Just what it sounds like. Should be updated more often than it is.
The Magic of the Morrisons - Looking at Toni and Grant
The same old story.
Confronting the Other.
What mask must your Other wear to make your tale one worth telling?
When history is so unbearable you have to add fantastical flourishes just to get to the next chapter. After all, there are many ways to be oppressed.
Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison and…uh…Scottish person Grant Morrison explore the evil and redemptive qualities of humanity in their work, but starting on very different scales.
Toni begins her focus on the small and domestic, the little quirks of daily life, and then she zooms out to show how they can be representations of great movements in family trees and histories of nations. She lightly dips these narratives in the slightly magical and maybe unbelievable, a connection of sorts to myths and wild rumours that a community tells itself about a past quickly fading.
Grant starts with the entire planet, the galaxy, the multi-verse, and then shrinks it down to relatable and hopeful moments that inspire us all, like Superman stopping a teenage suicide at the last minute and offering her kind words.
Oh right, Toni writes highly, acclaimed bestselling novels, while Grant writes comic books. But to dismiss the latter medium now is to fall into a narrow-minded and archaic notion of what constitutes storytelling and art (a title that the novel itself was once thought to be unworthy of).
Toni works up to the belief that a man can certainly fly, while for Grant it is a given, and where it goes from there is even more absurd and unbelievable.
But because we live in a world that is filled with mortal (and moral) peril, it helps that both of them have activism running through their life experience.
Growing up in segregated America in the thirties and forties, Toni Morrison learned her song well before she started singing.
When she was young and her family was too poor to pay rent the landlord responded by burning the house down. In response, the Morrison family simply laughed. Her description of this act was more than just a teachable moment. The image or idea of a house engulfed in flames (one pregnant with symbolism that could range from loss of innocence to the eradication of family, history and/or wealth) would be a recurring one in several of her works.
She worked for Random House as an editor, bringing black literature from around the world in to the American mainstream in the late sixties.
Her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1970 when she was thirty-nine. In it a young African American woman wishes to have blue eyes, immediately finding common ground with fairy tales like The Little Mermaid, and Snow White where unattainable transformation brings about ruin. But with horrific plot points involving sexual abuse, incest and mental illness.
Toni does not just challenges the reader with these disturbing moments, but challenges the reader with changes in narrative perspective as well, shifting who exactly plays the role of the Other (she will use this several times in her work, most notably in Jazz).
Historically, the most powerful group of a society has labelled any group that would try and contest or simply share power as the 'Other', and this has divided people along racial, religious and cultural divides. A hatred and even a self-loathing is forced upon them - both actively and passively - by forces beyond any one individual's control. In a 1975 lecture she notes that, "the very serious function of racism...is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being." Outside of the obvious and odious violence that comes with racism, there is an exhaustion for those who must experience it. Racism doesn’t just up take time, it steals time, the one thing you can never get back.
Her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is a Bildungsroman in the African American community that stretches over decades, featuring the son of a ruthless landlord trying to make his own way in the world.
Building a town slowly, side story after side story, and then leaving it all behind.
But for so long he doesn't and the true trials of protagonist Macon ‘Milkman’ Dead (a nickname he received because he was nursed by his mother way, way too late into childhood and an erstwhile neighbour accidentally came upon the scene looking through a window) begins when he ventures across nineteen-sixties America.
His homecoming is intentionally brief. You can never come home again, not in the same way. Time forces experience, and experiences changes you and your relationship to the past.
Wisdom takes time, but titular biblical references are much more oblique. One’s history is not just uncovered through learning about cherished keepsakes and specific key memories, but playground rhymes.
While race of course is a defining factor in how the black communities can and must operate in Song of Solomon (a sub-plot involves a secret society of black men killing random white people for every black man lawlessly struck down first), the chief Other is money.
By virtue of his father, Milkman is rich, and when he goes on his journey he is either fawned over or attack because of how he spends it.
His journey is for his own wealth, but not exactly. He is searching for lost gold, which will free him from having to be reliant on his father, although he certainly uses his father's name to gain access to learning more about his family’s past.
It’s no secret that the secret of a family is what makes it turn.
1987’s Beloved has that rarified air of a piece of fiction that is elevated and brought into general public's consciousness, even if they only got a few chapters in. Deigned Toni's masterpiece, boosts came from her winning the 1993 Nobel Prize and its development into a movie produced by Oprah Winfrey.
It didn't do very well at the box office, but considering the subject matter - a woman murdering her child in a frenzy to keep them from ever being a slave – it is a testament to Toni’s unrivaled skill with the written word to make Sethe a character of sympathy, pity, revulsion and love.
On top of that, it’s based on a true story, but for this novel the bridge between fiction and non takes quick leap over a small stream when a ghost arrives and eats them out of house and home. Doting over living or dead daughters to an unhealthy extreme is a moral failing that reappears in Toni's writings. So to do does the indefatigable support team that appears at the protagonist’s time of most need. Whether they are a prostitute with a heart of gold in Solomon or Eva Pearce in Sula, they can offer advice or simply a warm bath. It is enough to help the hero to change for the better, to redeem themselves, to give everything to those they love, even if it's with their dying breath.
This metamorphosis is what can make them super, and that's a fine transition to Grant Morrison's own body of work.
Their 2009 book Supergods is both a history and deconstruction of comic books, as well as a memoir, effortlessly fusing the underlying argument that no matter how many incredible powers, skin-tight suits, and nick-of-time rescues, superhero stories are really just about the ideal world we want to manifest upon the real one. The history of comics is one of freedom followed by control, followed by more freedom when fewer pearl-clutchers were paying attention. In the twenties and thirties, comics could be as dark and deadly as the artists wanted, but their popularity with children meant that the Comics Code Authority of the mid-fifties would take out the sex, violence and death and replace it with cartoonish domesticity. By the sixties and seventies, movies and television had taken over as the medium that needed to be watched and regulated to protect tender minds, so comics were let off the hook and off the chain.
Just in time for a young Scot to get their hands on them.
Bathed in sixties protests (and having an activist father who campaigned against nuclear proliferation), Grant Morrison kept their nose in issue after issue during a frustrating adolescence before starting a punk band that was meant to be more fun in the Glasgow non-sun than anarchic in the UK.
Trying their hand at writing comic strips on the side for a local newspaper, their near alter-ago Gideon Stargrave made his debut appearance when they were only eighteen. Spending time in the sci-fi trenches of Doctor Who Magazine and 2000AD, because if you've grown up with the stories, it's your responsibility to make them yours.
Blend the heavy-handed ideas of truth, justice, morals that has always been a staple and make it…weird. Taking the old and forgotten and making it new.
Animal Man was a ridiculous superhero created in the mid-sixties and largely forgotten for twenty years, until Grant got their hands on it, flipping everything upside down. The most mundane sort of superhero (with the appropriate everyman name: Buddy Baker) exists in a world overflowing with superheroes. So what does he do?
He tries to find meaning in his own life, and part of this involves living in harmony with the natural world he intuitively understands (which leads to him wondering if he should help eco-terrorism), assisting suicidal supervillains, talking to parodies of other famous animal characters (including the infamous ‘Coyote Gospel, which netted that particular issue a Eisner nomination), and – ultimately – meeting his (current) creator/manipulator, Grant themselves.
Doom Patrol did similar things for an erstwhile team that made The Avengers look normal (back when The Avengers weren’t the hottest superhero team out there). With Dadaist elements and the fusing of different characters to create a multiracial, multi-gender higher being, it’s what you would get If William S Burrough’s wrote a comic book.
After this, Grant was given keys to the big dogs, but they still did it in their style, tackling Batman in a bizarre way with Arkham Asylum, a 'serious book' at a time when everything in comics was getting too smart for its own good.
If Watchmen played with the bright and shiny comic tropes and exposed its underbelly, while Miller's Dark Knight Returns explored the true challenges of vigilantism in a police state, then Arkham Asylum is a coffee table art book of nightmares and dreamscapes.
After ten years of scraping by, it was a huge success for Grant, proving that – like crime – writing doesn't pay until it does.
Repackaging the comic book as a graphic novel, to the chagrin of literary types who only see it as panels full of punches.
So with that in mind, we should probably talk about The Invisibles.
Feel the white flame.
No really, this would be a real good time to feel the white flame.
Throughout time a chair will be a tree, a building project, a place to park your butt, a cherished heirloom, and perhaps a pile of ash. What would it look like if you could see all of these moments in time with the ease of turning your head?
What would you look like if you were able to see everything in the world the same way? Or yourself?
What are you? When are you? Where are you? Who are you?
And of course, why are you?
Feel the white flame.
Over six years and 'sometimes decent, sometimes not' sales (and eventually collected in seven separate paperback collections), the series is a magnum opus in every way.
What's it about? Well, good versus evil would be the best basic way to put it. But a more fun way is to say that imagine all the 20th century conspiracy theories were put in a blender and then you had a gonzo team of semi-superheroes trying to fight them all at once.
John Lennon makes an early cameo, as does Percy Shelley, the Marquis de Sade, and imagine if Bruce Wayne was abducted by 'aliens' (quotation marks intentional) and consequently just wants to help terrorists overthrow the military industrial complex (which obviously is run by evil higher dimensional beings, aka the ultimate ‘Other’).
The Watchmen on acid. If George Orwell and Terrence McKenna collaborated after sharing a bottle of whisky.
It was written in 90s, when everything was supposed to be great, but the world certainty found a litany of problems, of course.
Corporate greed, technological malaise (the earlier, lighter version), environmental uncertainty, and continued marginalization of many different minority groups, based on race, culture and gender.
Morrison wasn’t afraid to use their pen as a blunt instrument in this series. A short sub-plot involves white business executives smoking magical drugs that allow them to temporarily inhabit the bodies of black gang members so they can kill and rape all night long without consequences.
A hideous modern day fairy tale meant to show the lengths those in power will go to be flex, wield and hold onto it.
Rigging elections? Ha! Try rigging reality.
Our heroes sometimes face seemingly insurmountable odds because it’s not a giant laser or an obvious alien invasion coming from the dark side of the moon. Frequently in the Invisibles the team asks why they are fighting and who they are supposed to be fighting?
The real truth, as one character finally notes:
"We are not at war. There is no enemy. This is a rescue operation."
The only way to defeat the Other is to refuse to acknowledge them as such, and instead see them truly as Us. You have to love them.
The Invisibles is suitably bonkers, a great way to re-wire your brain without the use of psychedelics, and 2002's The Filth is the flip-side of it.
If there are more than two sides to every story, then this one depicts the evil forces of the previous tale in a new light, as a inter-dimensional police force that is really trying to keep the status quo and prevent the 'world' from slipping into further chaos.
Richard Nixon lives, there is pornological terrorism (meant to free people from societal norms and boundaries) that must be rooted out before it gets out of hand, and brainwashing your enemy into your friend is all in a day’s work.
When its protagonist rebels (because of course they would) and they confront what is meant to be the concept of a superior, he asks what he is supposed to do with this, holding up the entrails and guts of the universe, and the superior indifferently tells him to put it on his flowers.
Don’t just stand there, do something.
Persevere, continue, take another breath.
Grant coming out as non-binary in 2020 underscores that there is no final state, that initiation to life in general never ends (to paraphrase another wisdom nugget from The Invisibles).
Much of Grant's work focuses on ascension, on improvement, on transformation. A combination of ascetic meditation and the physical overpowering of evil (with guns and Kung-fu, obviously), but the latter is really just a smoke screen.
There is only one battle, a battle of the mind, of ideas, and the big fish eats the little ones.
Meanwhile, Toni has had her race and gender be chosen by society at large to be what defines her. After all, "definitions belong to the definers, not the defined." (Beloved) This sad, crushing imbalance of power means more intricate restraints and restrictions. Promises of change being as flimsy as paper, so you may as well write on them.
In her 1993 Nobel lecture Toni states that, "language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation."
The power of names is a popular fairy tale trope (from Rumpelstiltskin to Voldemort), and many characters in Toni’s works are searching for people – living and dead – whose history is unknown because there is not even a record of ‘who’. From slavery onwards it was a process of erasure, not just of customs and cultures and bodies, but the most basic words that define an individual: Their name.
In The Invisibles, the enemies try to control language in familiar (a surveillance state, corporate run media) but bizarre ways as well (saying the alphabet as one long words - "ayebeeceedee...etc." - is actually a spell to keep children (and ultimately adults) ignorant of higher thought).
Grant finds the shocking possibilities in gods and monsters while Toni finds tragic beauty in the ordinary.
Describing food, finery and the way someone might sit down on a bed in great detail, saving dialogue for certain moments where the scene takes on the feeling of watching a play.
Even when she introduces the supernatural, it comes as a plain and grounded question: 'What if the worst thing you've ever done - even for the best intentions - comes back to haunt you?'
Beloved in the end is...
Well, there is no 'end' to what Beloved is, because it is very much a ghost story that lingers with the reader long after they finish the novel. The apparition for the rest of us is the very real, very odious and very long shadow of the chains of racism.
Milkman Dead doesn’t try to break those bonds in the end, but the physics of the universe itself: "If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it."
The exact same thing happens early in The Invisibles, when young recruit Dane McGowan jumps off a skyscraper like it was parch bench.
Grant's limitation is many, many panels, even as they wants to blow the whole wide world open to the universe next door.
A picture is only worth a thousand words if it's a good picture.
Finding the perfect balance when you have both at your disposal is an art in and of itself. When you can show and tell you might ruin the fun and mystery in seconds, and being able to communicate clearly with the artist during creation is just as important as being able to communicate clearly with the audience upon publication.
What if the flimsy 2D paper that superheroes exist upon, living their seemingly static panel-to-panel lives could compared to our own lives in 3D space plus time? What is the level above, and are own lives as simple and easily manipulatable as our ink and paper characters?
The final chapter of Morrison's Supergods is an excellent summation of superheroes, and gods in our modern society. With - gasp - a happy and inspiring note to end on as well. Why does it seem like we are hell-bent on destruction, ruining our own only planetary home and never seeming to be that happy about anything we do on it for more than few minutes at a time? Because we are ascending, because there is some sort of order (which might look like a chaos at the moment) that is tracking our progress. We are putting ourselves through hell because it’s the only way to get to heaven.
While it still might be more of a pipe dream, everyone needs a good story to get us through the night.
Certainly Toni would agree.
Guaranteed Ways to Have a Bad Trip on Hallucinogens
Archive 2006 (on a whole separate page, too!)
It's always been too early to bury Donald Trump because there's something about brash confidence that lights up the reptilian brain like a Christmas tree.
Hell, his success against all odds would be something to celebrate if he didn't perfectly encapsulate how terrible the shape of the American Dream truly is.
George Carlin noted that it was called such 'because you have to be asleep to believe it', but for more than a century, the nation represented to the globe as a place where hard work could pay off. Provided you were white and male, of course.
And with such context it's easy to be skeptical of the egalitarian nature of the country’s past successes, but that story of American greatness is a core value injected directly into the citizen's subconscious. And we have to be careful with such legends, stories and myths , because they are designed to leap off the backs of statistics and into the cross-fingered stratosphere of 'fucking' A!'. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, and the current president is known for his flag-hugging.
While the outcome of the 2016 election was so close that almost every reason given to Trump’s victory is plausible (the re-opening of the email fiasco, Clinton not campaigning in the rust belt, the nation’s long simmering sexism, Bernie Bros sitting out, difficulty voting, ambivalence to either candidate, domestic and foreign internet disinformation), what should have disqualified him early on somehow became his greatest strength: He talked so much shit, it stopped sounding like shit. It became background fridge buzz.
No policy details, but everything will be beautiful, tremendous, trust me, and here's something offensive everyone can bicker over. Fareed Zakaria didn't pull any punches and called Trump a bullshitter love on national television not long after the 2016 Republican National Convention.
One would hope that regardless of your political stripe, looking over the last four-odd years would make someone who espouses the virtues of a functioning democracy be absolutely revolted. Congress was certainly horrifically disappointing and has its own share of problems, but the executive branch quickly caught fire and decided to put itself out with gasoline.
By continuing to dig deeper and deeper into a hole with the handling of the Coronavirus, it's easy to forget the earlier disasters.
Remember when he shut down the government because he wasn't getting money for his border wall, the embarrassing, insulting and immoral construction project that won't even work?
Shit, Covid-19 has obviously spread over all of the news for 2020 (and into the president to really drive the point home), but that means we forget this guy's been impeached for the drooling-moron-corrupt-as-fuck decision to ask Ukraine to get dirt on his political opponent, otherwise they don't get military aid.
There is no American institution that Trump hasn't shat upon. He has attacked and denigrated every pillar of democracy if he feels it hasn't kissed his ass unconditionally: Congress, Supreme Court, the justice department, intelligence agencies, the electoral process., the news media, windmills If it gets in his way it is FAKE and BAD and UNFAIR. His tactics have been compared to a strongman, but he gives even less of a shit (thankfully?) about any aspect of governance. For him the appearance of power is enough. Even his desires are hollow. Beyond getting good headlines and hearing cheers and applause, he just wants to play golf. And that superficiality leaks through all levels of power in America. Make some money, protect the money, deflect responsibility, have the proles argue amongst themselves. 'Make America Great Again' is a perfect jingle in the sense that it means whatever you want it to be, and therefore absolutely nothing. Nations are too complicated to simply be labelled 'great' (reminder: 'Great Britain' is a geographical designation).
But no one will deny that America was top dog in 20th century. But we're two decades into the 21st, and to stay #1, you’ve got stay in fighting shape. And this doesn't just mean having a military that can kick the ass of every other country. Sure, there's huge advantages at being number one in that, but when all that spending comes at the expense of massive cuts to infrastructure and social programs that is slowly turning your middle and lower class into a permanent underclass, what the hell are you protecting? Is it the estates of the 1%, who have not only gotten richer in the last four decades of deregulation, but even more stinking rich since the beginning of the pandemic?
This has been a massive problem for decades in America, and despite Obama's best progressive efforts, Congress thwarted much of his agenda to re-distribute wealth among the many. Even something that sounds some common sense as universal health care was constantly vilified in conservative circles and knee-capped in the courts.
So if the system acts like it's rigged for the rich, and works like it's rigged rich, what does the average voter do? If citizens chose a populist over a traditional politician - ostensibly because 'business as usual' hasn't helped anyone outside of Wall Street or Silicon Valley for so long - and the populist completely shanks it, do you go back to a traditional politician? Because that's Trump versus Biden. The choice for the leader of the ‘free’ world is between a constantly exploding diaper-filled dumpster fire and a seventy eight year old with fifty years of beltway politics under his belt.
It's bad enough when a corporate-minded attitude dwells within the executive branch. It is awful when a profit-driven mindset is applied to the responsibility of doing public good. It is even worse that the current office-holder represents the worst sort of corrupt and broken aspects of corporatism.
Biden will obviously be a great sigh for most of the world just by being there, but there is so much work to be done. With the exception of this push for health care, the mainstream democrat economic policy has not been that different from the mainstream republican economic policy (hell, it was Bill Clinton who signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall). For several decades the wildly divergent differences between the two parties was mainly seen with social issues. Bumps/cuts in spending/deficits were kabuki theatre in Congress. Only in the growing progressive wing of the democrats has there been a push for huge economic reform. Which has been met with resistance from mainstream dems and their big money donors.
You don't have to be a massive cynic to say that Republicans and Democrats will both fuck you, but that the Dems will just buy you dinner first.
Everyone pretty much agrees that profit-driven everything has infected much of the West (and certainly America) and that it's a bad thing. The only people who don’t agree with that sentiment are coincidentally the ones with all the money. Its unrestrained admittance into the halls of power was bad enough, but the Supreme Court's Citizen's United ruling made 'buying public opinion' (or muddying it) as easy as buying a politician.
And perhaps the view of the court was that a curtailing of any sort of speech - even possible misrepresentations of a shadowy political action committee - was too risky, and that they hoped the average citizen would understand the proper context of the torrent of information presented to them and not make rash conclusions.
Well, the Supreme Court was wrong, and fucked up the country forever.
Speaking of which...
Calling the passing of Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg the pre-October surprise of this election cycle is a stain on her memory, but so is how the conservatives are handling it.
But then there was the release of his (non) tax returns, a clusterfuck of a debate performance, and then the announcement that Trump has come down with the covid, and then left the hospital and called it no big deal.
It’s an embarrassment. It’s a triumph. It's the flu. The drugs he took were tremendous. God gave it to him. Whatever you want it to believe, that's the answer. That's the how the truth is marketed these days. Objectivity seems to be hard to come by, but we're having a fire sale on the Subjectivity brand.
What do you want your nation to be? There are not many moments where each citizen can answer this question, and usually elections boil down to policy differences between candidates. And saying 'but this election is different' feels hack because it's important to acknowledge that every election can have ramifications that you could not possibly anticipate, but truly the decision has never been so stark. Joe Biden might be everything wrong with incumbency and centrist politics, but Donald Trump is everything wrong with humanity. It seems baffling that there is even a rational choice between the two, and the great divide between how two political parties see America is alarming. But then, what is America? Is it a shining, peaceful beacon democracy, or is it a hyper-militaristic global superpower? Is a bureaucratic nightmare or a free-market, 1% controlled monster? Or is it just the best damn country on earth with cheeseburgers and imported supermodels for all? Check your social media newsfeed for the answer.
The US government is larger than ever before, though seeing its benefit for the average citizen is disgustingly low. And corporate power and influence is larger than ever before, despite this massive bureaucracy. This is because the US government just gives/funnels money to these massive corporations, many of which work in very close relationship with government officials (elected and otherwise) who bounce back and forth between high-ranking jobs in the public and private sectors. The clearest is the old standby, the military-industrial complex, because the US spends the mostly on military spending by a huge margin compared to any other country, although very little actually makes it to the average soldier. So much of that money goes to private companies with government contracts that are massive money pits of greed and waste. But other industries big industries as well. Energy, Wall Street, Health Care, Silicon Valley, there is a lot of money that is given to these corporations, and in return these corporations donate to/fund-raise for/bribe politicians to pass legislation that benefits them even more.
The big picture problem with Trump and his tax returns is that none of what has shown is a crime. The problem is that the wealthy can hold onto money and power through a series of legal loopholes that ensures they can still retain money and prestige while simultaneously being horribly incompetent and corrupt.
Trump is the most glaring and obvious symptom of a larger disease.
If this is capitalism, it's creating feudalism.
Even the campaign and election cycle is big business (thanks again, Citizen United). Big and small donations from people who can create super-pacs or try to fit it into their already stretched monthly budgets means we are all betting on our candidate to win and then make a return on our investment by introducing policy that we want to see.
Of course, unless a politician is talking about the one issue that you care a ton about (taxes! The environment! Guns! the Minimum wage!), it's easy to tune out policy and start nitpicking superficiality. And since that's Trump modus operandi, he's the perfect clown to cause a mess Three Stooges/Eric Andre style. Too bad it's a nation he's ruining now, and not just a reality TV show. The tools that are meant to inform us about serious issues are getting gummed up by scream tweets and always breaking news.
A horrible side-effect of trying to educate/inform the public through a massive promotional campaign through traditional (tv, radio, print) and modern (Internet) methods is that the money spent typically goes to big PR firms and massive media corporations (who own tv and radio station, newspapers and magazines, and popular internet sites that people congregate to). So in many ways, this exacerbates one of the main problems - and one that people should learn more about - which is the narrow concentration of media companies and how what is presented in their programming and advertising shapes our political discourse (oh, and the fact that these media companies are 'meant' to make profits, and who see Trump as good for ratings, and therefore good for business). These are narrow debates which whittles social assistance to 'welfare bad vs welfare good', equates the ability to purchase extended ammunition clips with freedom, and turns every policy no matter how complex or nuanced into a slogan.
Despite this, Progressivism has gotten more popular everywhere in the United States except the place where it can make all the difference: Congress. Centrists democrats like Biden (and the two houses the party might control) will be able improve the national moral standing simply by being exponentially better than Trump, but that is only a very small step in the process of healing all America's self-inflicted wounds.
The costs are going to be astronomical, because it has to be a massive surplus plan that will dwarf the CARES act (and without all that Wall Street blowjobbery). Joe Biden has carefully avoid using the words 'tax hike', even though it is absolutely essential to rehabilitate America and increase spending, especially in communities of colour, which has suffered through decades of systemic and blatant, violent acts of racism, of which the events of 2020 have become another painful reminder.
While marches and awareness campaigns are all essential first step to create a groundswell of support for change, the change that has to happen involves wealth re-distribution. Full stop.
But no one wants to pay for anything. Only suckers get stuck with the bill. And tragically the current president fits this mindset like a glove.
"There is no herd immunity to greed", Thomas Friedman said earlier this year, and while he can be a bit of a ham in his writing, no profanity-free quote has perfectly summed up this year better than that one.
It's good to see that more and more of America seems to be acknowledging this, that success and financial freedom is becoming harder and harder to attain as the already-wealthy circle the wagons around what they already have. It is tempting to give in to cynicism and try hustle your way in the world and not try to see the bigger picture or fix it, which is why everyone has to be working together and supporting policies not just when they are about to be voted on, but during their enactment as well. You don’t just fight for your country on election day. The Democrats' opponents in elections and governance aren't just Republicans, but apathy as well.
It is heartening to see that despite the pandemic, voter turnout looks to be extremely high. Sadly,
It's both frightening and frustrating that the current crop of 1%-ers can't or won't see the problems that concentrated wealth can create. But it should be no surprise that little has been done in the last four years to alleviate this crippling problem, considering the person in the White House.
Trump is a zombie corporation come to life. If capitalism was actually a system that rewarded the smart and hardworking as well as benefitting the many, his business failures would have truly ruined him and no one would ever think of putting such an incompetent, malevolent fool in any position of power. Instead, he blew through the American political system like a hurricane and stomped on the American psyche like an elephant.
The blowback against everything that Donald Trump represents - ignorance, cruelty, cooperate greed, equating power with being right - and how it has united so many people across America in collective loathing, will be the only positive aspect of his presidency. Hopefully everyone will know what they absolutely do not want to experience again. That's not the same thing as knowing what they want (and knowing how to get it), but at least it's a start.
(Or at least, read this important article about free speech in a digitizing world)
(Manic Street Preachers)
Stuck Inside of 2020 with 1968 Blues Again
(note: we didn't think we'd be writing about this topic again so soon, but that's 2020 for you)
It feels wrong that the sun should shine so brightly on these early summer days.
Like the weather doesn't notice the state of the world. Or it does, and is mocking us.
The bad news is that the protests are the easy part.
The hard part is slow, steady structural change, that not only has to focus on improving the lives of individual visible minorities and the communities they live in, but completely reforming the criminal justice system to - and here it will be put bluntly - stop being so damn racist.
While vilifying any group that doesn't conform to arbitrary norms set by those in power has been happening since the dawn of civilization, in America the constant 'other' has always been black people, and to be more specific, the black man, who - even after the abolishment of slavery - was something to be feared, something to be restrained.
Both women's rights and gay rights have made tremendous strides over the 20th century, and while the civil rights act of 1965 is a landmark achievement, many laws (notably - and only recently revoked - 'three strikes') both overtly and covertly keep minorities largely in the margins of power.
How do we end this?
Police reform is only a start, as it is the manifestation of the laws of the state which actively attempts to enforce these laws as well as passively attempt to segregate power from those with and those without. This means that the statement that seemingly innocent phrase 'the police protect the law-abiding citizens from criminals' is a warped, dog-whistle euphemism which is meant to infer that the police protect white people from minorities.
Disconnecting people from supporting this belief is essential, but doing so - changing people's viewpoints - is not easy. The belief that criminality is linked to minority communities needs to be tempered strongly with the acknowledgement that it is poverty itself which is the culprit, not at all the colour of one's skin. To address this multifaceted issue, there needs to be a divestment of power from those that hold it. And in practical terms this means taking money from people how have plenty of it and giving it to people who don't.
Call it reparations if you like. Call it redistribution if that suits you. Offer it in the form of increased spending in predominantly black communities, for social programs, education and public works projects, all of which bolster local employment opportunities. Certainly subsidies for post-secondary education, small business loans and debt forgiveness should be included.
That is what should be done.
Paradoxically, this attempt to give black people a fairer shake will be decried by some as handouts, as 'free money' for events that they believe happened too far back in the past to warrant such a 'gift'. A sizeable selection of poor white people (and there are a lot of them to begin with) will resent the enacting of a reparations-style program and see it is as 'special treatment'.
Because they are poor, they do not see themselves as having any sort of white privilege. A middle class suburban family are more likely to be aware of this privilege and be reflective of it than someone who has seen their small town hit harder and harder times over the last twenty years. They take for granted that a police officer will talk calmly to them, that they can walk into a store and not be viewed suspiciously by employees, and they will bristle at being told that they are blind to the realities of the larger world they are living in.
And for those who want long overdue fairness and justice to be applied to black people in predominantly white nations, responding 'let these racists make these complaints, we should just ignore/cancel them', will not remove those who are deaf and blind to their white privilege from the political discourse. They will vote based on this, they will express their misguided opinions in the public and virtual public squares. And the debate and discourse around these opinions will inevitable take up plenty of time and political-social energy, which will keep the real reform - wealth redistribution - from ever happening
It's always not time to talk about money, apparently.
Debate the use of confederate symbols, the possibility of false flag rioters, how corporations try to piggyback onto causes, Even arguing about the term 'Defund the Police' (and however you want to define that nebulous, three word term that is largely more symbolic than substantial) avoids the heart of the issue.
But it should always be about money, because money is the representation of power that we all assent to via a globalized economy. Loosening the purses strings of the wealthy in America, China, India, Russia, and other powerful nations and sharing the spoils with the rest of the citizens there is the only way to truly rehabilitate society, and with that, a lessening of hatred and bigotry that people cling to when things grow bleak.
Of course money alone cannot heal the long pains of the heart, but it undoubtedly improves the conditions of the mind and body. It makes the difference between a thriving community and a dying community. It makes the difference between a police force that serves citizens and one that suspects citizens. It makes the difference between hard work finally paying off and hard work being more like a tunnel with no light at the end.
As of 2013 white families had an average median wealth of $142,000, while black families had roughly $11,000. Black families in America have less retirement savings, more student debt, and at the moment federal policies support lower class Americans less than wealthier classes (and sadly, visible minorities make up for higher than average share of lower class families, which makes it harder to climb that social ladder).
There is a system with both passive structural and active social elements that keep this terrible imbalance in place.
So we are now dealing with the idea of a massive reparation fund, one that will take generations to properly enact. It will take an incredible amount of unity across all races in America. It will involve financial sacrifice not only of those who can easily afford it - certainly much of this fund will be paid for by high taxes on the wealthy and corporations - but affect those who will be asked to give in much subtler ways, like accepting cuts in services in their already economically comfortable communities so that there will be spending increases in areas that desperately need more attention. And of course because the corporation's profits are going to be squeezed, they are in turn going to squeeze their customers (regardless of the colour of their skin, in this case).
It will be full of setbacks, and for this to truly work they must be overcome, the project cannot be cancelled or curtailed lest we all return to horrible status quo of right now..
Because this cannot hold.
If the police are above the law, then there is no law. If the police can't follow the rules, why should they expect the citizens to?
The domestic side of the legislation passed in the early years of the 'War on Terror' is now a convenient excuse to persecute visible minorities. Police were not only given larger budgets to invest in equipment, but were given a much wider berth to enforce laws and surveil suspects. Egregious behaviour was constantly downplayed or ignored until it just became 'behaviour'. And as more of this abuse of power is exposed, a change must come. With power comes responsibility, and the police have been able to defer or ignore any semblance of responsibility for decades. It is true that they are expected to do much more than in the past, playing the role of mental health councillor, EMT, social worker, and concerned citizen.
Especially in impoverished and lower class communities cuts to programs and the weakening of an overarching institutions are felt, and the void is filled by the police. And giving police responsibilities that they are not trained to handle inevitably results in disenfranchising a community further. These jobs stresses may drive ideal candidates out and allow for people with glaring deficiencies into the role of law and order. And we see what happens when these conditions exist, over and over again.
This healing cannot open with money alone, obviously. In fact, the only way this re-investment can happen at all is to acknowledgment racism - both overt and systemic - and then to actually change our behaviour, not just the law.
But behaviour is fickle, stubborn, and can be resistant to change if it requires even slight discomfort. The problem with racists... is that they are human. Obama noted that not one person is born with hatred for another. Which means it was something that had to be taught, that one person had to conclude that they were innately superior to others because of the colour of their skin. Which is insane.
It would be much easier if racists were not human, if they could be some other form of creature that we would have no problem eradicating from the earth. And sadly, their violent and hate-filled actions are not inhuman either, as much as we would like to label them as such.
Viewing racists as the 'other' - as racists typically view those that they denigrate - all but guarantees these thoughts and actions will continue in perpetuity.
More complicated and universal forms of human behaviour are at the heart of racism. Fear, anger, loneliness, envy, jealousy. Root emotions combined with people's unique external experience twist and roil into a gnarled hatred.
Dismissing a person (or group) entirely because of their opinion doesn't stop that from existing, or playing a role in society. Even if you think their views are stupid or reprehensible, they will still vote or run for office, and maybe even have an important role in a powerful position.
So you either wait for the opinion to become so awful that no one has it anymore (because it die out with them), or you try to talk with the other side, and if not find common ground, that try to change their mind.
And if a society cannot do that, if the people cannot compromise (even if you personally think that compromising on this particular issue is ridiculous because to you and everyone you know and interact with how to stand on this issue is clear as day), then democracy is doomed.
If it's your demand or nothing, society usually takes the course of least energy (change is hard!), which means they choose nothing, or just do window dressing (like changing street signs).
It seems impossible to fathom how anyone could believe that racism, sexism or any form of bigotry has a role to play in humanity's future. It is incomprehensible how someone would not believe that this was something that we collectively have to overcome. It has to be one of the highest ideals, one of the greatest virtues that we should aspire to.
To think otherwise is not only darkly cynical, but an embrace of this awful regressiveism that you would hope evolution itself would have stamped out.
To achieve this goal is a supremely massive, undertaking however, even making wealth distribution alone look simple.
Can it be achieved? There may be no great challenge to humanity in regards to how we interact with each other. By looking for similarities between each other we cannot help but see differences as well
Can we overcome our primitive mind-level bigotry? It is dispiriting that it has to be asked, rather than simply announce with certainty that this sunny day will come. There is the fear that the current power structure and status quo might to be ingrained in too many people. There is the fear that we have to conquer the primitive components of our biology in such a infinitesimally small time frame compared to how changes in the human animal actually occur. There is the fear that somehow even more pressing and immediate disasters (literally natural disasters) will take attention away from something that is so key to the importance of civilization. How can we address taking care of the earth when we cannot even take care of each other?
It is always said that the most powerful tool or weapon is an idea.
The ability to change another person's mind is an incredible one.
And that is why there should alway be more than a sliver of hope, because history has shown time and time again that new ways of seeing the world can either raise or topple communities, nations, and empires.
What we must remain cognizant of in the present moment is how ideas are spread through society, and then acknowledge the importance of memetic quality in our communication with modern technology (how can we talk to each other via the 'this is fine' dog?).
To use a dirty phrasing, how do we sell the world on racial reconciliation that relies heavily on taking money from one race and giving it to another?
To say 'we shouldn't have to worry about optics' is missing the underlying observation that people need to be convinced of a position through a myriad complicated signals. There are factual signals and there are emotional/moral signals. There are arguments that appeal to the head and the heart, and both need to be addressed to convince to align themselves with your point of view.
