Winter Is Coming – Part One

More than a decade ago I published the following article on the Arclist and in the magazine “Annals of the Earth” that compared the fantasy narratives of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and George Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” which had just published it’s fourth volume and which I was advocating to my friends and associates at the time. This was long before anything was said about the series being made into a film. Martin’s imaginary world is dark and complex, without the clear definitions of good and evil presented in the worlds of Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins. It was in fact a pioneering work in the emerging genre of what was being called “adult fantasy” which meant that it has an uncomfortable resemblance to the actual world we inhabit.

Before television’s recent so-called ‘golden age’ and the rise of the cable series franchise a work that did justice to Martin’s expansive vision would have indeed been impossible. The success and emerging dominance of the extended narrative form has bridged the gap between the literary form of the novel and the realm of visual storytelling.

As much as I regarded George R. R. Martin’s work as the best in it’s genre I could not have anticipated the phenomenal success of the HBO series “Game of Thrones” based on, and now actually extending the cycle of narratives taking place in the Imaginary world of Westeros and lands to East. Not only has the series succeeded as the most ambitious cinematic production ever attempted for television, it has become a cultural meme that dominates whole sections of bookstores, is referred to in political and cultural commentaries and taken over vast sectors of Internet culture.

In the piece I wrote in 2005 my argument was that, as “Lord of the Rings” represented the ‘climactic’ work of an age dominated by literature and the rise of industrial technology. As a cinematic production it made more extensive use of digital technology than anything that came before and thus it marks the transition from a primarily mechanical/chemical/industrial process of filmmaking into an almost entirely electronic medium. “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a ‘formative’ work that announces the birth of a new ecology of consciousness and communication. It is produced entirely within the digital medium of television and not for theaters, so it represents a further step into a more intimate form of storytelling. I believe that my argument is supported by the immense popularity of this cultural artifact that crosses the generations from those of us raised by television onto the new denizens of a ‘digital’ age.

It will be enlightening to further explore the particular qualities that have elevated George R. R. Martin’s tale far beyond the boundaries of fantastic literature. To start with I’ll republish here, slightly edited for clarity, the original article entitled “Winter Is Coming.”

Meanwhile, there are weekly “Game of Thrones” parties everywhere.

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Begin forwarded message:

From: Ralph Melcher <melcher@nets.com>
Subject: [Arclist] Winter Is Coming
Date: November 1, 2005 at 8:35:09 PM MST
To: Arclist <Arclist@cybermesa.com>

I look forward this fall to the release of “A Feast For Crows,” the fourth book by George R. R. Martin in his cycle of medieval modern fantasy epics collectively titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Martin, perhaps immodestly, displays the same middle initials as J.R.R.Tolkien, while departing radically from Tolkien in his construction of a world based as much on history as on myth. (England’s “War of the Roses” provided inspiration for a tale of two battling royal families) Where Tolkien weaves an apocalyptic tale of a Manichaean clash between ultimate good and evil in which most of his characters appear more as classical archetypes than familiar people, Martin’s narrative proceeds through revelation of the evolving perceptions of a cast of very recognizable human characters. In Tolkien’s world every character’s move is the culmination of larger forces with origins deep in the mythical history to which he dedicated his creative life. As massive and ambitious as his popular masterpiece “The Lord of the Rings,” it was a small piece in a much larger and more ambitious tapestry that traced the mythical prehistory of humanity all the way back to the time of creation. George Martin’s intentions are modest in comparison, that is to tell a good yarn with engaging characters recognizable by modern readers. As different as these works appear, they each represent significant milestones in the evolution of a literary genre, as well as exposing the underlying foundations of the cultures out of which they emerge.

The cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, in his many explorations into cultural ecology, presents a critique of literature as cultural artifacts, in which there are three stages of that correspond to the unfolding of consciousness. The kinds of text that define particular stages in this model are the formative, dominant and climactic. “The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness through the work of solitary and shamanistic pioneers; the dominant work stabilizes the mentality through the work of an institutional elite; and the climactic work consummates and finishes the mentality for all time through the work of an individualistic genius.” (2)

Although Thompson cites James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” as most clearly epitomizing the climactic work of the (last) age, I would argue that Tolkien’s epic more clearly and definitively fills that niche for a number of reasons, not least of which is it’s spectacular success as a genuine artifact of mass culture. Tolkien lived and wrote his myth while witnessing the titanic struggles of a century defined by the rising power of technology and industrialization. In opposition to the dominance of machine culture he identified with attempts to maintain some vestige of traditional memory and culture. The author was clearly conscious of the scope of the intent to summarize an age. He states in a quote, cited by David Day, “I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country (England): it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff…I had in mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story…which I would dedicate simply to England; to my country.”(3)

David Day goes on to compare Tolkien’s undertaking as the equivalent of Homer first inventing Greek mythology single handedly before embarking on the “Illiad” and “Odyssey”. His argument is founded in a rather culture centric idea that England was the fount and seed carrier for much that reflected the transition from the medieval European world of moral absolutism to a transatlantic culture that worshiped progress and modernity. Tolkien’s work is reflected in it’s ambition by that of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” which was a similar attempt to both crown and transcend the operative form. “The Lord of the Rings” is a text that depicts in markedly Christian terms the final battle between good and evil, in which an agrarian civilization faces down the rising power of the machine. After many heroic struggles humanity emerges forever transformed, while the ancient powers and principalities of an older time are either defeated or simply fade away. Tolkien both sums up the moral landscape of a pre-modern civilization while proclaiming its ultimate replacement by a new world order in which the heroic tribal quest ultimately leads to a new bourgeois world of trade and acquisition governed by new rules and individual initiative. At the end of the tale, the heroes disappear in the west while Merry and Sam and Pippin take up the settled life of the Shire.

