive effect of our evolutionary process on the atmospheric and geologic environment that surrounds us. It’s becoming obvious that human culture is now the dominant influence in the ecosphere, as our collective decision making largely determines what will perish and what will survive on our world. We are the caretakers and the destroyers. The dialogue between the individual and the collective has come to fully govern the dialogue between human civilization and the natural world. In the end, nature itself becomes, in effect, a human artifact.
Evolution is generally depicted in visual models as a vertical structure, where simplicity advances through complexity, leading to ‘higher’ developments along a continuum of molecules, organisms, species, etc. The focus of evolutionary theory in biology is on the structure and development viewed through the lens of individual organisms or species. Human evolution is no longer determined by individual divergence and biological mutation, but by collective structures and behaviors in which the uniqueness of the individual can’t be separated from the circumstances and influences of the social construct of which they are a part. The visual depiction of this structure could be more appropriately horizontal, characterized by recurring themes that arise periodically along a timeline, then disappear, only to arise again and again amid novel historical contexts, their ‘permanent’ influence determined by the qualities of the interchange and the impressions left in a particular time and place.
There is a quality of ‘eternal return’ in the unfolding of human societies. It’s as if the species is on a quest to replicate externally hidden structures already present in human consciousness in order to perfect them within the contexts of ever new levels of social organization. In light of this I recommend pulling back from the insanities of the present to take a long view toward the possible future.
Adam Curtis considers his films to be strictly journalism.
Having unlimited access to the vast archives of the BBC library, Curtis snips and cuts the myriad fragments of visual history to arrange them around themes guided by his own narrative and analysis. To relegate these works to the narrow field of conventional reporting would be to entirely miss their import and effect. The subjects of his films dive deeply into the wilderness of inherent contradictions between reality and the artificial reproductions of reality, between fact and imagination, between linear narrative and memory, and the many ways we rearrange our perceptions of reality to serve our own agendas. His most recent work, the six part series titled Can’t Get You Out Of My Head focuses on the dialectic between historical and psychological forces that drive individuals into increased feelings of isolation and helplessness and the barriers to effective collective action.
The emotional power of well selected images poised in sharp juxtaposition has been explored as long ago as in the montage techniques pioneered by early filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein. The use of montage takes us out of the illusory realms of objectivity and well into the territory of ideological expression. Directors like Jean Luc Godard and the ‘underground’ filmmakers of the sixties made radical use of the technique to purposely challenge the conventions of narrative film. While their work was perceived at the time as radical, our immersion in the frenetic medium of television makes them appear prophetic. The rapid disorienting shift between scenarios, the intrusion of seemingly unrelated sequences in commercials and the use of sound as compliment and contrast has increased our ability to shift attention rapidly from one image to another without loosing the narrative thread. Adam Curtis takes advantage of the growing sophistication of our visual language while pushing the form further with each successive work, encouraging us to take larger leaps along with him.
(My favorite film makers of the sixties were the French New Wave’director Jean Luc Goddard and the English director, Nicholas Roeg. Being a contrarian by nature I was always thrilled at the premier of a Godard film on my college campus and particularly pleased when a third to half of the audience walked out in bewilderment or disgust. This I deemed an indication of the film’s success. Both Godard and Roeg used techniques of radical montage to pit direct and sometimes disjointed, emotionally charged images against the linear revelations of plot. Godard went the farthest, often rejecting the very structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’ in films like 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her, Sympathy For The Devil and See You At Mao. Nicholas Roeg managed to corral these techniques into challenging narratives interrupted by out of synch and out of time sequences taking the viewer out of the linear present into realms of memory, imagination and pure emotion. His use of popular musical icons as actors in films like Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth became immensely popular with the psychedelic generation.
At least since 1992 with Pandora’s Box, followed by the more ambitious Century Of The Self and into the present Adam Curtis has employed montage with increasing ambition to deliver films that offer historical analysis along with imagery that comes across with devastating emotional impact. To Curtis the purpose of journalism is not merely to report, but to explain. His method is to distill and arrange out of the many sounds and images of a given historical period a presentation of coherent themes that persuade the viewer that his interpretation matches the reality. Journalism in this sense is the art of persuasion.
