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.”

A Strange Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So we were played.

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

Arclist

Inauguration Day Hunter Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chronicle of Discontent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________

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

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

R.E.M.

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

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

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It’s More Than The Economy

For those of you who have read my recent postings on Facebook I offer this expanded version of an essay length draft that emerged from an attempt to understand why Hillary Clinton (whom I support) has drawn in the primaries the lion’s share of support from people of color. The post was written in a hurry with one finger and the result was rather uneven, full of unedited typos and could be easily misunderstood (I am definitely not anti-Bernie). The post emerged after an argument with an avid Sanders supporter who ranted at me for my support of both Obama and Clinton, as he views both of them as traitors to the liberal cause. I don’t see either of them that way, but that’s really beside the point. If Democrats are to win the upcoming election, and I consider that crucial for the advance or perhaps survival of any sort of liberal agenda over the next decade, then we must understand the dynamics of the race. What follows includes many speculations on the motives and responses of black Americans. As I am not black these are only theories, although I’ve had some intimate insights into black culture and find that my own reactions to the Hillary/Bernie debate often have lined up with sentiments expressed by people of color in the Democratic primaries so far. Thus, I’ll give it a whirl.

More Than The Economy  

Progressives appear somewhat mystified why so many people of color appear to favor Clinton over Sanders. Are black people just ignorant of the facts? Don’t they know what’s good for them? Maybe it’s just that they don’t know Bernie and don’t realize how badly the Clintons and Obama have repeatedly betrayed them over the years.  

Well, first of all, white people have been telling black people what’s good for them for centuries. The values that middle-class white people may assume based on their own experience can’t possibly take into account the influence of knowing that when one walks down the street one may be executed for the crime of one’s skin color. Not any more than a man can understand the experience of a woman trying to gain respect in a milieu that has been dominated by male values for so many centuries. In a society wracked with so many double standards one simply can’t understand what’s at play in this election cycle without evaluating it through lenses that factor in the effects of racism and sexism. 

The progressive left has been trash talking the first black president almost ever since he took office under the shadow of an impending recession. From the beginning Obama was forced to put aside much of his social agenda in order to deal with the conditions of an economic meltdown. In the process he didn’t follow the advice of many of those who advocated a more progressive economic agenda. Instead he put precedent upon saving the banks and the auto industry, viewing them as the driving forces of the American economy. He didn’t take an effective stand against the Republican governor of Wisconsin in advocating for the unions, choosing not to get tangled in a state level confrontation. After the disastrous 2010 midterms when, as many predicted, Obama’s former ‘fans’ mostly didn’t show up to follow up on their ‘revolution’ the president was pushed even more to the right as he treaded the all-to-delicate minefield that a black president must walk in order to prove to a polarized, mostly white electorate that he’s not a dangerous alien agent trying to subvert the American Dream. Meanwhile the anti-Obama rhetoric on the left accelerated to a crescendo that rivaled that on the right, and it continues to this day. It turns out that those who voted for ‘hope’ and ‘change’ apparently assumed that change is somehow driven from the top in a sort of weird political echo of Ronald Reagan’s ’trickle-down’ theory of the economy. Having lost the congress and most of the governorships and state legislatures in a more effective and committed revolution led by the Tea Party Republicans, leading to a decimation of the process of court appointments and resulting delay in advancing any effective reforms, the president has been forced to govern almost exclusively by Executive Order.  

Despite all of this Obama managed to realign many of the priorities of the executive branch, make some strides in advancing an environmental agenda and to bring about radical adjustments in a health care system that has resisted any kind of significant reform for several decades. He remains one of the most popular presidents in recent history, particularly with people of color. If this is a mystery it seems to me that one shouldn’t underestimate the radical historic, cultural and symbolic significance of having a black family in the White House. To those who have gone through centuries of white dominance the spectacle of a black man leading the most powerful nation on earth in itself is a profound revolutionary statement. Nevertheless his presidency has served to focus the racist backlash that has for many years hidden just under the surface of American culture.         

By graciously endorsing Obama after bowing out to the inevitable, and then accepting the appointment and very prominently serving as the international face of his administration, Hillary Clinton bound herself to Obama’s legacy. To many of us who support her, and who have supported her in the past, the prospect of a woman president would mark at least as revolutionary a sea change, and perhaps even a greater one than Obama’s election achieved. By emphasizing her continuing support for Obama and his policies while speaking against the infantile bigotry on the Republican side she has made the clash of pissed off Republicans on one side and equally pissed off progressive Democrats look to many like the continuation of the gridlocked politics of the last eight years. To many people of color this endless feuding must look like a street fight between opposing white gangs battling over the crumbs of a failing middle class, while the plight of people of color is that they are having trouble even reaching the middle class.  There is lots of talk about a revolution, but right now it looks like a bunch of pissed off people pointing fingers and calling names. If we do get a revolution my sense is that it’s more likely to be driven by the more organized grassroots efforts of the conservative right. 

By reducing every problem to that of income inequality and suggesting that those who support another candidate are all ‘elitists’ who want to preserve the status quo is both insulting and demeaning to those whose support for a candidate may be based on a more nuanced view of cultural issues connected to race or gender or merely the desire to keep Republicans from appointing the next Supreme Court judges. America’s problems are much deeper and much more complex than a purely economic analysis can penetrate. True, economics can aggravate and be aggravated by our deep cultural divisions, but fixing the economy won’t necessarily address those deeper issues. The strident rhetoric of the finger pointers directed at those who have different priorities isn’t a tactic that’s any more inclusive than the racist rhetoric of a Donald Trump.

For the most part I agree with Bernie Sander’s critique of the American economy. If he is able to organize an inclusive enough voting coalition to overcome the Democratic establishment that supports Hillary Clinton I will gladly and enthusiastically support that coalition in the general election, just as I did the candidacy of Barack Obama. If Bernie can overcome the long odds and prove to me that he can expand his base significantly beyond the educated young (and mostly white) I will happily convert. Until then I will support the candidate who can win, and who may not advance or believe in all the goals of the liberal left, but who can effectively hold off the organized forces of extreme reaction on the right and perhaps even push back a little.