From Selma to Montgomery 50 Years On

I finally got around to seeing the movie ‘Selma’ and I had to drive to (of all places) Los Alamos, to see it, as it had been replaced in Santa Fe by a movie about white retirees in India. Over the past month or more the film was always on the top of my ‘must see’ list, but it kept getting shuffled to second place by something else, like the movie based on a book by my favorite author, or what turned out to be a crappy biopic about Alan Turing. The Turing movie had made me a little leery of seeing another historical biopic as that one was so absolutely formulaic and boring as a film. At any rate, a sense of urgency hadn’t come over me until ‘Selma’ had left my neighborhood for a place that’s even whiter than Santa Fe.

Partly it was hearing about the anniversary celebrations and march in Selma and partly it was watching a speech by someone I consider to be a truly great president. The film is an extraordinary document, in that it views history through the eyes of recognizable human beings. It breaks totally free of the usual revisionist image of absolute sainthood, portraying Martin Luther King as a flawed and passionate man motivated by righteous anger as much as by compassion, and as a brilliant and intuitive tactician who knows when to advance and when to have patience.

I have seen, time and again, these same qualities displayed in our president. I sensed that in his Selma speech Obama, in his always carefully modulated and tempered manner, allowed a bit more of that anger to graze the surface. This is one of his best and definitely one of his most challenging, as it pulls no punches about where America sits regarding racial prejudice and politics, as opposed to where so many people think we are. I’m sure that it’s being attacked by conservatives for its audacity, criticizing their lily white intentions or impugning their sense of christian righteousness. His characterization of Americans explicitly steers away from the doctrines of ideology that govern our oppressors:

“That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for it. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it.”

Just a couple of week’s ago, when Obama spoke at the White House Prayer Breakfast he riled up the demagogues and their simpering allies with his critique of the common crimes committed historically in the name of virtually all religions. He offended some southern white christians by mentioning the truth about their own history and by avoiding their demand to continue dividing the world into waring factions of the faithful. Just last week, the Prime Minister of Isreal had the disrespect to use our congress as his platform to declare himself and his nation to be on the side of the most extreme factions in American politics. (The long term damage this has done to the relationship of Isreal and the United States – beyond the commercial interest of buying and selling weapons – is immeasurable).

The fact of the matter is that, at least since the Age of Reagan, there has been a swelling of reaction in this country against all people of color. Conservatism has become a code word for bigotry and the same sort of white crackuhs’ who for generations tortured and terrorized the black populations in the south are now the very same people making the legislative agenda in Washington. The truth is they never went away. Reagan simply got them to switch parties. Nowadays they dress better and talk better and most of the times they even manage to appear respectable. They even have their own television channels. To openly criticize them is to be accused of ‘reverse racism.’ Well, most of them happen to be white, and virtually everything they advocate reflects an underlying assumption of white supremacy so, what the hell, let’s just openly play the race card and stop bullshitting with each other.

Yes, things have improved for most people. I was five or six before I even knew black people existed, seeing one for the first time riding the bus downtown with my grandmother in my very segregated (at the time) northern city of Cleveland. I remember being threatened as a young campaigner for Louis Stokes, who became the first black mayor of a major city in the United States. I spent my high school summers in dialogue with mostly black students who were my fellows in Upward Bound, one of President Johnson’s War On Poverty programs, while the city borke out in flames all around us. When Barack Obama was nominated to run for president I had strong doubts that this country would ever elect a black man to be its leader, and I was proved wrong.

However, as Obama says in his speech, our march is not finished. How could it be? The wounds we’ve inflicted on one another don’t just go away without a long time to heal. Between the end of the civil war and the 1970’s over 3200 blacks were murdered in this country by white people, for no other reason than that they were black and somehow ‘offended.’ An enormously disproportionate number of people of color are imprisoned or excluded from the political process. As we’ve been shown, time and again, many of our communities are still governed by brutality.

In my years as an adult I’ve watched our society’s attitudes toward diversity broaden while at the same time I’ve watched the rise of political forces that seek to keep us back in the age of ignorance and intolerance. Obama’s election, perhaps more than any other single factor, served to flush much of the lingering hatred and prejudice out of the ol’ woodpile. The dawning of the Internet has accelerated this process of exposure. Talk radio and comment sections are dominated by bigotry, and ignorance has become a public virtue. While the right has organized and thrust itself into power the liberal left has acted like petulant short sighted children for the most part, angry because they don’t get the favors they demand and using this as justification for crapping out of the political process.

What I most admire in those who have been and are great leaders is the quality of patience, bred through a sense of true compassion and a willingness to take chances, risking unpopularity when the situation demands. These are the people with whom I choose to stand.

Here’s the speech:

Transcript

Video

Chomsky Responds To Truthers

I recently made a comment in an online forum that listening to Noam Chomsky for me was an act of self-torture. Not that his contribution to political discourse isn’t incredibly valuable in terms of presenting an alternative point of view than that of the mainstream. Chomsky approaches the world in a relentlessly rational manner that allows for very little in the way of levity or even creativity so that his dry recitation of facts from the perch of academic authority usually leaves me feeling exhausted rather than inspired. In my opinion this approach leads too inevitably into a constraining vice of political correctness and away from the kind of flexible response to events needed in our to approach to the complexities of perception. 