'Defund the Police' is a short phrase, right to the point, but because of that it is ripe for multiple meanings and misinterpretation.
This present marketing analysis of this term is absolutely revolting. Obviously having to market the idea that police brutality is wrong and that systemic racism exists sounds reprehensible because you shouldn't have to do it because it is fucking obvious.
But we live in a society that is struggling with how to engage with technology that we are still ill-equipped for. The Internet has change how perceive and evaluate information, and has allowed us to exist in intellectual bubbles or echo chambers, where the only way to engage within them is through a powerful, succinct and direct message.
Marketing thought/speech applied to technological innovation has upturned sociopolitical discourse, and the only way to solve this is by flipping it on its head.
Fight fire with fire.
The Left needs an ideal convince-the-world strategy to match their lofty ideals.
It feels lousy writing this, really. There needs to be be a constant reminder that using this marketing strategy has the ultimate goal of lessening the psychological impact of marketing.
But you need to change people's minds, and while the continued barbaric torture of disenfranchised minorities at the hands of those expected to uphold the law is finally showing the masses that something must be done - and marching in the streets is a powerful initial show of solidarity and importance - explaining what must be done is a process requiring surgical intellectual precision.
With the proper message you can expect larger support, and with that a strong set of reforms can be put to a vote in the halls of power. And even at that point, pressure (through phone, email and possibly more protests) still must be put on the politicians in order to make sure the vote is reflective of the populace. And there must be a concerted effort to continually remind the general public during election campaigns of just how important this matter is, and that they definitely should support a candidate that endorses these reforms when they go to the ballot box (and my god, do they ever have to go to the ballot box)
All these links in the chain must be strong, or it risks breaking.
At this point we are roughly one month out from George Floyd's murder, and while protests have spread across the globe, there are already signs that our general attention is waning (certainly that there is still a global pandemic to contend with does not make reforming law and order institutions any easier).
We are living at a time that 'feels' fast and immediate, that we continually move from one piece of information (whether tragic, inspiring, or trivial) without reflection. We are attempting to change our behaviour and the how integral institutions operate, and neither of these thing fit into a news cycle or social media newsfeed.
The challenge is not just time, although we have to acknowledge that opportunities to improve civilization for the many come and go, and that if we don't capture the energy of the moment, it will be something that we will regret for generations to come.
In times of trial and tribulation we turn to our past because they have certainly gone through their own times of darkness. But they persevered, rose to the challenge, and overcame it, and we know this because we're here. And future generations can look to this time, and know that we did the same, as they will look to themselves and say, 'because we're here'.
The many who marched over the last few weeks may not have financial power, but that is no way to judge a society. Financial power can be found in any nation, regardless of its level of personal freedoms. For too long marginalized groups have felt the crushing weight of indifference at best and hate at worst. Without a redistribution of wealth and power across nations, all these protests will be in vain.
Which is why we're here. Yes, we're here. It's time.
Important Practical Article On What Can/Should Be Done:
Finally we got a tweet that was important.
Darryl Morey did it accidentally.
Nations and corporations have attempted to play nice throughout their tempestuous history, with the underlying view being 'if one succeeds, then the other succeeds'.
If the average citizens also succeed, all the better, but this has not been viewed as necessary, save for the Great Depression. 'Bread and circuses' have long been enough, but now even our bread and circuses have become global corporations.
The problem with everything having a capitalist mindset is...just that. Then there is no alternative, no plan B, and there should always be something like that.
Millionaires shooting balls into hoops for our amusement may already seem incongruous for a properly functioning society, but when Rockets' General Manager Morey expressed simple support of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, it threatened his bosses' bosses' bosses’ relationship with China, which enthusiastically supports the NBA in the country ('enthusiastically supports' means the American company can sell plenty of merch and viewing options to the country's billion-plus population).
In response to this, professional basketball threw a towel over their head and sat on the bench, hoping the whole thing would blow over. Big name players who have long been politically outspoken missed the easy basket by supporting...democracy. The NBA as a whole chose money over American values. Over Western, democratic values. Not that this is new, as all countries betray their moral foundations when it is most convenient to do so. Espousing values is easy, but adhering to them is so much more difficult. Ideally citizens can hold the government accountable through protests, inquiries and elections, but it must be said that it is all too frequent for people of all political stripes to passively accept the system that governs their society because power is rarely distributed so evenly. This means the most beneficial direction for all (or even most) is not always the one that is pursued.
But corporations have no such qualms or barriers. Take the money and run (thanks Steve, although Bob was also right: 'Money doesn't talk, it swears'). While the NBA is at least just an entertainment company, even heavy hitters like Apple have buckled under China's demands, as the tech giant removed apps from their store that provided assistance to the Hong Kong protesters.
To simply demand that the NBA or Apple stand up for the ideals of the country they originated from is easier said than done. Such an interconnected economy means that everyone risks taking potential financial losses on the chin, and while the players on the court would be able to miss a few paycheques, that's not exactly true for the thousands of ancillary jobs that depend on a properly functioning professional basketball season.
There's so much business tied up in all this, that even a well-intentioned tweet that is the opinion of one man can jeopardize the entire operation.
And that's the problem.
A system this fragile shouldn't exist, and no one should have to walk back their opinion because someone else finds it problematic.
The Chinese government's response was cut and dry and pathetic: they tried to get an American citizen fired for expressing an opinion while he was in America. This is according to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and denied by China.
No country is without its faults, and the more powerful the country the more glaring these faults can be. The Western world has long had an outsized role in managing global affairs for better and worse, but the 'better' in this respect meant slowly giving rights and freedoms to practically all of its citizens. Not so with China, which is a totalitarian police state where the government censors all media and arrests/intimidates/threatens you if speak out against it.
You don't have to know the intricacies of thousands of years of Chinese history to know that right they have prison camps filled with millions of Muslims (in this case Uighurs), Tibetans and dissenters, all of whom the government perceives as a threat. That having a slightly clever name of 'The Great Firewall of China' practically glosses over the fact that it means the government can restrict an incredible amount of information from its citizens. And China is now so economically powerful and essential to the world economy that none of us can truly turn away, even when we're having throwaway meme fun (not fun fact: China owns Tik-Tok, and flexes its muscle - https://www.vox.com/open-sourced/2019/12/16/21013048/tiktok-china-national-security-investigation).
More than ever before, it doesn't matter where you live. It may not affect you now, but changes to how we engage with each other in a digital realm are happening at an incredible pace. Knowledge is power, and while the Internet first appeared to be a wonderful provider and equalizer in this regard, we have found disinformation and no information at all is just as easy to offer up.
Trying to guess what the news story of this year will have the biggest impact in the years to come is nearly impossible. While the easy answer is just 'Trump', the Hong Kong protests are not so secretly the most important for the future of the sort of global society we are going to live in moving forward. Democratic rights and freedoms are going to have to be fought for. Maybe not always in the streets, but definitely in how we conduct ourselves off and online.
It's been over twenty years since the British gave Hong Kong back to
China originally allowed Hong Kong to have some level of autonomy, but with the rest of the country having an astonishing level of success over the past few decades the government saw no reason to 'share' power with a slightly Western style of citizen rule.
Which came as a slight shock the West. The belief was that as China experienced strong economic growth and built what was called in the West a 'middle class', freedoms would naturally follow. That there would be elections and free speech.
But that didn't happen.
Whether Western capitalists knew it was unlikely and were (are) just in China for the money, or were genuinely surprised that the Chinese government strengthened its grip on the populace as it experienced record financial success is not exactly clear. But if we look at how concentrated power became in the wake of early nineteenth century monopolists in America, then it's obvious that Capitalism doesn't work that way if you don't want it to, and China did not. This rise in economic power coincided with technological developments that make it easier to monitor and control citizens and the information they have about their community and country.
Interconnectedness comes with huge advantages and huge disadvantages, and we are being wholly ignorant if we think only of the positives. It's been passively decided by the largest companies in the world that authoritarian governments are okay to do business with. In this we're all guilty. We've been buying cheaper products from China and Southeast Asia for decades, regardless of how the governments there treated its people.
We are all in this together, for better and for worse.
This sort of empty platitude certainly rings emptier than ever at the starting gate of the third decade of this century.
Divisions are more pronounced. Just look at the latest British election, Trump's still powerful support, and protests across Europe against everything from austerity to immigration to climate change. The problems that have created these divisions (economic and social, neither of which should be seen as separate entities) are not entirely domestic, either, which means the nation alone cannot solve them. But nations aren’t talking and negotiating the same way as before. Too much power is tied up in the corporate world, which operates beyond borders, and largely beyond civic accountability.
To think that Wall Street and the financial markets have learned their lesson from ten years ago is naive.
Even as the stock market hits record highs.
Corporations continue to take and never give.
Governments typically do the right thing very slowly, and corporations do the wrong thing very quickly. And nations are wholly dependent on receiving corporate profit crumbs that they will jeopardize the long-term functioning of their country and several others.
Do you even want to know how the planet is doing?
What will it take to make positive change? Maybe the smaller things. As we've eased into certain expectations of how the online world is supposed to work, changes to them might jar us into action.
We are already reorganizing our off and online lives a bit more carefully thanks to incessant realization that Facebook is – to paraphrase John Oliver - 'a data collection app masquerading as your high school yearbook'. This year we’ve learned just how extensive the social media giant have been knowingly selling your data to third parties, and also not realizing that other third parties are using nefarious mean to get it anyway. They also came out in favour of political ads that lie, saying it’s not their job to make sure truth is told. No one on earth liked that. Knowing all this looks (and is) bad, the company has been trying to spin themselves positive with ads that literally have puppies and ice cream in them.
Google/YouTube (it’s bears reminding that the former owns the latter, just like how Facebook owns Instagram) have bragged that so many kids are watching videos on their site that they’ve shot themselves in the foot. You can’t ‘target ad’ children online (the law is known as COPPA), and a recent decision means all videos (yes, the billions) have to be (re)classified as designated for children or not. Who cares? Advertisers. They might not bother with paying for target ads for any demographic, child or otherwise, since they can’t be placed on as many videos. Who cares about that? Everyone who makes a living creating YouTube videos. Your favourite creators might be working for 90% less in the new year, which means many of them might have to close up shop because it’s not worth it. And let’s not minimize the importance of the communities these creators have built (speaking of whom: RIP Etika - Joy(conboyz) will never be forgotten).
It’s things like that – a disruption to people’s viewing habits – that can wake up people up to the larger problems: That all these companies are much too large to exist as they do. They are practically public utilities, but are still run as for-profit companies with much of their stock owned by a very, very small group of investors.
It explains why Amazon has no qualms of taking open-source software when building its cloud services for other companies to buy. Amazon Web Services is like a millionaire going to soup kitchen with a giant cauldron and taking it all. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/15/technology/amazon-aws-cloud-competition.html)
It’s not that they can’t help themselves, because in their eyes this is that ‘not a bug but a feature’ sort of thing.
Google and Amazon were vying for Pentagon contracts, and the only reason Google won is that Trump hates Amazon owner Jeff Bezos because he also owns The Washington Post (which, y’know, reports the news). What a perfect marriage of the greed of amoral corporations and the immoral pettiness of modern politics.
Apple is able to stay above the fray in this respect, and just hope no one notices how it tries to avoid paying taxes in democratic countries, while following the whims of authoritarian ones.
Yes, bashing Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple all in a row. Not
necessarily for their failures, but the unintended consequences of their
incredible success. 2019 was the year where everyone felt
Just in time, too, because it’s not like governments are necessarily stepping up and doing the right things.
Taking a page of America's treatment of illegal immigrants and then making it ten times worse, the Indian government has begun discriminating against Muslims in such a blatant fashion that the whole world is turning against it in revulsion:
Move a couple nations over and we can finally read about badly America mishandled Afghanistan during its still ongoing war/occupation/clusterfuck with recently released intelligence reports that took a three year challenge in the courts to give journalists access to them.
In the same vein, the Mossack-Fonseca/Paradise papers is by far the most underreported important story of the decade. This is where the money goes. Some zeros in a corporate tax haven bank account is doing irreparable damage to every nation (and every citizen) on earth. Such massive wealth concentration is the slow strangling of democracy and helps solidify the grip of authoritarians and dictators.
2019 was a continual slide into the muck. A fitting final year to a decade where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the changes to technology (and our relationship with it) were still too cosmetic, and still being used largely in part to kept things as they are as opposed to ushering in real and essential change.
Admittedly each of us have a limited range of choices of what to do in the face of such large challenges moving forward, but if we continually choose money over freedom, soon we won't have either. A breaking point is too negative a term. We need to seek out a fixing point.
It's immoral, hurtful, disgusting, and completely unscientific. It is a wholly irrational viewpoint. Yet this line of thinking is still around, and it sadly holds so much power over many, and causes so much destruction.
This will obviously not be a complete analysis of racism and bigotry in totality. That would take several academic-sized books (and the work of a diverse cast of writers and researchers). But we are at a unique point in human history where the role of science and technology has become a dogmatic essential. We tacitly agree that large decisions that affect the community should be made using scientific data. We tacitly agree that one of the most important ways to engage with the community is using glowing rectangles in our pockets, and on our laps or desks.
Science has proven time and time again that there is no difference in ability between races and ethnicities. We are all homo sapiens. The differences between us are individual, not based collectively on skin colour, culture gender, or sexual orientation.
Saying this now might sound obvious, but it can take years or even decades for the discoveries of science to finally filter through society so that we are all on the same page for accepting the most basic explanations of scientific concepts (evolution, the universe, the big bang). The Internet has made it possible to connect with people across the globe instantaneously, and even language barriers have been able to be knocked down thanks to easy translation programs. Knowledge and ideas can be shared, individuals can show how unique and capable they are, long held beliefs of who can do what are able to be radically transformed.
But we have resisted.
So much hasn't changed.
While the Internet has made it easier to highlight examples of racisms and bigotry that range from systemically bureaucratic (hiring practices, double standards in legal system) to crimes against humanity (the violent persecutions of the Uyghurs and Rohingya), the fact that there are still so many examples is alarming and disheartening.
-Because it's easy to assign senseless and incorrect blame, and people (all people, beyond race, creed, gender, orientation or any other trait) have a tendency to be intellectually lazy when they can get away with it
-It is a useful wedge political issue (this is the PR, euphemistic term for how the matter is handled today. In the past it was pogroms, witch hunts, and race riots)
-The difficulty in overcoming the concept of 'otherness'
The 'other' is more a psychological concept than any actual person or group. It is labelled that way because it is meant to be wholly malleable.
It is a leftover response from tribal behaviour tens of thousands of years old. You trusted your family, your small social group, and, as civilization developed, towns full of people you knew. And because of proximity and cross-breeding and a strict social structure, people looked pretty similar and acted similar. Anyone new or different that arrived on your farm or in your town was met with suspicion. This was the 'other', and the suspicion that you had of them was the most basic. This stranger might kill you or steal from you (a reaction that pre-dates humanity, and is the basic 'fight or flight' responses in most animals).
Over eons and centuries, we've been able to temper this to some degree. The mechanisms of civilization (security, safety, health, exchange of good and services, etc.) have made us much more likely to trust and socialize with people who are not members of our family, our tribe, our town, our country, our background, etc.
Yet this also meant that the image of the 'other' can be manipulated or distorted, sometimes bringing back the older, reptilian-brain view that they were here to cause you harm.
When it suited those in power to have their citizens to demonize or hate a certain group, they would encourage it. And when it suited them to no longer have their citizens to feel that way, they would discourage it. This was seen throughout history:
the barbarian hordes out of the Roman Empire, the Mongolian hordes out of
the Byzantine empire, the entire world out of
If it wasn't enough to kill people who looked and acted different than you (and then take their land), then it was because god said it was okay, which made for a good excuse to kill/subjugate unbelievers and heretics (and then take their land).
The Crusades weren't the first time that pitted Christians, Muslims and Jews against each other, but it's best known example of religious hatred and persecution involving a place where a lot of valuable buildings are (Jerusalem).
It doesn’t even have to be completely different faiths. The inter-European conflict from 1618-1648 was simply called the 'Wars of Religion', although everyone involved were of various Christian denominations (and they still had time to vilify the Jews and claim they poisoned the wells).
Even in the twentieth century, the portioning of India resulted in the deaths of millions of Hindus and Muslims when Pakistan and Bangladesh were created.
Thankfully, an overall decline in religious affiliation (or strong religious affiliation) means that many archaic notions and rules have fallen by the wayside. Religious persecution and social divisions are not nearly as deep as they once were (while it is clear they are not eradicated completely). Today's religious extremist would have just been considered 'religious' decades and centuries ago.
It should be noted that while the abrahamic religions have long vilified homosexuality, many religious doctrines have also been used to promote segregation and apartheid between races, and certainly the constant and near-unrelenting subjugation of women.
If it's not because 'god said so', then it's because some other authority figure (perhaps a king, a political leader, a family member, or a group of people you trust) said so. It is the return of a form of tribalism, where we pick and choose the information to trust implicitly or suspect immediately. Some of the information is incorrect or incomplete, but occasionally we overlook this and want it to be true because it conforms to a previous assessment or experience. This is problematic enough with any statement ('it is raining here, so I will assume it is raining everywhere else'), but it's much more terrifying when it's applied to people.
If there is one story about a person committing a crime, then it's as if every group that person belongs to (race, religion, nationality) is guilty of the same crime.
What makes someone start to believe a stereotype about a group of people, let alone taking the next step and assuming that they (and their own group) are better than them? Why do people believe that immigrants 'bring' crime and chaos when study after study show that this is not true?
Quite simply and unfortunately, because we can. Because we have that psychological agency to believe whatever we want, even if it's wrong. Because we can stubbornly refuse to find out anything else (and more accurate) about the matter at hand. Because it has become even easier to live in a mental bubble. The Internet has made it easier to re-re-re-confirm our worst and basest beliefs and suspicions thanks to the spread of misinformation and twisted facts.
Responsibility weighs heavy on us. From work, family and social obligations in our own lives, to the widely diffused responsibility of a citizen. As Sartre notes, we flee from responsibility when can. We like things not being our fault. We like hearing that it's always 'the other' who is making the mistakes, who is contributing to the downfall of society.
If you assume that because most Americans in prison are black that black people are more prone to criminal activity, then you are (idiotically) ignoring a wealth of other factors that explains this discrepancy.
While 'People are intellectually lazy and prone to ignorance' might be the answer to these questions about the persistence of racism and bigotry, acknowledging this is not a solution to the problem.
If the solution were simple, perhaps it would be solved by now.
Racism was (and is) based on pseudoscience, useful/immoral political agendas (keeping a house divided means you can lord over it that much more easily), and personal aggrievement. It has allowed for large groups of people to be treated unfairly and cruelly since the rise of civilization.
This exploitation has unfortunately continued, and has allowed for the continued marginalization of 'the other'. In the current economic system of unrestrained capitalism, there is also the cruel Monetization of Otherness. Capitalism doesn't 'do' morality, it just attempts to make profit.
No nation is entirely homogeneous, which makes it possible for any sort of minority (visible, sexual, etc) to be constantly portrayed as the 'other' in society, as a focus of both active and passive racism (and while we should acknowledge the great strides made over the past decades, it is still sadly present today).
Portrayal is an important term here, because it can be parsed between the laws and actions of citizens, and the culture of this society. How culture affects the viewpoints and opinions of a society's citizens (and vice versa) will always be an ongoing debate in a healthy community, and this is because culture has always been fascinated with the other and attempts to engage with it (through art, literature, and other aspects), while other facets of modern post-industrial society still fear and marginalize it (justice, economics, political participation).
this sense, culture can knock down barriers and build bridges between
groups, but even here, corporations have long taken advantage of still
existing prejudices. Presentation of the 'other' in film and television
still may have problems, and there does not necessarily mean that there is
adequate representation behind the scenes. Even during the years of the
civil rights movement in
The distribution of power in the wake of the Depression and World War II took it out the hands of the few and redistributed it to the already emerging middle class (which, across North America and Europe, was predominantly white, and led by the straight white male). The strengthening of this group of people during the time - when there were calls by minorities and women for equal rights - worked out very well. People are more likely to share power when they are finally comfortable with the amount of power that they now have. This is not particularly reassuring observation, considering how power has manifested itself in society.
Racism and bigotry was infused into class hierarchies. A poor white man might resent the rich white man, but he would at least be satisfied that he was at least 'above' (in his mind) a poor black man (and if he resented the rich white man, he absolutely loathed a rich black man).
And everyone listed above felt good about the fact they weren't a woman, although a rich woman certainly thought themselves better than a poor woman, and a white woman thought themselves better than a black woman.
Finally, if anyone above was a homosexual, you suppressed that with every fibre of your being, because if you were lucky you'd just be ostracized (and if you were unlucky, you'd be killed).
This system allowed for a powerful minority (whether ethnicity or religion) to rule over a less powerful majority, proving that in certain conditions, certain numbers ($$$) mean more than others (population).
Regardless of when you want to stamp western democracy with its 'golden age' label, praise must be given for what it began to do in the nineteen sixties and seventies.
The necessary restructuring of society during this time was to give historically disenfranchised individuals (in western democracy, this can be very loosely said to include women, visual minorities, the LGBTQ community, and the differently abled) access to power that they never have before. This meant taking power away from the concentration of people who had the most of it (in western democracy, this is the straight white male).
This would result in some form of resentment, but it was not widespread. People are more willing to help the marginalized and downtrodden in society when they themselves are living a more comfortable and secure life. You'll share a bit of your power with others when you are secure with the amount of power you have.
This observation can't help but note that this means the social progress and harmony is dependent on the continued success of the people with power, since they are the ones who have the ability to parcel it out and share it, if they so desire.
But power ebbs and flows.
Gains made by the white middle class in the middle and late decades of the twentieth century have receded. Now the concentration of power is in the hands of even fewer people, divides not seen since the Great Depression of nearly a century ago.
The effects of this are far reaching, and range from the obvious to the subtle.
Rent instead of buy, people are more likely to have to get a quick loan just to cover bills, etc. You are not able to save as much, which is doubly problematic considering job security is weak, and that you might need to access this money if you suddenly find yourself without a job.
Psychological effects (which should never be discounted or ignored) include low self-esteem, stress, depression and anger. And this increases the chances of turning to drugs and alcohol to cope or push these feelings away (which can result in addiction).
Outwardly, there can be a cynical disinterest in political discourse (which can exacerbate the wider problems of economic inequality because solving them requires an active and engage populace) or a cynical and narrow engagement in political discourse.
The easier and more direct action is the mental regression: Blaming 'the other' for your predicament. Now people are reluctant to share power when they perceive there’s not enough of it to go around. It’s no longer not sharing with ‘the other’, but the idea that this other now has it better than you, or is supposedly taking advantage of a social system or program that is no longer helping you.
This ‘feeling’ that this is happening can overwhelm any factual arguments that show this assumption is not true.
And this is a dangerous predicament for democracy as a whole.
Racism and bigotry are nothing but hateful, society-destroying beliefs based on lies. And when that is part of the foundation of the nation, then it will not remain a democratic one for long. One form of twisted lies beget another. Racism is literally 'skin deep', but it has been baked into the history of human civilization, and it will be a slow, arduous task to pick all the bits of it out.
Individual nations or regions each have their own challenges with racism within their borders. But global matters can affect each nation in different ways.
Western democracy (and its subset of European colonialism, which was profoundly undemocratic) has long presented a contradictory picture of rights and freedoms, giving citizenship for some of those within its continental borders, and brutal racist subjugation for wherever their ships landed. Its attempts to right past wrongs have been middling, but at least there was an attempt. Now the situation has changed entirely.
With the higher concentration of economic power in the hands of smaller groupa of wealthy individuals and corporations, the average citizen (regardless of their identity) in Western democracies has seen their shares of power and economic security dwindle in the last forty-odd years.
A change of how this economic power operates is necessary. It must be redistributed across the state. The quickest and most effective way is to greatly increase taxation on the extremely wealthy and the corporations they own and invest in, as this inordinately small segment of the population has actively and passively taken advantage of social divisions for years.
While this will not cure all of racism's ills, it will go a long way to alleviate the suffering that comes with poverty, marginalization, and hardship of those that are exploited through racism and bigotry, and the victims of racism and bigotry. This means not only helping the marginalized groups, but also some the people who are doing the marginalizing. Poor white and poor black communities both need assistance for the good of society as a whole.
This is not a 'pardoning' of racist behaviour. This is a long, slow reduction of racist behaviour.
A deeply entrenched problem requires an extensive and complicated solution. Without any plan in place to do this, then the problem will only get worse.
The Internet has made it possible to connect and radicalize people who hold terribly violent views towards minorities, immigrants, women and the LGBTQ community, and it has been tragic when these views are acted upon. When the baseline belief is disgusting, immoral and wrong, it's no surprise that the people who come to represent these viewpoints in the halls of power are also disgusting, immoral and wrong.
There is no other way to say it: For the good of the future of western democracy, straight white men (especially wealthy straight white men) have to take this on the chin, have to get the shit end of the stick, have to pony up and give an inordinate amount of their power back.
If this sounds like class warfare, it is, because this group has been waging war on the 99% for decades now, as they continue to amass more and more power with impunity.
And that so many of them seem to willing to fight tooth and nail for a set of privileges that they believe to be rightfully theirs shows how entrenched this demented line of thinking (that 'they deserve this') really is. Born into wealth doesn't mean you are successful, and being born a white man doesn't mean you are having your rights trampled when a minority or a woman gets the job you wanted. Sorry, straight white men, your mediocrity is no longer a high enough bar for success.
Actually, forget the 'sorry' part.
Do you remember life in the time of cholera?
Probably not, but it's making a comeback.
Diseases and viruses that we conquered throughout the twentieth century are mutating and coming back stronger, resistant to our medicines, and are spreading in ways that are harder and harder to control.
It's not just the big name heavy hitters like cholera, ebola, or measles. Little known bacterial infections that few people outside the medical community have ever heard of - like candida auris – are proving fatal for the very old and very young across the world. Yellow fever can still spread across continents. Despite having medication available, malaria still kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
We need more research, more education, more infrastructure, and more efficient containment.
But there is one thing that is happening across the globe that is making all that much more difficult.
Climate change is an amplifier, making long-standing problems and challenges to the development of civilization much worse. The twenty hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1980. Eighteen of the twenty most devastating hurricane seasons had occurred since then. In the United States alone, this has cost $1.6 trillion dollars. For the rest of the world - especially in underdeveloped regions - more and more people are paying with their lives.
That much of this can be blamed on the warming of the planet is no doubt frustrating and exhausting, since it's yet another big piece of bad news upon a front which we seem to be making very little headway.
Climate change is upending weather patterns, creating longer dry periods that lead to forest fires, as well as warming waters which create huge storms that lead to intense flash flooding. It affects growing cycles for crops the entire planet depends on for food supplies, leading to price spikes, shortages, and famines. It is melting the world's glaciers, which means all the ice that was on the land becomes water and raises ocean levels, flooding coastal cities.
For too long this laundry list of problems was only of concern to environmentalists... and large segments of the populace. But rarely did this raise the eyebrows of massive corporations that had undue influence on the halls of power. For the energy industry, which dumps/spews CO2 into the atmosphere, there was (and still is) a cottage industry in denying that climate change even existed despite all the evidence. The danger here was our stubborn ignorance. Whatever got our cars moving and our bills paid was good, and a bunch of tree-huggers were just trying to harsh our buzz.
Our belief that we are atop (and therefore out) of the food chain, leads to an erroneous assumption that we are atop the entire global ecosystem. But the continued existence of stuff we need to live our lives - from food to building materials to socks - are dependant on an extremely fragile economic system, where every interconnected pieces has to work perfectly.
Nothing shows how easily this system falls apart than massive storms, occurring with increasing regularity. In the Northwestern Hemisphere this is costing hundreds of lives and trillions of dollars. Seeing the speed an extent of the response by fire, police and other rescue personnel (including the military in some cases) is certainly inspiring, but it also comes with an ever-increasing price tag. One of the reasons storms in the West cost so much more is that so many properties are insured, and having to pay so much with such regularity is putting a tremendous squeeze on the insurance companies...and the other companies and individuals who invested heavily in them. The fragile ecosystem of Wall Street and the fragile ecosystem of our planet have dangerous similarities when too many components are removed or do not work properly. One is the abstract value of wealth and power, the other is the physical properties of matter that are arranged in such a way to create life. Clearly the second trumps the first, although you’d be forgiven for not thinking so, based on how so many political and financial decisions are being made. This is the curse of the post-industrial, proto-digital state when it reaches certain levels of consolidation: Profit begins to slow progress.
In the rest of the world, however, the stronger, climate change-enhanced storms can cause much more obvious, widespread, long-lasting, and deadlier chaos.
There is a less organized response to the disaster, and people who were struggling with finally climbing out of extreme poverty now find themselves with even less. Just enough food becomes no food at all. Homes and farms completely destroyed in floods, with no government authority or agency to appeal to. This means that other problems in the region that was barely being kept under control can suddenly grow exponentially. Regions that have poor sanitation, little to no transport infrastructure, or dependable medical facilities/supplies mean a rise of infectious and extremely contagious diseases soon follow. A typhoon may only last a few days and be terribly devastating, but the famine that comes after lasts much, much longer.
Climate change's far-ranging effects are going to be most devastating to the world's poor.
Areas of the globe that have benefited from rapid industrialization only recently (Africa, Southeastern Asia) are in a particularly tough bind. More industry would improve living standards, but more industry also means more pollution not only in close proximity to these areas, but to the rest of the world as well.
It's gotten to the
point where 'rest of the world' is an inaccurate, demeaning misnomer. In
the interconnected socioeconomic quasi-digital community of 2019, there is
no place that a disaster cannot touch. Investment means a company in
London losses millions when there is a particularly devastating monsoon in
India, destroying a factory. Trade means the goods in every store and
every warehouse almost certainly came from across the oceans, or at least
the parts of it did. Apples from
Money holds the system together, and it may be what tears it apart.
Despite years of disinformation over the existence of climate change, many people are finally accepting the truth that it's here and it's devastating, because the horrible results speak for themselves.
But the problem is what to do about it.
Governments rarely have enough 'emergency money' just to provide necessary help to their citizens who are now suffering, let alone funds in their budget to completely upend their energy and fiscal policy that will lessen the impact of this weather and its effects in the future.
Southern Australia has quietly been going through its worst drought in centuries, with the Prime Minister declaring New South Wales ‘completely in drought’ last August, spending millions in relief aid for farmers. Meanwhile, Northern Australia is experiencing record floods, which also required extensive financial assistance. They are also one of the most coal-dependent countries on earth.
Like so many problems an interconnected world is dealing in the early 21st century, a warming globe and more natural disasters is just the beginning of the problems.
What also has to be taken into consideration is not just storms of flames and water (and what comes after), nor the migration patterns of millions of people who are leaving lands that have too much water or too much dust.
In the coming decades, temperate regions will become tropical, and that will completely upturn growing seasons, wildlife, livestock and every sort of plant. These changes alone will cost billions of dollars to adjust, and if that wasn't hard enough, the actual, actual problem is both bigger and smaller:
Billions of tiny bugs.
Warmer climates means mosquitoes are moving into different regions, bringing along the viruses they unwittingly carry: Zika, dengue, malaria, west nile, and various strains of encephalitis. While there is treatment for many of these deadly ailments, overuses of these medicines have created strains that are resistant to these drugs.
It’s easy to dismiss these as tropical diseases, until you realize that tropical climates are expanding outward from the equator. Warming, rising seas means there are more suitable regions for mosquitoes to breed, especially along coasts (and coastal cities), where most of the human population lives.
We congregate in cities because we have moved from agrarian to industrial, and are in the process of moving to digital. Maybe in the future, our connection via computer networks will allow us to spread out once again, but right now, many people in densely populated areas is how we’ve chosen to live. Even if the energy that is required to live this way lends greatly to the dangers of climate change.
The deflating truth is that even if we somehow stop our CO2 output on a dime (spoiler alert: we won't), the die is cast for the next several decades of increased global warmth. Our flagrant use of fossil fuels in the prior century has created the warming trends of today. And the way we are burning coal and oil in the first half of the 21st century will reflect the terrible climate problems we will experience in the second half (our problems now might only be a sneak preview).
In terms of reducing our carbon footprint and general environmental impact, our individual spirits seems to be willing (people seem to be better educated on the problems with greenhouse gases and the green bin has become a symbol of 'every little bit helps') but the larger flesh is certainly weak (few ironclad and impactful policy changes have been made on national levels, and global commitments like the 2015 Paris Agreements are mostly voluntary, ignored by the world's largest polluters).
Which is frustrating, because now is the time to act. To say that a dengue outbreak will be more likely fifteen years from now is not going to spur people into action.
For all our advances, we are much more a reactive species than we'd like to think. We only make strong preparation and preventative measures after something has gone wrong the first time.
Our plans to have a proper defense against a series of deadly diseases are woefully inadequate. The World Health Organization is the UN agency that would be the first response against not only a global pandemic, but any large scale outbreak also has to be dealt with by the respective countries involved, and a lack of similar plans and infrastructure means containment is that much more difficult (a chain is only as strong as its weakest link).
Rising food prices has already become an unintended consequence of climate change (and a sign of how resource management needs to be addressed), but the even more atrocious price gouging will come in the health care industries that owns the patents to disease treatments. Medicine in one country that costs only a few dollars might cost hundreds somewhere else. Massive corporations that do much of the medical research and development work are publicly traded and 'obligated' not only to provide effective treatment, but also turn a profit.
Just to show that there is no barrel bottom too low for capitalism, investors are pouring money into pharmaceuticals companies that will provide new vaccines for malaria and typhoid, health care remaining a limited, gated resource.
Even in countries where they are able to successfully combat an outbreak, this process costs a huge amount of money, which typically has to be paid for by making cuts in another sector or program, creating further social divisions and civil unrest, leading to more political instability.
Once again, preventative measures at this date can make huge differences (in terms of saving lives and money) in the future. Not just the stockpiling of vaccines (while ensuring they remain effective), but also educating the public, since panic is a form of deadly disease unto itself.
Certainly the bafflingly idiotic anti-vaccination movement doesn't help. Picking and choosing which aspects of science to embrace (all this wonderful telecommunications technology like the know-everything-and-everyone-machine in your back pocket) and which to deride and shun (the medical advances that have prevented millions of deaths and suffering across the globe for decades) is mind-boggling. Court cases have come up recently regarding the rights of parents to not vaccinate their children and whether they can play in public with others. While individual rights have to be respected, there’s a scorched-earth stubbornness to the idea of putting yourself before your community in this respect. There has been medical missteps throughout history, and those that no longer work are thankfully phased out, but vaccinations have consistently been one of the most powerful life-giving tools of the last one hundred years. It’s not something that should be ostracized without substantial proof that there are dangers with taking it.
And on the end, there is overuse. In Kenya, antibiotics are so cheap that they are being taken too often, with 90% of Kenyans in Kibera region using these drugs each year to combat a range of illness from salmonella to typhoid. Over time, the viruses learn to adapt, and the medicines become less effective. It only hurts more that in the West we are feeding most of our antibiotics to livestock.
With disease comes a lot of terrible incidental chaos.