What better characterization of the historical nature of the twentieth century, where ancient tribal mythologies mingled with the ascending powers of technocracy and fueled the rise of new orders and empires that clashed in climactic conflagrations that involved the entire civilized world? Ultimately, at the end of two massive wars the nation state was subdued by a new order embodied in globalized commerce and transnational communication, where the centers of power were continually challenged and then overtaken by explosive evolutionary forces generated near the boundaries of the known. At the the century’s transition a reaction has set in as people seek retreat in familiar rules and in texts of a world that is rapidly passing away. Tolkien’s fantasy wistfully recounts the passing of a time when the simple desire for comfort, family and the hearth, represented by the hobbits of the shire, was sufficient. The ‘War of the Ring’ represents nothing less than our collective passage into a new age and a new order where values must be forged anew with little assistance from the guardians of the past.

Tolkien’s work portrays in many ways the rise and final conflagration put forth in the Judeo-Christian paradigm of creation and apocalypse. His work that invents cultures, races and language echoes the birth and rise of nation states. As in the Christian mythos, all things proceed toward a final apocalypse that results in the ascension of the savior-king as ruler of a new order and at least a temporary peace governed by principals of honor, charity and love.

If, as Thompson proposes, the solitary and shamanistic explorations of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” and Descartes’s “Discourse on Method,”(4) created the formative texts of the new mentality that replaced the medieval Mediterranean with the modern Atlantic cultural ecologies, then Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” surely fills the bill for “the work of an individualistic genius” which characterizes a climactic work that “consummates and finishes the mentality for all time.”  Interesting as well is the fact that Tolkien’s tale truly came into its’ own as a work that achieved mass popularity when it was turned into a movie; and not just any movie, but one that marked the transition from film as primarily an optical/mechanical artifact at the pinnacle of the industrial process, to the fully realized digital creation of total worlds out of the imagination.

George Martin’s novels can be seen in this light as a preliminary shamanic exploration into a new level of culture. Its’ structure owes more to television than to the classic film or novel. Martin began his career writing television scripts for popular shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits.” The importance of his background in television perhaps can be found in the quality of the epic feature film, where background is as much a character as the actors within the frame. Television, due to its intimacy as a virtual presence in the modern household as well as the size and shape of the screen (a limitation growing obsolete), has evolved around the close-up, or talking head. Television narratives are generally driven by a succession of character portraits which emphasize individual points-of-view, and which change rapidly from one to another in a sequence of abrupt cuts.

Martin similarly unfolds his epic tale in a sequence of intimate character sketches functioning like a sequence of various camera positions. Every chapter is named for a single character, and as the narrative proceeds our feeling for each character deepens with each mention of their name. The books could actually be read as a score of separate tales, each about separate characters, all woven together through a tapestry in time. In a sense, Martin’s story begins where Tolkien’s leaves off, in an age dominated by men, where evil and virtue are no longer the province of externalized forces embodied by magical beings, but carried in the heart and mind of every individual. One could say that “The Song of Ice and Fire” is a postmodern fantasy, where the battle between good and evil is played out in the choices each person makes in a moment of crisis based on their own unique perception of right and wrong. Yet, underlying the human drama and giving it ultimate shape is a much larger unfolding, determined not by good and evil, darkness and light, but by the immense and irrevocable powers of the natural world. The destinies of men are less a factor of their own moral virtue than the result of the ultimate relationship between society and the complex and inevitable cycles of summer and winter.

In the world of Westeros the timing of the seasons is unpredictable, every summer lasting more than a decade followed by an equally long cold winter. In a sense the summer fosters the powers of the day while winter brings forth the demons of the night. These cycles are long enough that generations forget the fact that all that is will inevitably change. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that the castles and kingdoms built by men are only as strong as their memories for, although the precise timing is unpredictable there are plenty of signs and warnings for those who can remember. It’s on this stage of the inevitable cycles of the natural world that the dramas and struggles of human society are waged, and we are made conscious that the quest for temporal power meets final judgment in the face of what is to come. If there is ultimate virtue it’s in the value people place on wisdom and long term vision over short term ambition and greed.

Two families epitomize the poles of this very human struggle. In the north are the Starks of Winterfell, whose family motto is “Winter is Coming.” Their demeanor is conservative, their colors white and grey, their values shaped by necessity and tradition. In the south, near the colorful fountains of trade and culture and civilization is the ‘Iron Throne.’ There dwells the Lannisters, hungry for wealth and power and jealous of all those who would challenge their rule over the lands of men. Within this tale the common order of classical heroic fantasy is followed more or less faithfully, as the outsiders in both families emerge as heroic figures in the story which unfolds. When the seasons begin to change, awakening long forgotten dangers out of the northern wastes, and as another force driven by fire and signaled by the rebirth of dragons rises in the south, one gets a sense that the synthesis of human aspirations with the seemingly implacable forces of transition can only be found by those less invested in things as they are.