 
That said, after watching the following video of Chomsky responding to a question from a 911 ‘Truther’ I came away with a new appreciation for the disciplined and hard-boiled approach of truly scientific thinking to the evaluation of facts and conclusions. As anyone who knows me soon discovers I have very little patience (none) with so-called “Truthers” and with those who indulge in and promote conspiracy theories of any kind. I believe that their approach to ‘facts’ echoes that of the average Bible thumping evangelist who wants to convince me that dinosaurs lived with human beings six thousand years ago. This stuff should be confined to the shelves of occult bookstores (with the ravings of Alex Jones and David Icke) and is entirely corrosive to true political discourse. Parading in the costumes of intellectual rigor these writers and ranters are only dedicated to making a buck by getting people to substitute their predigested dogma for any effort at real thinking. 
 
 
Thanks to Open Culture for unearthing this video.  
 

Can Fast Food Cure Obesity?

 

The following article is featured in the current issue of The Atlantic. 
 
 
Here’s the summary: Demonizing processed food may be dooming many to obesity and disease. Could embracing the drive-thru make us all healthier?

 

Since I’m a grocer and one of those whom the author refers to as a “Pollanite” (a fan of the work and point of view put forth by Michael Pollan in books like The Omnivores Dilemma), I felt that I should pass the article on with a few comments of my own.
 
The argument that the author presents is one of expediency, and is directed at what he sees as the number one health problem in the United States, that of obesity. He makes a case that the food ethic presented by the natural food business in trendy upscale stores like Whole Foods is not only unrealistic when applied to the general population but actually counter productive. He goes on to cite several examples comparing the nutritional value of the so called ‘healthy’ snacks offered in the elite markets to common examples of mainstream fast food. In these examples he finds that the ‘healthy’ alternatives often contain considerably more of the ingredients (sugar, fat) that contribute to obesity than the cheaper (by a considerable margin) and fast alternatives. 
 
This argument presents a much deserved ‘shot across the bow’ to an industry that I’ve watched or been a part of since 1973. The ‘Natural Food’ biz has grown from a fringe movement into one of the most profitable growth industries in the nation. In the process it’s thrown overboard a great deal of the ethical ‘baggage’ that provided its original raison d’etre. Once upon a time the idea was to provide an alternative to the heavily processed gunk produced in laboratories and offered in conventional grocery stores. Among other things it represented a return to a deeper engagement with the food we eat (cooking). Nowadays the business offers hundreds of new items every month that respond mostly to media fads and advertising campaigns that cater to the very same ethic of processed ‘convenience’ that has driven the American food business since way before the first tofu burger was ever thought of.
 
Nevertheless, the author’s critique of the industry that supports and hypes ‘healthy’ eating, much of which I agree with, represents a serious misreading of the work of Michael Pollan. If the writer had truly read a book like The Omnivores Dilemma he would have noted that Pollan’s take on the Whole Foods mentality in many ways echoes his own. Pollan notes that the key to profitability in the natural foods industry has for decades been that more money can be made by processing food than by growing it, and this has led the industry down some very questionable trails. 
 
Statistically the problem of obesity is greater in poorer communities where elite foods are simply not available. Even if they were, the author asks, would lower income people want to switch from the kind of food choices they are used to more ‘healthy’ alternatives? Wouldn’t we do much better against the scourge of obesity if the fast food industry actually changed its formulas so that the poor and ignorant masses can still eat at MacDonalds but get less that will make them fat? Since nobody has time to cook anyway, given the rat race involved in mere survival, can’t we just program the whole fast food business for less carbohydrates?
 
These argument make sense only when the focus is on obesity as the number one health problem in America. This extremely simplistic view excludes factors like our attitude toward the land, our over-amped and over-extended lifestyles and our largely dysfunctional relationship toward the systems that keep us alive and breathing. The contention that poor people would prefer MacDonalds over healthy food, even if it were made available to them, I find to be incredibly elitist. The people who raised me were poor and grew up in an era before ‘fast food.’ They made due with the basics and they cooked their own meals and they were healthier for it. To assert that the problem of obesity can be solved technologically with a little bit of progressive laboratory engineering, while a typically American approach, is laughable and a little bit frightening, as it calls up an image of the ultimately perfect lab manufactured food source for the masses: it’s called “Soylent Green.”

We Have Been Assimilated

Summary: Two artifacts of mass media, launched one after another more than four decades gone: Star Trek in 1967 and The Night of the Living Dead in 1968, enjoy continued popularity in this summer’s blockbuster roster. They embody two contradictory poles in America’s current and ongoing psychic dilemma. On one hand is our love affair with technology (and progress) and our earnest desire to merge ourselves with it. On the other is a mortal fear that we will lose our individuality and identity to the vast machinery of the faceless collective. 