Human beings are addicted to narrative. If presented with a random set of images our minds will eventually assemble them into stories. If we stare at a wall long enough our minds will weave narratives out of the imperfections in the paint. This is a key to the methods of psychological testing that is critiqued in much of Curtis’ work. Ironically perhaps, it’s the key to his own art and his approach to journalism. When the reporter in a war zone decides to point the lens of their camera they are continually selecting the elements of their own narrative. When Adam Curtis wades through the BBC archives the images he selects are made to fit the preconceived patterns of a story he wishes to tell.
Episode four of his most recent work is titled ‘But what if the people are stupid.’ It’s primary theme is how our disillusionment with institutions born out of the emphasis on individualism in the sixties and seventies morphed into a retreat into nationalism in the eighties and nineties. Curtis pulls together accounts that range widely across the period, from the unsuccessful coup of the Gang Of Four in China to the somewhat tragic life of a transexual pioneer in England, the rise of Al Queda in Iraq, disappointment in the wake of the Live Aid effort and events that led to the crushing of protests in Tiananmen Square. All of these events are bracketed by accounts of psychological experiments carried on by Daniel Kahneman in the seventies leading to the thesis that people’s choices aren’t made primarily on a rational basis but are determined by their previous experiences and how they effect the deeper, mostly subconscious structures in the brain. By focusing on the personal dilemmas and contradictions faced by particular individuals against a backdrop of massive social movements Curtis dramatizes a specific and worldwide shift in our collective experience serving to frustrate our ability to organize coherent resistance to the growing power of elites. This sets us up for the next episode, ‘The Lordly Ones’, which explores the comforting national myths we construct to justify the blunders and atrocities carried out to maintain the rule of dominant capitalist elites over the rest of the world.
On the surface Curtis’ approach resembles that of an historian or archaeologist as much as that of a journalist. All are storytellers and agents of artifice, weaving our perceptions into coherent streams of interpretation and all deal with data fragments from moments gone by. The stories Adam Curtis chooses to tell center on the influence that modern psychology has had on the manipulative techniques of advertising, the growth and dominance of consumerism, and most importantly the isolation of the individual in the shadow of the capitalist state, rendering concepts such as personal freedom and choice almost entirely irrelevant.
We’ve become helpless as collective societies to effectively act to change our circumstances. Instead, our every activity is measured, tabulated and arranged in predictive models that serve to anticipate and then to manipulate our behaviors. Human behavior has been programmed into machinery that uses algorithms to further the power and wealth of economic elites. Only by breaking free of the conceptual prison of the techno-capitalist state can we even begin to imagine a future that meets actual human needs.
Perhaps we expect that journalism and documentary gives us a more accurate glimpse of the real and the true. What we should have learned in an age of propaganda, ‘fake news’ and the Internet is that in the selection and manipulation of images just about any version of ‘reality’ can be made to appear as truth. In the view of Adam Curtis the true value of journalism is to ‘make sense’ of the world in new and original ways that evolve continually with our continual appetite for the new. This is the only way that we can cast off the oppressive chains of the past. We might do well to make his revolution our own.
Thoughtmaybe.com for access to a full catalogue of Adam Curtis Documentaries and many other worthwhile films.
An outstanding interview with Adam Curtis at: Jacobin.com
It’s like a fire came through here,
even though everything is concrete and asphalt.
Whatever it was, it reduced everything to one or two rooms,
concealed behind masks, wearing protective clothing like prison uniforms.
My friends were made crazy, and so was I,
burrowing into ourselves, creatures I no longer recognize.
We are like the abandoned buildings of bankrupt businesses,
withdrawing behind curtains, looking outside and seeing only a strange desert.
The only time I’m not alone is when I leave this empty city, traveling in landscapes, listening to the words coming out of speakers in my metal travel pod.
These voices are my new friends, reliable, regular,
opinionated but never threatened, storytellers.
As I drive among these hills, under the sky,
they comfort me, never judging and never giving advice.
There is always sunlight here,
and these places on the road are never empty.
There is nothing I can do for anyone.