Trade stops, which is not really a concept we are prepared for on larger scales. We take it for granted how incredibly efficient our factory-warehouse-doorstep economy works (notice how we're omitting 'retail store' in that process with increasingly regularity). When it works so well (or we only complain about the odd delivery hiccup), we rarely think about how fragile it is. When too many people are to sick to go to work – or are not permitted to go to work due to quarantine because too many other people are sick – then the part isn’t made, the product isn’t shipped, the good is not received, the money is not exchanged.
And that’s simply the cold capitalist nightmare of this scenario.
If people think immigrants fleeing violence and poverty is bad, wait until we are dealing with immigrants fleeing impartial, indifferent, indomitable diseases.
All of this creates a terrible panic where it isn't exactly clear what is a prudent, difficult discussion and what is a wildly irrational, cruel and overreaching one.
Immediate dismissal of entire regions, which could almost be called bigotry.
Closing borders may be the drastic and only option for a nation's stability, but that guarantees a terrible humanitarian crisis. It might become the only option in the eyes of the authorities, but only because they avoided every other option until then.
If unity is our greatest strength, then disunity would be our greatest weakness.
of chaos are becoming more and more frequent across the globe. The days
right after Hurricane Harvey, or the weeks after a cyclone in
And when you put it in those terms, it's not really a surprise that so many of us don't consider climate change on a daily basis, or just shake our head when we hear or read an article about it.
We are creatures of habit and everything about a slightly warmer planet, stronger storm or a more expensive grocery store trip seems to be a small price to pay. It’s only the sound of a small insect buzzing near our ears that might get our undivided attention.
2018 is over, and what's left for the common man?
Shopping and sports.
'Bread and circuses', as the old roman adage goes, the dismissive but not completely wrong observation that most of public will be happy enough with just those two things and won't care how they're ruled over by the elites.
Forty years ago the challenge for contemporary elites was how to consolidate their power, which invariably required the slow removal of political and economic power from the average person (while power is not nearly so set as energy, which cannot be created or destroyed but just transferred, there is a finite amount of it in a society, and it ebbs and flows from persons and groups in both bloodless and bloody fashions).
Corporate influence, voter suppression, the flood of misinformation. Western democracy was not prepared for these rapid sea changes in the twenty-first century. The assumption was that civilization, individual prosperity and democracy would always move forward. At certain points it would slow down to crawl, or maybe stop briefly, but there was very little belief that we could possibly go backward, and that democracy and prosperity could lessen over time.
The prediction made for China, with its incredible rise to an industrial power house in a generation, was that it would be forced to become more democratic as its middle class grew, that the 'communist' party would have to listen to the people yearning to be free as capitalism flushed it with cash. But this did not come to pass. By madly guarding the flow of money and erecting a high tech police state, the elites running China became even more powerful, money flowing into their personal coffers first, the rest trickling down to the billion below them.
This was enough of a challenge for America and the West in the 1990s and 2000s, but then came Trump, and in less than two years, it revealed how fragile democracy was in a nation that had come to define that form of governance. It wasn't that he was trying to run the most powerful nation on earth as a business, it was that he was running it as his own business. Which means badly, because by almost any metric, Donald Trump is a complete failure as a businessman and moral compass. His only position on anything is: 'me first'.
With the US president alienating his party, denigrating his political opponents, insulting global allies, and praising dictators, other nations were emboldened to start stamping out freedoms in their own backyard, or continue the process at an accelerated pace.
The gulf between the rulers and ruled is widening. The individual feels like they matter less in the modern world, that their political voice is drowned out by more powerful forces and interests. So they turn to sports and movies more fully. Not as a hobby, now an integral part of how you define yourself as a person in your community. It's easy to debate just how much a single person's vote/purchasing power really mattered in various states over the last five decades, but it's even easier to debate the latest player trade, the ref's call last night, or a team's playoff potential (or the latest movie trailer, the box office returns last weekend, or how a studio bungled a superhero's story arc).
It's a positive feedback loop. The less power we have in politics, the more we turn to our pastimes, so we pay attention to politics evens less, which diminishes our power in that arena even more. Even worse, these pleasurable distractions are covered in the media as intently and thoroughly as other major news stories (or in some sad cases, with more attention than important issues and developments in our world).
But it's so easy to do this. To put off the important things and spend more time with frivolities (Sartre would say are fleeing responsibility because we find it an existential burden). We follow the rule of the universe, the law of laziness: entropy.
Studies have shown that if people are watching a video on YouTube, they're less likely to switch to another video site or service, even if the other has exactly what they want. They'll just stick with whatever else they find on YouTube. And YouTube content - owned by Google/Alphabet - will always be more pastime than politics.
A concentration of corporate power and its outsized influence on those that formulate the laws and regulations of a more complex and unitary global society means the informed citizen is not simply less frequent but also less relevant.
Everything has become background, including the news.
For years, TV/radio networks accepted the news division as the one area that would typically operate a loss. That the money spent to broadcast the news and have journalists and crews all over the world would not be matched by the advertising revenue made during the program. It was tacit agreement that the news - keeping people informed - was a responsibility, not a money maker. The belief that was part of a TV network’s DNA, and making money with other programming was meant to balance it out.
Rupert Murdoch and Fox took the same approach to sports, and didn't even bother having a national news division (Fox News would be a separate cable channel entirely). Murdoch bid astronomical amounts for NFL broadcasting rights in the early nineties, which guaranteed that for the first several years, the network would lose money on it. They saw the NFL as an important enough cog in the network machine that they would take the loss and make up for it in other ways.
Sports replaced the news. Everything is covered and analyzed like they’re sports. Politics, science, sports, gossip. Everything has become strategy and numbers. 'Adjusting the figures' is a horrendous euphemism to warp reality to what power desires.
Which really means everything has become capitalism.
The news has become divided, with people having the option of choosing which delivery method and perspective already supports what they want to believe. We can live in our own reality, even if it's not representative of reality. And with this, actual change for a better society is that much more difficult to attain. Which is depressing, and makes us go further into our reality, creating a vicious circle where change seems more difficult than ever.
Meanwhile, sports can change. Sports change quickly. Change in real life moves at a snail's pace, and we are being conditioned thanks to instantaneous technology to except everything immediately. It is the act of projecting what we can no longer experience in our real, day-to-day lives upon a game, a past-time, an event that we have all decided means a lot to all of us, because so many other things in our community (functioning infrastructure, gainful and steady employment, affordable housing, healthcare, goods and services, etc.) no longer do.
Sometimes people riot over this. For both sports and politics. Recent football riots in Argentina and Italy have left scores injured, pitted police against passionate/violent fans, and left millions of dollars worth of damage (in a unique article for Deadspin, Haisley laments the corporatization of the sport, pitting intense South American passions against clinical European bureaucracy). Meanwhile, in France, there are political protests that have devolved into near-riots, because of austerity measures that are being enacted. The 'yellow-vests' (as they're known, for that exact attire many of them wear) were then courted by the right and left political parties of the country, saying they represent the marchers' concerns the best, promising everything under the sun to alleviate their concerns and make [insert your country here] great again.
Which is what you have to say as a politician now.
It is near-political suicide to tell people that they can't have it all, that the world is changing in a way that how you spend money affects people on the other side of the world and vice-versa, and that your idea of what a nation is and can do has to change as well. And if you do want significant reform, it's not just at the ballot box but a near daily participation in politics and personal spending, since that's where power resides. It's 'constant vigilance' to ensure that the ship of democracy is on course, and that special interests don't take the wheel.
Saying all this doesn’t gain any sort of traction on the campaign trail anymore.
That 'crazy empty promises' won out against 'practical and reasonable
changes' in 2016 (and in many elections since then across the globe) is
disappointing for so many reasons, from the complete inability to enact
said crazy promises, to acknowledging that there is a huge swath of the
populace who thought they were good ideas in the first place. And recent
reactions to this (notably in the
Blaming Clinton for losing to Trump is reducing elections to sporting events, winning votes being equated with scoring points, regardless of whatever policy or claim was used to win said vote. That Trump connected with voters in the Rust belt better than Clinton did, that she stumbled in embracing the Bernie Sanders supporters, that each counter the other’s point or accusation properly. All of it treated like it was a playoff tournament or boxing match. Which is not at all how politics should be engaged with. It's not supposed to be unilateral, with candidates wooing reluctant or indifferent voters with cheap talk and impossible promises.
Yet candidates shouldn't do all the heavy lifting. Each citizen owes it democracy to learn about the people running for office, what their policies are, what their experience is, and what their character is like. The information is available, and it's also the responsibility of the citizen to parse the misinformation from the facts. For all the problems with mainstream media in their coverage of politics, it should be noted that most American citizens don't even pay attention to CNN, Fox News, or the New York Times. 70% of people get their most of their news from Facebook and Google. Which is terrifying. War stories alongside cat photos in your newsfeed.
More people need to step up and pay attention and vote beyond their simple 'feeling'. There are many, many other problems that have created a crisis in democracy (money in every aspect of the political machines, from elections to lobbying, bureaucratic inefficiency, hyper-partisan voting, gerrymandering), and one of the key tools the public can use to fix these problems in participating in politics by being well-informed and voting.
At least Trump's naked awfulness has exposed these problems bare. For most of the last forty years or so, the process to dismantle democracy and enrich the wealthy has been a shadowy and clinical coup.
And so with that we say goodbye to, 'a kinder, gentler machine gun hand'.
So sayeth Neil Young in his 1989 hit 'Rockin' in a Free World', a sneering indictment of the Reagan-Bush era (though at one point in the early eighties he kinda supported them, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. I mean, I can't think of another genius-eccentric music artist around today that weirdly threw his support behind Trump and then swore him off not much later. Nope, can't think of anyone). To really drive the point home, Young used one of 41st president's better known phrases: 'we got a thousand points of light'... for the homeless man. Then he adds, 'we got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand' (in live performances, he's occasionally replaced 'machine gun' with 'policeman').
George HW Bush died earlier this month, and he leaves a complicated legacy. Most writers contrasted his politeness and bipartisanship with the behaviour of the current president, but that's just the tip of iceberg. He's done a lot for his country (starting with his military service), and he did a hell of a lot more to other countries (starting with military interventions across the globe that killed hundreds of thousands innocent people). He came off as a friendly, modest man. He also came out against civil rights, homosexuals, and the poor. He was a family man who sexually assaulted random women. Had no problem making millions off of oil and then weapons sales, and no problem jailing millions for doing drugs.
And this is what Young meant with that line.
George Bush did terrible things with an easy-going handshake and awkward but supposedly well-meaning smile.
And that's the danger. Proclaiming freedom while dropping bombs on other countries. Passing off 'business friendly' legislation as something that will ultimately help the assembly line worker or cashier (it won't). Whipping up empty culture wars and scandals to bring out the religious vote. PR-proofing terrible ideas. George Bush did corporate, compassionate conservatism better than his son, and the entire world is ultimately worse off for it.
And because this position doesn't help the middle and lower classes at all, of course the public rejected all iterations of it in 2016 - including when it was in the form of Jeb Bush - and went with a wild card named Donald Trump. Who took all the bad ideas of 'corporate, compassionate conservatism' one moronic step further, with the bonus of being an ignorant asshole.
Familiar global agreements and accords are crumbling, angry nativism is on the rise, the very concept of steady employment is going through an identity crisis, and most damning of all is that an entire war/humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen and it's barely being talked about.
This situation needs to change, and if the politicians are beholden mainly to the wealthy then the vast majority of humanity must learn how to channel their numerical power into a worthwhile and effective fashion. That will help us move forward. That will define who we truly are and we can accomplish together.
But to end the review on an even more horrifying note, what we know or think we know is falling to pieces. That 'fake news' has become a kneejerk dismissal of anything that you don't agree with means it can be tossed at any graph, statistic, anecdote, or video clip that supports the initial proposition (and this not a new phenomenon - 'Russian interference' is what America now calls what it did across the developing world for decades - but its pervasiveness is appalling). What does it matter if the president or CEO or monarch lies if nothing is done about it, if there's enough unyielding support for them no matter what they do?
Today, nothing means anything more than ever.
We do not have a handle on the transmission of accurate, useful information to the billions of people on the planet. As mentioned above, the public needs to take action, but it's doubly depressing that any attempt to simply educate oneself is fraught with its own dangers.
Where being aware of the disinformation is part of the process.
It is expected by the powerful that you do this. To doubt the information presented, to encourage cynicism and malaise. And this is dangerous because it feeds into our already lazy, pastime-loving inclinations. And it is hard shackle to remove.
Whether you accept the information presented immediately because it confirms your pre-existing worldview, or whether you question it's veracity, the 'presenter' (whether a politician or app) of the information wins either way. To return to McLuhan: the medium is the message. For the sake of the messages, we need better mediums in 2019 and beyond.
Culture-ish things that were good this year
Audio: Daytona - Pusha T (beats), The Sciences - Sleep (blunts), Aviary - Julia Holter (beautiful)
Visual: The Other Side of the Wind (movie), Celeste (video game), Big Mouth (show)
(One of those gripping headlines)
It's been dying a slow death the last few years. The last financial collapse caused an aneurysm, and the middle class slipped into a coma from which it would never recover. We are on last rites. This comes off as hyperbole simply because we are attributing descriptions of recognizable human behaviour and events (albeit terrible ones) to a sprawling, multi-faceted assembly of statistics that are connected to the presumed finances of billions of people.
That 'The Middle Class' is such a complex concept that differs from person to person. There is not a single definition of it that people of all political leanings can agree upon (is it income-based or ownership-based, does it designate between individual and family, how much is geography a factor, or inflation, or even larger political forces that designate what you are able do in society).
Which comes in handy for those that would like to deny there's a problem at all, or at least not the sort of problem that should be fixed with several large-scale reforms to the global economic system (or at least in certain nations or regions that have a inordinately large influence on the rest of the world’s financial well-being).
The rapid rise of digital and AI technologies coupled with very narrow corporate ownership of these and other dominant industries (financial, energy, medicinal) means we are in the midst of a funnelling of wealth from the many to the few.
But this occurrence and its adjacent dangers are frequently overshadowed by trumpets of Wall Street’s constant bullishness, and record low unemployment rate.
Fortune 500 and Nasdaq-listed companies have found that with advanced technology and automation, workers are becoming more expendable and replaceable, more akin to expensive office furniture than actual human beings.
For every supposed new perk for the workers ($15 minimum wage at Amazon), there's a give and take (no more stock options, less performance bonuses). There should be constant worry that corporations and not the government are going to be dictating working conditions going forward. For all the good intentions a company’s founders might have regarding its employees, the larger and more successful it gets the more it is beholden to turn a constant profit for its investors.
Speaking of which, Wall Street is becoming less and less of a barometer of the conditions on Main Street. Manufacturing is done wherever it is cheapest in the world, transport is becoming more and more automated, and purchases are increasingly being made online. Fewer and fewer people are involved in this process of consumerism, and that means fewer and fewer people have jobs that would give them the means to participate in this process. Not buying from Wal-Mart or Amazon is sometimes the most political act people can do outside of voting, since buying from those behemoths creates a feedback loop of choosing the lowest price for something regardless of what its effects might be to the greater economy. It creates a race-to-the-bottom in terms of convenience and price, which means employees at these companies are squeezed even more so.
But this isn’t really an issue that is addressed in a serious degree in the halls of power. Every politician will take any sort of good economic news as a win, even if it only affects stockholders.
This gap between management and workers has consequences that go far beyond simply the size of paycheque and bonuses. The psychological gap between the boss who is being forced by their bosses to treat the people as living cogs that have to meet sales and production deadlines should not be understated, but frequently is. But once you bring in concerns like emotional health and stress, there is a dismissiveness by the higher-ups, because it is a variable that is hard to quantify and could interrupt the flow of business. ‘At least you have a job’, some might say.
Oh, we're working. The unemployment rate is at historic lows.
But the pay doesn't cut it. Not for the commodities that for decades have defined a healthy and robust middle class. A mortgage, a car, any sort of retirement savings plan, all of these things are becoming the exception and not the norm.
City streets lined with coffee shops, barber shops, and then empty
storefronts. Small business can certainly still fail, but a massive bank
or tech giant needs to be protected at all costs with government money.
Living off credit.
Who thinks this situation is sustainable? The ‘great recession’ came about ten years ago (people defaulted on housing loans, and like any massive sprawling mess, the fingers can be pointed at so many people along the line), and only the very wealthy came out better, with the hundreds of millions of people across the globe not only losing sizable portions of what could possibly count for retirement savings, but the idea of job security as well.
The flatlining will come in the next global financial collapse, which will permanently eradicate a demographic that seemed to define the American/Western dream of the 20th century.
The house of cards that is the global economy might teeter with Trump's ridiculous trade wars, if China calls in some of the debt it's bought from America over the years as retaliation. Toss in Brexit and South American currencies in flux to the fire.
Now everyone is going to default on some or all of the multiple credit cards they own, which simply pays for rent, groceries, phone bill and a transit pass (necessities that free-market capitalists seem to call luxuries).
Populism has grabbed a hold of the low/working class, but it's being dragged in a counterproductive direction. Populism focuses on simplicity, and the problems that require attention are an intricate series of international trade agreements and domestic tax policies that differ greatly from nation to nation.
There is a disconnection (Marx might called it alienation) between people and how products and services are manufactured and delivered to them in the early twentieth century. To set a series of statutes or tariffs on foreign goods entering your country requires an extensive awareness on the greater effects it will have not only on your nation, but on the one you're directly negotiating with, and all the other nations (and agreements) that will be indirectly influenced.
The inability to effectively make reforms – from restraining banks to increasing taxes – means that there is starting to become an overclass and an underclass. The new feudalism. A noble class of very wealthy that supports a particular economic system instead of a monarch. Below them is a thin, grossly shrunken layer of professionals and politicians that are not powerful enough to change the system even if they wanted to.
And then it's the other 90% of us.
In several regions of the globe, this new underclass is actually the
higher plateau hundreds of millions of people reached after climbing out
of extreme poverty. The economic success stories of Asia, predominantly
For the West, it is a step down.
The postwar democratic governments created the modern middle class, and they are the only institutions big enough to save it.
Despite private corporations playing a larger and larger role in every aspect of modern life (and sometimes contracted by the government to do so), the primary responsibility for these companies is to increase value for shareholders, not to make human civilization better for future generations.
That’s more the role of governments, but even these jobs no longer offer the pay or security to allow for a middle class existence. Part of the restructuring of many Western governments over the years is enacting tax cuts supposedly meant to help all citizens (but doesn’t), and to pay for this there is the process of austerity, which involves cutting spending for social programs (which helped people out of poverty) and cutting the amount and quality of jobs within various institutions (meaning they aren’t properly staffed, which creates more government dysfunction).
We're two or three quiet pieces of legislation away from 1984, and not just the dystopic Orwellian nightmare, but in terms of taking a step thirty four years backwards, to that time's permitted levels of pollution, ‘greed is good’ mindset and Cold War tensions.
Conservative orthodoxy states that government is too big, too inefficient, and too expensive. And the language used here is what we should really reflect upon. 'Orthodoxy' is an inflexible position, which is shockingly inefficient in a world that needs a quickly adaptable and nimble decision-making process.
This especially true now that ‘mini recessions’ are now a quantifiable occurrence, focusing in particular economic regions (even within one country) and on one particular industry. In 2016, fluctuating energy prices meant the demand for equipment needed in energy industries dropped and all who invested and worked in it felt the squeeze for about two years. These interruptions that costs people their jobs and livelihoods are another terrible thing that is becoming normalized. To not get full media attention, to not get average people protesting, to not even be addressed in congress or parliament. To just be forgotten.
Even worse is the attempt to pass anti-middle class legislation under the media radar.
The US House of Representatives passed a bill attempting to make last year’s tax cuts (which benefits the wealthy) permanent, while everyone else was frothing over the seemingly endless Kavanaugh hearing.
Politicians can destroy a government program within one election cycle, but to successfully build one from scratch and have it be used with expected frequency by the public can take several years to a couple campaigns. And if a candidate who is against the program is elected, they can dismantle or cut its funding, and now it's only legacy was a waste of money.
A healthy middle class ensures for a healthier and responsible government. The more diverse and varied group of citizens which have influence upon the government, the better living standards for an even more diverse and varied group of people.
The disconnect between what the government does and what people thinks it does (or doesn’t do) is a problem that is strangling the middle class.
Taxes pay for your community. When you cut taxes, your community suffers.
Teaching supplies, pot holes, prison guards, lines at the post office/DMV, it is these details that can affect people on every rung of the economic ladder. Demanding tax increases is not an indictment of wealth. It is an indictment of concentrated wealth.
It is alarming at how few powerful political or corporate figures realize that this situation is untenable, that in an interconnected, globalized society, a collapse of buying power for hundreds of millions of people (in a geographic region that many companies have relied for decades to wholly embrace consumerism), will affect absolutely everyone. Including the very wealthy, who own these companies that depend on constant profits. It will create both economic and political instability in a world that is already splintering in these ways.
From this same group there is the turning of a very influential blind eye away from the middle class plight, the demographic that the wealthy depend on to continue to buy and meet their bills, which allows this 1% to make their own millions.
For all capitalism's virtues, there are many sins, and one is almost certainly profiting off the selling of products that will enjoyed by the populace, also have devastating effects on the health and safety of the community and the society at large (from burning fossil fuels to gambling to cigarettes). And while in no way is this to suggest these items be prohibited, they shouldn't necessarily make other people extremely wealthy.
Doubly vile are the companies that can profit from withholding good things from the populace. Health insurance companies try to avoiding paying for a patient's health care, and give their employees bonuses for more claims they deny.
It's the new gilded age. The overwhelming influence in the halls of the power by robber barons we're now supposed to quietly defer to. Companies can get bloated and take ridiculous risks that are somehow underwritten by the government (ie, us) when they crater spectacularly.
[history lesson begins]
Post Civil-War, American reconstruction was helped along by the Industrial Revolution, which was screaming along throughout the West, changing how nations operated at their very core, with democracies replacing monarchies, while a small group of wealthy business owners accrued an obscene amount of power. In the 1920s the economy roared, but eventually the world looked down and saw that it was all shit, which was the Great Depression, followed by, thanks to upheavals across the rest of the globe, World War II.
And the war had to be fought for something, not just against the fascist
ideals of the Axis Powers. The West embraced heavily regulated capitalism
while the East tried out semi-communism (since in
reforms that were enacted in the wake of the Great Depression, the middle
class in North America expanded,
But even before Soviet Russia broke apart, there were pushes to cut taxes and deregulate, and these two mantras have directed Western economic policy for nearly forty years. And that’s enough time to wipe out the gains made in the forty years’ previous, under a completely different economic policy.
[history lesson ends]
‘Feels like a lifetime’ shouldn’t be a throwaway line to express slowness. It needs to be a reminder that just because a lifetime (and what happened during that period) is all one person remembers, it doesn’t mean life always was or will always be that same way. For most people alive today, they were born into a globe that was improving living standards – certainly some places much quicker than others – for a majority of its citizens.
Success has been so prevalent and so strongly marketed to us that people will vote for the perception of success over the reality of failure. In one sense, it's good to see that we have the capacity to hope for the best, to believe that things will always get better going forward. But to not acknowledge the collapse of the middle class right before our eyes is to run right off the cliff like the end of 1920s.
The changes to the capitalist system over the last several decades have occurred comparatively slowly, but its effects are becoming more acute and devastating. The lack of proper understanding of this group of interrelated problems means little chance of solving them. A rapid expansion of interest and therefore knowledge of the current plight of the middle class by the middle class itself can still it save it from almost certain ruin. Participation not only in elections but how citizens spend their money can make great strides changing the way we move forward.
Sustainable should not just a description of a type of energy. It should describe economics as well. And it is from a revitalized middle class that this sustainability can flow.
Maybe we never actually had it. Maybe it just felt that way.
Or maybe we did, but its takeover by giant corporate blobs who could write all its rules was an inevitable conclusion, one that only the most pessimistic techno-futurists predicted.
Yes, we could communicate with anyone, anywhere. We could watch movies and have dog toys and dildos delivered to our doorstep. But there are a lot of terribly shitty things we can do with it, too. And suddenly the news of that became all we thought of when it came to the Internet, all the good things quickly being taken for granted.
Consequently, we only sought out what pleased us, what was familiar and agreeable to us. We were able to construct virtual worlds and websites and apps full of only what we wanted. Our bubbles are only strengthening. They're becoming balloons, and soon might up titanium spheres of ideas and toleration: Only one with an identical thought and opinion can enter and engage with you.
For most of human history, we were afraid of the mysterious other, the physical presence of the stranger who - because we don't know them, cannot outright trust them - we believe might do us harm. Stay close to your home, trust your family and neighbours, beyond that, it was a dangerous world.
Now we can be afraid of the less ethereal menace: the mysterious idea. It's a truth no one wants to believe because it shatters what he or she already think. It's a lie told incessantly, until enough people believe it's true. A digital reality can be bent, warped, and deceptively altered much easier than the world we walk through everyday, since we can at least agree when the sky is blue.
And this time the mysterious other, in digital form, can remain a mystery for longer. We can shrug and say that cyberbullying isn't a bad as actual bullying (where there is always the chance of being physically attacked), but since people are always connected, are always cyber, it's just bullying by another name. You'll never know which forms of harassment or threat to take seriously, you don't know if it’s a group effort to discredit your name or just a bunch a trolls out for the lulz that afternoon. Our human perception systems adapted over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with the physical world, but humanity has always been bad at quickly adapting to new technologies. The Industrial Revolution accelerated technological progress and dragged people from a rural to urban (or agricultural to industrial) society. It started and finished empires, saw basic rights being given and taken away, thrust a great many people into and out of poverty, and ultimately lead to two catastrophic wars and a Great Depression.
And that was when the Industrial Revolution was mainly affecting the Western World. Throughout the twenty century, different regions across the globe received their own factories, small appliances, and rules of international capitalism, at different times.
The digital revolution once against started in the West, but it has crisscrossed and influenced the globe at a much, much faster pace.
Western companies like Google and Amazon begat global counterparts Baidu and AliBaba, and Facebook is growing fastest in Asia and South America.
We work digital, we shop digital, we entertain digital, we fuck digital. And while we step out of this realm to do similar things in the real world, the latter is becoming more and more of an option, not the essential.
It's getting to the abnormal point where you're not a trusted member of society if you don't have a easily follow-able and detailed social media presence/identity. A presence/identity that can quickly be co-opted, denigrated, misconstrued, threatened, hijacked, and scammed out of money and power.
Even if you don't have Facebook, or tweet or 'gram, you've almost certainly have an email address and have bought something online. Facebook itself makes fake, semi-hypothetical profiles for the friends of users who have not yet signed up.
Information has a value that waxes and wanes, but the matter now is that all of this information exists, since even the concept of 'deletion' is not the same as it once was. Everything is saved somewhere, and when you delete your account of a popular social media site, it's usually just put on ice until you come crawling back. 'The right to be forgotten' was a big legal issue in Europe regarding google searches, but that's only the tip of the iceberg.
The speed and immediacy of news being promulgated across the digital realm means the most eye-catching headlines and rubbernecker-type story will get the most clicks. Accuracy be damned. Fact checking takes time and a team, two things most news publications don't have in 2018. Now the first report is the only report. Any sort of correction might pop up hours or days later, but by this time the misinformation (whether intentional or accidental) is out there, being shared by those who agreed, and shunned and slimed by those who don't.
With these grave concerns, it is essential that government institutions monitor and regulate these aspects of the community - just as they do the same thing for the towns, cities, and natural spaces across their nation - to make sure it's serving the populace in the most responsible and moral way as possible.
Unfortunately, several recent decisions and corresponding scandals suggest that the government is unable to perform this duty, certainly not without a lot of difficulty and corporate interest.
That Net Neutrality is still a controversy in the world's wealthiest, most powerful nation shows the power that corporations have in leaning on politicians, sometimes bending around the usual checks and balances of, say, elections, and simply having lobbyists write legislation itself. Internet Service Providers continually reassure the public that charging websites on a sliding scale and not the current 'neutral price for everyone' will not result in them abusing this newfound power, but anyone who believes that is a fool or being paid handsomely by Internet Service Providers.
But privacy rights and Net Neutrality is not what people necessarily think about when it comes to the Internet. Usually it's what your best friend did on their vacation, or the hot meme take of the day. Facebook is MySpace with a better interface and better timing. Facebook came with an initial exclusivity - had to be university/college students - that immediately made it more appealing. And the slow roll out of allowing everyone else on earth to join helped keep it fresh.
But Facebook is 'just' a webpage of yourself, just like those clunky geocities pages early Internet fans were making in the mid nineties. Pictures of yourself and what your doing some of your likes, and links to them. That's it. Facebook's newsfeed made it easy for 'friends' (and on Facebook 'friends' should always be a term used loosely) to see similar things. Its proliferation is what truly made it a self-contained community bulletin board of just your friends, your likes, your interests. It became a town, with your favourite restaurants and stores building pages, along with celebrities and politicians you might be interest in.
And for how nice and idyllic that sounds, Facebook has a problem, and that problem is that it's a publicly traded company that needs to make money, and the only way it can do that is through advertising, and it can't be choosy over what company wants to plaster virtual billboards on people's pages. Or, y'know, what shadowy, wealthy group of people want to do it. And just so these companies/Russian oligarchs get the biggest bang for their buck, Facebook will sell your data as part of a pricing plan (Or let you operate a data gathering program while it looks the other way).
Hence every bad thing you've read about Facebook, in, say, the last two years.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal will taint the company for a long time to come, and it will be viewed negatively by the large swaths of people who made it a household name in the first place. It is the breach of trust of the public square, one used by billions of people, but its users have very little actual say in how it runs since it is incessantly trying to make money off these people in oblique and annoying ways.
Social media and the online community is in control of a handful of corporations, whose main goal is not simply betterment of society, but turning a profit. And these two goals consistently clash. Ideally, the government is the dominant player in the 'betterment of society' game, but they've been constantly kneecapped in recent decades.
Corporations cannot be gatekeepers of the community, even though this has been the result of the breakneck pace of capitalism (especially the venture/vulture kind) of the last thirty-plus years. Google always propped up the 'don't be evil' mantra, but they jettisoned that line from their mission statements since doing more and more work for the department of defense and the CIA.
Indeed, the idea of breaking up parts of Facebook (since it owns interrelated companies such as Instagram, Occulus VR, and WhatsApp) has been floated. It is not to big too fail, but has enough money to drag any sort of legal challenge through the courts for many, many years (everyone forgets that Microsoft successfully deployed this tactic in the nineties during their anti-trust problems). And don’t even bother bringing up the possibility of Facebook stockholders taking a haircut (a lovely euphemism for losing a shitload of money).
The problem was that Facebook was extremely irresponsible. But what if we made websites responsible? Well, we're on the cusp of that, too. Even more damaging than online propaganda is the legislation in the US that passed just after Zuckerberg's testimony, the FOSTA-SESTA Acts.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the intention for this act is as positive and important as it gets - protecting the victims of sex trafficking online - but the way it does so, gives an incredible amount of power to the companies that own websites upon which individuals post their own content (from a comment on a messageboard, or an uploaded video).
Websites like Craiglist, Reddit, Facebook and pretty much every other website can now be held liable if something a user post results in a crime. The idea behind this is that in the case of sex trafficking, these websites will quickly take down any posts that might be related to this horrible practice because they could possibly be charged in criminal and/or civil court essentially as accessories, because by operating the website they enabled the crime to happen (even if they didn't intend to).
It is good way to pressure a website to do this.
But the ramifications are mindboggling. The language used in the law is so open-ended (whether this is intentional or accidental is yet be seen), that it can applied not just to sex-trafficking, not just to discussing criminal behaviour, but discussing anything at all that a website would be concerned could cost them money or result in criminal charges.
The government puts the responsibility on them, and in response they shirk away from it by passing said responsibility down to the individual vendors or profile. And if there is any concern that the vendor or profile is a liability for them, they'll remove the account with little deliberation.
It will be a 'delete first, ask questions later (or never)' policy.
We are giving more and more of what we consider our identities and rights to a small group of corporations, who are being given more and more power to do with them what they want. And since their primary intention is profit, any negatives that might come with this technocratic system are just acceptable risks, even if it severely damages human interaction between individuals, political groups, and nations. It didn't take long for real world divisions to be mirrored in the digital realm, and the internet easily allows for these divisions to widen and accelerate.
Identity and citizen-hood is a hotly debated topic right now in the form of global immigration reform, as well as online. The underlying concerns of changes in immigration laws (who the community believes should be allowed to enter and who must be refused) shouldn't, at first glance, transfer to the digital realm, because in the world of endless bytes of information there is enough space (in both literal and proverbial senses) for everyone. But there is still overlap because we still exist in both. We can be removed from and shunned in countries just as easy we can be in message boards and Destiny II game lobbies.
We are close to point where making comments about the real world will begin to become not nearly as popular as the comments regarding the virtual one. Which means it will be easier to be anyone in the latter. In certain virtual realms, your online identity can look and act nothing like your real self. You can be an outstanding public citizen and rat-bastard online troll. And if you tell someone to do something online as a troll, how responsible are you if they go and do it?
The link from your online self to your real self will be a central question about human rights in the years to come. How should your actions of your online identity reflect and impact your physical identity?
It’s these sorts of concerns - along with identity hacking, since soon it might be someone else pretending to be you online, not only with purchases, but with your online behaviour - that could lead us to a much more dystopic form of connection.
We're getting closer and closer to the point where the horrors of having a new form of digital ID that is 'on' constantly so you can be surveilled in both physical and cyberspace will appear to outweigh the horrors of not being constantly surveilled.
(The italics are important)
Proving who you are and what you've done has become more difficult as more and more of life's activities are done in the virtual realm. The Internet has made it easier to impersonate other people, and possible for computer programs to impersonate other people. Cyber security experts have typically been behind the curve on stopping the latest form of exploitation, but that's partly due to the populace's woeful inability to determine authentication.
If hacking events become more common, widespread and devastating, a movement supported by world governments and powerful industries/corporations will be a sort of 'universal ID' that's not a card, but a chip (of course!) implanted in the skin, or a skintight sleeve on your forearm, that corresponds with a blockchain of data that is 'you' in virtual form.
(The short film 'Hyperreality', by Matsuda is excellent distillation of this sort of overwhelming and disconcerting experience)
But at least all of this - corporate greed, privacy breaches, odious online behaviour - are human activities. Just 21st century examples of how we've acted for thousands of years. The real unknown danger of computer technology (and certainly gummed up with what the Internet hath wrought) is Artificial Intelligence.
A surprise to no one who's ever had a whiff of sci-fi interest (or had a yammering friend with one), ones and zeros aren't just here to play chess. And we can picture all the action films about it how it's all gone bad, but rarely pay attention to real news of today, which tells us how we are making computer programs more like us.
We are developing AIs that can dream. We are making AI play Doom, and seeing how they learn, how they make decisions regarding picking up a chainsaw and slicing up a demon. We are having AI's study games that people are playing, in order for them to learn about reality and people.
We are acting as teachers and parents for lines of code that is being taught how to write its own lines of code. This sort of replication is similar to how DNA replicates the information that makes up life, just at much, much more basic level (for now. Scientists have recently been able to built a complete computer replica of a very, very tiny worm's brain).
And if your reaction is 'that's amazing', or 'that's terrifying', or 'I don't care', don't worry. It doesn't matter how you react. The development of AI is moving forward full steam ahead. It's going to happen. We just have to grapple with a massive uncertainty looming in the soon to be close horizon. The main problem with the existence of an advanced artificial intelligence (advanced in comparison to human intelligence) is we ultimately hit the wall of the unknown with regards of how it will act when it becomes activated/aware.