 

“…in fact, science fiction in this sense is no longer anywhere, and it is everywhere…”   – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”  – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

 ***

Americans are famous for talking and arguing about something they call freedom. What we actually mean most of the time is control. We have this obsessive need to be in control of our lives all the way to the moment of death and hopefully beyond and this we manage, at least in a virtual sense, through our fetishistic approach to technology. Oddly, the concept of control and that of freedom are opposing functions in the real world, and our obsession with technology has lead us to a world where the human animal is trained to serve the machine rather than the other way around.  

I’m a dweller in cities, as most of us are. Cities are the human container. While the ‘natural’ realm functions as a place of refuge and renewal, much like an elaborately predictable theme park, the real wilderness is a function of cities, where defined boundaries and limited visibility foster an environment filled with mystery. There the human animal, aware that control is nothing but illusion, continually strains against the limits of the maze with unpredictable explosions of novelty. 

Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ to describe the environment created by electronic telecommunication that would render physical distance less relevant to our interactions than tribal affinity. What has evolved isn’t really a village at all, anymore than Los Angeles or New York or Tokyo are villages. The Internet is an urban space, differentiated into diverse neighborhoods, each with their respective gangs, territories and exclusive languages. 

The political dialogue going on these days amounts to a gang fight between factions defending opposing versions of the past. We hear overheated rhetoric espousing theoretical positions over hypothetical circumstances while little effective action is taken in the present. Most of us aren’t asked to contribute to solutions, only to take sides. While politics becomes a spectator sport an ongoing revolutions takes place in realms of culture, design and the arts. 

When we step away from the political chatter we see that nothing remains static and everything evolves. While we point accusing fingers at one another every new idea and innovation alters our environment and the way we live. While we fight wars over race and religion the definition of what it means to be human is undergoing constant change. When we address our problems in terms of left and right, Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, we confuse symptoms with the disease. While we grow more and more enmeshed in a world where every human interaction is mediated through machines, a deep sense of unease infects the whole world. Our greatest fear is that what defines us as individuals with a sense of purpose is being threatened by something outside of ourselves. All of our tradition, religion, and moral and ethical behavior is called into question by the requirements of advancing technologies. In the name of progress we reduce our world to chaotic wreckage made up of conflicting slogans and unsubstantiated beliefs.

Among these voices and artifacts we roam like refugees in a junkyard of found objects. When we look with eyes wide open we find that the most pressing existential questions are addressed in the mediums in which we most urgently look for escape. In unguarded moments, when listening to music or viewing movies and television we are opened to novel possibilities. In the fanciful stories we tell to one another we find the most accurate reflection of the truth about where we are and where we may be heading. Our lives, after all, are made of stories.   

Like archeologists or anthropologists we dig to discover the truth in threads that weave through our fictions. In the dreamworld we step back from the dense layers of event and information constantly swirling around us in our waking life. There we may discover the designs of our future before bringing them to the light of day.

***

“…and now the machines are flying us.” – Captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise

 

On the screen a group of actors sit in comfy looking chairs or stand facing a screen on which images of things taking place in the universe outside the room are projected. We journey with these characters through a series of moral and ethical dilemmas encountered as adventures that take place in virtual space. The boundaries of the “Final Frontier” extend beyond the screen we are watching to include the space in which we are watching it.

This is perfect television.  

It doesn’t matter that the sets and costumes are cheesy or obviously made of plywood and cardboard against painted backdrops, no more than it mattered to us as children playing with sticks in our own backyards. When the onscreen fantasy ends and we leave the room to continue in our lives we become the ‘away team’ proceeding on a mission into alien worlds. 

Those of us who’d grown up in big cities were accustomed to watching heroes sort out good and evil in the exotic landscapes of the western or the familiar perky environments of sitcoms. The heroes went up against the bad guys and those comedic moms and dads were almost always wise and good natured and calmly protective. While it was entertaining and provided models we could measure our own lives against, these still felt like somebody else’s lives and someone else’s adventures. 

Star Trek made us feel like we were part of the crew of the Enterprise, along for the ride. The show spoke in an imaginative language that dreamers could readily understand. Most important, it provided us with an organizing center from which we made sense of the confusing age we grew up in, where change came so fast that the world appeared always perched on the verge of chaos.    

The show made its initial run in 1967 and was cancelled after only one season. It was about ten years ahead of its time and couldn’t find a ready fit among the era’s cowboy dramas and family sitcoms. Of course, we who were ready for the future wouldn’t let it die, so we pounded on the studio doors until it was eventually brought back, again and again. Over forty years later the books, movies, comics and television series still feed a subculture that thrives across at least three generations. 

As the first television generation we rode a gigantic wave of innovation that began more than a century earlier, when the first photographic image was burned into a metal plate and our relationship to time and space was forever warped by the image. Or maybe the wave actually begins in the 13th century when the first factory looms were constructed, or maybe even earlier, when the first books were reproduced with moveable print. From those times machinery became increasingly the vehicle for our imaginations. We drew our dreams out of our heads and reproduced them to be cast out into the world.