Living through the plague and having cancer at the same time is sort of like entering a mysterious room where all the doors and windows are locked, then finding at the back of the room a strange door. Behind that door is another room, smaller, with fewer doors and windows. You get used to the fact that there are at least two exits between you and anything resembling the world outside.
My body started mysteriously falling apart just before Covid descended. It began with my hands and wrists, and gradually it spread to my whole being, until I could barely stand without reaching desperately for breath.
I had ways been proud of my youthful appearance, my enduring health and stamina and ability to heal quickly those rare times I was injured or sick. When people told me they couldn’t believe I was as old as my age I’d tell them smugly, almost arrogantly, that it ran in my family. Perhaps I thought I’d never truly get old, or even die. At seventy most people saw me as fifty, and until this turning I’d mostly felt the way I looked.
In those first months, just when I’d passed the age of seventy, I assumed that the vicissitudes of age had finally caught up with me. The work I’d done for a living had taken its deep toll on my body. My shoulders were a tight mess, the tips of my fingers had grown numb with the effects of carpel tunnel, and when I took out my bike for the first time in the Spring I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount. My plans for the future, the paying off of debt and for another sort of life were all in serious question. Suddenly the question of mortality descended like a mysterious spirit taking possession of my bones.
One day early on in the pandemic, before things became really dire and after the panic closed down most of the tourist businesses and bars I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves in circles around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me, past closed galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating outside of our dwellings the blossoming trees and an opportunity to briefly breath without our masks and appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to podcasts of Zen talks from Mount Tremper in New York while contemplating my own conflicts and contradictions in regards to the present and the future.
Although the final diagnoses wasn’t yet in I could see that the world around me was in straights that reflected my own distress. All that was familiar had changed.
It took months to find answers, the search delayed by the plague, as alarms were sounded and offices for inquiry and treatment were closed down. At long last I was diagnosed with cancer and by that time my hands were severely crippled and I was no longer able to work. As the plague spread its shadow across the land I was, like most of us, forced to retreat into my own private wilderness.
Meanwhile, as we careened toward an election and a clash of alternate realities, the deeper shadows of collective victimization had become the undercurrent of an American culture overcome by grievance fed by media madmen. America was sicker than I was. The creeping diseases that we’d been feeding for decades had broken fully to the surface and the future filled with hope had been replaced with a question of survival. Most of us prayed that whatever was overcoming us would just end, but it had become harder to see the future beyond the violence, the isolation and the plague.
My birthdate is the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, April 13th. From what I’ve read, I can personally relate to his personality of restless passions and contradictions. Particularly familiar to me is a sense that my vision far exceeds my own grasp. Jefferson was a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery. As an obsessive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, his restless mind wouldn’t allow him to reside in any fixed station. His thoughts propelled him toward an ideal world – nonexistent in his time, where every human being had – by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights. His was a world where the term ‘human being’ hadn’t yet reached an equitable definition. I live in a different world, where the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole is contradicted daily. As a nation we worship the pursuit of personal wealth as the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, substantially devoid of considerations that transcend the possession of individual power and the illusion of control. We have, in fact, managed to turn every ideal taught in our various catechisms of church and school entirely on their head.
Now, one year since the plague jumped us I’m looking at a civilization that is slowly coming apart. Although the traffic is once again flowing as people strive to maintain some kind of life as usual, there are more closed and abandoned businesses, empty real estate and a pervasive feeling of alienation and wistful uncertainty. Friendships have become more distant and physical contact still mostly a wishful dream. The brief month-long sigh that so many of us felt after the election is replaced already by the anger and dread and fallout promoted leading up to it. Even if the Covid shadow passes us by we’ll still be left with the deeper shadows of racism, bigotry and general thuggery at the heart of the long American nightmare. The monster has been unleashed and is tearing out our heart. The next two years will most likely resemble the past five years. We are in parallel acts of slowly dying and transforming as a culture and the serpent is not about to let us off the cross.
When I look in the mirror I see an emaciated old man, someone who has aged ten years in one. There are red rings around my eyes, my teeth and gums are hurting, I look like a starving inmate. At the same time the doctors tell me that my numbers are improving. My stamina is up. My hands are still crippled but may be slowly getting better month by month. I still can’t walk very far and I can’t get on my bicycle. Soon I’ll be seeking another place to live, and it may be somewhere out on the road.