We cannot conceive how an intelligence of this sort will consider us. We can perhaps make some guesses, but we have no definitive certainty as to how it will act. We knew how basic computer technology acted because we programmed it how to act. And now much of AI research is designed to assist in the computer technology to essentially program/teach itself.
We're losing our ability to predict the behaviour of artificial intelligence.
Which is why we have to be incredibly careful in terms of developing it. It's dangerous in a way that nuclear war and climate change isn't. We have concrete plans to combat both the possibility of nuclear war and climate change (although we're not using the latter very much). We can't really create a plan to deal with advanced AI. Because what it might conceive is beyond what we humans could ever conceive.
And when it's put into such terms - term that can't help but be abstract - it's no wonder they we then turn inward into the very specific comfort we've decided these machines should give us. Forgetting the massive world problems that we seem powerless to affect by watching another clip, playing another round. We're still at the point of luxury, where we use the Internet for an escape. Soon it might get to the point where we are going to build the Matrix ourselves, no evil AI required. We'll 'enslave' ourselves because reality is just too much to deal with, especially if it's a great deal (or, if we continue to destroy the planet and use up its resources at an alarming rate, we couldn't live 'outside' even if we wanted to). The Internet may be one vast library of information, but we'll prefer the stuff we already think we know, thank you very much.
Ignorance is bliss, especially the kind you build yourself.
Boo Facebook (Taibbi):
(Mother lode link)
[In terms of 'big picture' topics, this is as 'biggest picture' as it gets]
A small ship flying through space clearly not made by our human technology lands (or crash lands) on earth. Inside are no biological creatures but a basic computer program and/or holographic projection that plays on repeat. It is a message from an alien species with audiovisual images and aids to convey information regarding basic scientific understanding of matter, energy, and light, as well as its launching location in the galaxy.
This is the most likely way we'll find out about intelligent life somewhere else in the universe.
And a great many things would change about human civilization and how we see ourselves...and some things won't change at all.
Forget simply how we decide to address this going forward in terms of political decisions or scientific discoveries. What does this say about humans as a species?
We're not alone, we're not as smart or advanced as we thought (since we could only compare ourselves to monkeys and dolphins), apparently God in its infinite wisdom neglected to tell us that it created life far, far away, we've been destroying ourselves and our planet to varying degrees for millennia wasting so much time and effort looking viciously inward when we should be reaching harmoniously outward, and we've been consumed by petty politics and personal concerns instead of truly addressing larger questions and taking the steps to answer them.
Aliens? What are they? Are there photos or videos of them in the message they've sent us? Can we ascertain if they're carbon based life-forms from what see? If we examine what we've sent out into space, the human image sent in the Arecibo message is a two-dimensional block character, and even the illustration on the Voyager plaque is pretty damn narrow representation of ourselves (a couple bent lines to create two healthy naked Caucasians). We know we're not flat, but who knows what an alien species would think if they saw it. Similarly, our biological/cultural prejudices may simply assume that we would be dealing with Star Wars/Trek type aliens, that look mostly humanoid, when they could possibly look like rocks, or even clouds of sentient gas that might be able to assemble matter telepathically (this may sound far-fetched, but c'mon...we're already talking about aliens). Hydrogen, helium, oxygen, and carbon are the four most common elements found in the universe, so it's likely that those four are involved in the biological makeup of all complex life forms, but 'likely' isn't 'definitely'. It also doesn't help that dark matter/energy almost make up a sizeable chunk of mass in the universe, so if they are more advanced than us, maybe they're made of elements we've been unable to observe and therefore comprehend.
So all we've done has to be reconsidered. We've 'conquered' our own planet, but have still been asking 'why are we here?'. And now the answer might be, 'to get there' (and we point in the general direction of the sky where the ship came from).
And that's a huge undertaking, because while we're not alone, our new friends (let's be positive from the start, right?) are almost certainly very, very far away. If they weren't able to make the trip themselves and had to send a letter instead, chances are that it would take a heck of a long time before we had the technology to send a similar sort of unmanned ship, let alone one with a crew few of human representatives (considering that in early 2018 we only have loose plans to make it to our closest planetary neighbour, let alone star system neighbour). It's definitely something to work towards, and maybe would give our space programs a good swift kick in their collective asses, but it'll be our descendants who arrive on [insert planet here], not us.
Which might be a world full of dead creatures. Maybe the ship was sent so long ago they all died out by the time it reached us, or by the time we made out our way over there.
Understanding outer space distances (and the time it takes to traverse them) can quickly get depressing. Even during the age of exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries, earthly distances were small and effortless compared to the other stars (and the planets orbiting them) in our galaxy (and we had air as we voyaged across our oceans, which were full of food, and there wasn't any pesky cancer causing radiation).
So of course we're going to take that ship apart down the molecules, since it was able to make the trip here in tact (and let's ignore the high and heartbreaking possibility that it might land in the ocean, sink like a stone, and nobody ever notices it). We would have an international team working on this, with the imperative of sharing everything they discover with the public. And what we collectively find can change the future of our entire species.
How does it work, what is made out of, how are the parts joined/fastened/fused together, what's the propulsion system, is the most basic form of energy they're using a sort of 'nuclear fusion in a double AA battery', or are they already using what we call ‘warp drive’ (scheduled to arrive on earth in 2300AD)? Five years after it crash lands on earth, have we modified our technologies and not only travelled further into our own solar system, but completely revamped how we create/use energy here on earth?
On the other hand, it would be quite amusing if the technology they sent is actually not as good as our own (maybe some super durable metal so it can survive space for a very long time and an 12v battery with a lot of life in it, but that's all). It's as if Voyager 1 or 2 gets intercepted and found by alien life, and they still think we're using mid-seventies equipment.
Any sort of levity in this situation will be welcome. It would be a comparably relatable moment (as it would suggest the alien beings are not perfect, god-like entities, but creatures which have their own limits and flaws), since everything else would careen from outright joy to pure terror. There's intelligent life in the galaxy! (Joy) What do we do? What might they do? (Terror)
Yet life on earth might not change much at first. Everyone still having to go to work the next day, etc. Even with the world's governments agreeing to some sort of plan moving forward (reach out to the location of the alien species, work on our own planet's defensive capabilities, both?), it's not going to immediately change the machinations of international commerce, or beget world peace. Of course people in several professions will have their work turned upside down directly because of this discovery (certainly the sciences, like physics, chemistry, biology...), and some incidentally (psychology certainly, since we're all processing a very new way to view the concept of life, and our relationship to it). From both, philosophical and religious perspectives, a lot of questions would have to be asked. Church attendance has been dwindling for years now, but this might accelerate it. Suddenly there's a whole damn planet that the god you believe in has apparently ignored, even though it created the universe. Or maybe it'll send people back to church, appealing to an intelligence/force/entity that at least feels more familiar to them.
Perhaps the aliens itself have a very strong missionary bent, and the reason for sending these craft in the first place is an attempt to convert us all to its own religion, and not necessarily in a malevolent way (like European explorers did in the Americas and Africa), but more like a handing out religious pamphlets on the street corner that is the galaxy.
Even that's a relatable endeavour (if dismaying on one level to the scientific community). Like us, they are trying to share what they understand and believe, and that's where the ‘spread the word’ aspect of religion usually comes in. When there aren't across-the-board answers from the scientific methods, there's a tendency to stuff god in the gaps. And there's joy and excitement in the process, in the challenge, in the quest of finding answers from either realm. The difference between 'eureka' (attributed to Archimedes when understanding displacement) and 'hallelujah' (best heard from a church choir), is quite small when considering life as a whole.
Because life is just clumps of a heck of a lot of very particularly condensed bits of matter. The only place we've found it is here on our own planet. The main reason is that we aren't doing much searching (some satellites and some radio signals aren't much), but we're also pretty damn bias of what we're looking for: Carbon-based life forms with lots of hydrogen and oxygen with a 2:1 ration (water). If that's the only way we can conceive of life existing (even with boatloads of our own science supporting this), then maybe we're missing another combination of atoms and molecules that work wonderfully on another planet (maybe heavy doses of radiation is as good as water on the other side of the galaxy). And if there is this sort of life somewhere else, maybe they'll never find us because they're looking for creatures like themselves.
We can only really conceive of our own biological makeup and only slight alterations to our own technology that aliens might have. We would imagine they have the same initial problems we have now. Namely, that a lot of energy and resources would be wasted having living creatures flying across the galaxy for a very, very long time (even if they are travelling at or around or faster than the speed of light). It wouldn't be the best decision unless you knew exactly where you were going, and what you would find when you got there.
The Milky Way Galaxy is such a massive, massive area (the conservative estimate is that there’s one hundred billion stars inside it), that it would be so easy to miss our solar system if you were checking out Alpha Centauri, the next star over. A couple strange radio waves buzzing out of our own isn't going to get much attention, and our furthest satellite hasn't even hit the Oort Cloud yet (Voyager 1 will reach it in...300 years (damn you, outer space distances)). Looking for life is such a needle in a haystack sort of scenario, it's completely understandable that even if you have the technology, our new alien neighbours can't have living creatures pilot every damn ship.
So while there will be new scientific ideas and industries that bloom like flowers in the advent of this sort of contact with intelligent life, a lot won't change. Not only would have you have to go to work the next day and the day after that, but world peace and alleviating poverty will be just as difficult tasks as before, even if we begin to hammer home the idea that we should get our own planet in order, if only so we don't look like squabbling children in case of...guests.
Which we still never might meet in the flesh. Maybe we live in boonies of the Milky Way Galaxy. But who thinks about that regularly when we have enough public, private and political problems to deal with? Time and space are so much bigger than human life/civilization and a 'round the world plane ticket. We have a hard time processing this because have no need to process this in our lives (unless you're, y'know, buildings spacecraft). We are creatures of habit and necessity, and whatever falls out of our purview may as well not be there. Having to consider on a daily basis that there is intelligence life so very, very far away from us is very...(wait for it)...alien.
Hopefully if proof ever lands on earth, we will, at the very least, appreciate our own planet - our own little slice of life - just a little more.
(Okay, let's Hollywood-ize this a bit)
If Aliens knew we were here and came to visit and:
They're friendly - in the absolutely perfect world, it's pretty much Star Trek. They come not only in peace, but with enough advanced technology that they can translate our language easily enough so that communication is a breeze. And they're willing to help us with some technology upgrades and...er...cleaning up our dirty, warming oceans...and CO2-clogged skies...and all those garbage dumps on land. And of course there's an immediate downside to this: We'll have to rely on them for everything we don't yet comprehend, everything we can't yet do.
Our top scientific minds will be reduced to first-year physics students. Our new friends would probably be very confused as to why we all don't use the same system of measurement globally (although most of the world uses metric, imperial is surprisingly and frustratingly still around) and don't speak the same language (at which point we would have to somehow explain the value of distinct cultures and traditions, although they might reply there should be some method to keep said traditions while being able to freely and easily communicate with every member of your species).
But overall, it'll be pretty awesome. They might roll out the tech kinda slowly (they'd actually be pretty foolish to give us warp drive engines a week after first contact), but we could roll with that. Hopefully they won't keep reminding us with a grin (if they're able to grin) that they had to bail us out of the mess we created on earth.
Okay, let's say they're friendly but the communication isn't so keen (more likely? Less likely?) Would a humanoid sort of alien species be more likely to find us than one whose biological makeup is much different? The film 'Arrival' did a great job addressing the challenge of talking with an alien species of a squid-like variety, while at the same time making a movie about Amy Adams considering whether or not to have a baby. Star Trek: The Next Generation had an excellent take on the same challenges with the episode 'Darmok'. Bridging the communication gap will not only be a time-eater, but also riddled with misinterpretations that can range from hilarious to deadly. You'd be hard-pressed to name a linguist who isn't Noam Chomsky (and that's not exactly what he's known for), but if aliens came and we couldn't talk right from the get go, the linguists who rush in to make discussion possible will become international heroes.
They're friendly but jerks - maybe they think we're drooling idiots who have almost ruined a perfectly good planet because of SUVs, fried food, and spending too much time watching movies about us killing alien invaders. Sure they came across the galaxy out of some obligatory acknowledgment that yes, we figured out the speed of light, but they don't owe us anything and how can we possibly consider terraforming other planets if we can't even take care of our own?
Maybe they'll agree to exchange some technology for resources, or for permission to build a sort of service station on the moon (or maybe they'll want the moon in general). But they'll turn their noses (if they have noses) up at us when they're not lecturing us on how easily dark energy is to understand, and wondering aloud how they got stuck in a galaxy with such a foolish, water-wasting species.
Perhaps this will invigorate our sense of competition, and we put in 110% to solve our planetary problems and begin building better spaceships and planetary colonies...just to rub it in their faces (if they have faces).
They're not friendly - this is the least complex scenario, actually. And it sadly would look a lot like whenever one human civilization met a less advanced one: Bonk 'em on the head and take their stuff (a euphemistic phrase for genocide if there ever was one). There's pretty good odds that if aliens have technology to get across the galaxy, they could take over our planet with relative ease, overpowering any sort of military response we enact. Maybe we'll become slaves, maybe they hunt us for sport, maybe they'll eat us because they're like super intelligent bear creatures and why wouldn't they? We'd look like a planet full of chickens for them. Or they don't care about us and just want our resources (water is pretty darn rare, galaxy wise). Or maybe they're super angry at how we're squandering/destroying our resources and decide that we don't deserve it, and kill us all and begin rehabilitating our environment, enjoying the company of dolphins as opposed to us.
Is this real life?
It's how things on earth would get worse in a cliché-ridden film about how things in life would get worse. In terms of global politics, the power players (your Jinpings, your Putins, your Trumps) running the power countries have consolidated said powers (suppress dissent, bar your enemies from running against you in an election that would be crooked anyway) and the wannabe power players in the wannabe power countries are doing the same thing on a lesser scale. The United Nations tried to finger wag the US for moving their Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and the US responding by cutting their UN spending by almost $300 million.
'Fuck You' used to be the underlying comment between most political discourse, but now it's right there on the surface. In 2017 the goal wasn't to appear to talk with your political opponent (even if it would be pre-scripted and just talking points), it was to tell them to fuck right off. To gather up your meager toys and tax cuts and take them home, to give them to your lackeys and boot licks. Pull out of accords and agreements, purge or ignore those annoying academics who keep cawing about sustainability and fairness, call everyone who disagrees with you liars that are conspiring against you and your supporters.
But is that true? Does that existential nugget even matter right now? What's the difference between a half-truth and a half-lie? The same as a glass half-full and one half-empty? When we start to feel like any breaking story is possible or impossible, bent in such a way as to favour this group or that demographic, it's a sign of our exhaustion, shock, gullibility, and constant suspicion.
Fake facebook ads and 'news'-feed stories filled with lies are just the tip of a communications iceberg that is changing the way we think and interact with others. Our intellect has not kept pace with the advances in technology. We're 1998 brains using 2017 technology. The medium is the message, and with the onslaught of information all being essentially equal (whether it's a new meme, a sports highlight, a celebrity scandal, or a political disaster), it means that everything goes through the same mental filter.
Nothing is more important than anything else.
In terms of an average life span, all of this (free-market capitalism running amok while the Internet is the centrepiece of the digital revolution) happened fairly quick. In terms of human history, it is almost instantaneous. From one way a complex globalized civilization tried to operate (Political centralization to facilitate to economic diffusion) to another (political diffusion to facilitate economic centralization). It took several decades for radio and television to spread across the globe. It took two for the Internet. Day and night (or in a few too many ways, from day to night), and our eyes haven’t adjusted yet. We don’t know what we’re really looking at.
And the face that represents this incomprehension, this confusion, this feeling of irrelevance is Donald Trump. Trump is not the worst side of America, he is the worst side of a dictator, masquerading as a democratically elected president. The brash, proud, preening sense of superiority, which does a poor job at covering up the ignorance, bitterness, and resentfulness towards the average citizen. It's no coincidence that it was the early eighties - the same time when 'corporations first, government needs to be stopped, greed is good' attitudes took hold of America - when Donald Trump began to flourish and represent all of this.
And like exponential growth, this sort of attitude and policies that come with have really taken off in the last twelve months (it's only been twelve months!). Travel bans, rolling back of transgender rights, Twitter feuds (from Schwarzenegger to North Korea), repeated attempts and failures to repeal Obamacare just as more and more people started to support it, the Keystone Pipeline being pushed again (and then an oil spill), the head of the EPA doesn't believe in climate change, and Stupid Watergate (thanks for that title, John) eternally looming over the entire administration.
America is still the most powerful country on earth, and with that title comes the most attention (good and bad), and the news from the United States in 2017 was all dumpster fire (somehow it's "Make exporting elephant ivory back to America legal again!").
Around the world it was trying to keep Trump clones and Trump policy at bay. Xenophobic fearmongering that hides the kleptocracy.
Multiculturalism in a globalized cultural system is a balancing act that can be upturned very easily when other societal institutions begin to fail. People turning against each other, within nations or attacking neighbours. This can be seen in the wanton slaughter of the Rohingya in Mynamar, the muted response to the recovery effort across the Caribbean and southeastern US after the devastating hurricane season, East African nations facing increased tensions as famine spreads, while ISIS finally collapsing across Syria and Iraq is a sliver of good news, but has revealed yet another humanitarian crisis.
In good times, the 'other' is tolerated, perhaps even welcomed. In bad times, the 'other' is made into some sort of pariah, forgotten at best, persecuted at worst.
Yes, there has always been conflict, there has always been poverty, there have always been years with man-made and natural disasters. But the discussion over how to deal with these issues has never been so paltry, so futile, so screaming at a wall.
The tired joke being that you unfriend or stop following certain people on Twitter who apparently support [insert whatever politician you think should be put in jail here]. The terrifying actual blowback of this is the lack of any sort of discussion between left and right at all.
We're at a point where truth is bent so much it never reaches common ground. Instead it turns and turns and finally returns from where it started so you're just confirming your own story or assumption and calling it truth. Turning inward, turning xenophobic, turning towards an imaginary past when everything was supposedly better, turning desperate, turning angry.
A divisiveness not seen since...well, actual segregation, and at times like those, powerful people have taken advantage to increase their share of the pie. Another information leak, this time labelled the Paradise Papers, shone an even wider light on how hundreds of billions of dollars are legally hidden by the wealthy and large corporations (don't remember it? That's cause it's as important as a presidential tweet and the awfulness of United Airlines). So what happens at the end of the year? America passes a tax bill that unabashedly supports corporations and the wealthy at the expensive of essential government programs and a ballooning deficit that will trigger a tax increase for the middle class years down the road. And they tossed the repeal of the individual mandate for the previous president's health care plan because hey, what's a shit sandwich without a little arsenic sprinkled on top?
One wants to avoid hyperbole, but what else can be said? If America hasn't already ceased to be a functioning democracy, than it's racing to that horrid state at breakneck speed, playing catch-up with Russia and China. And the EU is trying to hold itself together while squeezing the UK as it tries to leave. And South America is mired in scandal or sudden market collapse. And while Mugabe was finally deposed in Zimbabwe, it felt a lot like meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
It's every dystopic movie opening, with a small cabal of elites indifferently ruling over the unwashed, powerless masses, a stifling, corrupt bureaucracy that silences dissent primarily by drowning it out with discrediting and obfuscation.
But don't think for one moment that there is a sort of super human group of ultra-rich at the helm. This system exists in part because of the large amount of people who don't engage in the democratic process (a necessity to keep it functioning properly). Now certainly conditions can exist which essentially force or allow a person to 'drop out' of this participation so blame cannot be laid entirely at their feet, but the fact remains that there are millions of people who can vote (and therefore can make a difference)...but don't.
There's something nightmarishly comforting in the thought that a small group of people are purposely engineering the downfall of America for reasons unknown, if only because it means that there is at least plan (even if it's a horrifying one). The alternate (and truth) is just as bad: There is no one at the helm, the people in power are inept, short-sighted, greedy and stupid, having no idea how devastating their decisions are. The hope is that Trump is the best advertisement against everything he represents, and that all countries - not just the United States - would do well to remember to not fall for such incendiary pronouncements outlandish promises.
One would almost wish that Trump did indeed have some sort of mental health issue, as at least that would offer an explanation and garner some sympathy for his actions, rather than having to accept that fact that he is simply a loathsome, petty, vindictive human being. The kind of leader that would go to war over a personal slight. The kind of leader who would say it was sunny at his inaugural when it was actually raining. The kind of leader who says policy that hurts the poor will actually help them. The kind of leader who sees his presidency as a daily television series that he has to always win by day's end. There's a reason Orwell's 1984 was one of the best selling books of the year (the bigger surprise being that people still read books). The conflation of corporate and government power continues and they just haven't had to guts to rename the still valued institutions the Ministries of Peace, Plenty, Love, and Truth.
It's in this sort of cultural environment that the entertainment gets either grittier or more fantastical (or in the case of Game of Thrones, both). When the daily news is such a slog that it's actually a relief to have a discussion as to whether we're all just living in a massive simulation created by advanced entities that might be in a higher dimension.
So once again: Is this real life?
Saying that it 'feels' so incredibly surreal and crazy gives a big hint to why we're in this mess in the first place. 'Feeling' is political Russian roulette. Sometimes it's going to go in your favour if you bet more on an exciting feeling than on verifiable facts, and sometimes it's going to blow up in your goddamn face.
Donald Trump won because of how fucking hard he pushed feeling over fact, breaking truth in our political discourse in the process. There will always be another flunky willing to lie for you on camera. If you want something to be true for your convenience and you have a decent chunk of power/money, then thy will be done. Globalization isn't going to collapse simply because of unchecked human greed, but that's certainly going to be one of its main ingredients.
2017 was polarizing, which is how everything is done in our society nowadays (including Star Wars films, apparently). 2017 was opposite sides of the time-space coin. 2017 was parallel lines, with two camps going the same direction but neither of them agreeing they are. 2017 was sliced in two at every moment, between the conscious and the unconscious, where the day is an unending nightmare and the night is somnolent bliss. Light and dark, us and them, left and right, right and wrong. Concrete walls have dropped in between these opposites and then expanded, driving them further and further away from each other.
2017 was a reminder that division is easier, more seductive (thanks, Yoda) than keeping people united and clear-headed. It was a year which proved that a car-crash can get more people's attention than a highway running smoothly. It was a year where people in the board rooms reached out for more than ever before, and the rest of us hoarded any sort of power (political, economic, cultural) that remained. It was a year where a reckoning began for sexual predators in high places, but its extent and dysfunction revealed how much of a problem it truly was (and might continue to be). 2017 was a whole lot of dark, and maybe just a few candles were lit to show a barely manageable path out of it.
So here's to 2018. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking it can't get any worse, but let's steel ourselves to do everything in our power to make sure it doesn't.
Like global developments, there were two sides to the things we took in for fun and games this year.
Music: The Light
A Deeper Understanding, The War on Drugs (it might be something about two crazy kids throwing away all their responsibilities and living for the moment. It certainly feels like that. It certainly feel like Adam Granduciel is trying to mainline Springsteen and Petty (RIP, of course), and stretch their radio hits into something grander, heavier, more reaching for something better, which is no small feat when that last one's a feeling we need more than ever)
Flower Boy, Tyler, the Creator (Tyler grows up and we're all the better for it. Apparently 'growing up' means spitting lines that go from boasting to self doubt in the same verse, along with putting together the hardest hitting, grooviest, old school R&B funk filled beats of the year. Kendrick's better on the mic and DAMN's no slouch by any means, but I found myself gravitating towards Flower Boy more often)
Music: The Dark
TFCF, Liars (liars are dead. Long lives liars. The only familiar thread between liars albums is their demented, dead-eyed grin. If The War on Drugs are promising a pedal to the metal rush down the highway towards the horizon, then the liars offer a high speed trip into a brick wall painted to look like a tunnel. There are songs with recognizable choruses, with almost-catchy melodies and some lyrics that might suggest some sort of emotional bond or connection, but it still feels just a little bit dirty and upside- down reflection all the way through)
(Self-titled), uuuu (the background music to everything in 2017. The almost vocal-free shriek of scabby, feedback-ever guitars, and deadly, ominous warehouse drums. The 'songs' shamble forward, ugly and seething at one moment, but then they break open to these wide open expanses of one note, one chord, one repeated drum kick. It persists. It's a crushing, soaring sound that reminds you to keep breathing, to keep going. It's not the music we want, but it's probably the music we need)
Best Movie/TV Show - The Light
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
No, it's not a movie or a TV show (it's one of those video-game thingies), and there was more of that than ever before. But two hours of one film or an eight hour binge watch of one season wasn't enough time to escape the morning news. You needed a much more immersive, fantastical experience, and nothing else delivered like Breath of the Wild. The scope, the challenge, the fun, the absolutely weird, the necessary mission to save a kingdom from ruin. And while it's hard, it's not too hard, and it looks beautiful and majestic at every turn.
Best Movie/TV Show - The Dark
A cheap pick, but not wrong. In 2017, nothing was as chaotic, twisted, unpredictable and shocking as real life. Politics on every possible level of society beat out all the movies and TV shows, even though there were plenty good ones out there. No one would have predicted it would be this shocking, full of this much pettiness, this much scrapping of the supposed bottom of the apparently endless barrel. And we can’t even imagine the cliffhanger.
3, Run the Jewels (only because it kind of fell through the cracks and was forgotten way to early in 2017...since it was intentionally leaked by the guys on Christmas Day, weeks before it's announced release. El-P and Killer Mike just get better and better, bringing a hard hitting, fist pumping album full of hilarious threats and a barrel of middle finger insults. It’s a good bit of defence to keep the crap of this year at bay. Perfect for the gym, protest, or afternoon tea)
Here comes the grump train, complete with buzzkill dining car!
But the first, the glass half-full positive people: Oh what's the harm in celebrating an arbitrary date of political documents being signed that have since being superseded by other signed political documents? Why can't you just enjoy some flag-waving, fireworks shooting, and an onslaught of companies proudly boasting their own patriotism so you'll buy more of their products and services? What can be more [insert the name of your country here] than that?
Well, because a country is more complicated than a flag, a slogan, a symbol, and whatever products these things are printed, plastered on, and shot into the sky. Without healthy participation in the voting process and strong government transparency, a nation can quickly become nothing more than some flags and fireworks.
A stable, successful country has boring, complicated machinery under its hood. There are extensive fail safes and oversights between the different branches of government to make sure each one doesn't abuse its power or become ineffective. To provide necessary services to the citizens, there are very large and heavily staffed departments that operate on strict budgets and deadlines to make sure people have safe water, safe streets, safe medical procedures, and safe internet access.
Protesting against (or praising) politicians for a wealth of very good reasons is a keystone to free and democratic nation, but if you don't have the other stones (to continue to use a metaphor we've all just rushed past without thinking) that could be considered bureaucracy, the entire bridge collapses.
What is a country, if not the rules and regulations that apply those living within a specific set of geographic boundaries? A cold and bland description, sure, but that's where you have to start, and - if you go in reverse to strip everything glossy away - is what you're left with.
These laws and statutes beget respect and trust that is meant to extend far beyond an individual's own community and daily routine. It's easy to take for granted that for much of human history - even within former empires and ancient civilizations - most individuals had a small social circle and rather strictly proscribed role for their community. Modern democracy is generally, acknowledged as the form of governance that grants the individual the most amount of freedom, and if that's not something that should be celebrated annually, then I don't know what is.
It just so happens that Canada turns 150 on July 1st.
If you slept through history class and forgot what year that was, don't worry, everything from beers to banks to bakeries will remind you at every opportunity. It was also recently pride weekend, but I don't think that comes as any surprise, either, as vodka companies and Target have been plastering rainbows on bottles and t-shirts all month. And that's something that should give us all pause.
The rights and freedoms granted to us through the creation of our democracies, and the rights and freedoms granted to the LGBTQ community (finally, after so much suffering and hard work) are clearly things worth celebrating, but the appropriation of the symbols that represent these events by corporations who are simply trying to push even more products upon us should ring more than hollow. Putting a price tag on symbols diminishes their power and importance, but beyond that, it gives corporations the opportunity to make the argument that they morally support these issues. But corporations are amoral. Corporations are not people. Corporations are business entities who sole purpose of existence is to provide a product or service that will maximize shareholder profit. They should be held up with suspicion and regulation, not alongside the sacrifices and hard work that actual people have made. And there's not much wiggle room for this. If you give a corporation a yard, they'll take a mile and then try to sell it back to you with a 30% markup.
But it easy to forget this, considering how pervasive corporations have become, with their own symbols and logos rivaling the ones meant to represent ideas and movements, not simply product. And the blurring of these two is extremely dangerous. A political idea or a political movement should never be for sale.
There's always been big money in nostalgia, and since the baby boomers are the only generation that is actually still clutching to that middle class/disposable income status, pushing anything in the 'look how far we've come' vein feels like marketing gold.
And 'feels' is the key. That's the right plucking of the purse strings. Be proud of your nation on its birthday because it hasn't keeled over and died just yet (in this case, the day when a bunch of white men who, after following the footsteps of other white men who coldly expropriated native lands, signed some papers in Charlottetown saying they won't rely on the Brits for every single legislative decision).
And we like to think this is a more important birthday because this time around we have a nice, clean number. One hundred and fifty. Not like those ratty old eighty sevens and one hundred thirty threes. Ordered, efficient, simple. We're supposed to prefer things like this! It's worth celebrating! This number represents the successfulness of our country! Let it co-exist among with other representations, like a flag, some food, a tall mountain or an old building.
But a country isn't that simple. A country shouldn't be that simple.
Parades don't get sick people the health care they need or the impoverished the assistance they need. A national anthem doesn't explain the trade agreements with neighbouring states that will (ideally) strengthen the economies of all involved nations for years to come.
Now patriotism is meant to be shorthand for all the political qualities that have made your country successful. If a nation's was a brain (a similarly complicated device), then patriotism is the endorphins. The ultimate 'feeling good about stuff' that can't possibly exist until basic functions work smoothly most of the time. But a brain can't operate on endorphins alone, just like a nation can't run on bravado very long until it runs into the ground.
Patriotism didn't win the Second World War. The massive industrial effort did.
The former just made the latter easier because a massive marketing campaign from politicians and celebrities alike pitched the hell out of buying war bonds and saving/donating everything from scrap metal to bacon grease. And when America came out so unquestionably on top in 1945 (having absolutely more of everything, with very little of their country damaged when compared to other major powers), it made complete sense that this sense of superiority would continue, that what was being done for/to the world in its name was good and right and justice and will certainly succeed. Until it doesn’t.
Patriotism is a tool, and like any tool, it can be very useful, but also lead to abuse.
Patriotism sells, and anything simple, straightforward and positive sells, especially when it's marketed as a miracle cure for whatever is currently ailing you or your country.
Patriotism used to represent/symbolize important ideals that were the foundations and proud accomplishments of a nation. But now patriotism represents itself, and when it gets that hollow and malleable, it becomes an easy symbol to insert into an advertisement to deliver that endorphin hit that will make it more likely for you to buy that product or to agree with whatever position is being pushed.
Patriotism discourages deep reflection and complex discourse. Patriotism puts feeling ahead of numbers. Patriotism rewrites history and truncates the past.
It's bad enough when ideas like freedom, democracy and truth (and its accompanying symbols) are pushed in front of dubious government actions like military intervention or policy that only benefits a small segment of the populace, but it becomes even more odious when these concepts are used for financial gain.
In years past these symbols were held in higher regard. A suit 'made' of your country's flag would be considered extremely disrespectful (in addition to being a poor fashion choice). Now it's just fodder for late night comedians and fashion show judges.
How we got to the point where your ATM is wishing you a happy Independence Day is a strange one. It's a reminder how pervasive marketing has become, how throughout the 20th century it 'accidentally' competed with other institutions as a delivery system for specific types of information (government, media, arts and entertainment), and how in the 21st century it has essentially superseded the others. Criticism levied against this has been constant, from 'The Hidden Persuaders' to McLuhan to Chomsky. All noting to some degree that the constant conflation (even if initially inadvertent) of messages in one block can create unintended consequences for people's cultural experience. A news program followed by a series of commercials, followed by a scripted drama on TV or radio. Print ads for jewellery stores besides stories of war atrocities in a newspaper. And now as we take in the entire world through our phones, the accuracy and honesty of everything we read comes into question. Are we being informed, sold something, or about to be hacked by clicking on the wrong link and downloading a virus? What is an accurate depiction of our world today, and what is...ugh...fake news?
Political advertising has always been a mix of high-minded ideals and the absolute lowest form of mud-slinging, but the President of the United States is a walking, talking attack ad full of vindictive lies and half-truths. The powerful figurehead of a nation is a former game show host who in the past shilled for McDonald's and Domino's Pizza. Donald Trump is a commercial come to life. How we go back to when politics was not complete spin is a mystery. Forget throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We're dumping our entire sense of self into a dirty river.
It is in this environment that the nostalgia angle becomes so appealing. Memories for a past time when things were better and simple are always selective (we focus on the good and fun and forget the bad and lousy), and that means it's so much easier for marketers and public relations groups to capitalize upon. This mix of history, patriotism and nostalgia means that a nation's birthday is always an easy advertising target. It's driven into all our minds that our own country is good, right, and deserves all it gets (which is what marketing in general tells us every moment of every day), so why not shell out for a domestic flight because there's an ad on your Facebook feed pushing anniversary ticket deals?
There are a lot of pressing issues facing the planet and the socioeconomic order today (oof, what a phrase), and anniversary advertising is not exactly one of them. There's certainly some truth in the offhand shrug of 'just ignore it', because that's what a vast majority of people do when it comes to advertising. Most of it leaves our short term memory seconds after it arrives. But it is a factor in changing people's minds and behaviour (in terms of both spending and voting), because otherwise advertisers wouldn't spend billions upon billions of dollars on it every year.
When it comes to selling tires, trucks, or even Tylenol, we've come to accept that the truth about these goods and services will be warped, blurred, and sent through a wood chipper, all to increase the chances of you taking out your wallet (physical or digital). And perhaps it's a touch of wistful nostalgia on our own part that we would hope that something considerably more important - namely, your country - would be separated from that. Not in any legal sense, of course, since banning advertising related to political events would quickly veer into censorship, but just out of a sort of common sense and respect (another bout of wistful nostalgia, really). Nothing should be so important that it can’t be mocked or criticized, but the flip side of this means that nothing is sacred. When it comes to the good ol' Internet, the difference on a newspaper website between a news story and advertisement is nicknamed the separation of church and state, but it certainly feels like a bishop has been writing the headlines these days.
Oh my gods.
The new Zelda game (Breath of the Wild) for Switch, Nintendo's new console (and thankfully, their previous and underrated console as well, the Wii U) is so good it's almost certainly bad for everything else in your life. Work, relationships, friendships, other hobbies, grooming, and eating are all important, but not as important as climbing over that next ridge to reach that orange-hued temple you saw from one of the towers days and days ago but was sidetracked to fight those monsters on the main trail just past the Rito stables, where an old man asked you to help him find some goron spice, which you can only get in the city of its namesake, which sits on the side of a billowing volcano.
If you wanted to design a game that took all the best elements from action-adventure games, puzzle games, role playing games, simulation games, social network games and, first person shooters, you're too late, Breath of the Wild already did it.