Ever since there were storytellers we’ve used fiction to make sense of the waking world. Fiction takes a stream of events and gives them continuity in the form of narrative or plot. The fiction of Star Trek organized itself around our fondest dreams of progress in a time of raging conflict. In its fanciful world the issues of civil rights and foreign intervention were all located in the distant past. The crew of the Enterprise functioned seamlessly, like a hive of bees, totally self-contained in the belly of a huge machine. St. Augustine’s trinitarian scheme of memory, intellect and will was embodied in McCoy, Spock and Kirk. Their authority was unquestioned by the creator, Gene Rodenberry’s decree that there be no significant dissension amongst the crew. Like the branches of government the principal actors balanced one another and everyone knew their place and function (displayed by color coded uniforms) and problem solving capabilities. 

It now appears strange that a generation swept up in so much resistance to authority would accept and even embrace such a militaristic model of the perfect society. Perhaps it was our longing for order in a time of disorder. Still, it was a prophetic foreshadowing of the world in which we’ve come to live, where almost every activity is mediated through technology and the dictates of the machine reshapes every aspect of our lives. One almost has to wonder if it was the machine itself that was dreaming.

While Star Trek embodied our living room love affair with technology, another parallel genre emerged at the same moment in the dark chthonic realm of the midnight drive-in. It concretized our deepest dread of a dystopian future, and like Star Trek it spawned a genre has continued to thrive over the decades.  

George Romero’s movie about a zombie apocalypse, Night of the Living Dead premiered in 1968 and spawned numberless spinoffs and reincarnations that proliferate with ever greater frequency as we continue to plunge into the technological future.

Where Rodenberry’s universe envisioned a life of perfect harmony encapsulated within highly regimented machine culture, Romero’s nightmare is one in which the machinery of social order is rendered useless, and humans themselves loose all sense of aspiration and affection, becoming machinelike incarnations of pure appetite. Successive portrayals of the Zombie Fear have incorporated environmental collapse, worldwide epidemic, the fall of the social order. 

I believe that beneath all of these is a deeper fear, that of being absorbed by the collective itself. In the latest contribution to the genre based on the bestselling novel by Max Brooks, World War Z, initial ‘zombie fear’ of humans being transformed into mindless automatons of appetite has been upgraded to a merging of the automatons into a singular collective nightmare.  

To traditional cultures, bound by history, ritual, human affection and common belief the implacable advance of technological civilization appears like a plague, threatening to destroy all that gives life purpose. From a different perspective the technocratic mind fears most of all a collapse of rational order and an abandonment of the social compact to the demands of selfish individuals. The zombie fear manages to incorporate both extremes in a common terror of being swept up into nihilistic oblivion.   

Here is the real World War Z, where a hopeful vision of a universe run by benevolent uniformed geeks or one determined by the rhythmic rituals and cycles based in tradition and relationship to the natural world are both obliterated by the needs of the machinery we’ve created. 

The majority of humanity now lives in cities where life is no longer governed by the sun and the moon and the passage of the seasons. The dissonance between lives we live in manmade environments governed by the clock and the demands of our bodies as parts of nature continue to generate dreams and nightmares. Thus our summers are increasingly filled with apocalyptic scenarios that depict a world beset by zombies, robots, aliens and supernatural beings. In our collective fantasies the earth erupts or is bombarded by objects from space. Epidemics rage across the globe. Our imaginations are alight with fascination with our own impending doom, but within our nightmares are the seeds of resistance.  

The zombies of World War Z are modeled on the behavior of ants, a suitable representation for the fear on both sides of the political divide that we are being overrun by  something less than human, like a virus, driven by a mindless will. We certainly can’t change the world or redraw the bargains we’ve made when lost in a world of dreams, but maybe in our dreams can summon a possibility of change.

In the meanwhile the zombies will return again and again, the monsters will continue to rise from the deep, cosmic villainy will prevail and the world will appear to hang on the brink. Godlike heroes will manifest to save the day. Maybe one day we’ll come to conscious terms with our creations and the Star Trek vision of benevolent and compassionate societies dedicated to exploration and service will come to be. After all, our actions and designs for living are first born in the imagination and even in our most vivid nightmares we plant the seeds of possibility.   

 

Zombie Nation

The other night I was sitting having a beer in a friend’s house trailer, making conversation about the fate of the world, occasionally casting a glance at the flat screen television mounted near the ceiling. Not being a regular television watcher, the idea of having the image factory going constantly, even with the sound off is a bit disconcerting. I couldn’t bring myself to ignore the cavalcade of images that drew my attention as we talked.

The screen was tuned to the Discovery Channel and the program being broadcast was a two hour special called “Zombie Apocalypse.” This is apparently a guide to survival at the end of civilization. The documentary footage features grade B actors playing survivalists, ER physicians, college professors and various “experts” in the defense against attacking zombies. In past decades this would’ve been considered a satirical “mockumentary” approach to an obviously fictional scenario, but in the hallucinogenic culture of today I’m convinced that a large part of the population can no longer distinguish fantasy from truth.

In our America the true is no longer woven out of facts. The truth is merely a matter of belief. One can believe in virtually anything and make it real, turn it into a subculture, a reality show, or a political movement.