We are told as Americans that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel, that our numbers are improving. I’m not sure what the numbers mean anymore. I’ve been on the list for a vaccination for several months but haven’t been given a date. That all appears distant and unreal, more than two exit doors and a couple of hallways away. Whenever I hear the phrase ‘back to normal’ it evokes a feeling of mass delusion. Life is something that passes quickly, day by day.
I came here from Denver after an almost 14 year sojourn in Denver as a refugee of sorts from an intensely immersive experience in spiritual revelation, guru worship and community politics. I thought I knew what there is to know about cult behavior, the proliferation of memes, the sheer power of collective focus and the creation of dogma. I needed a change.
I arrived in Santa Fe to help start a grocery business with some friends and fellow refugees. When that fell apart, I ended up working as a deli manager at the only New York Style restaurant and sandwich shop in town at the time. I knew it was New York Style – or as near as we could manage – because it attracted all the expatriate artists, writers, actors and business people who’d moved here from the Coasts to get away from the traffic and the noise, I suppose.
Since high school I’d been writing and publishing a journal that I’d pass out to friends and a few of the customers I got to know while serving them cappuccinos and pastrami. Some who admired the writing or just enjoyed the conversation began to pitch me to apply as a sales assistant for a locally based publishing house.
At the time, this wasn’t just any ordinary publisher at the time. Bear & Company started as the brainchild of Matthew Fox, a radical and openly gay catholic priest who had been inspired both by the liberation theology born in Central America and the mystical earth based traditions of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen. The company had recently been taken over by a wealthy couple who were steering the editorial direction toward the popular New Age movement that had emerged out of the political ashes of the sixties.
When I came aboard, the company had just published several visionary books by a Colorado based art teacher whom I’d met in my Denver/Boulder days. Jose Arguelles’ book about an upcoming ‘Harmonic Convergence’had been covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and sales for Bear & Company had blown through the roof.
Harmonic Convergence came and went. As with all apocalyptic prophecies it bred some degree of disappointment in those who took it literally or expected some awesome and incontrovertible manifestation of radical change in the outer world. Others like myself, who exist more comfortably in the world of metaphor and myth saw the ‘prophecies’ of Harmonic Convergence as part of what became a massive piece of global performance art. We were able to move gracefully toward the next imaginative performance, the next ritual, the next metaphor.
Looking back, I think that global event truly marked the peak of what’s generally regarded as the ‘New Age movement.’ Not the end by any means, but the marking boundary after which the most popular fantasies, pseudo-religious mythologies and channeled cosmologies began to be less coherent and less taken seriously. It also happened to be one of the first pseudo-religious movements that was seeded across the early private bulletin boards of the Internet. It’s explosion into a short lived mass movement presaged a new era dominated by the influence of digital technology.
While ensconced as a sales assistant I’d written a letter to one of my mentors, William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian who worked on the boundaries between science and mysticism, and whose books had absorbed my attention for many years. I thought he might be a good fit to the catalogue and my letter asking whether he’d be interested in publishing with us. To my humble delight he replied in the affirmative. We published two of his books, one a reprint and one a cultural critique of New Age thinking. Around that time I’d also become involved in organizing a week long speaking and workshop engagement for a popular psychedelic guru and advocate, Terence McKenna. The event was a rousing success and it put me in touch with the west coast Esalen based community of intellectual visionaries, artists and poets. What followed was a book of speculative conversations between Terence, the English parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham, a chaos math pioneer and associate of William Irwin Thompson.
By this time I’d become part of both the acquisition and editorial effort. The company had gone beyond its very modest beginnings in theological reflection. Having veered toward the booming and more lucrative New Age market we’d arrived at a fork in the road where two paths diverged at greater and greater distance from one another. In one direction, advocated by me, was the slightly fringe but earnest attempts to continue a quest for knowledge and seeking that was more or less in continuity with western intellectual traditions. On the other road was the quick cash and fame and public adoration that could be gained by finding the right meme or popular trends that would attract the fleeting attention of those in quest of some transcendent explanation that could provide relief in a world full of chaos and disorder. Between the serious and critical inquiry with a visionary bent advocated by the likes of Thompson, Abraham, even McKenna and the politically charged messages channeled from the Pleiadians or Twelfth Planet invasions outlined in the work of Zecharia Sitchen there was an increasingly insurmountable gulf.