If you get tired off slashing monsters to pieces with a three-pronged silver boomerang, you can buy a house and furnish it. Or find all these kids who don't want to attend choir practice. Or climb mountain after mountain to find treasure and mini-puzzles to collect korok seeds (which you collect and give to the giant dancing- never mind. The more you describe games like this, the more they sound like a medieval mushroom trip). Or just level the fuck up and up and up and then crush every enemy in your path. This was the immersion that No Man's Sky offered (where the galaxy is your oyster), but with joy and a sense of mission.
In this case, you're tasked with - wait for it - saving a kingdom that's in the grip of an evil force. Once again, it's the blending of ever-improving gaming and advancing technology with the oldest and most familiar story tropes (ahem, The Legend of Zelda epitomizes the fisher king narrative perfectly. The destroyed land, the hero who must save it by quests which prove their strength and worthiness. If you want a TS Eliot nod, there's a whole region in the game named 'The Wasteland', and boy howdy does it live up to its name. To truncate the temporal influence, the entire Zelda game series (19 titles and counting) owes a fine debt to Miyazaki's 1984 anime classic, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, which involves the titular hero bringing life to dying lands, poisoned from the misuse of old but advanced technology (and yes, to archetype it up, Nausicaa is named after the Greek mythological character that gave aid to Odysseus as he shipwrecked on Scheria)). Saving and rescuing seen in every sort of game, from Mario to Doom to Myst to Angry Birds.
Breath of the Wild successfully incorporates the challenges of open world gaming, which can have difficulty balancing the boredom that is reality with the excitement that is expected in video games, which exist to alleviate the boredom of reality. You can climb the Hebra mountains forever (although prepare sensibly for the cold), but you won't be that far away from a shrine, a spear-wielding bokoblin, or a panoramic landscape that takes your breath away and makes you forget it's just an arrangement of pixels on the screen.
Prior to this, open world games had to have some pretty sweet plums to make the travelling and waiting worth it, and Grand Theft Auto made headlines outside the gaming world for celebrating terrible/terribly fun activities in a Los Angeles substitute. It was fun, but it wasn't joyous (although riding a motorcycle onto a moving train got close). Breath of the Wild's look and feel certainly is. The mythical world of Hyrule has never felt more realistic and majestic, and being able to interact with everything inside it makes the experience that much more emotionally resonating.
Games are getting better, bigger, more immersive, accessible to players at any skill level, and even the traditional notions of what skill level can accomplish are changing. For most of video games' history, it would the noobs who would play the storyline and not much else, whereas the hardcore gamers could explore the ever-expanding virtual world at their leisure, completing side quests for swag and respect. Now, in open-world games, finishing the story has become slightly more optional. It's not the only way to have barrels of fun. In fact, at one point the game's main goal may get ridiculously difficult for 'weekend gamers', and they might be happy enough wandering around, discovering new places, fighting easier enemies and completing other tasks.
Games are rushing past 'time-wasters' and 'hobbies', quickly becoming 'lifestyles'. If the outside world is just bad news (what with the under-employment, climate change, President Trump, and too many goddamn superhero movies), why not spend hours in an epic fantasyland where you can't permanently die?
[Ah, diversions! The typically labelled bane of the politicization of the masses. If only all these sheeple would put down their iPhones and eighteen button controllers and actually find out about what's happening in the world, then we could finally start to fix all these problems. Which is completely unreasonable. That's not how humans behave. Laziness and leisure is part of our physical/psychological makeup. Having an outlet for these things is supremely beneficial, otherwise you end up doing important things lazily...like deciding who to vote for. Besides, video games offer the opportunity to educate people as well as entertain them. Even first person shooters can teach basic team building skills. Changing people is hard. Changing the tools people use to interact with the world around them is...less hard]
This newfound respect was hard earned. Ignored by many people in the culture industry as a toy for kids, the kids that played video games incessantly grew up and ended up elevating their quality to at least merit a seat at the children's table. Roger Ebert decried video games as not being worthy to enter the same pantheon of art, alongside music, film, and literature. While 'worthiness' is a term that can always be up for debate (certainly the first film strips and moving pictures were thought to be nothing more than passing fads and novelties, and gave little indication that years later the industry would offer up 'Battleship Potempkin' and 'Citizen Kane').
But in the sense that one's engagement in video games is different than when compared to other forms of art, Ebert is correct. Even more abstract works of art that requires the spectator to press a button, move a rock, or even add their own personal brushstroke to a canvas don't require the same level of attentive engagement that even an early arcade game like Frogger doe.
Discovering the rules of the reality of the piece in question is essential for all art. For a painting or movie, if you don't understand, you might just be confused. In a video game, you might end up dead. You have to press this button here to elicit this reaction, and the better you get at pressing this button at just the right time, the more options available to you. The background might be colourful eight-bit blocks, or an ultra-realistic sky.
Video covers the art, and game covers the engagement.
Maybe the real question should be, 'how do you review video games'?
For most of it's history, video games have been light of the qualities that writers gravity towards (story, symbolism, subtly, originality, social commentary) and heavy on repetitive, button pressing fun that can't afford to bore or confuse you for very long lest you stop feeding quarters or turn it off.
It's not exactly antithetical to art, but it's not very often than the greatest works in literature, music, painting/sculpture and film are also described as 'fun'. Hamlet, Citizen Kane, Guernica, and Beethoven's Fifth don't do 'fun'.
Fun is supposed to be childish and fleeting, and not something you were expected to wallow over and in for hours and days at a time, or feel profound hope or sorrow over. Which, y'know, is something you can actually write about.
Pity the poor reviewer who needs to figure out how to puke out five hundreds words for something that's just fun (this reviewer included, who is, as you read this, quite aware that they are deconstructing video game reviews in the middle of a video game review, partially in order to extend the word count).
Even if the reviewer enjoyed the game, the sentence 'I had a great time jumping on wave after wave of goombas and koopas' is just fourteen words. Stretching that out to acceptable article length is not easy.
Video games' interactivity demands a new set of skills for the reviewer. Fortunately and sensibly, one of the basic skills is being really, really into video games (this is hardly surprising. Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were really, really into movies, hence our trust that they knew what they were talking about when they reviewed a new film). But reviewing 'gameplay'? The ease of switching from one weapon to another by holding your thumb down for the right of amount of time? Suddenly it's like your talking about a car, or a cordless drill.
Putting into words the happiness and relief the player feels when they finally defeat the half dozen heavily armed soldiers at an elevated mountain fort is hard for a reviewer to put into words. They aren't watching the protagonist doing this, they are the protagonist doing this. Suddenly it's not a review, but an account of event that 'actually' occurred. The reviewer becomes an autobiographer, even if they are reviewing an event that hundreds of thousands of other players have also done, in a near identical fashion. When you defeat an enemy or solve a puzzle in a unique and ingenious way, is that a form of performance art?
It's not so much that the stories have always come second, but that the story has to be written around what the player is going to do most of the time, which is fighting and running, typically (and hey, let's roll a smirking glass to the acknowledgement that video games depict some of the most physically demanding and deadly actions a person would ever undertake, and it's being piloted by someone sitting on the edge of a couch, sometimes barely moving anything more than their fingers)
'Formulaic stories written around fighting and running'? Sounds like the glut of superhero movies that have overrun box offices for the last decade. Which is apropos, since any film reviewer worth their salt has decried the rise and focus of these cookie-cutter childlike blockbusters at the expense of more thought-provoking and original fare.
It's as if movies are dumbing down quickly and video games are getting smarter and more detailed, which means they are on the way to meet in a sort of middle ground. And video games will have the ultimate edge because of vicariousness.
Living through the actions of the other, which will become even easier as Virtual Reality begins to seep into the monoculture. Ten year old kids with the strength of an entire platoon of soldiers, or - quite simply - Batman. Going back or forward thousands of years in time, zipping across the galaxy to trade some radioactive material or save a planet, racing in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. As graphics and gameplay become more realistic, this immersion in a new environment will imitate the real world to a much greater degree.
And Zelda has always been on the edge of video games' potential.
Rockstar Games CEO Dan Houser said that practically all 3D gaming owes a massive debt to Zelda's Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. Breath of the Wild is set to have that sort of influence on future games (the narrative flow is stellar, the voice acting is top-notch, the ease of switching tools and weapons, the amount of choice you have to do…everything). They will be games that will go beyond the idea of a hobby or past time. Creating and exploring virtual/digital realities are on the cusp of being a job, not just something to do after work to kill time before moving on to something else.
For a long time the challenge was finding something to always bring people back after finishing the game, and one of the first features for this in the modern gaming world (once beating the high score was essentially consigned to only phone booth size arcade (and arcane) games) was the online multiplayer. Thank Doom (and ID Software) for that.
Which created its own little debate about the future of socialization. How much different is it playing video games with some across the globe instead of sitting beside you on the couch? Sure, you can hog all the chips, but we have to admit that 'hanging out' is going to go through a severe change of definition once that term is used casually to describe shooting the shit in a game lobby.
Regardless of how seriously we engage in these games, one thing is for certain: They are going to grow larger than even developers can imagine. No Man's Sky created a universe that had more planets than the developers knew about (it's a procedurally generated open universe, so in a sense the game 'built' itself).
This was part of the game's initial appeal. You and all the other players would explores this uncharted universe and catalogue and research all these unknown planets, with the info being placed in a big encyclopedia, and earning in-game currency while doing so (it's only a matter of time before some created a game called Everything, which - conveniently - they have. And like No Man's Sky, algorithms, not people, created its content).
Which is another factor. Money. Video games are a massive business, and the more people spend time with/in them, the more interested business will be to take advantage of this time. Perhaps in-game currency becomes exchangeable between games (although not necessarily 1=1. A rupee in a Zelda is almost certainly harder earned than the hundreds of thousands of points quickly awarded to you in Angry Birds), which becomes exchangeable for real-world currency. A bridging of the virtual and the real. After all, time is money. Where you spend one determines where you will spend in the other.
This sort of 'outside the box, inside the console' thinking will be essential in the years to come. Automation and robotics will replace up to forty percent of jobs that currently exist across the globe, so huge segments of the population will have a lot of time on their hands. Why not fill them with tasks in the virtual world, which could be a good way to earn some side spending money?
Perhaps we just haven't reached that level of technological familiarity with games and virtual spaces just yet. Think how absolutely bizarre the size and scope of the music industry in the 1990s would seem to someone at the beginning of the 20th century. The amount of money and jobs (from A&R men to touring crew to, yes, critics) dependent on people listening to music on small discs that were read by lasers.
Consider how big professional sport has grown over the last few decades and how many people are directly or tangentially employed with that.
Why not video games?
We have e-sports (and even e-sports scandals!), e-life won't be far behind.
And as far as first steps into this new world of technological immersion, Breath of the Wild is absolutely perfect. Now please excuse us, there's a shrine hidden behind that rock wall which we have to quickly blow up to access.
Beyoncé made two big statements of the year: one intended, the other accidental.
The first debuted at the Super Bowl, effortlessly unseating Coldplay as the main chunk of halftime entertainment. And Ms. Knowles - in her wise-beyond-her-years way - is aware that it can't be just a song to excite the modern era. Audio-visual almost always defeats just audio.
'Formation' is a good track, and does a great job of being a protest song without being a cloyingly cliche protest song, but its presentation - in the premiere 'middle of football' performance, the accompanying music video, and during her concerts - is what transformed into it a cultural event and lightning rod of controversy. It was no ‘Fuck Tha Police’, but that’s because 2016 was already ‘Fuck, The Police’.
'Formation' suggested an ordered reaction, which is perfect, because 2016 was full of chaotic actions. The plan is playing a strong defense just before mounting a similarly strong offense. If 'Formation' was written in reaction to a miserable 2015, with Knowles attempting to infuse a bit of energy and inspiration into the listener, then she also happened to have penned (along with co-writers Brown, Frost, Hogan, and Williams) a song that summed up the chaos and confusion of 2016.
With headline after headline of bad news, 'Formation' became a circling of wagons, keeping what you knew and trusted in and everything else out (a circle that you might have thought was growing smaller by the day). A celebration of yourself and your power when everything else seemed to crumble. The economy was good if you were rich, the shootings didn't stop, and neither did the terrorist attacks.
The mass shootings (whether by the police or citizens with guns and anger) indicate a myriad of troubles in Western democracy, with the institutions of law enforcement failing to address in any sensible way not only systemic racism but also the rising and widening pockets of poverty that cover not only America but many other countries where the middle class is sliding into poverty and the already impoverished are sliding into a sort of dead zone.
The terror attacks are troubling on an entirely different level, in the sense that the goal of those willing to commit terrorist acts aren’t to win any sort of land or power, but a spot in the afterlife, since they believe suicide bombings (or shootings, or driving trucks through crowds) is a sure-fire way to heaven. And despondency, poverty, and social alienation are what drive people to believe in this worldview. If you don't have something to live for, you’ll find something to die for.
'Formation' can two meanings. Organization, planning, order, advancing an idea, moving forward. But it can also suggest falling into a narrowness: identifying with one candidate, party, worldview, clique or mixtape, and decrying anything different as the 'other', and not being worthy of discussion. Polarization, building walls instead of bridges. Protecting yourself at the expense of...what?
And before this article gets any more depressing about the state of world affairs, let's move on to note that Beyond also dropped Lemonade, a very good album which came as/with an accompanying music video/not-short-not-full-length-film/whatever you call 'em these days. Named after her grandmother's basic mantra about what to do when dealt a bad hand.
Making said lemonade out of lemons.
Sounds a bit like the only way to put 2016 into perspective.
Lots of lemons, yes, but to keep our heads up and our thoughts positive, let's grab that knife, blender, and bag of sugar and make a refreshing, much needed glass of citrus-based juice.
How we react to the challenges placed in our path or beaten into us near senselessly is a better measure of our abilities than a simple walk through an unencumbered near straight line in average space-time. Oh, we would obviously prefer the later. Everyone naturally tumbles into the path of least resistance. The temptation to keep our heads down, our eyes shut and our tongues silent is particularly great when the problems seem to pile up one after the other. Maybe if we don't look at it, the rash will go away by itself. It's NIMBY's cousin, LEEHI (Let Everyone Else Hand It).
Are we showing our partisan hand too obviously by believing that Trump will be a disaster for the world at large (while at the same time we cross all twenty fingers and toes at once for this not to happen, that please, please, please can he somehow shock us and make America and the world…wait for it…great again)? If this is the main bushel of lemons, then the solace is that the populist message - that life is getting worse for the average citizen, and we need to do something about it - swings across the political spectrum. This is not about agreeing on the problem. It's about agreeing on the solution. The Sanders campaign shows that there is a viable left-leaning movement in the United States that the neither party can continue to ignore, especially when one considers that the political centre of America is shrinking like Arctic sea ice.
Populism is in, and Trump’s tone-deafness in his political appointments and his - shudder - constant tweeting of his barely-baked policies will only strengthen the ever growing disenfranchised (including the millions that voted for him with genuine hope that he would improve their lives). People on opposite sides of the political spectrum when it comes to social issues will hold hands and march together against corporations, mega banks, and bait-and-switch trade deals.
Despite initial reports (including here) listing a litany of reasons why Clinton lost (emails, low energy, illness rumours, too beltway, more emails, hollow scandals, poor electioneering strategy), further research shows that Trump connected with voters who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, including 20% of white working class voters that describe themselves as liberals. The difference was 'jobs' in quotation marks. Not only wishing to have a steady paycheque, but all the literal and proverbial trappings that go along with it (pride, happiness, comfort, a positive attitude towards the future). This is why people who work in the fossil fuel industry are more likely to be skeptical about climate change: it's their damn meal ticket, and the last thing want to believe is that their job is helping making the world worse.
Unemployment may be low, but many of these jobs are in the 'underemployment' industry, like working part time in a retail position, or becoming an Uber driver/delivery-person. 40% of jobs that exist today will disappear in a generation, replaced by computers and automation. It will be the true Second Industrial Revolution.
And like the first one, the wealth of the very few who got very rich off of these sweeping changes to a more digital form of everything (from financial instruments to a killer app that does the work of a dozen accountants) will have to confront the reality that they have the ability (and many will say a responsibility) to improve the lives of billions if they are just willing to part with some of their damn money and power (the top 1% of the 1% have an estimated $22 trillion holed up in offshore, secret bank accounts).
Because - and here's that sip of lemonade - the moment is closing in when people are going to realize that a lot of the divisions that seemed to frame so many debates in old and new media are convenient distractions to the blandly obvious truth about the have and have-nots. The current crop of ultra-nationalists and right-wingers talk a big game (just like immigrant-hugging lefties), but if they don't deliver, then everyone will see them for what they really are: power hungry opportunists.
With technology rushing ahead at breakneck speed, openness and transparency is barreling forward, ruining some people's plans and policies and creating great opportunity for others. Any short term problems regarding questions about access to information will be outweighed by long term gain. Knowledge is power and access to that is something politicians and security officials have always wanted to keep private, but that's a fight against gravity. Information is pouring out of everything, and while many people will rather get their Mario Run on, the data is just there, waiting for them, when they finally want to see what's going on. If a large enough group of people take action, then this action doesn't have to require huge amounts of energy or sacrifice. The numbers of participants will make the difference.
The net neutrality protests of 2014 are good examples of what it looks like when people and sections of big industry (in this case, digital companies like Google and Amazon, who understand that a fair playing field in cyberspace helped create much of their success) work together towards a greater good.
Speaking of which, global investments in green energy are on the rise which is great news in the long term for developing environmentally-friendly technologies, as well as the short term, as it continues to make coal a prohibitively expensive fuel source (at least outside of China), and really puts the hurt on the awful, awful oil sands.
This needs to be applied to the more nebulous and abstract world of financial instruments, before another Great Recession crashes into us. Definitely not as easy to mobilize for as worker's rights and climate change, but the decisions made on Wall Street directly affect how well almost any big proposal or plan will be implemented (if it's implemented at all). Being able to push for change here (especially with Trump coming into power) still feels like sucking on a lemon.
But maybe the greatest glass is that fewer people than ever before are dying in wars and violent conflicts than any time in the last several decades. And it might not seem that way, with the continuing horrors in Syria (even as the war is finally winding down) and Yemen (which has continually been underreported in the Western press). The earth is in a good state to have many changes made upon it, but we can easily make it seem like it's teetering on edge between utopia and dystopia, both of which are supremely overhyped.
The problem here is perception. The problem here is sifting through an overwhelming amount of information being dumped all over without much fact-checking or filter. What we believe to be true, and when we act on the information that we want to be the accurate framing of the situation. Good news that’s fake, bad news that’s fake, good news that’s real, bad news that’s real. It all comes in the same medium (which, as McLuhan noted, is the message), so it’s difficult to pick apart the shit from the gold. And we don’t spend much time trying to do that. As we quickly cherry-pick our entertainment (listening to half a song to decide if we like an entire album, or the first five minutes of the first episode or a TV show), we spend even less time considering the sources of what we call news.
What do we truly know about the world outside our routine? Western leaders remind us that terrorism is not an existential threat to our democracy and way of life, except for the Western leaders who tell us that it certainly is a threat to everything we hold dear. We complain about corporations but don’t think for a minute of doing any sort of personal boycott. If you need proof that marketing works, look no further than the statistic which shows that more people in America today believe that climate change isn't real than twenty years ago. The twelve months that made up 2016 was full of screaming headlines that inevitably made so many of us numb towards the events that will almost certainly shape our world for years to come. If it 'feels' like anger and isolation won, then it time turn that negativity into something positive ('lemons into lemonade' theme reminder). And the more we connect with others, the better chance we have at making the right difference.
But what do we want? Is there anything universal we can all hold onto and agree upon?
To not know the horrors of war.
To escape the soul-grinding bonds of poverty.
To avoid the easy pratfalls of social isolation.
To make the next generation have a better life that our own.
When the masses begin to agree, that's when the people in the halls of power will begin to listen. And if contacting your local politician isn't cutting it, find who is pulling their strings and withdraw support of whatever company or industry is propping them up. That's the work required.
That's what can be done. That's available to us. Typically these yearly reviews have that lousy stream of cynicism babbling through it, with crossed-fingers at the end hoping that we'll do better in 2013, 2014, 2015, etc. And since 2016 'felt' particularly awful, we're going for a different tactic.
We hope but not blindly. We sigh but we don’t close out eyes. We grit our teeth but offer a handshake instead of a fist. We worry but we do not despair.
Why? Because as a recent Nobel Prize winner once said, "don't speak too soon for the wheel's still in spin."
Raise a glass of lemonade to that.
Music of the year
Big Three, in Alphabetical Order
Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
Has gotten only more prescient and necessary by the day. The bangers saddling up next to the more, moody introspective tracks in a perfect presentation. If 2016 was like falling down stairs, then this was the soundtrack to drown out your cries and pleas for help. Brown seems only half certain of himself half the time, and for the other 50% he's king of the world. 'When It Rain' is the paranoid rave up we need right now.
Hooded Fang - Venus on Edge
Concentrated mania. Tweaked riffs over soothing vocal melodies. Bright and bubbly and boiling over. It's buzzing with too much sunshine. If all this seems like gibberish to you, then that means you haven't heard the album yet, because it's all those things. Most importantly, it's got a shitload of energy. Rock has been so thoroughly obliterated and dissected over the last several years (it's what jazz became in the late sixties and beyond, multi-genred and supported by fewer and fewer people), that even the presence of a guitar is not the go-to definition. But if it's got energy - aka, if it 'rocks' - then it's in.
Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
Yeah, these guys are still pretty good. Tenderness is not a popular word to drizzle upon the Oxford Five's music, but Desert Island Disc, Glass Eyes, Present Tense and True Love Waits are so far away from Paranoid Android and Idioteque, it reminds you yet again this is the only band of the last twenty five that not only sought out left turns, but nailed each one (although the freakout of 'Ful Stop' shows they still got balls, along with their bigger hearts).
Very Honourable Mentions
Bowie - going out on a high note.
Kanye - breaking down on a high note.
Frank Ocean - returning on a high note.
2814 - chillaxing on a high note.
Babyfather - an abstract sonic painting of 2016 on a high note.
Knowles the Older > Knowles the Younger - sisterly competition on a higher note.
Angel Olson - wondering about life and love on a high note.
(and it seems that Run the Jewels dropped the album of 2017 for Christmas, official release in January)
Most people aren't voting for the next president, they're voting against who they definitely don't want as the next president.
This is an awful situation for a floundering democracy to be in.
Distrust, disapproval and disappointment at Congress at an all time high, and more and more people are realizing that this inactivity and incompetence goes beyond who is in the Oval Office.
It's easy to note the lack of awareness disturbingly large segments of the population can have regarding certain aspects of the political process (who is your congressperson, name at least one Supreme Court Justice, what are the three branches of government), but a great majority of citizens believe that politicians addresses the needs of wealthy and corporate interests before the needs of their fellow countrymen and women.
Which is of course the case. The politicians and wealthy will freely admit to the reality of an unhealthily close relationship. From this to gerrymandering, from inefficient federal programs and service to bribery scandals, from filibustering to a broken election cycle, it's no wonder that people completely tune out of the political process. Or pay attention half-assed, or only vote because one of two choices (only two!) is decidedly worse.
It's a malaise that only gets worse as we go on. What happens when the President doesn't matter? What happens when the political spectrum (if you want to call blue and red a spectrum) in the House of Representatives and the Senate doesn't matter? What happens when the number of red states and blue states are as relevant as the score of an exhibition football game, especially when every party's colour is green except for the Green Party (and they'll turn too, if they ever become politically viable).
At least you had hopes for Obama. Too high, admittedly, so you were bound to be let down. And not just liberals. Even hardcore conservatives - who thought he'd take away all the guns, institute martial/Sharia law, and have everyone work in government labour camps until it was time to face the death panels - have to be disappointed with how bland Barry turned out. Hillary has shown herself to be an excellent states-person with the right amount of experience, patience, and firm decision-making. All of which makes her sound a bit dull, which is reinforced whenever she gives a speech, as she doesn't have the most energetic persona behind the podium (and by writing this, once again we are falling into the trap of seemingly equating the importance of this negative quality with her positive qualities. Which is not the intention. But calling for a nuanced view of these candidates' positions and personalities (with the former being more important than the latter) has mostly gone unheard of in this election (and many pervious elections, going back several decades now)).
The coverage given to politics is extremely simplified by dominant media organizations (whose chief goal is profit, which is determined by advertising fees, which are determined by ratings, which means there is a cycle of people preferring simplified, like-minded positions, which produces higher ratings, which results in even more simplified, like-minded positions). This is at a time when the legislative process has become even more complicated, thanks largely in part to corporate interests writing actual law for the politicians.
Consequently, elections have become, as Chomsky notes, public relations contests. And in 2016, we've been witnessing the most disappointing and disastrous campaign of recent memory, and we'd be foolish to think that all involved will suddenly wise up the day after. The effects will linger, and they will almost certainly be negative.
With Trump making a pivot not towards the political middle but rather the town garbage dump, Clinton's victory looks all but assured. But even as the democrats hope to make in-roads in traditionally conservative states because of Trump's ballot stink, Clinton's win won't likely be a landslide, and that means the victory won't bring the necessary momentum to vote in new Democratic representatives and Senators to turn either chambers.
Consequently, she will be a Democratic president working with a Republican congress, who will quickly and conveniently forget how poorly the embodiment of its policies fared in its presidential candidate. It's great that Clinton's a centre-left policy wonk, but it will come to naught if the same Washington gridlock continues after her inauguration. And there's no reason to think/expect that will change. The current system benefits the wealthy, who pour billions of dollars into campaign donations (to politicians and their superPACs), and this helps ensure that the gridlock (and therefore no foundational changes) remains in place.
If Clinton really is the continuation of Obama, then you can expect the same non-legislating Congress that has been the hallmark of the previous six years. That's two years (at the bare minimum, until the 2018 elections) of Republicans blocking any sort of liberal legislation and Clinton vetoing any sort of conservative legislation.
The groundswell of support that will certainly be around Hillary Clinton for her historic win the weeks after her victory - and again, weeks after her inauguration - will be short-lived, because the heavy expectation of the new president to fix the still-many problems in America simply cannot happen quickly. And since many people who voted for Hillary did out of some sort of compromise - because Sanders wasn't a viable candidate during the primaries (and then wasn't on the ballot in the fall), or because the other choice was a wholly distasteful real estate mogul - the levels of cynicism and mistrust towards her won't dissipate, either. And the accusation that she's a Washington insider who cozies up to the wealthy corporates is an easy one to levy and make stick because everyone in DC is that way. But Hillary and Bill have become the archetypes of this, and that is going to be at the forefront of her presidency every time anyone even loosely associated with her is accused of anything even slightly unseemly. Or if legislation or programs she championed falls apart and doesn't work. Which is not fair, of course, but boy, is 'not fair' not going to be a plausible defense over the next four years. There is always the toll of negative perception and continuing political apathy when it appears that the government is not working for the people, and for all her talent and ability, Hillary Clinton needs a functioning congress to change this viewpoint and remind people of this egalitarian power of democracy.
And then there's that Donald Trump guy.
It felt like a joke when he announced his candidacy last summer, it felt like an amusing car crash to rubberneck at when he was leading the polls, it got to be a eye-popping wake-up call to the political establishment when he won victory after victory during the primaries, it was a depressing slog through the summer, and it's been a flaming, radioactive death march since the first debate.
It's as if Donald Trump believes that the American Dream and democracy is dead (he said the former during the primaries, and the latter seems to be his closing argument), and is running in the style that he knows will become the future for all candidates trying for higher office: Idiocracy-style. A celebrity reality show, where the only thing that keeps you alive until the next week is to be memorable and never look like you're losing (even if you are). Tact, truth, and sensibility be damned.
In the last few elections, it was noted that candidates who had very little chance of winning (your Huckabees, your Carsons) could at least get a good bit of PR out of their attempt, which can maybe be turned into speaking fees, books, or even a TV show.
Trump did this in reverse, and was able to break through because he already was the perception of wealth since the 1980s (even if it was half Daddy assisted and half bullshit), and a showman who understood the importance of the eternally flashing red light on the camera or phone.
He had the celebrity-ish name recognition and actually did sound different than the hollow, conservative Washington suits that he was running against. And in this election cycle, that was enough. In a country where practically everyone agrees that Congress is broken, of course there were enough people that would carry a 'say anything' demagogue to their party's convention. Even while conservative beltway insiders have been decrying Trump for well over a year. The non-elected Republican establishment seemed shocked that there were this many right-fringers in their base. It's a segment where George F. Will is practically liberal, even Rush seems a little mainstream, and Alex Jones apparently has lots of interesting ideas worth considering.
And Trump will play and say anything - currently in the direction of the demographic listed above - to win (which in too many ways seems to represent corporate America perfectly). What does he really think? Who knows? Is he an amoral businessman pretending to be a bigot? What is the link between being a rude, boorish and generally obnoxious human being, and how they conduct their business? It's the frequent concern of how one's personal and private life relates to their profession and public conduct.
It's also how politics has been covered by the mainstream media for years now. Of course there are the occasional questions of policy (and typically it relates to how they are going to pay for it, since a balanced budget is a laughable concept these days), but for the most part the entire election slog is to beat back scandals and missteps and he said/she said/they said/maybe nobody said anecdotes, without breaking under the pressure and screaming at the Anderson Cooper/Megan Kelly hybrid to just shut the fuck up about that, it doesn't fucking matter anymore, how is that even an important question.
Trump is by no means the first powerful person to realize that appearing to be successful is easier than actual being successful. In terms of politics, you can go back to the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, when people thought Kennedy looked good and won the debate on TV, while people who listened on radio thought that Nixon came out on top (fairly important additional anecdote: Nixon was critical about how he had to wear makeup and appear affable on television and said to aides that he hoped he wouldn't have to deal with it more often in the future. An aide told him that television was the future, and that if you don't embrace it, you will almost certainly lose in the future. So Nixon embraced TV ('Sock it to me?') and became president. That aide who talked back? Roger Ailes).
Fifty six years and countless information overloads later, the Republican presidential nominee is tweeting people to check out a former beauty pageant contestant's (non-existent) sex tape. And while that and his own very real 'grab 'em by the pussy' tape is pretty much the height of sleaze, Trump has said much more alarming things about democracy itself. He's frequently called for Hillary to be put in jail. For what, it's not exactly clear, as she's been exonerated from every criminal investigation that has been opened up against her (some led by conservative politicians and lawyers). So perhaps you can chalk it up to offering up another cheap cheer for the crowd when he's on the stump. The words themselves don't matter to him when he's speaking, they only matter so much as they're getting traction, getting attention. He's not thinking how his supporters are processing this, let alone the viewers who see this as a snippet later on the news (or their newsfeed).
All he cares about is winning. And since it looks like he won't, the one position he has now wholly embraced is that the election is rigged and will be stolen not only from him, but from the tens of millions of enthusiastic Trump supporters (what's most galling is Trump repeatedly asserting without a single shred of proof).
It cannot be stressed at how absolutely terrible this for democracy. And criticism for this is thankfully coming from across the political spectrum. Can you make the argument that both the positions of the president and Congress exist and operate independent of the will and wisdom of the American electorate? Yes, you can certainly suggest with credible evidence that the actions on every even year on the second Tuesday in November is more window dressing than genuine change, but voting is not the only way to create change in your country. Contacting your congressperson, raising awareness through social media, protests, donating to causes, volunteering, canvassing, all these things are available to you.
But they're only available in a state that offers rights to its citizens and operates upon democratic principles (or at least tries very, very hard to). And so it's horrifying that Trump has doubled down with accusations that democracy itself is being torn to pieces (regardless of whether he honestly believes it or not. It gets cheers from the crowd, the media's reporting on it, by his own narcissistic standards, it's a success). He won't question the election results if he wins, he'll keep everyone in suspense about how he feels about its legitimacy. Stay tuned to watch his 'victory' speech to see if the American political is still standing.
Trump supporters still hover around 40% of eligible voters. Hillary is leading in nation polls by 6% (Just 6%! She's beating a man who brags about sexually assaulting women by just 6%!). That's around sixty million people who will be outright dismissive (and hostile at worst, as some fringers have called for an outright revolution if she wins) of Clinton throughout her entire presidency. There were plenty of conservatives who loathed Obama, but at least there wasn't any hateful rhetoric about the election being illegitimate or stolen.
People becoming cynical and dismissive about politics is bad enough, but when millions are actively pushing against the system because they believe it's rigged (just because the loser of the election said it was), that's when the situation becomes an actual crisis. Political commentators are agog and offering up exhausted shrugs because no one knows what's going to happen on or after Election Day, and that's the most terrifying part. And perhaps this worrying perspective is once again the media trying to whip up fervour and concern (which equals bigger ratings), but how seriously do you take people who say it's time for an armed revolution if Trump loses, and that they're going to monitor polling places for non-existent voter fraud?
How do you track and predict when cooler heads, common sense, and civil society will prevail? The only hopeful silver lining to all of this is that maybe the many people who are critical of Trump's attitudes and behaviour and hollow policies, will come to be critical of the attitudes and policies of the group Trump happens to represent: the extremely wealthy. And not even the one percent, but the one percent of the one percent. The tax dodging (or tax code re-writing), tone-deaf, venture capitalist, pass-the-buck, multi-millionaires whose amoral belief that it's every man for themselves and how you get rich is irrelevant, as long as you become 'hyuge'.
If this sounds like class warfare, then it's largely in part due to the war that has been waged against the lower and middle classes by the wealthy for over three decades now. Climbing the ladder to success shouldn’t require you to push hundreds of thousands of other people off it. The 'finally good news for everybody else' - the rise of minimum wage in some states, the better employment numbers across America - comes along after the richest citizens got the first and deep dibs in the post-Great Recession punch-bowl. It's not even proof that trickle-down economics works, Minimum wages rise while prices for so many basic necessities rise even higher, completely cancelling out the income boost. Food prices, housing/rent, health care premiums, and this doesn't even begin to address the fact that job security has practically evaporated. Much of the employment gains are in the always temporary service economy.
This is what the 2016 presidential election should be about. Important and substantive discussions about how the middle class is slipping backwards and the overclass is escaping into the stratosphere. Another Clinton pointed out back in 1992 that 'it's the economy, stupid', and as the world has only become more interconnected since then, every political conversation has to have some element of financial policy within it. Railing against corporations are as old as the industrial revolution (back then it was protesting miserly factory owners), and with every massive merger that cuts jobs and quality to make room for more board room bonuses, it's another reminder that the greatest power the masses have IS their mass.
That should be an inspiring acknowledgement. Excitement is not necessary for your elected officials, but enthusiasm is nothing to scoff it. Once people start doing that, many other challenges become much easier to address, and we can take the first steps to solving them. It doesn't take much talk of 'positive mental attitude' to sound like a hack motivational speaker, but if there's ever a time when America could use a cheering up, it's in these last few days before...whatever comes next.
Damn, that's so easy. Not caring.
Not caring because zzzzzz.
Not caring because reading the nuts and bolts about shuffling money around and filling out papers to create a shell corporation or a 'charity' organization that donates the money back to you or allows for absolutely anything to count as an expense is the opposite of riveting. Running afoul of trade sanctions and exchange laws just doesn't have that headline-grabbing/tweet able 'holy shit!' type-umph.
Ratings and page views don't lie. The story about the leak of how a couple thousand super wealthy and powerful people hide their money in off-shore accounts that are popular in countries like Panama and the Cayman Islands made a brief blip on news programs and websites and papers across the world in April, then everyone moved back to focussing on shit Donald Trump says.