A couple of weeks ago in a great circling of the wagons that took place in Houston, Texas, somewhere around 70,000 people gathered for the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The complexion and makeup of those who gathered most likely resembled those seen at a Republican National Convention, including a large contingent of conspiracy theorists, militia enthusiasts and (I’m sure) zombie fighters . The motto of this year’s convention was “Stand and Fight.”

An obvious question is, “Fight who?”

The answer no doubt includes criminals, liberals, the government, immigrants, zombies and all that the media so successfully markets as objects to fear. A recent poll found that 44% of Americans think that we are headed for an “armed rebellion.” Mostly folks wrapped in a belief that “freedom” is somehow synonymous with the right to arm themselves against all others.

I can actually understand their motivations and perhaps even sympathize with their fears, knowing that underneath all the various projections and fantasies of “the enemy” is the growing certainty of an entire culture being overcome and vanishing, as surely as have all the extinct tribes that have gone before. The pathetic irony is that nothing threatening this culture’s survival can be defended against with armaments, no matter how lethal or quickly loaded.

The foundations of what we once called “freedom” are vanishing as quickly as pond ice on a warm spring day. What remains of the American Dream of individual autonomy is confined to images cooked up in the fantasy world of theme parks and television. Nearly every community and every city, large and small, has turned itself into an artificial construct, where identity is constructed out of slogans and corporate logos. We are what we watch. New York and Paris and Shanghai are rapidly becoming collections of interchangeable parts as each city replicates a well oiled machine interface that balances a shrinking quotient of local novelty with the familiarity of recognizable brands. What we look for as we travel is the nearest Wi-Fi connection at Starbucks or MacDonalds.

I remember a time when I was very young and it appeared that civilization had a direction and my country had a sense of common purpose. I now realize that this perceived reality was a manufactured illusion, but now even that level of commonly accepted artifice is gone away. It went to Las Vegas, where all traces of human purpose are absorbed by our continual response to the demands of automated mechanisms of reward.

A recent statistic indicates that suicides among middle aged males has risen by 48% since 2010. Most of the gun deaths in this country are the result of suicide. Could it be that the relationship of the gun owner to his or her gun resembles that of the bulemic to food? In both cases the object of obsession is perceived as a shield from despair. In either case beneath the shield is a hidden death wish and it brings one ever closer to the very thing feared. Is it any surprise that the zombies we fight in our fantasy scenarios are the reanimated corpses of the very people with whom we are familiar?

Thus we have this sad gathering of the paranoid deep in Texas defending what no longer exists in any meaningful way; the “American Dream” of “the home of the brave and the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all.” What in our era do any of these words mean? What freedoms do we have beyond the freedom to shop? We can choose the 30 round magazine over the 15 round magazine or the 42 inch television over the 36 inch. We can navigate to our favorite web site to stoke our preconceptions or paranoid daydreams. We can decide who to cheer for or who to blame. We can switch channels, but we’ve given up almost every freedom but the freedom to be entertained.

“Daily skirmishes were now being fought, no longer for territory or commodities but for electro-magnetic information, in an international race to measure and map most accurately the field-coefficients at each point of that mysterious mathematical lattice-work which was by then known to surround the Earth. As the Era of Sail had depended upon the mapping of seas and sea coasts of the globe and winds of the wind-rose, so upon the measurement of newer variables would depend the history that was to pass up here, among reefs of magnetic anomaly, channels of least impedance, storms of rays yet unnamed lashing out of the sun.”

– Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon
I don’t want to leave us with a feeling of despair. Despair doesn’t do anyone any good. Although nostalgia for the “loss” of individual freedoms can perhaps justify our desperate response, we may also consider that aspects of our loss may be part of a necessary evolutionary advance.

In 1800 only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities. At the beginning of the last century that number had grown to 14% and by 1950 it was 30%. It is now projected that by 2050 more than 70% of the global population will live in urban areas. The population of the world’s cities is growing at the rate of a million and a half people every week. Can anyone realistically project that the values by which we navigated the past will not have to change substantially as we enter the future? (Sources: United Nations and Geoffrey West)
I once studied the ideas and architecture of Paolo Soleri, who proposed that humanity must structurally adapt in order to survive, just as life has always adapted to changing conditions and environmental pressures. As our population increases our lives have entered a new stage of complexity in which we must evolve a more flexible organism, one that is more compact and efficient and requires less energy to maintain. As the age of dinosaurs gave way to the age of mammals, so our sprawling urban landscapes must find ways to consolidate services and resources so that more people can inhabit less space while generating less waste. Soleri (who died on April 9th of this year) proposed a radical redesign of the urban environment that envisioned densely populated cities as single structures, called Arcologies, which functioned as integrated and tightly managed outgrowths of the natural landscape.

His view is controversial, because in order to conceive of such a project one has to envision a humanity as radically altered from what it is now as are mammals a radical departure from the life of giant lizards. How do we get from a world filled with religious warfare and ethnic hatred to one where diverse populations can live in ever closer quarters without civilization self-destructing?