Things came to a head between myself and the owners in a struggle for influence that I had no chance of winning, and I soon found myself and my family cast out into the world of practical survival by whatever means available. Gone were the days when everything was possible. In spite of all of our speculation and utopian fantasies the new world had mostly failed to manifest to my generation in any recognizable form. Instead the New Age, with its prophets and messiahs and ascended masters, its apocalyptic visions of the ascent of the chosen in mother ships and collection of heavenly astral entities had come more and more to mirror the Judeo Christian mythologies against which so many of my generation had rebelled.
We weren’t the first generation to be disillusioned with the lies and excuses of our forebears, but we were the first to see those lies uncovered on television. Having thus lost our innocence and willing acquiescence, we searched for something we actually could believe in. Turns out we were willing to believe in just about anything. From UFO’s to Gurus to Harmonic Convergence to Jim Jones Rallies, we were willing to try any sort of Koolaid. Like the poster in paranormal investigator Agent Muldur’s office in the generational defining TV series, ‘The X-Files’ we ‘wanted to believe’. Like Muldur we were open to any possibility. Over time we became drawn to reductive explanations that would wrap things up in a simplified picture of what’s ‘really’ going on. Along with an ingrained distrust of authority these took us down paths of private obsessions, with Y2K predictions and UFO sightings and JFK assassination plots. Many found refuge in the more deeply rooted paths of American evangelicalism and were ‘born again’.
The proliferation of cults like QAnon is nothing new. Entire cohorts of seekers have disappeared into the dark rabbit holes of self-reinforced collective denial, where the confusing and isolating ‘real world’ is left far behind. Cult behavior is exactly like a fire in the forest. Once the smoldering starts beneath the quiet surface of leaves and ground cover, the potential for explosive destruction escalates. People are bewildered that your average QAnon follower or conspiracy theorist can accept what, on its face appears to be totally absurd. When shown evidence of incontrovertible facts that contradict whatever it is they believe in, they immediately put the facts through an amazing process of deconstructing reality into a sort of code, and then they reassemble the code to fit their beliefs. It’s an astounding thing to watch.
This shouldn’t be hard to understand. In most people the power of belief far transcends the powers of reason, or even of perception. For a generations steeped in contradictory narratives while the foundations of civilization are shifting, the need to find and cling to manufactured realities can be perceived as necessary for survival. It becomes the very basis for some sense of identity and connection. Reality be damned when a tunnel of explanation embraces you and comforts you and closes you in. With the confusing world outside explained, you and your community of true believers are soon beyond the reach of evidence or facts. In the electronic age, surrounded by the fragments of a deconstructed world, surrounded by screens and mirrors, the need for self identification and self absorption becomes an irresistible pull. When I look into the frightened and angry faces of the QAnon set I see mostly a desperate fear that their whole world could vanish with a thought.
Consider for example in my lifetime the transformation of the Republican Party in the United States, historically the home of both progressive and conservative philosophies, into a refuge for deranged paranoia and fascist cult worship. Over a span of decades I’ve watched with horror as a political party transformed itself at its base essentially into a terrorist organization. This isn’t an accident. At least since the reign of Reagan, an astute product of the dream factory of Hollywood and a promoter of the ‘Southern Strategy’, the transformation has been quite overt. To win national elections in a country growing increasingly diverse, the most paranoid aspects of racist conservative ideology has been deliberately fed and encouraged by those who profit from it. These days the ‘code words’ for bigotry and xenophobia and white supremacy that once hid behind ‘trickle down’ economics and acted as the magic lubricant for its success have mostly been discarded, exposing the weird ideation of fear that lies just beneath a surface of superficial hope and unrealistic expectations. While an aging population of white men and women fight to hold to their place of historical dominance, they inflame the delusions that ignite a fear of chaos in a shrinking base of privilege. ‘Race, abortion, socialism, black folk, and antifa gonna come and ‘steal your money, burn your suburbs, and murder your family’ – anything that separates people into warring tribes is used a tool to attain power or sow the seeds of division. In the end it’s all about the power of those who, like magicians, control the reigns of delusion in a fearful and shrinking majority. Thus are created enchantments so powerful that consensus about common reality becomes increasingly tenuous. The final break occurs when the line of reason held against an ongoing state of emergency is breached. Only through the force of Will and some luck and foresight can a society hold the line against the ‘true believers’ and the rising forces of conflict born of ignorance.