And it's not a matter of someone else behind the curtain killing the story. There doesn't need to be a conspiracy between the wealthy elites and the media, keeping the story off the news networks and burying it far from the front page.
A lot of people just don't care. A lot of people will certainly roll their eyes and say 'what else is new?'. Which is terrifying in and of itself, because it means way too many people think that society can't change for the better. It means that it's tacitly agreed that letting one's country fall further into debt and its citizens into poverty because a few of the richest people don't want to pay their fair share of taxes is an acceptable situation. Or one that's just going to happen anyway, so why bother hearing about it?
Cynicism was a chief cultural characteristic of generation X, but even that was more about one's own life. Now it's grown to how many people feel about the world at large.
And if this many people don't care, if this many people aren't contacting their MP or congressman, aren't marching in the streets, aren't setting up grassroots organizations to try and move their own money around to stop supporting these large corporations and their owners as much as possible, does that mean that we're all passively accepting that this is the way the world works now?
Well mostly yes and kind of no.
Most people don't care (which is horrifying), and the few that do care a whole lot (which is reassuring, as keeping this story alive and kicking is the one chance at getting very real and necessary change out of it).
So who's to blame? The already wealthy, for bending and (re)writing rules so they can become even wealthier at the expense of the state, or the rest of us, for not paying attention as the bending and re(writing) of these rules happened?
This is the classic quandary of democracy, really. Are citizens expected to be constantly vigilant against forces that attempt to usurp power for their own means, (which typically involves the passage of convoluted tax laws through congress/parliament) or is it acceptable that people vote and put total faith that the politicians they elected into power will always act in the best interest of their representatives and shouldn't have to pay attention after they submit their ballot?
And the answer is both, of course. A little from column A, a little from column B. Wherever there is power, that's where the credit and blame can lie. The change over the last three decades is the greater concentration of power among those that own some of the largest corporations who exert unheard of influence over the daily economic conditions that govern our civilization. And these corporations - along with those that own and invest in them - use tax havens in small, foreign countries (or tax havens in certain zones within their own countries, like the state of Delaware and the 'city' of London) to store their wealth that would have otherwise been given to the government to pay for all the services and infrastructure that a country needs to run properly. Avoiding inheritance taxes, raising for foreign funds in an offshore account because your country doesn't allow it, buying foreign property through fake companies, driving up housing prices on the other side of the world (phantom neighbourhoods from London to Vancouver).
Booooring. Where the excitement and intrigue? Are they at least flying this money to the Caribbean in several steel suitcases in the dead of night on private planes being tailed by IRS jets until they reach international airspace?
Nope. They are paying accountants and lawyers to do a shitload of paperwork (or spreadsheet and PDF work, really) and the money gets shuffled around electronically in the blink of an eye. Some ones and zeroes disappear from a quarterly earnings report and a bridge project gets cancelled, several libraries close, and a hospital has to cut back on nurses on staff.
Still dull. You could be directly affected by any of those reductions in government spending and try desperately to get people to understand the large scale ramifications of people trying to cheat the system, but it still wouldn't register among the masses.
Which is insanely frustrating, because this is really should be big news. The biggest news. It should be discussed heavily throughout the presidential election, should have been covered during the entire 'Brexit' campaign, the economic slowdown in China, the corruption scandals in Brazil, and the ongoing problems with setting up legitimate democracies across Africa. When there are trillions of dollars hidden, it's a global crisis.
But that's not even the craziest bit. Sure it's bad enough that the 1% are starving their governments, but the Mossack-Fonseca Papers should be big news because so much of the data reveals that barely any of these activities are illegal (which the firm stressed as soon as the papers were released).
Creating fake corporations that don't do anything, that exist just to hide money in the otherwise pointless bank accounts is allowed by almost all the countries that had wealthy individuals use the Mossack-Fonseca law firm to set up these companies. That's the convenient, and oft-repeated line by the firm and the people who have used their services. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it should be allowed. Especially when one considers the only reason it is legal is because a bunch of rich people paid politicians a bunch of money to write loopholes into the tax code. Backdoor oligarchy is a great way to kill front door democracy. These loopholes shouldn't be allowed.
And, granted, 'shouldn't' isn't a very strong word. It comes with the image of a doting parent's wagging finger. You can feel the Wall Streets roll their eyes at this notion of babysitting
Because suddenly it's an ethical/moral dilemma, and that can be tossed aside right quick because you rationalize ignoring one of those. Only breaking a law can get you thrown in jail (or really, in this case, pay a big fine and probably not admit any wrongdoing).
The dilemma isn't:
Should you pay your taxes?
Because that's a pretty cut and dry 'yes' for a vast segment of the population, with the only holdouts being hardcore libertarians whose preferred economic theory was even outdated in all of the last century.
Instead the dilemma becomes:
Should you pay your fair share of taxes?
Which allows for even more wiggle room. How much 'fair share' is to you means you can essentially decided how much the government 'deserves' to take from you, and anything else you do with your money is your own damn business. So if you can squirrel a bunch of it in an offshore account that the government was just going to take and waste anyways (in your view), why not do that?
It's not like there's any sort of denial or excuse someone who used these services can offer up. An internal Mossack-Fonseca memo summed it up quite well in one sentence:
"Ninety-five percent of our work coincidentally consists of selling vehicles to avoid taxes."
And just to add a dollop of true illegality that might raise an eyebrow or two, Mossack-Fonseca had no problem doing business with the sanction-laden countries of Syria, North Korea and Russia.
But if the extent of the countries and wealthy people involved aren't enough to get people protesting in the streets (with the exception of Iceland, where almost 10% of the entire country showed up in front of the parliament buildings and the prime minister ultimately resigned), then actual criminal activities of a financial nature isn't going to be the tipping point, either.
Forty years on, Watergate is still the defining political event of modern America.
The beginning of a convoluted shadow government. It's failure - as first attempts usually are failures - begat a spidery web of backdoor power that the corporate world consumed whole. And Watergate failed because Mark Felt told Woodward and Bernstein three words: 'Follow the money'. Which is a good inscription as any for the gravestone of empires throughout history.
Follow the money, because it's disappeared from the coffers of governments and the bank accounts of the vast majority of the world's populace.
The money needed to circle through civilization to keep it running (the way blood must continually pump through the veins/arteries for the body to continue functioning) is getting stopped up and clogged in a series of offshore accounts, and it's causing - to continue our body metaphor - a terrible aneurysm that will continue to weaken the world for many years to come.
This needs to be talked about.
What has to be kept in mind the whole time is that you need to be an extremely wealthy and/or powerful individual to afford these services. These are the one percent of the one percent. This is 'royalty under another name' type of wealth. And they can make hollow case after case about unfettered capitalism and government waste and bureaucratic inefficiency.
But free-market capitalism/neo-liberalism has been the dominant economic policy (or at least a continued push towards its purest, unregulated forms) for most of the world for over thirty years now. And the debt incurred by governments as they still attempt to provide basics services for their people is owned by these giant banks and wealthy globalized citizens (citizens that may have citizenship in one country, but live in another most of the time, and barely pay any tax in either). Their expensive buying habits and owning of corporations do not create the 'trickle down' effect that they believe is their contribution to helping the masses. And as the small group gets more powerful, government and people get less powerful.
This is why the middle class is crumbling into a permanent underclass.
This is why there's no manufacturing industry in the West anymore.
This is why the tech industry can treat people like replaceable computer code.
This is why there are cuts in everything from social services to mental health programs.
This is why the city of Detroit's gone bankrupt.
This is why driving a car for a company that calls you an independent contractor so it can treat you terribly is a typical job choice now. The freelance everything economy.
This is why there is high rates of stress, addiction, isolation and anger.
This is why people turn to extreme views, desperately looking for answer as to why life is able to be so good for others and never to them. And these answers could be political, religious radicalism, or outright crime.
There are huge societal consequences when a small cabal of people squirrel away an astonishingly large amount of money that was meant to spent elsewhere.
Orwell said that 'rich people are just poor people with money'. The Mossack-Fonseca Papers are a reminder at the worst possible time that the wealthy can live by a different set of rules than the rest of us. It is the alienation of the rich to the rest and the rest to the rich. People's views are moving towards the untenable, impossible extremes on either side. The hyper-capitalist belief that it's their money rightfully earned and they should have no obligation to 'share the wealth' with freeloaders, and the hyper-socialist belief that money and financial divisions should be abolished completely because of the chaos and suffering it causes.
Both are more philosophical than practical, but they look more appealing when it seems like any sort of compromise or change from the current system is not possible. And compromise should be possible. There should be an appeal to fiscal sensibility and a sustainable economy.
But it doesn't seem to be making much traction. Once again, this is not a shocking revelation. Even the lack of anger isn't a surprise. It's all disappointing and depressing. It's a hard thing to get motivated for, because even results will take years to reveal themselves (the increased tax revenue will finally help lower deficits, fund health and social programs, create much needed infrastructure projects).
If there's no mobilization of many, it will continue to be a world run by the very few.
This is why the world is going the way it is (a slow crawl towards worse and worse. Even in the countries that have made great economic leaps from poverty to working class (China and India come to mind), recently the greatest strides have been a small cabal of already wealthy and powerful becoming even richer).
This attitude is why the world is going the way it is. Hobsbawm describe the twentieth century as the age of extremes, but so far the 21st century is doing a hell of a job at taking that title, and we're not even two decades in.
You'd think it was a joke. Or a winking, ironic consumable art piece based on a ridiculous bit of pop culture, meant to be social commentary about our future.
But no, it's made with good intentions.
You know, the paver for the road to hell.
Soylent is a meal replacement, all the calories and nutrients required to have the energy to get through your day. It was designed by a computer engineer who wanted to cut down on the amount of time he spent eating. It was meant for very busy people, who might want to replace one meal a day (or two) with a simple two minute process of mixing of powder and water, and drinking it over the next half hour while not leaving your workstation.
Fine, let the geeks and gamers drink down whatever they gotta drink down to do whatever they gotta do.
And that could be the end of it.
But it probably isn't.
Soylent will go beyond a niche market and slowly unfold (in part through competitors once their business model is aped) across the planet over the next decade. It will save hundreds of millions of lives from the brink of starvation, while also become a key symbol in the death of materialism and the crippling dearth of basic resources.
That's a lot of praise and blame to put on a bag full of powder.
But its simplicity is deceiving. Like a lot of things with good intentions. Hell, the Internet is really just two computers talking to each other, and it's made the world better, worse, easier, more complicated, wealthier, poorer, inspiring, and endlessly depressing. Every afternoon.
Soylent will be the same soon enough. Just like the Internet was first popular among a bunch of computer programmers who set up newsgroups to talk about things they liked (The Simpsons was an early forum), Soylent has the same audience. And it will expand beyond this initial core group because it's cheap and it's fast. And those two things are insanely attractive to the world right now, since the pesky 99% of us seem to have no money and no time. If fluctuating oil prices can be a key player in sending the global economy into an unpredictable tailspin, it's only going to be worse when the same thing happens to food. Mentally budgeting at the supermarket, desperately going for only what's on sale, and still realizing you aren't going to have enough in your bank account.
Soylent can step in to ease the panic and pain, but it's clearly not being presented to us this way at the moment. Right now, it's still just cool and hip, something to try for a week; like yoga, axe throwing, and making your own compost.
The product's website does a very good job at making it all seem smooth, sleek, pristine, efficient, futuristic. Packaging, too. A tall thin jug that feels aerodynamic. A tiny steel scooper. The minimalist bags with just the nutritional information printed. The instructions are brief because using Soylent is stupidly straightforward. Plus stickers (because, y'know, art-branding corporate synergy, man).
And it's a success story. At least it's a very bland and prosaic series of events that can be spun into a success story. It's the most funded food-related crowdfunding project of all time! Venture capitalists are throwing eight-figure investments at it. If other people think it's important and good, then by (xanthan) gum you should, too.
Presentation isn't everything, but it's a lot of things. Especially in the coming years when this sort of food (right now it's classified by Wikipedia as 'meal replacement beverage', but certainly that will go through the PR-wringer) is going to become a necessary choice for many millions of people.
At this moment, Soylent all feels like a easy thing to try that will maybe give you an extra thirty minutes to an hour during the day by not having to cook and eat and clean up (you can already see the commercials. Whatever time-saving a new type of electrostatic broom or a one-click shopping website offered you, it will pale in comparison to the 'just add water and sip' angle).
So far all the promises are coming true, with the website and easy ordering (and easy paying) and delivery to your door making it all seem like the future is here today.
Then you open up the bag with scissors and part of the powder puffs up and makes flour-like streaks and stains on the counter. It also hangs in the air just briefly, dancing in the sun or artificial light.
A blender is recommended, but a stirring stick will suffice (although you'll have a bit of dried chunks floating inside the glass). It looks like a vanilla-chocolate milkshake combination, but even that's too much of a suspension of disbelief. Anything which promotes healthy...er...drinking can't be that tasty.
Now at this point you look at the glass in front of you and you check the time and realize that yes, it's today, which is technically the future but not in the same way as before, and what you're about to grab onto is beige sludge in a cup. And the streaks of the powder-water inside the cool thin jug are really hurting the cool factor.
Your stomach is rumbling. This has been promised to rectify the situation. On your marks, get set, go.
You drink it down and it's not nothing but not by much. It's close to nothing, and in some sense that's impressive. It’s five hundred calories, thirty five percent of your recommended daily intake of fat, and twenty five to thirty percent of your recommended daily intake of twenty three nutrients which can be effortlessly drank down while you pop pigs or crunch numbers or fold laundry or run on the elliptical or repair a socket, etc.
Lumpy, even after the blender? Sure.
A smoothie for robots? It's a fair cop.
But what does it taste like?
Very watered down peanut butter at best. And at worst it's chalky water that you have to get off your teeth and gums with your tongue.
You'll never forget it's not powder because it quickly sticks to everything. Enough water and it will dissolve without issue, but not enough and it makes for a sticky fleck on a glass or counter that needs more water to wash off.
Make sure you immediately soak anything that housed Soylent in water. It will make the eventual cleaning of them that much easier (even if it's going in the dishwasher). Much of this product reminds you of the frustration of dryness. When there's no water involved, it's dust. And when water leaves it hardens as annoying streaks and smudges. Only with H20 is it free to live up to its potential (it’s like an early reminder of how valuable water will become in the near future).
And to sum up taste-wise: It's not great, and it's not terrible.
Sounds like the future.
Maybe you'll add half a can of Coke to it just for sweetness (and to show that you've learned nothing).
It doesn't fill you up immediately. In no way, shape or form do you feel like you've had a big meal and are stuffed after finishing a single or double serving of Soylent. You're stomach will immediately start breaking down the nutrients, so it won't be rumbling, but there's certainly a psychological aspect of eating that has to be reconditioned. Plus a lot of the sludge sinks to the bottom of the glass, which means those last few mouthfuls are heavy on the clumps indeed.
It will take some getting used to.
Sounds like the future.
And then there's Soylent Green, a cheesy, not-good-but-not-terrible, 70s sci-fi dystopia flick starring Charlton Heston, where the title is a bland foodstuff fed to the impoverished and overpopulated citizens of the planet. Only the few wealthy elite can afford to eat actual food and not in live in cramped, sky-high apartment blocks. These elites own the few massive corporations that essentially oversee all aspects of life on earth (this is movie, by the way), including the food for the masses, which is Soylent.
And it's also (sigh...spoiler alert) made out of old people (Or anybody, really. But because of overpopulation and its stress on resources, people - old people especially - are encouraged to commit suicide at euthanasia centres). Just a reminder, this is just a movie full of cardboard Heston acting. He's a cop who's investigating the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman, who lived in enviable luxury and was involved in large corporate conspiracies meant to be hidden from the populace. Again, not real. A movie.
In the flick, Soylent Green was allegedly 'plankton based', but it's revealed (through Heston's roommate's research friends) that since the oceans are dying, it can no longer produced enough plankton for this to be true. Heston finds out that it's made of human remains, fights off thugs, and runs through the streets screaming the truth as the film ends.
So why name your product after a hideous dystopic wafer in an almost forgettable 70s sci-fi movie (it's Edward G. Robinson's last role, and if we need to add some more contemporary links, police dispense of rioters using over the top paramilitary vehicles, namely giant dump trucks)? Soylent's creator Rob Rhinehart didn't. He named it after the same product in the novel titled, 'Make Room! Make Room!', which the movie Soylent Green based off of. In the book, 'Soylent' is the term coined by combining the two allegedly main ingredients of the foodstuff, soya and lentils. Real-life Soylent is primarily rice protein, with soy lecithin much further down on the list of ingredients (which includes such mouth-waterers as oat flour, cellulose, modified food starch, and xanthan gum).
So it's low art which consumed high(er) art, a meme of which was absentmindedly vacuumed up by a computer engineer who didn't want to spend time eating and transformed into a slowly expanding corporate blob of something that is providing a low-cost, nutrient-forward drink to keep billions of people alive exactly when they can't afford anything else. Which is/was the premise of the book/movie from which the name was taken in the first place.
It's life imitating art imitating art imitating life. Good thing they didn't make Soylent to be constructed out of human feces in the film, because that would be a much too literal full circle.
And all this is more than a quirky coincidence or amusing anecdote, because we need Soylent.
We need it bad.
It's gotten to the point where we can stop talking about the inevitable effects of climate change and overpopulation and overconsumption that is on the horizon because we're already there.
We are running out of food.
That's one of those sobering sentences that still packs quite a lot of power. Kind of hits you right in the stomach (unlike some meal replacement drinks you might think of).
While migration due to war and conflict are headline grabbing, migration due to lack of basic necessities is also occurring across the globe and it numbers in the millions.
In the West we are extremely lucky that these effects are being felt only in the form of rising food prices. Compared to other places across the planet, 'starvation' is not a pressing concern. That's not to say that people are wholly ignorant of the situation. The push to 'go local' is a wonderful attempt, but it cannot be done on a large enough and affordable scale. There's not enough farms in the areas close to large cities in the West to feed everyone, regardless if they could afford to eat the fruits, vegetables, meats, grain and diary products that these agricultural havens produce.
We have to rely on food grown and raised at an extremely cheap price across the globe, which is ultimately frozen (most of the time) and shipped here, which is where most of the price in the grocery store goes (not to mention the burning fuel on a ship or plane which contributes to the effects of climate change which makes it harder to grown said crops and farm animals on the necessary scale).
And this where Soylent comes in. People will make the 'choice' to replace one of their traditional meals with a non-traditional meal replacement because this is the option that they can financially afford.
It's real because it's not a miracle cure that comes out of nowhere. Soylent is made
via 'using all of the Buffalo' approach. Where the food is ground and ground and ground until flavour is a dream and there's enough folate and vitamin K for everybody.
But overnight? Of course not.
First it'll be replacing snacks, then one of your daily meals (breakfast probably), because hey, you can save time and money early in the day, right? So you can get to your overworked and underpaid job that much faster, right?
Soon real food will be for special occasions. Steak is for holidays, weddings. A tiny birthday cake that is the sole property of the birthday boy or girl.
Sounds terrible. Sounds bleak. But don't worry, it's just a movie.
Are you ready to watch the fate of billions of people be put on the line in the form of middle-aged men argue about how much they can slow down the blind, amoral stomp of process? Are you interested in how these politicians will have to simultaneously kiss the asses the vast majority of the planet who know that climate change is going to have devastating effects on our way of life, and the few massive energy companies that got their career balls in a vice and also power our way of life?
What can a rich politician do, except pretend to take a stand, in that sleepy Paris town, there’s just no place for the future of man
The appearance of success is a much-cherished plan B in the world of politics if plan A (actual success) is unlikely/impossible.
The big (but not exactly good) news for the United States is that they're no longer the biggest producer of CO2 on the planet (that would be China). That doesn't exactly take the pressure off, but it does remind everyone of the changing balance of power. Not that America's a lame duck country, but lame duck Obama wants to go out on a high note, even if Congress has no interest in passing anything regarding an energy/environment bill. So the President offers up a carbon capture plan that looks promising, and if the Republicans kill it, he can point his finger and say he tried.
At the summit China and India will flex their ever-growing economic muscles and make the not entirely unreasonable argument that the West had a good one hundred fifty years to industrialize before finding their conscience, so why do they only get a few decade to burn all their coal? And it's tempting to make the argument that these nations should take up the challenge to lead the creation and introduction of emerging green technologies to truly differentiate themselves from the West.
But that's obviously not how the world works. The world economy, more specifically. You can't shut down your power plants over several years until you already have a dependable energy infrastructure to replace them. And that would cost billions of billions of dollars that even already developed countries won't even consider.
Take Canada for example.
Under the recently ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the resource-rich nation doubled down on the oil sands and said that they wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to building the Keystone pipeline (which would allow exports to the United States to increase dramatically). But then one of those pesky election thingies happened, and Conservative Harper was defeated by the Liberal Justin Trudeau, who's probably thanking his lucky stars that Obama was the one that kyboshed the Keystone pipeline so he could have no opinion on the matter.
Now Trudeau ran on a 'more money for green energy' ticket, but he knows too much of his country’s economic well-being is still tied up in oil (even at $45 a barrel), so even though a majority of his citizens (and especially those that elected him) want to see a much more proactive stance on climate change, he’s really going to be America’s wingman here. No crazy policy pronouncements, a step up from the last guy, let's cross our fingers and throw some money at the problem rather than telling energy companies to hurry up and shut it down.
Meanwhile, the EU just sits and waits for America to catch up, acknowledging ruefully that it was always a bit easier for them to clean up their act, what with a smaller geographic region to deal with, and much more powerful government regulatory bodies.
Which is about the time when it has to be reminded that pollution doesn't acknowledge borders, and that we ultimately share the same big, body of water, regardless of who is poisoning it more. And you know institutions are really scrambling for any sort of good news when Ontario's energy crown corporation Hydro One proudly proclaims they (finally) got rid of coal-burning plants in 2014.
The Copenhagen Summit of 2009 resulted in an accord brought forth by the United States, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil which was voted whether to be ‘taken note of’ (as opposed to ‘being adopted), and not passed unanimously by all the participating countries.
At least the bar is set nice and low for Paris 2015.
But as the old adage goes, that just makes it easier for attendees to trip over it.
That's not to say that the big players aren't trying to avoid the same pointless drivel they drooled out in Denmark six years earlier. In fact, because these big summits are typically just the PR icing on the decision cake, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings have already begun amongst the teams behind the leaders, trying to get on the same page now so they don't have to yell or sulk or get caught with their pants down in the French capital.
But that's part of the problem. Essentially everything boils down to window dressing, and when you can't agree on anything substantial, you really look like an ass trying to make the drapes seem perfect when the house is falling down.
Prominent climate change research scientist James Hansen recently penned a scathing letter concerning the initial goals of the conference, accusing Obama of, "selling our children, and theirs, down the river."
It’s kind of refreshing to hear an eminent scholar describe a proposal being put forth by the White House as, “unadulterated 100% pure bullshit.” (underline is his)
For a second, then you realize that what's bullshit is supposed to be the centrepiece agreement between the US and China regarding carbon capture and storage (which involves retrofitting coal plants and oil refineries so that the carbon is not spewed into the atmosphere but captured and stored deep in the ground). But because it's a proposal and not a law (no surprise: carbon capture and storage is expensive), neither of them has to do anything. It's confronting harsh truths with wishful thinking.
These truths have not come out of nowhere.
The lofty, stated goal for the last big climate talks over the twenty five years (Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009) has been to keep the planet's increase in temperature through the twenty first century at 2 degree celsius. But even if all the agreements made for the talks in Paris were adhered to, the more likely increase is going to be a little over 6 degrees celsius. So success is already failure, but to polish the turd, we're reminded that if nothing is agreed upon over the next two weeks, and it's 'business as usual' polluting for the foreseeable future, then the increase would be over 8 degrees.
'Business as Usual' is taking on a well-deserved negative connotation in environmental circles. Another good one is, ‘follow the money’, which Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein all those years ago. And things haven’t changed.
The centralization and narrowing of corporate power means that ‘too big to fail’ also suggests that it’s too big to do many, many other tasks that could benefit society in general.
And even when a task is a pressing as climate change/pollution, even if the spirit is somehow willing, the liquidity is typically weak.
Whatever increases costs is vilified, whatever might affect the bottom line and the annual returns to the investors is dead on arrival, whatever statistics explain the threat is ignored or muzzled.
Even when science can put a price tag on the dangers of pollution (and how it will affect us in the years to come), it seen as a more nebulous figure than how much the costs of instituting plans and projects to correct the dangers. Which makes it less likely to be taken seriously by people who live and die by quarterly projections.
Emission standards are seen as nothing more than an inconvenience to the corporate world. Something to push against, and – failing that – work around.
Volkswagen spent millions of dollars essentially rigging their cars to perform differently during emissions tests than during regular driving.
This duplicity enabled Volkswagen to receive subsidies and tax breaks in the United States related to meeting clean energy standards. 'Greenwashing' is promoting your product or service as environmentally friendly when it isn't. Real 1984 type stuff. And popular enough to have a wikipedia article on it.
It's a great way to appeal to the many people who do want to do the right thing (as long it doesn't completely overhaul their lifestyle or routine, and buying something they think is better for the environment at the same store they would shop at anyway falls into that category), without having to actually do anything about it.
It's the new 'free trade' or 'organic' label.
Another terrible symptom of a corporate-focused society. This is how you increase profits, and if you get caught lying about what your product does or how it's made, the fine is a slap on the wrist, which means there's no real incentive to stop.
No one is going to jail for these (apparently not) crimes. If you are a big enough company, selling a product that does the opposite of what it promises is not against the law.
And if causing astronomical levels of pollution is nice and legal, certainly spreading misinformation about how it’s caused and who causes it is acceptable as well.
If you're an eager young go getter in the world of public relations and are willing to swallow your pride, ethics, and concern for the future, there's no better business than the field of climate change denial.
Legitimatize a non-existent debate. Easily win five minute on-air arguments with nebbish scientists. Flashy adds with smiling oil workers saying how they know that many people are worried about the future (and say no more about it).
And it works. More people today in the United States harbour doubts about the claims scientists make about climate change than twenty and forty years ago.
James Hansen knows this. He made landmark testimony in front of Congress in 1988 about the dangers of greenhouse gases. Hansen questions who Obama is getting his information from, but he has been around long enough to know that you don't kick the leader of the free world in the shins without offering him a band aid.
Hansen proposes a 'carbon fee' (he's also been around long enough to know not to call it a tax), that is designed to be much easier for the corporate world to adopt (once again, he's been around long enough to know who got a shitload of power regarding this issue) than further government regulation or Cap & Trade.
So far this has been about politicians and corporations, the latter of whom bankroll the election campaigns of the former so much that one can't accomplish much in government without them.
‘Yes, but what can I do’, is the refrain from the masses, none of whom own an energy company or have a seat in the halls of power.
There is a disconnect between ‘science that improves my life immediately’ and ‘science that tells me that I have to make concessions and sacrifices for the future’. This is true even of people who wholeheartedly acknowledge the existent of climate change and say they want to do something about it.
So…the easiest and most effective way that millions of people across the globe can help curb the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere starting tomorrow…is carpooling.
A vast majority of people who drive to work across cities (or from suburbs into downtown areas) are sitting alone in their vehicles.
Even going moderately out of your way to pick up a co-worker who lives perhaps fifteen to twenty minutes away can, over time, make a huge difference not only in the amount of exhaust being barfed into the air, but also save both of you money (if your co-worker chips in a bit on gas). And it can increase even more if you added more people in the back seat. A couple phone calls or texts are all it takes to set this up. In fact, the other passengers can even get a jump on work by spending most of the drive on their phones, tablets or laptops, which they would not be able to do if they were driving themselves. And there’s no matter of the possible awkwardness of driving or sitting with strangers. And with fewer cars on the road, everyone will be getting to work faster, and the streets and highways will be safer. The positives of carpooling are absolutely amazing, especially considering the ease of instituting the practice.
Yet we don’t do this.
There’s nary a peep about it in lunchrooms or elevators. There’s hasn’t been much of a promotional push for it by any environmental or green energy groups. None of the institutions that would love to see fewer cars on the road (police and emergency personnel, insurance companies, city councillors who would love to not have to spend so much money on highway maintenance) have put up billboards or internet banners.
It’s not a matter of getting rid of cars, but just using them with a bit more restraint and common sense. Oil is going to be part of the world’s energy plan for a decades to come no matter what. We just have to use (a lot) less of it. Even Hansen acknowledges that it's thanks to the burning of fossil fuels (both oil and coal) that helped raise the standard of living in the West, and it's damn hypocritical of us to demand China to stop doing the same, when it's playing such a larger role in raising their living standards as well.
Salvaging is never an inspiring concept (and certainly not considered a noble profession), but it is an extremely essential one, especially when we're talking about the condition of our planet (and our only planet, might I add).
That the oceans will continue to warm, that the airs will be filled with more CO2 and methane, that sea levels will rise, that the animals living in the water and on land will struggle to adapt, none of these things are up for debate. All we can hope for in Paris is to lay the seeds to slow the pace of the inevitable changes coming to our planet.
This shit gets hard so fast.
It's so easy to say 'everyone is legal', and on a globe that is so interdependent and interconnected it's even easy to make the case that because of the massive influence the developed world has on the developing world (for now, we'll just go with these broad terms, while quickly acknowledging just how over-simplistic and demeaning they are), everyone should be allowed to travel and reside almost anywhere. If the United States and Europe (along with China, as another major economic player) are setting crop futures prices that affect the economies of Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia, that means they are directly affecting the livelihoods and living standards of the people in those countries. When you go to your grocery store and buy Granny Smith apples grown in South Africa, you are entering into a economic partnership with that country. You are affecting people's lives on the other side of the globe (as they are yours). But that happens on such a massive and frequent scale (it can apply to your iphone, your pants, your cutlery, your bicycle) that we don't think much about it at all.
Saying 'everyone is legal' is a wonderfully humanitarian and moralistic position of welcoming everyone as family, as identifying everyone as equals, and really should be a starting ethos if we want to achieve greater peace and harmony in this world.
And certainly affluent regions of the world that love to trumpet their freedoms and abilities to assist less prosperous and more volatile regions should do much more to welcome people from these regions who are fleeing war, famine, and persecution. Especially because of the tendency to find that these affluent regions play vital roles in shaping the politics and economies of these less prosperous regions. There's been plenty of reasons for the West going into Africa or the Middle East over the last several centuries, and only a small handful of them have been wholly altruistic.
So it can also be argued that the West should actually be 'forced' (although by what sort of agency or organization remains to be seen, since the UN has been pretty toothless this century) to do everything it can to address the current migrant crisis in Europe, since it played such a large role in its emergence (coveted resources and geopolitical strategy are the clear ones, but some scientists have also connected climate change to the horrible situation in Syria).
The examples above of economic exchange involve countries that do not currently have such violent instability that tens of thousands are fleeing from them. But the countries that are being focussed on during this terrible situation do have important and complicated relationships with the United States, Canada and Europe.
The West buys oil from the region, and with that money countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, and Iraq buy weapons manufactured in the West to 'put down' violent rebellions in their respective countries, which ultimately make safety and stability all the more unlikely and the flight of terrified and desperate citizens more likely.
Syria has been a mid-sized Western ally for years (and another seller of petroleum), and consequently the response to al-Assad crushing his opponents (and inflaming a rebellion) during the Arab Spring has been done with relative restraint.
To atone for the 'sins' (probably the more modern term would be 'business interests') of British-American involvement in the Middle East (going back to the height of the British Empire, into the 1970s and 1980s when America increased its presence there after the formation of OPEC and the oil crisis, right up through to today, with its own myriad of challenges), it seems like they should take the lead in opening their doors to many thousands of migrants and refugees (it would also make for an effective PR campaign against ISIS). Germany (the third largest weapons exporter to the region) is spearheading the campaign by stating it can take up to half a million migrants this year. Other European countries, after intense public pressure both among their own citizens and around the world, are also now agreeing to take at markedly increased number of migrants before the end of the year.
Not surprisingly, there is plenty of blowback from these decisions, ranging from stupidly bigoted to frustratingly practical. Frequently the people in the countries receiving this influx of people forget (or don't know) the history of migration, where these two opposing reactions to waves of new citizens have always been present.
Having to leave where you are and going somewhere else is old. Really old.
And it was rarely welcomed by all the people who were living in 'somewhere else' at the time. The immigration boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America is now seen as inspiring chapter of the American Dream, but during this period the 'already heres' persistently vilified every new wave of immigrant with the same complaints and prejudices, regardless of where they were from (they were lazy, uneducated, had too many children they couldn't care for, couldn't speak the language, had bizarre customs, adhered to a different religion, etc.). This didn't matter if it was the Irish in the nineteenth century, the Italians in the early twentieth, or the much greater milieu of people from around the world in the latter half of the twentieth. New, unfamiliar groups of people are frequently isolated and treated unfairly in any new neighbourhood or region. And while its essential that we continue to rectify this hostile and harmful close-mindedness, there are signs that the same thing is happening during the migrant crisis that is occurring across in Europe in various forms. Railway chaos in Hungary and the in Chunnel. Police throwing food into large fenced in areas of people like they were animals. Poor conditions in refugee camps, with people caught in legal limbo between the nation they left and wherever their boat ended up (and considering how many people die trying to cross seas and borders, even a refugee camp is - at first - a step up from any of the likely alternatives). At least the closing of the unattended borders in Western Europe that have been open for decades now has more to do with simple organizational and bureaucratic tallying than anything that can be seen as a symbolic 'circling of the wagons'. One of the coveted qualities of the continent is its 'social safety net', which ensures some of the highest standards of living in the world. But migrants cannot get proper assistance if they don't have any identification (and when you leave a war-torn area, sometimes you have little more than the shirt on your back), and simply having an official record of people entering these countries makes it easier to help them.
Our hearts going out to the father of Alan Kurdi is an important first step, and politicians (finally) acting is an inspiring sign, but the next several steps are the more decisive and difficult ones.
Finding the resources necessary to properly provide basic assistance to hundreds of thousands of people so that over several years they can better acclimatize themselves to their adopted country is not easy.
From a practical (and admittedly cold) standpoint, almost every Western and G8 nation are cash strapped and have enough internal problems with budgets and infrastructure that this new additional project (albeit inspiring and central to our concepts of being charitable and responsible) means those of us already here must make/expect practical sacrifices in the near future to afford it.
Talking about having the money to support the influx of migrants turned citizens seems cold and insensitive, but that is the measure of ability for our bureaucracy to do the activities we deem important. Do you give the tired, huddled masses your best, your leftovers, something in the middle? And how do we address this issue without considering how well we're doing taking care of the poor and downtrodden who are already in our respective countries? When institutions and governments must pick and choose who to help (or who to help first) it is almost a foregone conclusion that their own citizens are the initial recipients of any sort of support (whether it be in the form of improved infrastructure, social assistance or any other service or program). It seems absurd that suddenly we demand our fellow citizens who are suffering from similar situations of homelessness and poverty to suddenly make do with even less.
There is not enough Western standards of living to go around, even for people who risk death to make it to the West (hell, there's not enough of WSoL for people born in the West). Even when the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.
While living in run-down apartments in impoverished neighbourhoods in large cities in Europe and North America can be considered improvements over remaining in dangerous, war torn nations of the Middle East and Africa, that has to be just another step in the story, not the end if it.