That appears to be what we are seeing right now, as institutions appear to collapse under their own weight and complexity. Having left a century dominated by massive world wars we appear to have entered one where regional warfare is almost constant, waged within cultures even more than between them. Our politics are shaped by the struggles of rural versus urban, tradition versus technology, global versus national and a shrinking population of the privileged versus a growing culture of poverty.

Meanwhile the movies and television and the Internet fill with imagined apocalyptic scenarios of government conspiracies, environmental extinction, alien invasions, wars against machines and zombie attacks. I’ve come to realize that these are the nightmares of a culture that in fact faces very real extinction. And so it must, as a prelude to what Arthur C. Clarke would have called “Childhood’s End.” The new human being is being born at the same time that the old perishes. Rather than mourning what is passing I choose to search for indications of what’s to come.

(to be continued…)

*************************

You Can’t Stop The Signal

Roger and Me

I never knew Roger Ebert although I was at a party with him once, in 1983 at the Telluride Film Festival. He seemed to be a nice, unpretentious guy ready to have a good time with others, bathing in the world he loved the best, the movies. At the time I was busy scurrying around trying to get situated, setting up my living situation for the event. That was the festival where I met the famous Russian director, Andrey Tarkovsky, who was a featured guest that year, and his wife on my way up the mountain. The two of them were picking wildflowers and they gave me a very pleasant greeting as I passed them on the trail. I’d been waiting in a film line to go into the dark when I was irresistibly pulled away by the view of those towering peaks over Telluride under the influence of a beautiful fall day. 

Another influence that day, a small cache of psychedelic mushrooms stored in my jacket pocket, were ingested as I climbed. Unfortunately, as the day progressed my disconnect from the world of time and space led me to misread the trail map. I ended up in a cul-de-sac as day turned into night and a stormy sky rolled in to drop the temperature about twenty degrees and cover the moon, making darkness almost absolute as I crawled my way along cliff sides trying to find a way down. In the end I fell off of a ledge into a blind gully, breaking my wrist and a few teeth, and had to climb out the next morning after a shivering night and stumble my way to the trail below. I was rescued by a local emergency crew and taken to the county hospital in nearby Montrose, spending the duration of the festival there. I only made it to the final, then traditional, polka dance that closed the festivities. I danced with my head bandaged and my arm in a sling and gained short lived notoriety as the “guy who fell of the cliff at Telluride.” 

The ‘accident’ led to a leave of absence which gave me an opportunity to work full time on the staff of one of the early Denver International Film Festivals. In the years that followed this stoked my passion for the movies and I got to meet people like Wim Wenders, Agnes Varda, Alan Rudolf, Robert Altman and many of the people behind the process that puts those images up on the screen. I began writing about the movies in outraged response to the largely negative critical reception to the movie “Blade Runner”, which I thought at the time was an absolute masterpiece. Like many people in the film audience I watched the early seasons of Siskel and Ebert on public television. I cheered and booed their thumbs up and thumbs down reviews and came to dislike the simplistic mode of praise or put down so many film critics began to emulate.

What came through with Roger Ebert was something more than this. Here was a writer with an obvious love of the medium and a sincere appreciation of all those who contributed to it. When you listened to him you learned something, whether you agreed with him or not. Unlike most critics whose job it is to watch hundreds of movies good and bad, he didn’t get trapped in predictable patterns of likes and dislikes, remaining open to new approaches that expanded the possibilities of storytelling. When you read his reviews you knew that he approached every film fairly, open to whatever the film maker might attempt, without his personal agenda getting in the way.

Just when you thought…

“This theory of political transformation rests on the weaponization (and slight bastardization) of the work by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek. Skowronek has written extensively about what distinguishes transformational presidents from caretaker presidents. In order for a president to be transformational, the old order has to fall as the orthodoxies that kept it in power exhaust themselves. Obama’s gambit in 2009 was to build a new post-partisan consensus. That didn’t work, but by exploiting the weaknesses of today’s Republican Party, Obama has an opportunity to hasten the demise of the old order by increasing the political cost of having the GOP coalition defined by Second Amendment absolutists, climate science deniers, supporters of “self-deportation” and the pure no-tax wing.”
 
So, you maybe thought that the election was over. Guess what? The election is never over. This country was founded on a principle of continual political revolution, carried out in the realm of civil discourse. It has survived and thrived through over two centuries and it has continued to move forward even in the face of extreme polarization.
 
If we see the process of governance only in terms of voting in an election or two we will be ground down as petty fodder for those who exploit our ignorance. As a former community organizer our president understands this, and has apparently decided (wisely) to keep the wheels of election politics rolling well past this inauguration.
 
In his first term Obama took on the medical establishment and made a beginning for real health care reform. He took on the issue of gay rights and in the process helped move along public perception in that area. In his second term he will face economic reform, the reduction of military spending and gun violence as well as trying to move along the public awareness of climate change. 
 
Resistance to all parts of his agenda will be massive and well organized. The conservative movement that arose with the election of Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right is currently in disarray. The race is on to pass their agenda to another generation which will be tricky as urban and minority populations grow, white people become a minority and more and more young people turn away from religion. Being well funded and well organized however, they aren’t going down without a hell of a fight.
 