Apocalyptic movements come and go throughout history. How many false alarms does it take to finally outdo and circumvent the mind twisting rationales addressing the lack of results, the failure of ‘prophecy’ and frankly a total and monstrous gullibility? How to overcome the abject embarrassment that occurs when, inevitably, you’ve been totally made a fool of in front of family, friends and the general public? One can always apologize, but then what?
There are two ways to dispel the mysterious cloud cast by cult-leaders and their acolytes. The first and most short-lived victories are won against those who prove to be dangerous by seeking out, exposing and eventually purging the leaders of lies and the promoters of fear. Unfortunately replacements are usually found and when we become complacent they return. The other more long-lasting solution is a battle fought within our own individual and collective imaginations. By turning away, by disciplining our minds to erect walls against the spells and bullshit that surrounds us on screens and billboards and in social networks, and in rediscovering the path of true and open discovery, the forces of light become as strong as the illumination that fills a dark room when a candle is lit.
My personal approach is rather hard line and one of little tolerance. I won’t allow the creeping shadow of conspiracy thinking into my presence. Like with an addiction, I believe there is a firm line between serious inquiry and raving lunacy. I will not permit paranoid discourse to thrive in my presence. Even in small doses it’s advocacy becomes the seed that corrupts our future and degrades the collective consciousness, spreading dangerous poison throughout the body politic. For me, there is no other word for the promotion of mass psychosis in the name of power but ‘evil’.
This kind of thinking will always come and go, whenever and wherever humans fear the uncertain future. It’s no accident that many of those who’ve invested the most in the utopian future guaranteed by New Age thinking have wound up advocating violent fantasies in the virtual ‘community’ of QAnon. These fantasies throughout history, using different buzzwords or selecting different designations for victimizers and the victimized, take inevitably a familiar shape, pitting those within the initiated circle of true believers against everything and everyone who remains outside. For them, the final salvation, the Mothership, always coming, never arrives.
When I was in elementary school I was given for Christmas a small printing press that could make stuff the size of business cards or raffle tickets. I started a number of membership organizations among my classmates that could be activated simply by asking for a card: ‘The Hoppity Hooper” Fan Club,’ ‘The Rocky and Bullwinkle Fan Club,’ and our final, three color masterpiece, a membership in ‘Camp Palumbo’ along with a small certificate of the official currency, the ‘Pazzuza.’
Later on my neighborhood friends and I, all bing in the same Boy Scout Troop, would take each issue of the Official Boy Scout Magazine paste in alternative headlines and captions cut out of other publications and turn Boys Life into what we thought was a hysterically funny parody inspired by Mad Magazine, a publication we really took seriously.
In high school, myself and my high-minded friends published and repeatedly got in trouble for a series of independent journals printed via mimeograph machine and silk screen press at our local Peace Movement Offices. I continued this though college and after, until moving to Santa Fe, when I got a bit more seriously embedded in the writer’s world.
In 1984, after attempting to convert reams of handwritten notes, poetry, short stories and essays into a publishable form into typewritten documents (a frustrating process) I took a class in the new Word Processing technology at the local community college. About midway through the course the teach came into class entranced by the release of the first Apple Macintosh computer. I don’t remember what he said but his trance was somehow infectious, and before the end of the year I’d acquired my own machine and the accompanying laser printer.