This does illustrate the size of this problem, however. There are enough issues with the concept of wealth redistribution in affluent countries (namely, that the richer are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the lower class is growing) that when confronted with unexpected but essential actions (I feel like I'm being euphemistically cautious by never using the overt and straightforward term, 'spending money on migrants’), governments need to start considering policies that for quite a long time were considered politically unfeasible
Do we ask wealthier citizens to suddenly pony up? Do we not ask and simply pass legislation that raises their taxes? Do we do the same to corporations, and end their tax breaks?
On the NGO-charitable front, do we open the doors to our houses that might have a spare bedroom to a mother and daughter who have recently lost the other half of their family as they crossed the Mediterranean? Kickstarter campaigns for orphaned children? There are programs in place to help the set amount of immigrants and refugees that a developed nations accepts each year, do we volunteer our time and donate money through there?
All of these suggestions have their benefits (even if simply 'writing to your congressperson or MP'), but one thing that should also be talked about with great fervour in this matter is huge increases in foreign aid to these war torn nations. And obviously military spending is not considered 'aid' in this instance. Money for food, shelter, clothing (the very basic necessities), along with simple but essential infrastructure can a long way in ensuring that there does not have to be a migrant crisis in the first place. If the West cannot welcome the displaced millions over last several years, then it certainly must improve the living conditions from where these displaced millions came.
Which is of course another long term, expensive undertaking by the West (and arguably being done currently in a middling, barely effective fashion).
Many of the nations that are having migrants leave in droves have a lack of any sort of security/stability. At one point in the not too distant past, a lot of these places had those two essential qualities, but at the 'cost' of their country being run by a corrupt, brutal and power-hungry dictator (Gaddafi in Libya, al-Assad in Syria, Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan). And when these leaders were disposed or made ineffective, the propped up Western-supported governments that came after floundered under cronyism, ineffectiveness, and led to violent clashes, ethnic cleansing, and war. Nature abhors a vacuum, and civilization abhors a power vacuum. It will be filled with death and chaos, and ISIS is only to happy to display.
The challenge for the West - and certainly there are many on its plate - with regards to the migrant crisis is sustainability and vigilance. To provide basic necessities to the people fleeing war and death when they arrive, while at the same time providing resources so that there is a functioning society for these people if they choose to return home when the violence ends. Even displaying great and far-reaching acts of charity and generosity, both in public and private spheres, Western nations cannot fully 'look after' and assist these waves of migrants ad infinitum, nor should that ever be the goal.
Our ability to do this - and in addition, rise above petty and wrongheaded assumptions about any person or group seeking refuge in a new country - would be so much more beneficial to society as a whole than simply agreeing that we should do something, which is always the easiest thing to do. The danger is that we start to believe the matter is solved when it disappears from the headlines or news feeds. Signing an online petition or offering a donation of five dollars has to be the start, not the end. If our hearts truly were moved at the sight of a drowned three year old on the shores of Greece, then we owe it to him (and to ourselves) to see these policies enacted and carried out until there are demonstrative rises in living standards in the countries which these thousands of people are fleeing.
We may not be able to send the West itself to these areas of the world, but we can at least show them what we claim our values to be.
Democracy is a fragile thing.
No wait, I can come up with a better start. And while this isn't a facebook post (which can't be deleted)(oh, and meanwhile a tweet can, although anything remotely interesting or spar(k)-worthy is usually saved as jpeg. or .png file by users for posterity), I'll keep it up there as a reminder of my opening stumble, my beginning mistake. And sometime between and now and when the sun expands and swallows the earth in five billion years, it will be used against me or the AI version of me in the cyber-court of public opinion.
That I can't hack it right out of the gate, can’t find the right word when I need to, can't take the heat, am a technophobe, indifferent, hate democracy, endlessly cynical, and addicted to pronouns.
Community is a fragile thing.
When everyone can participate, everyone's got to work their ass off to keep the quality up. When cracks begin to show and aren't patched up quickly, the rate of deterioration increases. And ultimately there comes a point of no return, where whatever you had has been nefariously switched, twisted and turned into something that is a disgusting pale shadow-echo of what used to be.
But this isn't (another) piece decrying the dangerous stalling of democratic principles in Western nations.
Instead, let's talk about youtube! And twitter! And facebook!
The town squares of the 21st century, with millions of people passing through and having a chat, an idea, a product or service to sell, or a bigoted screed (fancy word. How about 'screech' instead?).
But it's not a town square. It's better and worse. Like everything else it gets its digital fingers on (statistics, music, pornography), the internet pries, pushes and explodes things into the extremes.
And like all unwieldy, complicated things, there's advantages and disadvantages. Your cyberspace town square can include people from all the ends of the earth, enjoying and chatting about common interests in real time, co-workers in different time zones each with access to the same info so they can all band together and solve problems quicker than before. You can plan your vacation in the Philippines down to the hour, and you can find out the number of the new pizza place down the street.
And some of this stuff has become so commonplace that it comes off as eye-rollingly boring when you read it. Even though most of it was unheard of twenty years ago. It's a monumental achievement of human ability. Not only the development of computer technology, but the infrastructure required to keep the internet up and running. Everything from orbiting satellites to thousands of miles of underground cables and millions of employees at all sorts of tech companies making sure the code in all these tiny machines work near perfectly almost all of the time.
Just so you can [insert terrible and cliched time wasting activity that the internet is primarily know for]. And thanks to smart phones (although I'm pretty sure we can just call them phones now), it's so much easier to dive in and lose yourself. When you had a computer at home, various factors like work-related software, slower connections, and other people using it, would keep you from spending hours upon hours quickly jetting back and forth from facebook, twitter, youtube, angry birds, candy crush, buzzfeed, xhamster (don't pretend like you don't know), reddit, etc. until the end of time.
And this is not an anti-internet screed (you're reading this on a website, after all). It's just a frustrated acknowledgement that - wait for it - complicated things are complicated. And complicated things need a lot of consideration and maintenance for them to work properly.
And how do we define ‘properly’ here? Because it’s not just the technical functioning that we think about.
Once the codes works more or less perfectly (think how infrequently the internet crashes (not the connection, but the actual data being transmitted and presented)considering how much time you spend on it), are we judging the internet based on how we use it? By our noblest intentions and activities? By our lowest common denominator base-level desires and reactions?
After all, from a sociological experiment perspective, the one thing we've learned beyond a doubt in the early twenty first century is that it's a lot easier to be an asshole when you can effortlessly reduce the person you're being an asshole towards into a username or irrelevant avatar of a dog or kid's cartoon.
Technology can dehumanize as quickly as it can bring people together (and for every bad story that fall under the umbrella of the former, I firmly believe there are thousands of stories that involve the latter, and that we just take it for granted now).
So what do we do when both things happen?
Once against the responsibility falls on everyone's shoulders.
We didn't break the internet, but it looks a lot like modern civilization, and that comments hovers uncomfortably between insult and compliment.
You occasionally see what wonderful things we are capable of if we are proactive and informed (and what seemed amazing fifteen years ago - emailing many people across the globe, watching a video - is so blandly mundane). Raising money for niche and headline causes (a single cancer patient’s wish, an earthquake on the other side of the planet), learning the same thing in African and Japanese classrooms, giving support and advice to friends and strangers, sharing whatever you created and maybe becoming successful thanks to it.
But what frequently gets attention is the opposite. Teenagers who kill themselves because of what a group of fellow high school students say and do on facebook. People getting pilloried for thoughtless tweets, and then the people who do the attacking get (cyber)attacked themselves (very French Revolution, actually).
And my goodness it's important that we do address pressing issues like cyberbullying, harassment, fraud, and stalking and attempt to stamp it out. When such heinous acts and/or results 'go viral', it almost comes in the form of a groundswell of support for the victim (laws passed in the name of deceased, thousands of dollars (or a party) donated to the embarrassed/harassed).
But the challenge is to become proactive, not stuck being reactive.
It's as if we'll always be playing catch up.
But that makes sense. We aren't as simple and dependable as the technology we design.
The device you hold in your hand is hundreds of times more powerful than the machines that took up a shitload of counter space less than twenty years ago.
Moore's law has been consistent for the last fifty years (how microchip power and performance will double every two years), but we haven't kept up.
What does this technology allow us to be/become?
(other than unemployed, which always happens when something is invented and popularized that can be applied to work. See: the plow, the printing press, the steam engine, the assembly line, etc.)
Gladwell's Tipping Point investigates the process and speed of ideas and products becoming popular. The right people with the right initiative pushing the right product/service at the right time. The internet was for the computer-savvy, then for the computer-fad folk, then the computer-intrigued and finally for absolutely everyone. As computers got more powerful, so too did the technology required to make the internet that much more useful, dependable, and exciting.
It was sci-fi come to life. William Gibson deserves a royalty for every down and uploaded loaded megabyte. And even though it was for the sake of making an interesting narrative in Neuromancer (a film version is stuck in development hell, and maybe it should be stuck there so everyone can do that old school thing and y'know, read), he saw pretty quick the dark and lonely side of an massively interconnected computer system.
The dream of easy open access for every person on planet also comes with the nightmare of easy open access for every person on the planet. Not everyone’s going to treat a free gift with the same amount of respect. To paraphrase legendary concert promoter Bill Graham: "if it's free people will piss on the floor."
It - and that's a really open pronoun - has to have some value otherwise it will be taken for granted and treated accordingly. To paraphrase legendary comedian Louis CK about the guy upset when the internet on planes was introduced and then stop working: "how quickly the world owes him for something he just found out existed five minutes ago."
And it's not that we should have a sense of delight and wonder every time we check our phones. But a modicum of respect would be nice, as well as the awareness that posting something in cyberspace isn't the same thing as saying it aloud to your friends in your kitchen or break room. A free, democratic society is never going to arrest you for your asshole tweet, but that won't protect you from the court of public opinion (or from the risk of losing your job if your company now sees your pariah-like status in cyberspace as a liability).
Perhaps there's a tipping point for our reactions and overreactions that we haven't yet hit. Where even if it's your real name in your twitter handle, what you say in the endless forest of ones and zeros doesn't hold the same level of personal accountability as everything else (of course, it all gets jumbled up in social media when people use their social media accounts for messages both work related and anger venting).
So far, we still have kinks to iron out when it comes to figuring out who we are and how we express ourselves online.
But it's important that we do so, because the internet is going to play a dominant role in civilization's future, and like democracy, if we don't give it our full attention and effort, this unique network/institution/opportunity/gift can be permanently spoiled and/or disfigured.
And we should acknowledge that, again like democracy, the internet was created with less benevolent intentions than we see now. Democracy was originally permitted only for the wealthiest 1% of America in the late eighteenth century (you had to be landowning white male to vote). The internet was originally developed so US Department of Defence computers could speak to each other and launch missiles and rain mushroom clouds around the world (mainly on Soviet Russia) at the advent of World War III. The smoothest road to hell is paved with only the very best intentions (wikipedia 'fair trade', for example).
What a sprawling and multifaceted thing can become over time will be an interesting research assignment on one hand, and a sobering look at human nature on the other.
Things people would never say face to face comes out effortlessly when you're only replying to a username below a video of motorcycle fails (sure, it's better than using your connection to other computers to blow up the planet, but that's a low bar).
We hear critics of this behaviour say that we are becoming crueller and insensitive as we invest more and more of our time in our smartphones, tablets and (coming very soon) smart-watches.
It is said that our ability to sympathize and emphasize with people will begin to break down and become the rarity, not the norm.
[this is the 'get off my lawn' argument, as it's been applied to all new technologies and trends that have been vociferously taken up by the youth. Past culprits: television, rock and roll, jazz, dancing, novels, minor chords, literacy]
On the other hand (playing devil's advocate?), perhaps by being obnoxious human beings online we're getting frustrations and stress out that might have been acted out in more harmful ways.
[this is a poor argument in the (unfortunately) many cases of trolling/bullying on the internet that has unquestionably had 'real world' influences, including suicide, murder, assaults, harassment, and firings]
It's a sinking feeling. It's something we all can complain about on our own facebook/twitter/instagram accounts to friends, who agree that this freshest example of insensitivity is proof of humanity's ability to evolve, to have a shred of respect for each other, etc.
So what's the solution?
Wait, that's not right.
What's a solution?
See, there are solutions that have their own problems inherent to them. And like democracy being usurped by those willing to pay (heavily) to play in the halls of power through large campaign donations and lobbyists, the internet is now being, toll-boothed, cut up and cordoned off by a wealthy cabal of companies and interests.
This is not a shock. This is the usual fate of institutions and ideas. A rising, a falling, and then rebirth of something slightly different from the ashes. Culture especially. A popular style, musical genre, or even neighbourhood is first known only to a small number of people. Then it breaks through into a wider audience, hangers on arrive in droves, the initial essence of what made it popular is diluted, the initial creators bail or decry its alteration, it gets less popular, and is soon is mocked, derided and forgotten. And then the next new style, musical genre or neighbourhood is found.
It's the circle of post-industrial life.
Although obviously the internet is much bigger and more essential to contemporary human civilization than hipster fashion, punk, or the East Village. And how it changes has a greater effect on us all than a bunch of stores closing or record label employees getting laid off.
The internet is currently gestating into it's next phase of more barriers, almost all of which are divided by what you're willing to pay. Which comes with some simple solutions and a lot of complex problems.
The hardware has always been a capitalist enterprise. The more money you spend on your phone, cable line or modem's power, the faster upload and download speed at your fingertips. Outside of that rather large blindspot, the internet was trumpeted as being an equal and level playing field. Anyone could build a website. Anyone can talk to anyone else (remember texting....on your desktop computer?). Copyright wasn't too big of an issue at first because it took so much memory to digitize and upload/download a sound or photo or any other hunk of information that was owned by someone else.
It was as if so many people were amazed that it even worked there was barely any time or energy to be petty or angry when you arrived in cyberspace (instead your negative emotions were focussed on the goddamn 14.4 modem not connecting to American Online, even though no one else was on the phone).
Then computers/modems got faster, files could be compressed, the internet bubble burst, Google, Napster, facebook, youtube, twitter, torrenting, etc.
How's that for a summation of the last twenty years of the most important technological advance since nuclear power (debatable?)?
Now, in 2015, with almost everyone almost constantly connected, it's rarely acknowledged that a lot of our initial options for how we access the internet, what we access, and what we can access have narrowed.
The full embrace of phones and tablets as the main forms of access to cyberspace means that apps and closed software are becoming the norm, replacing websites and open software (the hallmark of your desktop and laptop computers, with their prompts and dialogue boxes).
Your facebook or tumblr page has more rigid guidelines and design limitations than any sort of web-building software.
And we should note here that the battle for net neutrality won't be over until it's finally won by the cable providers, who want to 'offer'/'charge' certain websites and online services premium fees for 'ideally' faster service. A two-tier system that leaves start up and less established ones in the dust. The already powerful will become more powerful.
Even where everything form of entertainment is supposedly free, money still talks.
A classic example is Tinder (yes, something three years old can be 'classic', in our hyper-accelerated world), which was intentionally introduced to the Silicon Valley/Hollywood upper crust to give it a bit of cache and curiosity, it's fuckbook-like interface spilling down to the plebs below in the coming months and years. And now that it's part of the culture - for better and for worse - they can now introduce premium subscription services to the site, with those paying a bit more getting a higher level swipe-and-meet-and-fuck experience.
From news to games to porn, there's more options, power-ups and exclusive hi-def footage if you're willing to pay. When the rabble start to get particularly ornery with what everyone can have because it’s free, those who can afford it slowly slip out of the room and into the brand new, VIP patio (mark my words, facebook will ultimately add a ‘facebook plus’, where people can pay to have ads removed from their news feed).
Easy for some people, not an option for others.
[here is the obligatory reminder that the widening gap between the rich and everyone else (aka, the shrinking of the middle class) creates not only a have and have-nots divide in terms of bank account size (and all the sociocultural opportunities attached to it), but a psychological one as well, where one begins to think these tiers are inherent and unchangeable]
It's pretty much the divide between who pays for HBO, and who steals HBO content or waits for the DVDs to rent from the library (remember libraries? Can you believe all the stuff there is free?).
Barriers are inevitable, and while the internet broke the last of the physical ones (take that, titanium, stone, and chain-link), it took a very short period of time before digital ones replaced them.
The pay wall. And if you don't have the cash (or won't cough it up), they'll take your information for a quick hit, for a first time tour behind the gates.
The gate meant to keep out the trolls, the bitter, the scammers, the thin-skinned defensive, the easily offended, the consistently ignorant, the conveniently ignorant, the dim and burnt out bulbs.
The venue always changes (it's all ones and zeroes now) but that process remains. The lifespan off the newest killer app is rapidly approaching that of the average fruit fly. Now the true showing of power and prowess is how deftly one can hop from one to the other. Our need for endless novelty (recent proof: the early February interest of Katy Perry's Left Shark. Remember? Way back then? Good times).
But out fleeting interests and brief bursts of anger, sympathy and excitement can wreak havoc on anyone caught in its wake. Jon Ronson's new book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, is an account of the very worst examples of the internet ruining people's lives. Where tweets or facebook statuses of varying degrees of insult and ignorance sparks a flurry of anger and vindictiveness that costs people their dignity and sometimes their careers.
It's actually become possible to inadvertently profit from these flare-ups. Just follow the step-by-step process:
-Make a controversial opinion known, either on the internet or through the antiquated medium known as television.
-Twitter and facebook users send an overwhelming amount of angry tweets and comments (including good ol' death threats and bigotry).
-People who agree with original your controversial opinion support them in a much more stronger and traditional fashion (financial support, public protests and marches) than simply typing a message (or signing a digital petition) on a phone.
The recent example of this is the owner of an Indiana pizza place who said on local TV news that she supported the state's controversial bill that makes it possible for business to discriminate against gays and lesbians. LGBT-supportive people across the internet protested from the comfort of their homes, suggesting boycotts, arson, and murder as a way to deal with this person and their business. And in response to this a kickstarter campaign started by people who supported the pizza place employee raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for them.
Instant connection and response make oversteering a new normal. Something that people and PR firms now have to take into account. The celebrities, politicians, and average citizens who have been burned by sharing their opinions/jokes/comments/whatever on the internet were the first victims/lessons. And like a lot of new inventions, it's still clear we have difficulty with the learning curve. Now everyone can be known for only a slice of their personality or ability, good or bad.
If some random person's tweet somehow goes viral, that's all that person is (and probably ever will be) in the eyes of the internet.
Popularity in cyberspace is akin to a grease fire. I mentioned Land Shark, but hey, remember 'What Colour is the Dress'? How about Mathew McConaughey in Interstellar reacting to the second Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer?
Two days worth of 'fame', sometimes for a silly idea instead of a person's idiocy (and that's probably preferred).
A strange twenty second cut of a popular movie we can all laugh or roll our eyes at (the closest we have to egalitarianism now?) on youtube, the shopping mall of the internet. After all, everyone's there (youtube comments might just be the barnacles at the bottom of the barrel), there's a lot of material of dubious quality, and even the good stuff might have some ethical issues (youtube founders agreed early on that they would take a laissez-faire attitude towards removing copyrighted material that was uploaded by a random users).
4chan is the mysterious Eyes Wide Shut orgy, that's more fun and less shocking/deadly than everyone thinks it is. I've always seen and it's extensions (like dailyrotten, the library and the nndb) as the early pioneers of the 4chan attitude. Described itself as 'the soft white underbelly of the net eviscerated for all the world to see', at least there's plenty of properly spelled words and paragraph, which is more than you can say about a lot more popular places around cyberspace.
It hasn't been updated in quite awhile, but it's there, like a statue that will never gather a single grain of dust. It's not that 'nothing is forgotten' on the internet. It's more like, 'nothing valuable is forgotten' on the internet (and of course, valuable is relative. A page detailing your bankruptcy has value to certain people and certain situations. A page detailing your love of 1970s glam band Sparks has value, but certainly not the same kind as the previous example).
But there are so many ones and zeroes that truly have practically no value at all, and while they don't actually disappear, they sink very, very far down.
The deep web, the dark internet. This mass of information is like the lower 90% of the universal hard drive iceberg. As this data sinks further and further down, it will only become useful to historians many years from now. Finding old computers and getting them in serviceable condition to glean what information they have contained within will turn programmers and engineers in archaeologists.
Forgotten. Maybe that's when, where, and how we'll all be equal again.
Cold out. Bleak January. The icy wind stings and stretches out in a biting embrace.
Dead men on the other side of the planet. In the same sort of profession. Typing stuff, doodling. Notoriety can catch a gaggle of writers off-guard (although in certain cases, it's a half-secret goal). But everyone can weather angry letters/email/tweets/psychic-missives (tba), advertisers jumping ship, subscriptions cancelled, lawsuits, public protests, even government investigations.
It's hard to weather a barrage of bullets breaking up your morning meeting unless you're in kevlar.
Now satirists have to dress like they're about to patrol in Kabul (or Ferguson, Missouri). Stand-ups are packing heat onstage, emptying a whole clip on a heckler. Talk show hosts behind bullet proof glass. To get into clubs and shows requires level five security clearance. It will just be military personnel and intelligence officials at Louis CK shows now (fortunately he has some killer bits on collateral damage).
[I/we didn't think we would be writing another (ahem) 'humour' column so quickly]
You can't reason with people who not only don't have a sense of humour, but also don't have a sense that people can hold different opinions than their own. A myopic, selfish view of the world around them. And even that's certainly allowed in a free society. You can gnash your teeth and shake your fist and wish the staff of Charles Hebdo were dead. You'd be a petty asshole, but there's plenty of those in a free society. But you can't pick up a gun and shoot the office up.
You can't kill them.
You're throwing away your pulpit, your explanation, your relevance when you start shrieking with your gun because you didn't like some guy's cartoons.
'Radical' and 'Extreme' are the proper words to describe these men (and the woman who was the supportive girlfriend of one of them, who fled to Syria right after the attacks, which is a bit like going from the frying pan into a really shitty frying pan that keeps on exploding). They fall outside of what Jon Stewart recently called, 'Team Civilization'. If they were caught alive we would charge and punish them in a civilized way (because we are better than them), but their arguments would fall on deaf ears because of how they chose to argue. Not with reason, not even with personal beliefs, but with the barrel of a gun.
Satire and mockery is not big among fascists of any type, religious or secular. And it doesn't matter if the fascist is in a fascist country or in one that protects the freedom of individuals. Their 'level of offence' goes through the roof when almost anyone else would react to a book, movie, or cartoon with a shrug (if they don't care) or a sigh and shake of the head (even if they do).
And that's the sensible reaction because Charlie Hebdo isn't a government institution or a pulpit. It’s not serious. It exists outside of serious. It comments on serious with barely a shred of it.
'Make fun of' makes all the difference, but 'taking the piss' can piss off a lot of people.
Coming at it from an angle, a wink, a sly nod, a between-the-lines reminder that so much of our concerns are part of a house of cards. Not that the comedian/satirist is a cynic who thinks it's all for nothing because we're all going to end up dead, but that an intense and serious orthodoxy/'five year plan' is no answer, either. Humour prevents a society from oversteering. Frequently it will safely do the oversteering for society, to show how ridiculous it could become (or already is).
Today censorship in the West is almost completely corporate-imposed, with books, TV episodes, tweets, and almost any other form of culture being altered before or hastily withdrawn after release due to public pressure by the company owning it, because of fear of a possible loss in profits. Incidents involving the government actually stepping in to ban the dissemination of any sort of written, visual, or audio material usually involve hate/racist speech (unless the material can be proven to be satire, that is, a mockery of racist attitudes, which is how Charles Hebdo was never fined, arrested, or shutdown by the French government, despite protests and fire bombings by those who hated what they wrote and drew).
So while it's reassuring that Western governments are taking one of the basic democratic rights as seriously as it should be taken, it's sadly revealing of how much more power corporations have in this globalized world, as they - and their profits - are the guardians as to what is and isn't acceptable.
[But that's a hideously mundane topic for another day. A 'read the small print’ type of news story, where whatever the corporation objects to is buried, ignored, suppressed, or released with no fanfare. The corporations work with a 21st century mindset in this case: Destroying something creates too much attention. But that's part of the point of terrorist acts on a French satirical paper. Not only to avenge the perceived insult to Islam, but to prevent it from happening again, and to prove - in their eyes - that they are noble followers of their creed.]
It's the fractured and appalling act of sacrificing yourself for your beliefs by risking your own life to kill the enemy. A gesture that is held high in almost any society, until one considers who is seen as the enemy. US and Allied soldiers killing ISIS soldiers (or militants, if you want to use a term meant to not equate the two) is acceptable. Al-Qaeda soldiers (or fighters or terrorists if you want to use the more common term) shooting up a newspaper is not. US drones blowing up a camp or convoy in Yemen that may or may not involve terrorist activity (the definition of an 'al Qaeda soldier' by the US military when it comes to drone strikes is 'any adult male') is a much more terrifying grey area.
Meanwhile, for the non-weaponized citizen, fighting for freedom of speech requires constant vigilance. Millions of people in the streets of Paris (and certainly it must be noted around the world as well) marching in support of Charles Hebdo is inspiring, but real tests of a nation's embrace of free speech traditionally come after. A few days ago the French government arrested and charged Muslim comedian Dieudonne with hate speech and supporting terrorism after he sent out tweets supporting the two brothers who carried out the shooting.
Considering what's happened in France plus the recent shootings in Belgium, it seems safe to say that most Western European nations are going to try to walk that fine line between cracking down on anything remotely suspicious in its Islamic communities and ensuring that basic rights are preserved (and by 'walk that fine line', I mean do the former and occasionally remember the latter). It's the Old World version of the Patriot Act. Softer on the militaristic 'murica rhetoric and trumpeting how they are going to keep liberalism alive, even though the results are the same. A hollow, outdated, uncertain promise of a war on extremism through a toothless military and a poison-fanged domestic police force that looks like the military.
And if France is already punishing 'free speech', they've become hypocrites while the bodies are still warm. This is the kind of idiocy that Charles Hebdo should jump on with gusto. Satire is meant to mock those in power, and god's always been an easy and obvious target. But religion in the early twenty-first century is an odd position (Hebdo editor Stephane 'Charb' Charbonnier said he wanted to make Islam as banal as Catholicism). Religious attendance and adherence is plummeting across the Western and Eastern world (secularism is on the rise in India), so the act of good ol' blasphemy doesn't carry the same punishments that it used to. Islam is at a particularly difficult crossroads, with the entire Middle Eastern region in a state of flux or authoritarian crush, which are the two conditions in which extremism of any sort (although in this case, taking the guise of religious fundamentalism) is able to flourish. Which is tragic for the vast majority of Muslims want to live in peace and stability (and it seems ridiculous that this even has to be pointed out, because of course they do. But when an 'us versus them' mindset is so strong, you have to keep repeating that this is a false dichotomy, grouping all members of one religion as thinking the same about everything).
At the same time, Islam is a marginalized religion in all Western countries, with adherents never topping more than 10% of the population. A minority for generations to come, always treated like the suspicious 'other', which only makes being embraced by the larger community that much more difficult. Technology, however, permits a constant connection with more radicalized branches of the religion throughout the Middle Eastern countries, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (even as many governments in these countries try to stamp out extremists themselves). For certain alienated youth in French suburbs, people in Peshawar could easily be your neighbours.
But to focus on this attack being a strictly religious reaction – or to say that Islam is a more violent religion than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism - is inaccurate. Every holy book has passages that can justify killing heathens or sinners in the name of faith. It's not religious reaction, it's a reaction to the threat (or a perceived threat) to the established order. It just so happens that religion has lost the most in the last one hundred years, and in the last several decades, Islam in particular.
Western ideals (some of which include being much more tolerant with different faiths because the West had gotten exhausted from fighting over faith for centuries past) are being shoehorned into politically destabilized regions with traditions that have outlasted all sorts of governments, isms, and dynasties.
Blowback is a particularly cold term, but you can't globalize/modernize regions like the Middle East and Central Asia without terrible and tragic problems that we've seen played out both in those areas and around the world.
And of course the problem is simply not Islam versus the West. What an insulting and unhelpful reductionism. A more useful reductionism that we can plug in various parties and institutions is simply the Powerful versus the Powerless. In 2014, satirist Bassem Youssef's comedy news program, Al-Bermaneg (nicknamed, 'Egypt's Daily Show), was taken off the air by Egyptian authorities, because the people in charge thought he was insulting to the leaders of the country. 'They' were offended, 'they' were worried, 'they saw it as a loss of face/power.
And the solution is exhausting. Democratizing power is a difficult process that takes a long time to properly introduce and Herculean effort to keep from running off the rails. With social mobility and enfranchisement bringing communities, countries, and everyone together, it's inevitable that the amount of terrible tragedies like the Hebdo shooting or the continued massacre in Nigeria will lessen.
Bloodthirsty goons can claim that they are acting in the name of an ideology but the root of 'ideology' is 'idea', and as soon as a better one can be offered and proven workable, then the terrible ones will die off (it's evolution, baby).
If there is a 'they' here, it's people who will lose because all they have to offer is obedience under pain of death. No one lasts very long on either end of a gun. Shooting a room full of comedy writers is just an attempt to terrorize. Simple as that. Let's not elevate the beliefs of the murderers and denigrate an entire religion by saying there was actually an 'idea' behind these terrible acts.
Preventing the (religious, political, etc.) radicalization of certain segments of the citizenry requires time, money, and an absence of a 'mission accomplished' banner. It's not a battle, and it's not fought. It's a slow replacement of values that preyed on despair and focused on very narrow beliefs that come to a singular and violent conclusion. Instead what should be ushered in is the idea of being a proud and true follower of your religion as well as a responsible and upstanding citizen. To serve god and man. That's the goal. And of course it's up for debate whether we've even achieved (or should achieve) this in the West, with plenty of practicing Christians alarmed the continued secularization of society. But this debate is done peacefully, blandly, with no violence to speak of, and that says volumes about its societal worth.
It is done peacefully.
And that should never be taken for granted.
We need to leave archaic notions like settling differences of faith and culture with violence in the dust. There always will be plenty of terrible reasons to spill blood, but fewer and fewer people should be doing so in the name of god.
The Charles Hebdo shooting can become a noble line in the sand if sensible and well-meaning people from across the political and religious spectrum come together and refuse to make this a cut and dry issue that raises the flames of hate in the name of any sort of trumped up phobia. And whether putting Mohammed on the cover of the newest issue is bold or insulting or crazy, if a debate over it can happen without violence, then the whole damn world is winning. If you can acknowledge that they are not being serious, that a slight to one's sensitivity is a shrug to another, then that's a huge leap forward, too. Because if you don't find humour in a country, you won't find freedom there, either.
NOTE: I am a male. That puts me in a position where I can sympathize but not empathize with the challenges that women go through everyday. I write this from a position of advantages that I haven't had to give much thought to. Where I would not perceive inequality as constant concern because it's not happening to me. But certainly such conditions exist, and the more that these are talked about and brought to light, the more frustrating and disappointing it is that it still occurs.
It has been a bad year for equality. There have been constant reminders that we live in a hostile at worst and indifferent at best patriarchal society. News ranging from pay discrepancy to heinous allegations against powerful men (from drugging and rape to harassment in the halls of power) tell us that many of the advances trumpeted by Western society regarding equality is window dressing.
The elephant in the room is that we must push for equality while acknowledging that in very basic ways that men and women are not biologically equal. Sometimes within our society, in our attempt to create what is fair and moral, we end up fighting against our biological inclinations (gender roles, sensory input that fashions categorizing and stereotyping, our own survival at the expense of others). Our slow-but-ever-changing biology has served us well in the evolution from bacteria to insect to fish to dinosaur to rat to monkey to man. It has done much for us – in fact, it is us – but we are certainly not satisfied with its perceived limitations and – certainly more so in the last hundred years than the past – we are attempting to correct certain qualities. It’s a fight that we have deemed worthwhile, but it is quite a bizarre and difficult one.
Equality for women is an important goal for all of human civilization, but it requires us to think of ourselves less like animals and more as malleable intellectual constructs.
Sexual equality is the exception, not the norm in nature. There are typically very static and unchanging roles for the male and female, many of which exemplify the type of basic sexism that has been denigrated by much of humanity throughout the twentieth century. Men hunt and women raise the children. Men are the strong, women are the weak.
Several female mammals essentially sacrifice their life for their offspring, starving themselves for the sake of their brood (polar bears, whales, octopi).
Rams fight to be the alpha male, the benefit of which is a harem of women.
Male chameleons (or is it iguanas) forcibly rape females in the desert.
Even in lion prides, when female hunt, it is the males that eat the kill first.
These situations range from honourable to unfair to horrifying, at least by the standards we humans have applied to what is good and bad, permitted and prohibited, in the community we have created.
The pursuit of equality of the sexes is one of the greatest things to have come out of the twentieth century – and I hope it continues unabated through the twenty first - but it might require a radical rethinking (or restructuring) of our biology for true equality to be attained.
And the question immediately concurrent to this observation is to what extent do we let physiological differences affect our behaviour and our perceptions of the world around us?
A root cause of gender inequality is due to insurmountable physiological differences. To be glib: 'Men are, on average, physically bigger than women'.
An unremarkable observation that, for much of human history, has been a constant catalyst, as physical force was the measure of power and ability. Might made right, and not only between men and women, but between any sort of conflict, from neighbours fighting to wars between nations. The larger and more powerful were the victors, with morals, intelligence, or any other sort of criteria be damned.
The belief that because women were not as strong as men physically they were not as strong intellectually pervaded disappointingly far into the twentieth century. Even as intelligence tests have repeatedly shown that the difference between men and women in terms of IQ is non-existent.
That for millennia an entire half of the population in all societies across the globe was simply dismissed as being intellectually inferior because of their gender is mind-boggling today. But that we think so little of such antiquated and harmful notions is all for naught if we continue to do such an ineffective job at continuing to address gender inequality not just in the workplace, but in our homes and neighbourhoods as well.
On a global level, we are slowly moving away from these practically ancient perspectives. While globalization has a huge list of terrible faults, perhaps the only good thing about judging a person's worth by their bank account is that we stop judging them on a host of other qualities (it doesn't matter your sex, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, etc.). Obviously certain regions of the world are further along than others in this process of truly treating women as equal.
The assumption is that when it comes to blue collar jobs, the fact that it is more likely a man doing the physical labour the job demands, that it would be beneficial to have someone who is familiar with said labour all throughout the corporate ladder. The truth to this is highly dubious, as it is based heavily on social gender constructions that are entrenched in part because those with power (predominantly men) don't want to risk changing this system, and also because it's so much easier to keep the status quo (even if the spirit is willing by both sexes to fix this, the sociopolitical flesh is weak).
While it has been a long time coming, the great equalizer for work has been technological innovation. Machinery that can be operated by men and women with identical results have done wonders for bringing woman in to the workplace and nowhere has this been seen more than in the white collar world.
[And it's here where it unfortunately has to be mentioned that seemingly simple concepts such as 'respect' are not as commonplace as we like to think they are in our workplace environments. Like so many massive and multifaceted issues facing our society today, gender equality has to be fought both in the halls of power and around our own cubicles, cash registers, machinery, and books. Finding a situation or social setting that everyone is 100% comfortable in may not always be possible, but it should be an environment where a discussion over what is and is not working is always welcome and proactive]
If the 'blue collar' remains elusive (and it will be shrinking in many economies, as technology continues to advance and permit machines to do more and more of the heavy lifting), then women must place a larger role in the emerging 'no collar' jobs. Emerging high tech companies are staffed predominantly by men but its fast pace and ability to adapt to changing trends means it's an industry that can be capitalized upon by all. The 'male computer nerd' is no longer a heavily mocked persona, but there does remain a barrier for the 'female computer nerd' to find a place in the industry.