As I look on at the absurd struggles raging across our lands in a time when a future filled with the present and looming crisis of war, pandemics, climate change, water shortage, overpopulation and the rest, I find the Stark motto, “Winter Is Coming,” to be a succinct characterization of the realities we collectively face in our world, as a species and a civilization. Many of us are outsiders with little at stake in the petty power struggles of politicians and our so-called leadership. We find ourselves in a shamanic role, as observers on the periphery of social events, living in a reality that challenges the assumptions of powers-that-be, transcending the narrow limits of an obsolete world-view. Tolkien’s magnificent epic leaves us with a challenge, to face the future as moral and responsible human beings, without the crutch of certainty provided by ancient texts and ancient prophecy. We are in a new world after all. George R. R. Martin offers a rather dire tale of the consequences of short sightedness while giving us hope that we may find a way, as we always have, through new leadership and pragmatic vision. Our constant temptation is to dwell on what we lack, and to be trapped in a struggle that keeps us bound to a world that is passing away. Our salvation lies not in belief but in clarity, and our faith must be found not in the past but in the future.

___________

1. Martin, George R. R. Martin’s cycle: A Song of Ice and Fire, includes: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), A Storm of Swords (2000) and A Feast for Crows (2005).

2. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness, St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 233).

3. Day, David, Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1993.

4. Thompson, William Irwin, Coming Into Being. St. Martin’s Press, 1996 (p. 143).

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The Lost Art of Ecstasy

I was recently sent a link to an article in the New Yorker reporting on the most recent results of research into the use of psychedelics for treating the anxiety of cancer patients. This led me to a longer and much more in depth article written last year by one of my favorite writers on food, in this case food for spiritual nourishment. As in all of Pollan’s work, his investigation goes to great depths and approaches the subject from many angles, alternating history with personal anecdotes to deliver an encompassing view of the possibilities.
For those of us who grew up in the sixties, and embarked on many of these same explorations on our own, without supervision or scientific rigor, these efforts to understand may appear absurdly restrictive. At the same time, they are very familiar. Although the Michael Pollan article is pretty long it’s worth a read, particularly for those facing problems of addiction or depression, the loss of loved ones or the prospect of impending sickness or death, or anyone interested in possibilities at the frontiers of therapy and science.
Finally I include a link to a video that offers a look into the face of a person encountering the ecstasy of release and freedom. There was a time when this look was not so uncommon in the people we found around us.
May we all be happy. May we all be well. May we all find freedom.
The Short Version:
The Long Version:
The Ecstatic Version:

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
“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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Batman v Superman

I don’t usually give much credence to film reviews, particularly bad ones, and so far reviews of the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie have been atrocious. The movie might be awesome and I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, as I’m totally addicted to the genre. The reviews I’ve read indicate that in its attitude of ponderous self absorption and gloom it’s the diametric opposite of a movie like Deadpool. That film continually cracks jokes at itself, reminding us that it’s just a movie and we are an audience entertained by a story about a regular guy who has some real problems along with his unasked for super powers. The most successful superhero movies thus far have rarely dispensed with a liberal dose of humor amid the action and the power punches and all the nefarious scheming. In fact, a key to the enormous success of Marvel Studios (and the long running success of the comic book brand) is that it’s never abandoned a sense of fun, even in its darkest moments. No matter their extraordinary powers, Marvel characters tend to act like actual, regular people, just as screwed up and petty as the rest of us. Their ‘gifts’ always have the double edge of being both an isolating burden as much as a potential benefit to humanity. They are never an embodiment of perfect virtue or perfect evil. Even a character like Thor (who is actually a God) is subject to the foibles and misperceptions of humanity. Iron Man protects himself with a solid armor of egotism. Daredevil and the Hulk struggle with deep wells of  repressed anger. Jennifer Jones is full of self-recrimination and doubt.
There are many who simply don’t get the point of these characters or this genre. For me they express one of the best uses of the spectacular nature of the screen. Like the oldest narratives that we know of, they offer us exaggerated embodiments of the qualities that make us human. By use of the mask and the costume they create enough distance so that we are able to contemplate our own natures objectively, evaluating the core values at the center of our moral and ethical universe. To a large extent this is what all movies and plays and operas and fictions do, by the very act of creating a simulated universe existing outside of our own. In the case of the superhero genre character hugs the edges of caricature thus bringing sharp emphasis to particular qualities and tendencies. In the growing pantheon of a comic book universe we begin to see realms that have more than a little relationship to the archetypal edifices of Olympus or a Valhalla, and are at least as rich and nuanced as anything that the Greeks or Norsemen came up with. By bringing the archetypes down to the level of our familiar world and merging them with familiar characters and situations we’ve expanded the potential of drama to reach into the collective psyches of whole cultures where we can expose the inner fears and hopes that unite and divide us.
These are moral dramas and passion plays. They harken back to the medieval pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries that are at the origins of our modern secular dramas. In an age in which so much of what has held our civilizations together is being challenged we’ve contrived to discover new ways to ask the important questions about what binds us to one another. The trick to doing this without crossing a line into the ridiculous, is a proper mix of passion and humor, reflection and action that both draws us into the drama and allows us to experience it’s separate elements as distinct embodiments that we can feel. When we watch a superhero on the screen we actually, in effect, put on that costume and carry it away with us.
Personally I’ve preferred the Marvel approach to this archetypal realm. The DC universe has always appeared a little too sharply divided between good and evil, it’s characters taking themselves a little too seriously for my taste. As for Batman and Superman, I enjoyed the somewhat parodic nature of the early Batman revivals on screen, and considered the sheer dramatic energy of the Christopher Nolan/Frank Miller Batman movies to be exceptional. The key to the Batman character’s appeal is that he exists half in shadow. Superman I find a bit problematic. The original mold created in the late 30s and 40’s during an enormous worldwide struggle between totalitarianism and democracy presented him appropriately as the perfect embodiment of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The character emerged out of the heroic fantasies of a couple of young jewish guys who longed to identify and assimilate into the dream of the red, white and blue. In my own perceptions as a young man feeling like an outsider in a post war world of unquestioned conformity Superman came off to me a little too saintly, a little too ’straight.’ As for Batman, Green Arrow and Green Hornet they were all rich guys who helped humanity out of some sense of charity or guilt. They had big cars and influence and certainly never had to worry about holding a job.
The genius of Stan Lee and his legacy lies in his assistance that his heroes never get too big for their own britches. The ones that do pretty much are guaranteed to end up as villains. Thor doesn’t help us because he’s a god, but just because he likes us. Spiderman is an awkward teenager growing into an awkward adult. Doctor Strange is an arrogant greed head who is led by difficult circumstances into a spiritual conversion. Black Widow is haunted by crimes she was compelled to commit in a former life. Most importantly, the effect of their actions as heroes is rarely without unforeseen consequences, making their lives and the lives of those around them even more complicated. I could relate to all of these guys.
Of course, in the years since my childhood, the approach of both the Marvel and the DC universe has become more and more similar. But, as a person who is used to Apple computers, using Windows always feels somewhat constricting, even though it looks and acts more and more like what we’re used to. Another analogy perhaps is the difference between the Democratic and Republican mindsets, where one sees the world through progressive glasses and the other through conservative ones. With “Dawn of Justice” DC and Warner Brothers hopes to achieve the kind of success that Marvel and Disney have attained in the past decade. Perhaps these gigantic struggles between corporate entities, political philosophies, and comic book universes is like an endless set of mirrors for the struggles taking place within each of us. Perhaps ‘Batman and Superman,’ both who are after all supposed to be the ‘good guys,’ is an apt echo of the battle we are now waging within cultures, political parties, religions and within ourselves.

