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.

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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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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.

_________________________________________________________________________
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.

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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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You can’t stop the signal.
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Sent from my iPad

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.”