QAnon? More New Age Bullshit

Listen…I live in Santa Fe New Mexico.

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.

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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.

Apologia

IMG_Storyteller

Ralph E. Melcher

For more than three years I haven’t known what to say.

It wasn’t that I was altogether silent or unengaged. I was in turn angry, hopeful, apprehensive, and disgusted as much as anyone. I passed along other people’s notes, wrote headlines for postings on Facebook and Twitter. What else could I add to the conversation? I’ve been part of a nation undergoing daily shock treatment by a madman who rivals any villain in any James Bond film. It feels to me like a battle to the death between my own hopes and visions and a parallel world of absolute insanity.

On top of this, since a month or two before the beginning of my 70th year and just in time for the pandemic, I became afflicted with a double carpal tunnel condition that would require the kind of ‘elective’ surgery that couldn’t be done until the plague emergency lifted a bit and which was a related precursor to the more serious cancer with which I’d be later diagnosed and which eventually brought my work life to a halt. Over time the condition worsened from mild to severe, and the numbness and pain in my fingers became continuous and exhausting, not to mention distracting.

The overall effect of chronic pain isn’t dissimilar to that of a pandemic. It compels me to turn inward. As the pain increased I found myself withdrawing somewhat from less than intimate relationships and from the outside world in general. As virtually every activity in mind and body became more of a labor I spent more of my time alone. I caught up on books I’d been reading, listened to podcasts and Zen lectures, contemplated my daily Tarot card and read Doctor Strange comic books (a source of strength and endurance).

It occurs to me that this is an incubation period. In mathematical terms it could be a ‘bifurcation point’ where our collective evolution takes an unexpected turn toward some new level of organization. This inescapably leads to some kind of world and life that’s clearly different from the one left behind. In times like these when forces accumulate against our forward momentum, and we’ve forgotten where and how to move, we have to learn to think sideways, around corners and into the curves.

Almost all of the conversations I hear in this time of restrictions and forced contemplation are voices yearning for movement in a new direction. We feel the need for damage repair as well as total renewal. We are faced with a world that finds itself in the rapids of a stream, having strayed past safe boundaries in our sleep. Now we face civilization’s apparent rush toward oblivion. Still the dream and our sleep hang on. We want to awake into some sort of normalcy, but normalcy eludes us every minute.

We are compelled to construct a new world.

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For now I offer these brief reflections and recollections for your entertainment or edification or perhaps even a seed of inspiration. More importantly, I invite you, who are staring into your screens, an opportunity to respond, connect, and maybe experience the seeds of whatever grows out of all this compost.

Join the Arclist.com mailing list by responding to this email with the word ‘Subscribe’ in the Subject Line or in the Text.

If you would rather not receive further posts do the same with ‘Unsubscribe’ in the subject line or text.

You can also send emails directly to me at remelcher@arclist.com.

You can also post comments on the Website or Facebook or via Messenger. NOTE: If you wish to be included on the email list you must send an separate email at remelcher@arclist.com or reply to this mail
(NOTE: If you have already done this in reply to my INVITATION mailing YOU NEED NOT REPEAT – sorry for the inconvenience – still sorting out the software);-.

Best yet, create something out of words or graphics or random speculations or discoveries and send them along. I’d rather envision this space as a collective and creative conversation, not another space in which I talk only to myself.

AN INVITATION

My Publishing Career

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 remelcher@arclist.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.

History

Throughline

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.

Politics

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.

FiveThirtyEight

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. 

The Ticket

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.

Amicus

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.

Intelligence Squared

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.) 

Reporting

The Daily

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.

Business/Journalism

Pivot

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.

Sway

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).

Science

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

Hi-Phi Nation

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).

Storytelling/Literature

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.

Imaginary Worlds

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.

Humor

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.

Weird Tales

I became dismayed and extremely frustrated the other day when somebody for which I carry a lot of respect and affection parroted to me the same right wing propaganda that constantly proliferates on You Tube and Facebook. Both sources are essentially ‘Rabbit Holes,’ programmed to drive gossip, controversy and sensationalism while selling ads.

Between the paranoia and the propaganda, much of it not even generated in this country, our adversaries have gotten America’s number. We are a society that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Only the slightest encouragement is required to cause us to turn on one another like frightened dogs. Since Americans tend to trust our screens more than our actual experience we are VERY ripe for programming and manipulation. Tell a good yarn and it’s certain you’ll create a following. Provide a cliffhanger or sense of constant crisis and you can, like Trump, create a cult.

A cult functions like a cancer on the collective consciousness. Ideology is substituted for facts, programming takes the place of thinking, Individuals begin to function like robots. People once regarded as intelligent humans begin repeating the currently circulating memes and claims in a kind of science fiction nightmare that features suffocating hordes of mindless clones.

When a sufficient number are pulled into the myriad belief systems and ideologies that offer alternatives to the actual processing and evaluation of information, collective decision making becomes almost impossible. There can be no accord, because every position becomes an absolute. The quest for solutions becomes a battle between religions.

So, here we are America, trapped in our own tar pits of misinformation and increasingly obsessive fanaticism. As a nation we appear to be suffering various forms of mass psychosis, shouting at one another from totally different perceptions of reality.

The anxiety of the final days and weeks leading us toward our fate is that we don’t really know how bad is the disease. We know it’s pretty bad, and it’s spreading in waves, mostly driven by social media and those who profit from chaos. Everyday the stories and rumors get more imaginative and ridiculous, while people huddle in groups formed mainly to reinforce their own fears and premeditations.

Perhaps there are still enough Americans out there who are capable of rational decision making, who aren’t afraid of facts and data, who can make the mental leap to figure out that voting out of fear and insecurity will only lead to more of the same.

It’s hard to tell. Rational people find themselves trying to be heard above the noise, and the noise is everywhere. In the year 2020, with pandemic, racial tensions, climate change and election fever all appearing to peak at once, we will be forced to see more clearly, once the dust settles, just who and what peers back at us in the mirror.

Continue reading “Weird Tales”

Seventy

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.

Stretching

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.

To the Super Bowl

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.

Let’s try something different for a change.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”

In Defense Of The OSCARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood’s Brazen Self-Celebration at the 2018 Oscars