Desolation Row

“The legionnaires’ interests, and those of the increasingly important women’s auxiliary, lie in the bands and the parades and the junior baseball teams and in the comfortable feeling of belonging so necessary to people now that small-town life is broken up and the family is crumbling and people live so much by themselves in agglomerated industrial masses, where they are left after working hours with no human contact between the radio and the car and the impersonal round of chain stores and picture palaces.” – John Dos Passos – “Big Parade – 1936” published in The Nation

“The system is an implacable machine which one might call the objective spirit of the United States and which over there they call Americanism – a huge complex of myths, values, recipes, slogans, figures, and rites. It is something outside of the people, something presented to them; the most adroit propaganda does nothing else but present it to them continuously. It is not in them, they are in it; they struggle against it or they accept it, they submit to it or reinvent it, they give themselves up to it or make furious attempts to escape from it; in any case it remains outside them, transcendent, because they are men and it is a thing…Perhaps nowhere else will you find such a discrepancy between people and myth, between life and the representation of life.” – Jean Paul Sartre – “Americans and Their Myths” The Nation 1947

“When our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas “marketplaced,” our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing life is complete, we will find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.” – Toni Morrison, “Racism and Fascism” The Nation 1995

* * * *

And here we are.

I’ve been reading through the 150th Anniversary edition of The Nation, America’s oldest continuously published journal of progressive thought, and picked these quotes, separated by decades, to represent my perception of the landscape in which I currently wander. Between 1936 and 1995 and today nothing about America has much changed other than perhaps the fluctuating mood of a populace that varies between extremes of idealism and anger, sympathy and prejudice.

After 250 years we haven’t learned the lessons of intolerance and bigotry. Our politics are driven by fear and anger. The young mostly pass out of their brief fantasy of living in a land of possibilities into one or another state of confinement. Most of the faces I see on the street are haunted by scarcely hidden shadows of desperation when they aren’t caught up in some form of distraction.

When I look at our current political crisis and our inability to deal with the looming problems immediately before us I see their reflection in the words of I.F. Stone, written in 1944, pleading for some action to save the victims of the European Holocaust: “Official Washington’s capacity for finding excuses for inaction is endless, and many people in the State and War departments who play a part in this matter can spend months sucking their legalistic thumbs over any problem. So many things that might have been done were attempted too late.”

Climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, war; wherever one looks the collective imperatives are overridden by self-interested sloganeering waged on behalf of an illusion of ‘individual freedom’ thinly disguising a superstructure of greed and paranoia.

A friend of mine scolded me recently, telling me to stop ‘whining’ and take advantage of the fact that I live in a state where marijuana is legal. I should relax, enjoy myself, watch a Broncos game and stop focusing on all of this darkness and cynicism.