For a number of years I published articles and reviews in ‘The Journal for Humanistic Psychology,’ ‘Annals of The Earth’ and ‘Shaman’s Drum’ magazine. 911 happened. I was not particularly surprised that it happened but that didn’t make me less angry. So, I started a blog, called ‘The Arclist,’ which continued view email and website for the next 20 years. After the 2016 election the list pretty much was reduced with short headline introductions to various news and resistance links and very little else. Meanwhile the host site and software became contaminated and obsolete and harder to manage, until a couple of weeks ago I decided to abandon the list in email form and rethink the whole thing.
I was diagnosed with cancer. This marked an opportunity to rethink everything. I went though my existing contact list and entered them into another email client service that I’d learned to navigate through as a business application. More up to date and flexible and easier to manage in creative ways, I’d like to take advantage of this by setting up a new version of the Arclist, more in the tradition of a Journal that accommodates creative ideas, creative projects and creative discussions between interested folks. I think we are all somewhat anxious to move beyond obsessive focus on the disasters of this past year and turn our attention to future possibilities. Perhaps this could provide an opportunity.
I have a list of names that I’ve gleaned from my contact list. Many of you were part of the previous mailing list or were listed as a ‘friend’ on my Facebook page. Some of you might have gone away for any number of reasons. Some of you may not wish to hear from me ever again. Before engaging the new list I want to send a formal invitation for you to respond, either positively of negatively, and I will then formally activate or delete your membership. If your answer is ‘YES,’ and I hope it is, I will begin sending out my creations, or forwarding others, on some semi-regular basis.
Meanwhile, I’ve attached to this invitation a sampling of the sort of stuff you might expect to receive on the New ARCLIST. Should you wish to subscribe and get the material on this site in our email just send a reply to email@example.com, or leave a Reply at the bottom of this page.
My Favorite Podcasts (Current) 12/13/20
Not included are podcasts I’ve favored In the past but I’m no longer following regularly (this American Life, Masters of Scale) or podcasts that were short form or serialized or no longer being produced (‘Studio 360,’ ‘The Ballad of Billy Balls’). By ‘current’ I only mean current, and this list will continue to shift from day to day as I get turned on to new podcasts.
One of NPR’s Most Popular Daytime Shows, this hour long documentary style delves into all of the corners of history we are never/rarely taught in school. To fully understand the present events in the context of historical realities the show is unmatched. The two hosts are from first and second generation Iranian and Palestinian families, which may give a clue to the unique depth of their approach to telling stories.
The United States of Anxiety
A little scary but enlightening as it focuses on the areas in American history that indicate the conflicts that have split the body politic from the beginnings of the USA.
This Day in Esoteric Political History
Somewhat oddly named, focusing each day on a single event (many of which I’d never heard of) at a particular moment in American History, a lively and educated discussion of the event’s historical environment and its influence and indications in the present.
Hacks On Tap
Political strategists from both sides of the ‘aisle’ toss around their critiques and projections about both parties. Anchored by David Axelrod (Democrat) and Mike Murphy (very ‘anti-Trump’ Republican), with a variety of chummy guests, the analysis is delivered with a good deal of humor and real ‘insider’ knowledge of how political campaigns actually work.
I’ve been listening to these guys since 2015. A relief from the general alarmist nature of political news and analysis. Sometimes a bit over-the-top ‘wonky,’ I favor 538 for a strictly data-based view of political realities balanced by a crew of mostly contrarians in one form or another. I simply like these guys. As I was about to write this review, unfortunately the departure of Clare Malone is a great loss. Relative newcomer Harry Bacon Junior has brought a similar contrarian sensibility and a much needed black perspective to the panel, Malone brought an equally important feminist and Midwestern (Ohio) perspective.
One of the better interview shows from The Atlantic. Host Isaac Dovere chooses subjects that are generally slightly out of the mainstream news but closer to actual events. Always new information and insights.
The Axe Files
Long form, one hour interviews of a range of public figures, illuminating their biographies and focusing on their positions in regards to contemporary politics. David Axelrod, currently head of The U. Of Chicago School of Politics and once Obama’s chief campaign adviser, is relentless in his ability to get beyond easy rhetoric to the true nature and personality of his guests.
A bit alarmist in the ‘Slate’ style this is the best way to keep up with the arguments, decisions and implications for the future of the Judicial branch of government.