So, the battle continues. First, from Politico is a piece on Obama’s new political initiative. This is the work of community organizing from the ground up. Instead of using the churches, as did the Christian Right, Obama’s coalition will build on the hi-tech tracking and door to door efforts that won the last two elections. 
 
Second, here is a link to an article that appears in Slate which looks at the coming struggle that uses all kinds of refreshingly uncompromising language (I like the word pulverize). 

Surviving Elections

Ignore pundits. Including me. Ignore anyone who presumes to predict the future with confidence. 
 
Avoid 24 hour news outlets: In order of influence: FOX News, CNN, MSNBC. Their model is the same. The News as Sports. Civic Culture as Civil War. What all of these venues have done is incorporate the methods of advertising and entertainment in order to make the news something other than information to be gathered and more like merchandise to be sold. All of these personalities throwing opinions at you are being paid to advocate certain positions. The length of an average cut is rarely more than 3-5 seconds. We are delivered lot’s of information and tons of interpretation, but are never given a moment to think. 
 
When you are watching FOX, CNN, MSNBC you are watching unrelenting trance inducing marketing strategy. In terms of news, studies have shown that the accuracy of a person’s predictions vis a vis politics is in inverse proportion to the amount of time that person spends appearing on the media. 
 
Watching MSNBC the other night I was hugely entertained, and appalled. An amazing demonstration of the principle of Marshall McLuhan’s famous aphorism: “The Medium Is The Message.” 
 
Everything important in political advertising can be conveyed with the sound turned off. You are presented with iconic representations of all of the things you already feel. A drama. A story. ED, of the ED Show on MSNBC is Uncle Ed the union guy who had to struggle to get by when he was young and emerged a fight and organizer of the common people. He speaks almost exclusively a litany of slogans and talking points. He has this in common with Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. In “ED’s” case the style is less like sportscaster and more like Glenn Beck, evangelistic. He’s the Christ like figure crying out in the wilderness for a modicum of reason. Whatever the political slant the essential message is some variation of, “Fire” “Flood” “Fight!” None of these so-called ‘news’ shows are primarily about information, at least not really useful information. Their message is primarily emotional and anxiety inducing. Whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ the intended effects are pretty much the same.
 
You may ask yourself, does watching either FOX News or MSNBC (whatever your flavor) make you feel more confident, more positive about the future? Does it convey to you a sense that you are part of a community dealing positively with common problems or is it the feeling that we are divided into armed camps? Does it make your perceived problems and dilemmas appear more resolvable, or does it give you the sense that we are collectively sinking into an ocean of chaos?
 
A media experience that narrows rather than widens a person’s perspective is not really news, it’s propaganda. My recommendation to everyone is to limit your exposure to television news as much as possible. If you watch the news, stick to shows that feature extended interviews and a variety of viewpoints rather than the daily propaganda feeds of the cable news networks. By merely not watching the parade of hype and salesmanship you will be less misinformed, will appear smarter, and it will relieve much stress.    
 
Television is a drug to which many are addicted. This partially explains the collective absorption with unreality that haunts generations who grew up in worlds defined primarily by television. To a later generation, growing up in what can almost be called the ‘post-television’ era, the variety of available media channels is almost staggering. Young people are used to swimming in a saturated stew of media input that they use individually to create a ‘mixed and matched’ portrait of themselves and of the world around them. They are more aware of the fact that our image of the world is largely made of fictions that each of us cobbles together to make sense of it all.   
 
The demographic of those for whom cable news is their primary source of world information is mostly over 50. As a group they comprise those who are perhaps most distrustful of the present and most apprehensive about the future. They’ve been mostly raised in a world dominated by images of advertising dedicated to the message that we are lacking in something, and if we can only reach over here…we will be happier. Perhaps then our lives will more resemble those whose pretend lives we watch on television. 
 
Meanwhile, the interactive worlds of computer and cell phones are less responsive to conventional modes of social manipulation via media. They are constantly being re-appropriated by those who use it as a tool for organizing ‘outside’ of conventional systems of commerce and government. A younger generation that’s thoroughly saturated in layers of electronic media may be more able to maintain a skeptical distance from the never ending parade of images and sales pitches thrown around by centralized nodes like television and radio. They may be less susceptible to modes of deliberate conditioning that an older, less media literate generation falls more easily prey to.  
 
The cultural division of America is no longer primarily North and South or East and West. On the surface there appears to be cultural conflicts between city and suburb, white and non-white, rich and poor. Underneath all of these is a sharp division between generations in terms of media literacy. The present political drama features a battle royal between a television/cable marketing generation and an Internet/Satellite/Cell Phone generation who have very different ways of processing the information they receive. This explains why each successive election of the past 40 years has been so weirdly and increasingly split down the middle, with almost exactly half of the electorate polarized toward either side. 
 