What a fascinating term is ‘cynicism.’ I’ve been accused of it often enough that I’ve had to measure myself frequently against it, to gauge the degree to which I find it applicable. At its basis I suppose is a feeling of discontent, of being always outside of that which is commonly considered expected or predictable. It’s a feeling that has been with me always, as if I made a choice at some point, perhaps before I was ever conscious, to ask the world for something that is never directly forthcoming. The feeling manifests primarily as questions, questions, questions, and rarely an ability to accept fully the answers that are given. But where the attitude of cynicism to me appears stuck within the limitations of the present, an attitude of eternal questioning suggests some sort of faith in alternative possibilities.

I must admit that during the political season my inherent skepticism propels me more deeply toward a somewhat cynical response to the hyper-inflated rhetoric that drives the population into frenzies of unrealistic expectation that rebound against an irrational collective angst. The truth of the matter is that although I’m both a firm believer in a state of continual revolution I’ve grown extremely skeptical that any form of authentic revolution can be gained through politics. The political process may reflect broadly certain trends of popular enlightenment or stupidity, but authentic revolution is a process of cultural change toward which politics at best offers a tardy endorsement.

I am, in fact, a firm believer that human civilization has advanced and will continue to advance in the long run. I suppose that makes me an overall optimist. Particular civilizations come and go, they thrive and then grow decadent and sometimes they entirely collapse, or else they recede like glaciers to be reborn in a later season. Is it unreasonable to think that ours is no exception? Yet, in the grand scheme of things ours is a relatively young society. Although it has spread its influence all across the globe it has yet to fully and conclusively consolidate its power over every human life. It is quite an impressive machine and like every civilization that has gone before it has radically altered the relationship of humans with each other and with the natural world. Perhaps in this regard it has gone much further than those that have gone before, and in a shorter amount of time.

As the Phoenicians brought us the language of trade and the Sumerians the alphabet, Asians brought us paper and the first cities, Africa brought mathematics, the Greeks and Romans brought us roads and the law and the colonial pirates united the hemispheres and gave us a global language of commerce. The current phase of civilization has eliminated the factor of time and space in global human communication.

Humanity has always paid a steep price for every step forward. It may be that due to the breathtaking speed of its advance, the present global society will pay the biggest price of all. Besides the inevitable social disruption that every innovation brings about we are witnessing mass extinctions, vast environmental degradation, countless global wars and the resulting migration of millions of people, and we are only at the beginning stages of what could be a very steep curve of accelerated change. Many will be displaced and many will perish. No nation or state or city or village will be exempt. Our consciousness and our sense of collective ethics will be profoundly challenged, It’s going to be one hell of a ride, no matter who appears to be in charge.

Therefore, in light of all this, to expect that any single politician or leader can turn the thing around is folly. This isn’t cynicism, it’s merely realistic. I’ve lived over half a century to see every political victory shadowed by retreat and reaction, every enlightened advance accompanied by fear and loathing. I find it difficult to put my faith in ‘the people’ for the people inevitably follow the pathways of the expedient, for better or for worse.

My move from a small tourist town to a major megalopolis has made the vast and interwoven complexity of American society starkly clear. We are all caught up in the machineries of commerce whether we like it or not, and those machineries show little signs of slowing down. As crazy as this makes our day-to-day lives we have little choice but to support the collective movement to which we’ve tied our very survival. The source of both my cynicism and my hope is that on the one hand we’ve come to be a civilization that has long since fulfilled the prophecy attributed to Chief Seattle: “The end of living and the beginning of survival,” and on the other hand we continually surprise ourselves by our capacity for changing the way the game is played.

I believe in revolution by design. Just as every civilization has arisen out of an advance in technological innovation linked with spiritual revelation, so has this one and will the next one. We are steadily and collectively gaining a sense of our interrelationship with everything around us. When humans are faced with a problem or a limitation they are compelled to innovate a novel solution. That solution spawns more problems and complexities of unintended consequence and we innovate some more. Our world thus becomes more complex, more populated and our situations more interwoven with the total web of life. We are now the source of the biggest environmental feedback loop, and are now faced with the total responsibility for our own salvation or destruction. Will we be ready in time?

The signs are encouraging to me. When one looks beyond the world of politics and war the rate of change in both cultural advance and design innovation is breathtaking. In virtually every advanced society there are experiments in new ways to build cities and sustainable networks of transportation and communication. In societies where the means and options for communication have increased, despite the inevitable reaction of those who feel culturally threatened by change, the overall tolerance of people for difference and nonconformity appears to grow despite the reactionary efforts of those who see political gain.

The next stage of our social evolution will be shaped in relation to vast environmental disruptions. There is no longer the possibility of turning this around, and our political and social realities will bring us face to face with it sooner than later. The climate will continue to grow warmer. the oceans will rise. The weather will become more extreme. The planet’s ability to sustain the human population will be severely strained. Our cities will have to contract. We will no longer be able to claim the right of unlimited expansion and sprawl. We will have to surrender some of our rights to ‘private’ transportation. More of our lives will be lived underground and we will have to find ways to take collective shelter in an environment that grows increasingly harsh. The containers of our lives will be subject to greater regulation that serves the collective good over individual freedom. At the same time we will be forced to forego activities devoted to mindless tasks performed more efficiently by machines. Above all we will be faced with the necessity of leaving behind the relentless and wasteful demands of a society based purely on unbridled consumption of the resources upon which we all depend.