Both sides of every question, thoroughly and respectfully debated. Particularly helpful to those in the habit of considering the ‘other side’ to be totally without brains or merit. (Note: This applies only to arguments that actually apply when a et of common facts are agreed upon.)
The New York Times, in its breadth and depth of coverage is still at the top of the media heap. This podcast offers a sampling every morning, with a single news story or interview and a short headline summary. On Sunday an archived ‘feature story’ is read in entirety. I highly recommend checking out the Dec. 6th edition: “The Social Life of Trees.”
Global News Podcast – BBC
I start the day with this one, as the focus isn’t obsessively on America and it’s ridiculous politics, it’s coverage is delivered with an almost universally cheerful, or at least less apocalyptic stance. Given all of the ‘Brexit’ angst in Briton these days, I suppose several hundred years more of living history kind of levels out ones perspective on the present.
The New Yorker Radio Hour
I wasn’t sure just where to place this since the coverage is as much news as it is cultural commentary. I decided that since the coverage is essentially ‘journalistic’ in approach, this fits.
Two of the most knowledgeable people on the fringes of Big Tech, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway make a ‘perfect couple’ with their insights into current and future trends in business, investing and the politics around technical innovation and culture. Punctuated by personal banter and good natured kidding these two have been going at it for a couple of years of successful and popular podcasting. Swisher, the journalist, keeps things on track while almost cagily draws out brilliant insights from Scott, the NYU business professor and investor. Guests are featured with back and forth interviews by both Kara and Scott.
The Professor G Show
Scott Galloway’s own podcast (see above), where he calms down while proving himself a capable interviewer, while giving himself some time to deliver, John Oliver style, some incredibly insightful, critical, and sometimes inspiring ranting about ethics in politics and business.
Kara Swisher’s new interview show from The New York Times where she is featured as a regular Opinion columnist. The NYT is managing a very successful and profitable switch into the digital medium. Swisher is a digital candidate for the Maureen Dowd chair of journalism. Her interviews so far have included a diversity of subjects (from Dowd herself to Hillary Clinton to Jane Goodall).
New Scientist Weekly
Friendly, British, delivered with a touch of humor, the most up-to-date international coverage of the scientific progress on Covid-19, and the latest questions and discoveries in scientific research.
Philosophy revealed through contemporary storytelling and interviews that reveal in our present dilemmas their deep roots in philosophical discourse. A uniquely illuminating approach and my ‘great discovery’ of the month.
Into the Zone
An original approach to ideas and storytelling from novelist Haru Kunzru, who focuses on how ‘opposites’ shape our world. While founded in stories from the ‘real’ world Kunzru’s approach is delightfully filled with literary twists and turns and metaphor. I was turned on to him in an interview with ‘The Book Review’ podcast (see below).
The New Yorker Fiction
I’ve been listening to this podcast for more than 10 years. It’s one of my main links to the world of short fiction. A writer each month gets to choose one of their favorite stories from another writer in the archive and to read it out loud. Afterwards the author/reader discusses the story with Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, focusing on how the story inspired and influenced them.
Being a heavily invested fantasy, sci-fi and comic book geek, how could I miss this one. ‘How we create Imaginary World and why we suspend our disbelief. ‘Nuff said!
The Book Review
From the New York Times Book Review, but less intimidating. It features author interviews plus short discussions and reviews of some of the latest books out on the shelf.
Poetry Off The Shelf
A refreshing break into the dimensions of pure sound and word. Poems are read, interviews and analysis are delivered. A little Poetry Magazine online.
Beef and Dairy Podcast Network
I cannot really desgribe this to you. It’s British and hllarious. Every episode begins nearthe absurd nand then carries one beyond…
Mission To Zyxx
By now an old stand-by for fans of imprvisational humor, sci-fi and those with a need to fill the void between space-based intergalactic blockbusters.
This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.
Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.
In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.
The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.
For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.
For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.
For this I am deeply aggrieved.
Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.
What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.
* * *
In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.
The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.
Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.
I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.
I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.
When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.
The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.
Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.
The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.
Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.
We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.
At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.
So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.
For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.
Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.
I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.
We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.
When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.
Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.
As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.
Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.
Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.