This time around the Republican campaign is headed by a media guy whose experience is in communications and media spin. He tends to function on the level of television and the movies – heavy advertising and media with enough money to poor into any set of images or counter-images you have a mind to. The Democrat campaign has focused on a more traditional ‘ground game’ that relies on personal contact, by phone or in the flesh. With the help of unions and a well organized network they’ve built three times as many local campaign offices across the country. Republicans are hoping, one way or another, that an election, like everything else in a capitalist country, can be bought with sufficiently clever advertising. It may work. Whatever works, this election will reflect an important decision, collectively made at a critical time, over what sorts of information we value and how we prefer to have it conveyed. 
 
Nobody knows how this is going to come out. The best thing we can do for ourselves and others is to get beyond our fears of the outcome. Whichever way the pendulum swings it will eventually turn and swing the other way, so it benefits us to look forward and not back. Humanity is now largely part of an almost totally integrated system of global energy transfer that enfolds the worlds of government and commerce. We are slowly recognizing who we are as a global collective, and observing that we are all in this together. Whichever direction we choose, forward or back, there will be many struggles ahead. Still, amid the struggle and resistance and denial, we are forced to discover our faith in the future as the inevitable change happens all around.
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As far as seeing into the future, the best we can do is try to see clearly the present, if possible, unadorned with hype and fantasy. It’s election season and for those paying attention there’s a real tension in the air between all of us. Somebody will win and somebody will lose. The questions then are about how we move on. Personally I hope we decide to embrace the possibilities of the future with courage and persistence, and not choose to return to some vanished fantasies of the past. I’d hate to have to go back to the world as told to us by Reagan/Bush et al. and have to play out this whole circle-the-wagons thing again.
 
A Star Trek interpretation of the race occurred to me today. Embodied in caricatures of Businessman versus Lawyer we’ve got a situation of Doctor McCoy (the Emergency Doctor!) running against Mister Spock (the Cool Science Officer). Now which one would you rather? 
 
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Third Debate Roundup

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   

 
Romney / Presentation / Somewhat Flat / Agitated / Defensive / Almost Plaintive

 
Obama / Presentation / Rhythm Pause Rhythm Pause Rhythm Pause
 
Romney / Demeanor / Frozen Smile / Defensive / Abstract
 
Obama Demeanor / Steady / The tilt of the head which suggests both authority and compassion.
 
Romney through sound and image: Politician
 
Obama through sound and image: President 
 

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

Between the Self and the Truth

“All men are created equal.”

– Thomas Jefferson

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“Money, not morality is the principle of commercial nations.”

– Thomas Jefferson

“…just starting with the question of “What happened to black people?” is not sufficient to understanding that at the end of the day, the very notion of settlement in this country was about procuring resources for the purposes of wealth accumulation. That was true for most who came to this country, maybe not true for a small band of Puritans who landed in Massachusetts, who imagined the recreation of a very special, religious community. But even that vision of American society didn’t last very long…it’s certainly true, as far as I’m concerned, that over the last 225 years, Thomas Jefferson’s second point about money– has far outlasted and triumphed over the notion of freedom.” – Khalil Muhammad

Happy Fourth of July.

Here is a link to the Bill Moyer’s interview with one of our most prominent young black historians. In light of an election that will be, as was the last, decided partly around the issues of race, I think that this is an important perspective for all Americans to understand. Unfortunately this is a time when most Americans will do almost anything to avoid the truths of their own history, a time when the vestiges of white supremacy will attempt, perhaps successfully, to purchase the upcoming elections.

This is one of the best and most informative interviews I’ve ever seen, and given the brilliant history of Moyer’s interviews, that’s saying something. The fair minded clarity of both men is beyond reproach, offering an unmatched glimpse of the undercurrents that run through our culture along with their historical roots.

America has been living a contradiction since its founding, and over 200 years later we have yet to overcome that contradiction. We are at a crux in our evolution as a society. Along one path, the path known as “conservatism”, America continues to be viewed primarily as the “ownership society”, where absolutely everything is valued only as a commodity, including our concept of freedom and speech, our communities, even our closest relationships. Along this road we are a society bought and sold, where human rights are measured only in terms of what we own. In my opinion this path, in the long term, is doomed to collapse and failure.

Fortunately, emerging out of this collapse is another point of view, mostly held by the young, who have grown up in a world where the boundaries between nations and races has been largely broken down through the rise of global digital culture. Surveys have shown that young people are less susceptible to the influence of television and religion, the primary tools used by the ‘Baby Boomer Generation’ for the promulgation of bigotry and paranoia. (I was both surprised and encouraged by a debate I recently listened to on NPR’s Intelligence Squared that asked the question Would The World Be Better Off Without Religion, where both sides were very eloquently argued.)

I recently returned from a trip through the midwest and part of the deep south and was dismayed at the level of ignorance and cultural isolation that I sensed as I crossed this wide and beautiful nation. On the other side I’ve been inspired and uplifted by watching the HBO drama Treme which goes to the true heart of America through the music and culture of New Orleans as it rebuilds itself after Katrina. In these episodes I’ve seen reflections of myself and my own attitudes, both good and bad. There’s the hopelessness that turns into depression and rage, directed both against the outside and against the self. On the other side there’s the sheer joy of being alive and the will to continue on, to celebrate and to be a part of one another. Maybe its only through something dying that something new can be born.