I don’t suggest that any of this will not be a struggle. The so-called American Dream will have to be sorted between the aspects that support individual initiative and a personal quest for fulfillment and those that emerge from the sloganeering bullshit supporting endless greed and acquisition. Sounds impossible, but many have already made moves in this direction. More and more the resistance to change will be from an aging and dying generation represented by demagogues and fear merchants while the future is constructed by the young people who will have to live in it.

As I see it, the present political struggle in America is between idealists and pragmatists. The idealists are angry at the speed and slowness of what they see as absolutely necessary and long delayed change. Pragmatists are frustrated at the unrealistic expectations of idealists which lead to political marginalization and defeat. All parties are faced with similar struggles. I respect both positions, but lean more toward the latter (a function of age). I tend to evaluate the message of each position by both the message and the tone in which it is delivered. If you are rude and angry on the Left you are as little likely to get my support as your ‘evil’ twin on the Right.

My advice to all is to step back on occasion from the struggles of the moment and to take a longer view. The longer and broader the view the more grounded one is in the ‘real.’ The political present is a result of endless chains of complex cause and effect. To understand the present one must have a sense of the past. Never panic, because the pendulum swings both right and left, and the main danger is loss of patience.

As I look over the skyline of Denver I see the implacable wall of the Rockies rising up at its outskirts. I see the ridiculous congestion and atmospheric haze that’s a result of uncontrolled sprawl as more and more people rush back and forth to shop, to work, to survive. A city of warehouses, suburban shopping centers and housing developments that cover the countryside, this is a city grown beyond it’s own consciousness, like almost every American city. Like a person suffering from a bad diet and overconsumption the clock is ticking while the mountains look on. Sooner or later I believe that, in the words of science fiction writer John Brunner, “the sheep will look up” and begin to get a real handle on their future. In the meantime I’ll proceed along my own path and voice my discontent, and every once and a while my hopes, along with a little bit of humor. When I pass the hopeless and homeless and desperately confused on the streets of America I will never be able to turn my head away and refuse to see.

Finally, Bob Dylan in 1965 described a city that resembles the one I perceive and that hasn’t changed that much since then:

By Bob Dylan – “Desolation Row” – 1965

They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown,
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance,
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants.
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row

Cinderella, she seems so easy, “It takes one to know one,” she smiles,
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style.
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you better leave.”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row.

Now the moon is almost hidden, the stars are beginning to hide,
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside.
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love or else expecting rain.

And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show.
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row.

Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window, for her I feel so afraid.
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid.
To her, death is quite romantic, she wears an iron vest.
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness.
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row.

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood with his memories in a trunk,
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk.
He looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
As he went off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet.

Now you would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world inside of a leather cup,
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up.
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole,
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul.”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row.

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains, they’re getting ready for the feast,
The Phantom of the Opera a perfect image of a priest.
They’re spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words.
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get Outa Here If You Don’t Know,
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row.”

Now at midnight all the agents and the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row.

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune the Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting, “Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers.
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation row.

Yes, I received your letter yesterday (About the time the doorknob broke).
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame.
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name.
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more
letters no,
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row

Songwriters: BOB DYLAN
Desolation Row lyrics © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO

Good and Evil

So how do you define ‘good and evil?’ Who are the ‘good’ guys and who are the ‘bad’ guys?

I think that dividing people up that way is both too simple and very dangerous. This is precisely the way that those with a hunger for power at any cost usually proceed.

Republicans are now obsessed with the ‘terrorist threat.’ But turn the mirror around and who are the terrorists? I personally think that that the GOP has become more and more of a terrorist organization. In every election their focus is on whoever they see as the enemy and why we should be afraid and how we should go to war. Isn’t the job of the terrorist to inspire terror? Personally I see the killing of 3 people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs an act of terrorism directly inspired by the inflammatory rhetoric and gross distortions of the truth by Republicans, solely for political gain. This wasn’t an act waged by a Syrian refugee or somebody from the middle east. It was a deranged white guy who raved in court about a conspiracy between Planned Parenthood, the courts, his lawyers and the media to “kill the babies.” Meanwhile people are being terrorized and clinics being vandalized all around the country also in response to the rhetoric. And do you even know the truth behind the accusations? There is actually none. So, who are the terrorists, and how are they any different than the people they want us to go to war with?

I believe that too many Americans are mired in hypocrisy. On the one hand they live lives of comparative wealth that is made possible by the wars and exploitation of people all over the world, and then when any of their precious ‘freedom’ is threatened (freedom to carry a gun, freedom to poison the earth, freedom to be an asshole), they rave that the very government that they have elected to protect that freedom is either corrupt or incompetent or evil. Whenever some of the rest of the world leaks in they blame the government, and if the government then overreacts in order to cover it’s ass they still blame the government. So they change the government like they change their wardrobes and expect that everything will be different, and when it isn’t they blame the government some more.

I don’t have a high opinion of the America that cheers at the racist demagoguery of a Donald Trump, or at anyone who will point the finger at others, telling them that somebody else is the reason for all of their problems. I’m pretty skeptical toward whoever is pointing fingers while they rant about the American Dream. I question whether those caught up in the dream are willing to look at themselves when it’s so easy to be distracted by blaming somebody else.

The way I deal with all of this absurdity is to step back from it and look at the bigger picture. First of all, I believe that the American system of government is amazingly well designed to weather the ever shifting moods of a population caught in whatever winds are blowing through the moment. It’s designed like a huge machine that’s regulated by a complex system of checks and balances, and it’s incredibly difficult to change unless the people’s will is engaged and organized consistently over a long period of time. Of course this is frustrating, but it’s a challenge that those who are truly committed to change are able to meet, because they have faith in their success and the virtue of their cause and they don’t give up. The catch in all of this is that the thing was designed to function with an educated electorate. This is how slavery was ended, how women got the vote, how the south was desegregated, how labor laws were passed, and countless other accomplishments. I believe that those who are truly cynical are those who think that, because their particular agenda isn’t the current law of the land, it’s because some evil forces are in control. I do believe that Americans have exactly the government that they have earned. Does that make me cynical? I simply choose not to let “The People” off the hook.

I’m more of a patriot than it may appear. I also have strong faith in the long run that the truth will win over the lies and that the collective consciousness of human beings continues to evolve in America and all over the earth. The evidence of this is everywhere if one takes the time to look. The biggest obstruction is caused by those who promote fear (greed being a result of the fear of ‘losing’ wealth, property, power, etc.). As a part of our now almost constant election cycles the rhetoric of fear heats up as does the rhetoric of diplomacy. Each one of us has to chose which voice we will listen to. I simply will not buy into the prevailing paranoia, because there, I think, is the sure road to hell.

I enjoy the battle of rhetoric and words that are the lifeblood of any true democracy. I love the fact that elected officials can battle with words and still reach a compromise from diametrically opposed positions. In fact, I love the game of politics. It’s certainly an improvement over settling everything between us with guns. I suspect the motives of those who are so impatient with the process that when they aren’t getting everything they want they believe it isn’t working or else they choose to opt out completely. I wonder if it’s actually democracy they believe in.

I was told the other day by a so-called ‘friend’ on Facebook that I was “Fucking deluded” because I wasn’t giving my money and support to his particular candidate, who represents the “people” while my candidate was one of the “oppressors.” My response was to point out that to call anyone who disagrees with your ideology the ‘enemy’ is not likely to win many elections. I told him that I agreed with many of his candidate’s positions and appreciated his contribution to the dialogue and that I wished him well, but that my support would go to the candidate that I believe can not only win the election but can govern.

Then I ‘unfriended’ the bastard.

Here I Am

Here. Here I am. My first weekend here in this beast of the city. The snow has fallen and encased the new apartment. The maze of the city closes in around me. I’ve left Elysium for an engagement with the edges. To the West the wave of mountains rises against the plain, houses are sprawled across in patchy subdivisions from here all the way to the northern farmlands. The city is always growing, already too big for itself.

Elysium the Beautiful breeds insanity. One loses touch, drifting into the mind of strange paranoias and bizarre scenarios of good and evil. I’m happy to be away from all that nonsense. The secret life of farmers and suburbanites. Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Everywhere the Word goes out, “I own this, as far as I can imagine. This is mine. No government or people will take it away.” Yet, wildfires rage, with no satisfactory explanation, for we know no history and only want life to be simple.

I have been assured, by those who claim to know, that I am the victim of a strange conspiracy and here I sit in quiet winter solitude, contemplating that possibility. It occurs to me that I’ve been around for too may lifetimes not to be able to smell evil when I encounter it. After all, evil’s really just a mirror of myself, or a part of me anyway. I know it too intimately not to recognize it in others.

There’s plenty of evil in this world, mostly pushed by ambitious hucksters with boring agendas, something about telling us who to fear and who to hate. Then they sell us books and dvd’s and lure us to their online sites where the major promotion is themselves. They are mostly paid very well by the very people they claim are the ‘adversaries,’ those whose interests are served by turning people against one another. They point at the Jews or the Blacks or the Chinese or the ‘Socialists,’ or whoever is leaving those ‘mysterious’ con trails in the heavens, seeding our precious air with their filthy mind control.

Oh shit, I’m just tired of all this. I’ll just walk away from it now, away from these helpless fears, away from useless arguments that ignore history and are only angry frightened screaming into darkness. The people downstairs are my companions, shouting mindlessly at the t.v. while their Broncos win. There is no place to hide from the world here and it’s somehow soothing to be alone, away from anyone that can be trusted.

You once complained about a teabag that was folded beautifully in a paper pyramid – a waste of paper, time and energy! – you said. You only felt compelled to complain. “Where is the ocean,” you said, “Where are the trees?” “Where is the desert?” What is the real question?

When I came to the city I thought that I was leaving a refuge and returning to the edges of the world. I was wrong to think so, to find out that the vast maze of city provides the only real refuge of anonymity. I am totally submerged in the great darkness that’s civilization with all of its pain and glory. Every face that I see is a lie and there is little possibility for truth, only acceptance, abandonment and perhaps some ultimate contentment while surrendering to the oceanic flow.

I don’t know where this life has taken me. I am both pirate and defender of this realm and I bellow from within a font of night jewels. I no longer need your company or your approval and I will do what I must to see us to the end. Your spies and secret sailors, those who reveal all of the hidden plans are useless now. The plan is older than the wind that blows above the deserts and will continue at all costs and we will either serve or fail given our own particular gifts.

Welcome to the new world order.

National Treasure

Listening to a podcast from Poetry Magazine I was turned on to the reproduction of a remarkable artifact. It brings me, in a way that no single book or essay or even film can do, to an encounter with the cultural habitat in which my own particular view (in time and place) of this world was shaped. Like something one would encounter in a book by Ray Bradbury or Lewis Carroll, on turns a corner in an obscure section of the city and happens upon a museum of wonders.

UBUWEB PRESENTS

Aspen Magazine

The Victim Thing

It finally came to me, the reason I haven’t been able to get past the middle of the second season of “Breaking Bad,” the reason I can’t abide conspiracy theories, and the reason some stories draw me in and others bring up in me a barrier of stubborn resistance.

It’s the ‘victim’ thing.

Surely there are real victims in the world, who fall to genocide, starvation, famine, war and general global neglect. These are things I want to know about, because they are part of the truth, and only when we are exposed to the truth can we take any sort of useful action.

We are all ‘victims’ of something. People cut in front of us in line, treat us unfairly, ignore our best qualities, or we are victims of our own mistakes and unrealistic expectations. Fair enough. I certainly belong to that club.

But there’s the kind of victimization that’s solely a product of the mind, which functions as a state of being, a form of self-identification. This sort of victimization has two possible outcomes, both self-reinforcing. Either we surrender to being forever the butt of some cosmic joke in which we are the eternal fall-guy and there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to change the odds, or else we try to turn the tables by becoming the victimizer of others. In either scenario we find ourselves in eternal conflict with the world as it is.

An example of the former strategy is the drama queen. I have myself taken this route on more occasions than I’m proud to admit. For years it seemed that my life was a constant internal (mostly) battle with authority figures and with their ridiculous rules and regulations and unrealistic demands. My attitude was that, as the smartest person in the room, every other agenda should be shifted to accommodate my own particular modes of being. Underneath all of this, of course, was the nagging feeling that I could never be good enough, a feeling from which I could conveniently hide by projecting it onto others.

As you can imagine, this strategy gets no one anywhere useful.

Variations of this strategy include the ‘always complaining’ victim who is more and more seen as a pain in the ass and either gets shuffled out of the way or out of the organization, or else is ‘forced’ to quit, thus completely fulfilling the requirements of victimhood. More common is the ‘passive aggressive‘ strategy where one presents a minimally acceptable face to the people in charge while undermining their authority by engaging in corrosive gossip or kvetching with one’s fellow victims in the lunchroom or behind closed doors.

The other kind of victimhood is much more insidious and ultimately much more destructive. It can be indulged in by whole cultures and used as one of the most effective tools of politics and war. Walter White of “Breaking Bad” is the perfect example of this alternative. Seeing himself as having been rendered powerless by the circumstances of his life, extending to the bad faith and betrayal that he perceives in those around him, he chooses to become the ultimate victimizer, the “one who knocks” as he so aptly puts it. We’re fascinated by his every move as he descends ever deeper into a hell of his own making.

Looking around, I see Walter White in every corner of every awful conflict in the world today. Regard the recent actions of our Republican congress in its dealings with the State of Israel. We have here two political entities who draw considerable energy from their self-portrayal as victims. Republicans see themselves as the lone defenders of the ideals of white christian destiny against the rising hordes of the envious poor, the foreign invaders of our borders, unbelievers, and the practitioners of ‘reverse-racism.’ Israel, finding itself besieged on all sides by people who view it as either an illegitimate state or an undemocratic occupier finds itself caught in a cycle of increasing paranoia (the ultimate state of victimhood) toward just about everyone, even its allies. Desperately, the Israeli Prime Minister engages in the politics of its most powerful ally by appealing to those who most closely share his fearful and apocalyptic (and imperialist) view of the world.

It was the spectacle of an Israeli leader making political hay with Republicans that made me see the wide ranging implications of victimhood and to understand why I find it so repellent. The horror of it all is that those who feel the most victimized ultimately become the worst offenders against human aspiration and the most passionate advocates for war. Just ask yourselves, what nation, and what party have become the driving force toward a wider war in the Middle East?
The position of Israel is not so much different than that of Walter White, in that the more aggressive the stance the more destructive the repercussions. Here Israel has made a very bad bargain, for the people with whom it has invested its hopes are those who tend to view the world in apocalyptic terms, where only the righteous shall survive while the impure unbelievers are condemned to perdition. For them, Israel has little meaning beyond being a symbol of their own global hegemony and as fulfillment of a short-term prophecy.

For every nation and every party that exists in a world of paranoia and victimhood, the world is closing in, while the worst atrocities are committed in the name of vengeance against unbelievers. But we are no longer living in a world where one people can survive by disregarding the rights of others. Ultimately, one person, or one nation, can only make war against the whole world for a limited time, until the tide shifts and the world overwhelms both fear and hope and all of our conspiracies vanish in the tide.

…and one of these days I’ll get around to watching the next episode of “Breaking Bad.”

Zombie Nation

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

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

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

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

An obvious question is, “Fight who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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You Can’t Stop The Signal