(in other 'two steps back' news: A recent Barbie storybook had the titular character have a sudden desire to become a computer engineer. So she called two male friends of hers to show he how).
Casual visibility - that is, where the staffing a woman is not a cause for congratulations because it is sadly a rarity, but because the company needed to fill a position and the most suitable applicant happened to be a woman - is the goal. Writing code for a game or any sort of software doesn't exactly come off like a role of pioneer, and that's exactly the point.
But to complicate the problem further, the position of women in contemporary society is not just based on what we ideally want the conditions to be in the workplace, but how gender equality is handled in our culture, as the context and care of how such important issues are handled is integral to how it is received.
In the earlier part of the year, a depiction of what could easily be construed as rape in the HBO series Game of Thrones sparked an internet debate.
(part of the conversation - perhaps a generously docile term for how communication is done on the internet - revolved around the fact that the scene in the book the TV series is based on made it clear that the sex between the two characters were consensual) about the depiction of rape in popular culture and the possible effects such depictions could have on how society itself views rape.
While obviously not the most positive sort of the story to spark a debate about women's rights, the fact that it was entirely staged made it a much preferable catalyst to the shocking and disturbing allegations that have emerged about powerful men in the entertainment industry harassing, drugging, abusing and raping women.
The term 'rape culture' is used to describe an attitude that a state, community, or region has towards the despicable act. It can range from approving it to turning a blind eye towards it to... what? Showing it in art and culture meant to entertain? To educate, to spurn others to join the cause to combat rape culture? Is a Law and Order or CSI episode where the law is hunting down a rapist whose victims tearfully recount their ordeal an acceptable storyline, or is it an exploitation of sorts to the real-life victims of rape and sexual assault? What if a film or TV show graphically depicts a rape scene, like The Accused, Irreversible, or Game of Thrones? It should be argued that the content and context of the story must be able to properly situate such a heinous act for audiences. Certainly we would be more understanding (though still certainly uncomfortable and angry) if the obvious villain of the work committed rape. Evil people do evil things. In more morally ambiguous stories (which Game of Thrones certainly falls under), it can be much more shocking and repugnant when a character who has some form of a moral code to him (or her) do such a thing (which is why it should be noted that while Jamie Lannister has previously defended the honour of women, his rape of his sister (who he has had consensual sex with in the past) comes off as particularly appalling (he has also pushed a seven year old kid out of a very tall window. And all these 'asides' show the importance of context when debating the place of sexual abuse in art and culture).
Rape and sexual assault are two of the most horrific crimes there are. Long dormant accounts of celebrity sexual harassment and abuse of women have brought this topic back to the media forefront. And while there is no correlation between the depiction of rape and abuse in arts and culture with any sort of rise in criminal activity involving those two acts (sex crimes in the West have fallen for decades), there is legitimate concern that film and television can negatively affect the much needed dialogue we need to have regarding 'rape culture'.
But the defeat of 'rape culture' is only the most obvious battle that must be won to truly reach a level of possible equality between men and women. The unfounded and insulting assumptions that come with physical disparity - that women are mentally, emotionally and socially weaker - results in intimidation, indifference, ostracization, dismissal of ability, and mental, emotional, and physical abuse. These terribly erroneous prejudices cost everything from economic growth to respect to life itself.
It can be blamed on our basest instincts, archaic beliefs that have been so pervasive in every aspect of civilization. So much so that every form of social institution from governance to religion found a way to marginalize and belittle the role of women in society.
Because these institutions remain (and because altering their innerworkings are never a quick process), all necessary changes for gender equality will unfortunately take decades to get even remotely close to what we could call success. Deeply rooted cultural beliefs change at a much, much slower pace than technological developments.
Traditional gender roles are rooted in biological differences between men and women. And while we as a society can decide as a whole how we are going to treat these differences (physical size determines the ability to perform certain tasks, reproductive duties), it is extremely hard to unconditionally accept equality when these differences are so central to them (or any species).
Despite great advances in the Western world - the right to vote in the early twentieth century, the feminist movement of sixties and seventies which pushed for greater independence and expanded roles in the workplace - women still earn less than men, and only a fraction of high ranking and powerful positions in business and government are filled by women.
Besides simply a slow crawl of continued advancement and awareness, one of the most important conditions required to end this terrible perception/behaviour is to foster a more egalitarian society in every other facet as well. Without question, economic inequality creates huge societal divisions in terms of social mobility, employment opportunity, access to legal and financial services, cultural experience, and quality of life in general. And women are affected by this disproportionality much more than men. The psychological effects of financial security cannot be understated, either, as a positive mental outlook is a positive feedback loop. You are in a better position to help others achieve your goals when you have already done so yourself. And the fewer people living around the poverty line is the best scenario for improving equality in all its desired forms. If we lose a strong middle class, we will lose all the gains made by a strong middle class, specifically the advances in women's an civil rights. It was in the wake of the incredible economic improvements in the west of the fifties that laid the groundwork for changes on the institutional level for these extremely important reforms in the sixties and seventies.
(I flog this topic like it's a dead horse, but only because it's the one issue that permeates practically every other aspect of modern society. What can be accomplished - either as an individual or a group or an institution - is based on the levels of power of all those involved)
There is much work to be done from economic perspective if we want to make gains in terms of gender equality. All in all, it’s extremely complicated problem, and the first steps is always a psychological one. What do we lose when we conquer our biological inclinations/behaviours/tendencies/beliefs? According to Michael Lewis, “the more we suppress our instincts and assumptions of what we think we know, the better we perform.”
It’s high time we do this when it comes to truly seeing women as equals in the 21st century.
Lewis, Michael. “The King of Human Error”, Vanity Fair Dec 2011.
The Perfect Storm is a term that recently has been taken from its original, literal meaning (several storm fronts coming together) to one describing a clusterfuck situation where a series of interconnected institutions and enterprises all go through a period of great crisis (some of which could have been avoided by proper planning ahead of time) around the same time and affect each other, making the whole debacle that much worse.
These sorts of manmade perfect storms can range from the 2008 financial crisis (the reverberation of which are still being felt today, six years later) to the collapse of governments in already unstable nations (we are apparently in the long Winter Months of the Arab Spring). In most instances, there were many warning signs of instability and looming disaster that went unacknowledged, making the whole situation that much more frustrating. These 'perfect storms' could have been avoided, or at least their terrible effects could have been mitigated. And while these effects can range from massive layoffs to massive loss of life, there is always the attempt to improve, to get support from other nations and institutions to rehabilitate and hopefully rectify the crisis. And that's humanity's negatives and positives in a nutshell. We'll dig ourselves into a hole together, then try to climb out of it together.
But we've never had to do this yet when the problem is food. That is, food shortages on a global scale. Which is more real than most people think. And this can be seen by the fact that there have been several food riots across the globe in the last few years, ranging from places like sub-Saharan Africa to Bangladesh.
The concern for this cannot be understated. In terms of resources we need to survive, food is first, energy is second (and a close second, but only because so much of our energy is used to grow, prepare, and transport food) (also, food is human energy, so maybe if we ironed out the semantics, we'd say that all that matters is energy).
In the West it's practically unthinkable. It really only occurs in post-apocalyptic films.
Running out of food.
It's one of the few events that make war seem manageable. Until we start fighting over food, which is a marrying of two terrible and desperate situations. So perhaps we should consider rolling up our sleeves and avoiding it.
What does famine look like in the early 21st century? It looks more like malnutrition, first of all.
Delicately put, 800 million people around the globe do not have enough to eat (roughly 11% of the planet's population). 47 million of them are in the richest country on earth (which is still America, although clearly that wealth is extremely concentrated, otherwise 14% of them wouldn't be classified as suffering from malnutrition).
But even with those numbers, mass starvation and deadly famine occur only in extreme cases. Mainly where war and military conflict destroys entire towns and village forcing the citizens to flee with nothing except what they can carry. In addition, flood and drought can ruin years' worth of crops in regions of the world that have little to no infrastructure to deal with such problems. And while aid from other nations - through foreign assistance, the UN, or NGOs - can help alleviate these problems in the most basic fashion - namely, sending food to replace what they lost or were unable to grow - it is a band aid solution at best. And it's one that becomes untenable when rising food prices across the globe make it harder for wealthier nations to spare anything for the poorer ones.
Once again it's a matter of haves and have-nots, and despite economic/class inequality in all nations, the have nations must take on the added responsibility of sharing the wealth for the benefit of all.
First off, despite the dour number of people needing proper food, there's still too many of us eating too well.
Rising populations and rising economic statuses (in China and India mainly, the two most populous nations) mean we are burning through the food we already have quicker than ever before. Part of being wealthier in these emerging nations is simply being able to afford a greater variety of food. The West suddenly asking India, China and other 'Asian tiger' nations to tighten their belts without making large scale sacrifice themselves will not get much support (this is one of the same problems stifling any sort of global climate change policy).
It's a complicated issue and we as a civilization don't do well with complicated issues. It only makes matters worse that the food crisis is forever linked with climate change, because climate change is affecting harvests the world over. Too much rain and not enough of it in areas dependent on the 'goldilocks' amount means crops are ruined for another season, and this affects California as well as the Sudan. In California, the domino effect to combat the drought means higher water prices for farmers and non-farmers alike, which means driving food prices up immediately and going through water reserves even quicker than planned, while in the Sudan people 'simply' starve.
The advantage, though, is if climate change is addressed ('ha!' and 'sigh'), the policies put in place to slow and reverse the trends would also help alleviate the worst of the food crisis. This does not look like it would be happening any time soon. Any sort of 'spring into action'-like policy for climate change would require major cities like New York to suddenly be five feet underwater, at which point the damage has already been done.
That's not to say all hope is lost for the food crisis. To solve a problem that incorporates a little bit of everything, you need a solution that does the same.
Food Resource Management (FRM) is a big enough issue that to tackle it
requires changing policies on the macro level and changing attitudes of the micro level.
D.I.Y. has to go hand in hand with conglomerate restructuring and regulation. So what can you do? If there can be one commandment to help the whole damn world out, it would be this:
Eat less meat.
You don't have to excise beef, pork, or poultry from your diet completely, but the benefits of cutting down drastically the amount of cooked animal flesh you're stuffing down your gullet are huge. For one, everyone is eating more meat than is necessary for the health of your body. Of course there are benefits from eating meat, but you start to suffer from drawbacks if you eat too much, including an increased risk of diabetes and heart-related disease.
And even before the fillet makes it your plate, raising animals that are destined for the slaughterhouse takes up an incredible amount of energy. Feeding an ever increasing amount of animals means there's less food for us, even if what's eating our food is destined to end up in our stomaches. In the United States, 56 million acres of crops are grown to feed livestock, while 4 million acres are grown to feed people. When we feed 20,000 kilocalories of corn to cow, we get 2,000 calories of meat out of it.
As more of the world eats meat, more jungles and forests are cut down to create grazing land (and cutting down trees means there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - trees breathe it in - which means the world gets hotter and the weather more volatile which means it's harder to grow more crops, for human and animal consumption alike. These are examples of that 'perfect storm' mentioned earlier).
And as an odious cherry on top, cows fart methane, a greenhouse gas far worse than carbon dioxide.
So yes, to sound like a treehugger (as if embracing a plant that makes our lives possible is a bad thing), skip the steak most of the time and get a salad.
Eat healthier. Eat local.
The slightly more expensive cost of buying fruits, vegetables, grains, and the occasional meat grown within a three hour drive of your home in the short term will help nullify and reduce the long term costs of transporting, processing and marketing of food that's typically done on an industrialized scale (those three factors count for 80% of the price of food in the US).
Buy based on what's available seasonally. If you're buying cucumbers in February from a different country or continent, try and imagine how much gas it cost getting here.
And of course 'slipping' at the grocery store from time to time is going to happen, but make sure it's just that. An occasional thing. Instead of Ben and Jerry's being your treat, make it any sort of product that travelled more than two thousand kilometres to get to you.
Victory gardens were a major part of home-front war efforts in the first half of the nineteen forties. Designed to help feed your own household so crops from large farms could be sent to the troops, they succeeded in having regular citizens safely participate in defeating the axis powers. Believing you’re making a difference is a big part in actually making a difference.
The challenge is to make the connection between FRM across the globe and national security/domestic stability at home.
21st Century Victory Gardens are fighting for something both more abstract and more straightforward than ultimate victory on the battlefield: More food.
If these suggestions are handed down from the upper echelons of government - Michelle Obama had suggested victory gardens for health and environmental benefits - there will be a sizeable rebuttal from certain sectors and groups regarding the effects of the Nanny State (at best) or fascist dictatorship imposing its iron-fisted will on the people (at worst).
But food, it should acknowledged, is a big part of what created civilization, communities, and countries in the first place. Early humans hunting in packs help develop language, crude forms of cooking occurred quite soon after we learned how to make and control fire, and it was thank to focussing on growing crops that turned us from nomadic tribesmen to village builders.
Food was the force that created a state of any sort, whether you see it as a nanny state, a libertarian free for all, or anything in between. But a lack of food is a force that can unravel all of this terribly quickly.
Which is why every little bit helps, and one less hamburger and one more tomato plant in the backyard is a step towards stability.
The corporate side is obviously more complicated, as it has always been regarding any sort of resource, food or otherwise.
Transactions of valuable products and services owned by companies are supposed to be regulated and monitored by the government, but clearly the divide between the two institutions have crumbled, making both of them less efficient (except when it comes to make profits).
It's not that governments are blind and deaf to the importance of food. It's just that industries have the money and clout to twist this important resource to their own advantage. Massive corporations get huge subsidies to grow certain crops and livestock in certain areas and are essentially free to process and sell them in any way they see fit, since government regulation is a toothless old lady (even in the rule-happy EU there was a recent scandal of horse meat being passed off as beef).
There is a complicated marketplace algorithm as to why some farmers - regardless of where across the globe - are paid to either not grow or grow only a certain amount of a particular crop or resource. Plus there's the matter of speculators buying and selling crops that don't yet exist (or, in some case, never will exist).
The cultivation and production food should not be a for profit enterprise. Even the profits made from the selling of food should be carefully regulated by both market forces and government regulation. Short term planning for industries with far-ranging consequences (whether it be a food, energy, or financial resource) is poor planning. It's time to regulate the food commodities market to the point where the money that can be made gaming the system is so negligible that it's not worth doing.
At the moment, most people across the globe spend no more than ten percent of their income on food. Unanticipated spikes - genuine and artificial - in food prices that can raise this level by only a few percentage point for a even a brief period of time can have devastating consequences for the country or region.
Corn is the petroleum of food. With all its guises, it is nearly impossible to avoid. And like oil, the danger is not only what it does to you and environment, but by participating in the marketplace you are supporting the corporations that produce the product, therefore strengthening their position to keep the status quo. And yes, corn is a vegetable, but it rarely stays so for long once picked. Corn is quickly turned into syrup. Ridiculously sweet, barely recognizable, certainly not healthy, glucose-fructose. It's the crack of the food world (leading to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases), and it's in almost everything in your grocery store outside of the produce and meat departments.
What's the alternative? Right now there's a left field solution: Gruel!
Well, not exactly gruel, but the name is just as silly. Soylent, a just-add-water powder that is made up of the basic minerals and nutrients required to keep you alive. Designed by Silicon Valley computer engineers who wanted to cut their eating time down, it's a meal in a glass, filling and meeting all your daily dietary needs. Most importantly, its effects on the environment are practically negligible compared to almost anything else you'd eat.
It tastes all right, but considering the problems we're going to face in the future, 'all right' is pretty damn good.
What should be noted about Soylent is the unique view the company has of its product. It's open sourced, meaning there's no secret recipe and no copyright, meaning you can go to the trouble of making your own if you'd like (cutting down on the costs of transportation when they ship it to you). On messageboards people share their homemade recipes which differ slightly or greatly from the original.
In addition to this, Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart saw this as an opportunity to redefine food. You drink down a jug full of soylent when you need energy to get through your day. You save actual food - cooking a nice meal, or going out to a restaurant - for when you have the time for it. When you're socializing with friends. When you can devote an afternoon to a recipe that interests you. Having to plan one less meal a day by replacing it with a glass of soylent should be a welcome addition to a person's daily routine if they're frequently busy and are trying to save money. The advantages are plentiful, at a time when what Soylent is replacing is not.
So, to carry the title analogy to its end, avoiding the perfect storm requires a weather controlling machine. Food needs better PR (and it doesn't help soylent having more or less the same name as 'soylent green' the fictional 'made of people food' from the movie of the same name). Everything in the grocery store going up a dime or a quarter every season is not regular inflation. It's a reflection of huge challenges ahead. And apparently there's not even enough scientists addressing these extremely important issues.
Technological innovation (like Soylent) has to come together with personal and corporate responsibility. It wasn't really addressed here, but let's try to avoid water becoming the new oil.
Food's still too valuable to be free. But it's also too important to be expensive. There aren't many things in this world that 100% of population can agree we all need. But this is one of them.
What you think you remember is always changing.
This is a problem, since that's a large part in how you base your decisions. And while personal considerations like how you feel about music, food, and the backyard you had when you were five don't have great ramifications on your community and world as a whole, your feelings about what politics, family, classes, and crime were like in the past can have huge effects when you act upon them today.
Nostalgia for ‘the good old days’ can be a very powerful thing, beyond reunion tours and forlornly driving through your old neighbourhood and seeing all the new interlopers living in yours and your friends' childhood homes.
How we imagined the world to be at one point has a great effect on how we try to shape it for the present and the future. Especially the future, which is based on a hazy projection of what we know about today and what we want tomorrow (and beyond) to become.
We either hope for the best, or worry about the worst. We're three steps away from a utopia or a dystopia, depending not only on who you talk to, but whether they got up on the right side of the bed in the morning. Same goes for recollecting the past. It is an unpredictable aspect of human psychology that can have devastating real-life consequences.
And while we've internalized this thought process to some degree and are aware of its existence, we can't helping falling into its convenient trappings every generation. It's Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. The people stay the same as the world changes around them.
The young hate the old for being judgmental and crotchety, and blame them for screwing everything up, since the old are primarily in charge. The old hate the young for being judgmental and naive, and have no faith in their ability to lead, thinking that they'll screw up everything even more.
As it was, as it every shall be.
This seems to be the 'going attitude' towards civilization during prolonged periods of little to moderate social upheaval (here we would classify the civil and equal rights movements of the sixties as moderate level of upheaval, compared to war and/or the removal of democratic mechanisms as a high level). It's almost a luxury when changes which occur over several decades only affect socioeconomic status of citizens, compared to anything else that could happen.
That's not to say we should accept the changes that have happened to the West in the last three decades. Looking at them in the proper context is necessary for enacting policies that can reverse the erosion of the middle class. And doing so by appealing to bland and dull statistics rather than any sort of emotional motivator. The latter may be more effective in the short term, but it requires reductionism in the cerebral argument. Emotional appeals - even with the best intentions - are rooted in nostalgic views of the past and future. And while this has been a key part of political rhetoric since the dawn of civilization, what has changed in the last three decades or so is the role that money has played in shaping political strategy.
But blame is beside the point. Blame is nostalgia to a t. Blame results in mocking statements about the baby boomers like this:
"I know we said, 'hope I die, before I get old', but since we didn't, we're going to push for another round of deregulation and layoffs to fatten our bottom line."
This is a utterly massive generalization, conflating the death of already shaky sixties ethos of peace, love and community with the increased corporate deregulation beginning in the eighties. While the 1980s was the time when the baby boomers entered their mid-to-late thirties and began to take the reigns of large institutions and companies, it is unfair to characterize all of them of completely turning their backs on Johnson's Great Society in favour of increased profit earnings at any cost. It’s too complicated of a problem.
Meanwhile, the youth are to be judged with a shaking head and a sigh. They are to be stereotyped by the margins. The millennials (and within them, the hipsters), generation x (and within them, the yuppies), the baby boomers (and within them, the hippies). The people ten to twenty years older than each of them always knew they were up to no good, having it easier than them and never being as respectful as they were.
Not every baby boomer (people born between 1946 and 1962) in the sixties was the stereotypical hippie, which supposedly meant they all wore beads, had long hair, dressed in psychedelic threads, listened to rock and roll, smoked pot, were dyed in the wool leftists, argued bitterly with their parents, declared god dead and spirituality alive, and protested in the streets when they weren't lying around in a park or commune.
Most people had these maybe a third of these qualities while growing up in the sixties. Now some people definitely had all these qualities, giving birth to the stereotype that can easily and unfairly represent the period through the media (both then and years past, when looking back on the time in an even more reductionist, bullet-pointed manner). And some people had none of these qualities, a mirror image of the stereotype. And these two small fractions of people can be seen as the extreme balances of the bell curve, with a great majority of the people in the middle.
The same goes for today. It's too easy to deign the term hipster on a massive segment of the population, namely the millennials. Plaid shirts, glasses, fixed gear bikes, expensive coffee, an addiction to smart phones, an artistic endeavour on the side of intermittent employment, and a penchant for owning obscure vinyl record collection.
We make these categorizations because it's easy to do. Life is the process of constantly organizing whatever our sensory inputs absorb from the world around us. And we take shortcuts whenever possible (and sometimes it's our brain biological make-up that takes these shortcuts, although we should leave the mind-brain dichotomy for another day). Repetition is the most straightforward way to build a reservoir of knowledge. Routine tasks. The less immediate information of something we’re experiencing in the present, the more we rely on our memories of the same (or similar) experience in the past. But one's past gets murkier the longer one lives. Certainly a handful of memories will always stand out clear as day, but a great many of them will fade, blur with different moments (or closely related anecdotes from others), or simply be strengthened with what the person recalling the memory wanted to happen. This a natural human fallacy, and it's one that we can only work around, not stamp out.
And this could be something as innocuous as remembering which of your friends caught the fish that had a key in its stomach.
History on the more epic and important level gets conflated even easier. The farther back in time an event was, the fewer and fewer words and sentences devoted to it. And as unsettling as intentional revisionist history can be (that is, knowingly fabricating the details of an event to achieve a certain goal), recalling an event in what you think is an accurate way - when it, in fact, is not - is much more disconcerting. Lying to oneself and knowing it is bad enough, but lying to oneself and think it gospel is horrifying. That means the actual truth is lost forever.
The events of the sixties are being blurred (not wholly by intention) by those that grew up in them. The baby boomers didn't pass the Civil Rights Act. Their 'unhip, square' parents did. The 'baby boom' began in 1946 and the law was passed in 1964. That means, unless there were some fresh, eager eighteen year olds in congress (there weren't), the same generation that grew up in the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and epitomized the American nuclear family (and all its good and bad labels) passed the Civil Rights Act. This was the 'Greatest Generation', as they began to be called decades after the fact. And just so we aren't getting ahead of ourselves, they still treated women like second class citizens and homosexuality as if it was a mental disorder. Skeleton in the closet isn't the point. That's what happened in the past at this time.
When boomers reflect on the 'good old days' of their youth, they neglect to acknowledge that it was through the efforts of the generation before them to ensure that these 'good old days' would actually exist. The generation before them lived through the Great Depression, and there was a palpable sense - from those in power to those abandoning their farms in Oklahoma - of 'we can't let this happen again'. Decades later, that minorities would have to fight so hard for the right to vote in the 1950s and 1960s seems unthinkable (including risking their lives) now. There was certainly a strong, racist and bigoted opposition to the idea, but in the history books, beyond some KKK members and the odd southern governor, there seems to be only a vague feeling that some people were still pushing for segregation. Society has focussed on the positive and downplayed the negative, which comes at the expense of the truth. Civil rights became something to fight for instead of an injustice to fight against. Gay right in the last ten to fifteen years has gone/is going through the same process (thankfully with less violence). The lunatic accusations against gay marriage are highlighted as proof of opposition, with the turning opinion tide of the silent majority existing mainly in the distant background. Suddenly it seems like everyone had no problem with gay rights. As if the West was saying, 'no idea what all the fuss was about the eighties and nineties, really'.
Meanwhile, social conservatives never fail to ascribe the civil, feminist, and gay rights movements of the fifties through the seventies and eighties as the time when the West – mainly America – slipped into a haze of moral relativism and godless decadence. Since the rise of Ronald Reagan, candidates aiming for the highest political positions (on both sides of the aisle) in the land have appealed to the basest base by lamenting how far we’ve fallen and how it’s time to take back the country, and turn it back into the powerhouse it was when they were young.
But this period of time never existed. Crime was higher in the nineteen fifties, there was a constant threat of nuclear war, and a majority of citizens barely had a say in their own destinies, as it mostly shaped by forces beyond their control.
What’s not talked about is some of the aspects that did make the fifties and sixties such a successful period for the West: Strong government regulation, a healthy percentage of union jobs, and high tax rates on the wealthy, meant that there was a strong foundation for lower and middle class families to thrive (social programs were there to assist them with health, education, and infrastructure), that there was a smaller gap between the rich and poor in an economic and social sense (which meant there was a greater chance on the former assisting (or even at least considering) the latter), and that corruption - while obviously present - was kept in check.
How we remember the past is dependent on the point we're trying to make at the time. We can minimize the ugly truth that racism and sexism was (and still is, but thankfully to a lesser extent) accepted as just part of society up until about fifty years ago. Picking and choosing certain parts of the past to bolster our own contemporary position is done at the future's peril.
Frequently this is done just to feel better about ourselves, or to give evidence that our actions today are good and just because they were (supposedly) good and just in the past. America went to the moon, 'not because it was easy but because it was hard'. The Apollo missions were proof of the nation's ingenuity, dedication, and power. And after they landed on the moon six times, the NASA budget was slashed and the shuttle and space program limped along for decades.
If the space program was just something else that the West had to beat the Soviets at (as Neil DeGrasse Tyson has opined), the same can be said of the support for Johnson's Great Society. When it became clear in the 1980s that USSR was falling apart and Gorbachev introduced glasnost, America and many of its Western allies began introducing economic policies that began to hack away at the middle class foundation of the state. And even this period of deregulation is seen wistfully today, as Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney are portrayed as business-friendly, strong-on-defence leaders who at least compromised to some degree with their political opponents.
Today we claim that politics is more divided than ever, we complained about concentrated wealth and power, and we lament the power of the internet, how people can’t think in anything more than 140 characters, need constant stimulation of the silliest things, and can’t spell worth a damn. But on average people read more than they ever have in human history. We do better on intelligence tests than we did fifty years ago. The problems the world faces are numerous (climate change, resource management, inequality), but there is the advantage that there is the possibility of a global united front for some of these issues that never existed in the past.
And it begs the question: When was the golden age? When did it all ‘work’? Western history is taught with contradictory periods of greatness. The late eighteenth century, when American and French people rose up against their royal masters, the creation of a modern democracy, and ‘all men are created equal'. But in the US only 1% of the population could vote at this time, and ten years of French democracy gave them the terror, followed by Napoleon.
It was during the rise of the industrial revolution, when the world truly became (at least in Western eyes) 'modern'. While a middle class did emerge (which existed in a prototypical form for previous centuries as the merchant class, which fell between the serfs and the nobility), the industrialists quickly consolidated their power and became - as far as the general public was concerned - robber barons. Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan were held in both esteem and resentment. Their respective companies became so powerful that they were broken up by the American government. This partitioning occurred during a very violent labour relations period (early twentieth century) in the Untied States (another underrepresented and misremembered series of events that also had a large role in creating the 1950s middle class boom, as it laid the groundwork for union jobs).
But these advances were localize mainly in North America and Europe. Progress/Betterment has occurred at a glacial pace when we take a global perspective. In fact, the lamentations of wealth accumulation in the West by the upper 1% must be tempered with fact that across the globe hundreds of millions of people are climbing out of poverty, namely in China and India (while the richest 1% in those countries are also making out like government approved, corporate-owning bandits).
Placing your personal history over public history is a never-ending, always-in-progress effort of making tenuous connections to the past from the present, sometimes attempting to link up certain changes in your own life with larger events or periods of time that everyone is familiar with.
What Pearl Harbor, or the JFK assassination was to previous generations, 9/11 is that moment where it is easier to make a case that ‘everything changed’, a marker of sorts, especially when one considers its rippling effects ‘shattered’ the post-Cold War peace of the 90s.
Politically, the post-coital afterglow of the end of the Cold War ended on September 11th. So in that respect, what can you say about the nineties? Certainly there were military conflicts across the world, several genocides, and level of instability, but as far as the West was concerned – if you didn’t look at the implosion of Yugoslavia – it was a wonderful time to exist. Even times of greater economic growth and economic equality like the 1940s to the 1970s had the baggage of social inequalities only slowly being eradicated, plus, the threat of the Cold War itself going Hot.
Nineties postmodern malaise doesn’t sound like a particularly positive or exciting archetype for the triumph of Western Capitalist Culture. Uncertainty underwrites the postmodernist position: How do we know what we know? Nostalgia is a dangerous pillar we balance our past, present, and future upon. Where our human limitations of memory recall and decision making collide. An ever-increasing dependence on scientific research in all fields – from economic to geographic data – has been excising problematic, subjective aspects of the policy forming process, but report recommendations have to make their way through special interests, favours-for-favours politicians, a vaguely interested media, and a mostly dismissive public. And every one of these collections of people have their own series of warping memories and future desires on the issue this report is addressing. Their reactions will alter accordingly: It’s about damn time, it’s a liberal/conservative smear job, it’ll cost us billions, it’ll never get the votes.
Even trying to be as diplomatic and general as possible can’t stop the past from being used as a heaven or hell or something in between: It's bad but it's been worse and if we all don't 'roll up our sleeves' it'll get worse.
So it goes.
With the cratering of the music industry (due mainly - but not exclusively - to piracy), and the movie and film industries stumbling along (due to the same), I wondered not too long ago if we were about to enter a period where art and culture was going to be created by artists through patronage. That is, a strange return to the renaissance era, when art, music and theatre was mainly created for the wealthy, since they were the ones that paid for it by taking the artists under their financial wing, with bits and pieces of the culture dribbling down to the poor masses.
Some hedge manager with $100,000 to waste and a penchant for unadorned indie rock would pay Vampire Weekend's studio and distribution fees. The end.
Hell, the kids of Oracle founder Larry Ellyson have been doing this in Hollywood for years. Steve Jobs helped get Pixar off the ground back in the eighties because, hey, computers!
And it was only going to become a larger role of funding as this decade progressed, since the wealth of the West has slowly - over the last thirty years - seeped back up into the pockets of the already rich (and now quite richer). The new Borgias would still want plays, paintings, and symphonies, and toss off a hundred large there and a quarter mill here to get it done.
Well I'm more wrong than right at this point.
Apparently the artists aren't trying to hit up the 1%. Thanks to websites like Kickstarter, they're gunning for the bank accounts of the 99%. Amanda Palmer surprised everyone (including herself) by raising a cool million to record a new album. Zach Braff asked for a couple million to help pay for a movie he wanted to make. And now Spike Lee is doing the same for a movie he promises will have sex and violence.
Of course, it should be mentioned that you don't just get your name in the liner notes or on that long list of thank you's at the end of the movie credits you never watch.
Hopefully you'll at least be given a free movie ticket for the film you helped produce (or a vinyl of the album you helped pay for the recording of). And hey, if you pony up the big bucks, you can hang out with Zach Braff and ask him about working with Natalie Portman. You can get shoes that Spike Lee wore while watching the Knicks lose. You can spend an afternoon with an uber-creative computer programmer (who, let's be honest, are going to become the auteurs of 21st century entertainment. What a knowledge of cinematography was for film directors, knowledge of programming will now be for video game directors) at the game company offices and be given the opportunity drive the in-game tank wherever you want, even over the menu screen.
Subsidizing video games and apps (both killer and merely threatening) is overall the most successful of crowd sourcing endeavours (occupying seven of the top ten spots on Kickstarters 'highest funds raised' list), but typically the examples that get the most media attention at the time of their unveiling involve already rich creative (or semi-creative) people asking for people (who are almost overwhelmingly not rich) to pony up for projects executives in their respective industries do not want to finance. This list includes Dan Harmon, Bret Easton Ellis, Colin Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, and John Kricfalusi.
And so the immediate criticism of this is that being having celebrities competing for money, Kickstarter and other crowd sourcing websites doesn't necessarily help up and coming artists, since the people who can raise a sizeable amount of money that could actually underwrite these projects already have some level of name recognition or a devoted fanbase. And the defense against this is: Well it doesn’t hurt to try, no matter how well known you are.
One thing that's going to change is the frequency of cultural epochs coming out of left field. Blockbuster films and albums by platinum selling celebrity/music acts will still be rolled out with promotional force of the D-Day landings, but niche culture is gong to thrive in quantity while remaining niche. While Amanda Palmer raised $1.2 million, if each person gave only $10 (and many gave more than that), translating that into album sales would only equal to about 120,000 units sold. Barely a gold record by RIAA standards.
In other words, the rise of the mp3/file-sharing and kickstarter sites prevent anything from becoming a Nevermind of the 00s (the last paradigm shift from the underground). Nirvana's second album was a tiny investment for DGC that reaped them massive profits, so many other record companies followed suit, signing and promoting anything from Seattle or that sounded remotely grunge-like.
And when this happens there is a sort of self-generating hype machine, where the mainstream media calls attention to it, critics foam at the mouth, more fans tune in, which brings more money, so the record companies just keep pushing the product/style/swag. Soon it gets beyond the music and becomes its own cultural movement (the 'generation x' label, in early 1992 the New York Times published a 'grunge lexicon' article, out of grunge came 'heroin chic'/secondhand clothes fashion).
But the bottom line was that there was money to be made out of all of this, which is why grunge was 'the last big thing', and Cobain/Nirvana/Nevermind was the flagship.
Certainly there have been great albums from the 00s to today (Kid A, Funeral, Is This It, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Madvillainy, Kanye's School trilogy, They Were Wrong So We Drowned), but none of them came close to the impact that Nevermind had. And a large part of the reason it made such an impact was because to the mainstream media selling more units means a watershed moment is occurring (and be somewhat gauged). A pivotal grunge moment according to rock critics was Nevermind dethroning Jackson's Dangerous from the top of the billboard charts, which really just meant more people were buying one over the other.
This kind of symbolism of achievement and cultural change is gone, because people don't have to buy music anymore (meaning the profit motive for huge corporations that can reach the masses is near-dead), and with much of the culture surrounding music fragmenting, there won't be anything that captures the zeitgeist and spawns an entire sub-industry like Nevermind did. After all, the biggest selling album of the 00s was 1, the Beatles' greatest hits album.
An important caveat regarding the last sentence: People don't have to buy music, but they still do, but can now be much, much more selective about where and when they plunk down their hard earned dough. While the musical tip jar has existed as long as music has, it entered the digital age when Radiohead offered a 'pay what you want' setup for their 2007 album, In Rainbows (and once again, it should be noted that this got plenty of mainstream press, thanks in part to Radiohead being a well known band from the 1990s, as opposed to one just starting out).
Kickstarter is really just another tip jar, albeit one you toss some coin into long before the piece of product is ready. Is it helpful to artists and creative folk just starting out? Yes, but even more so than before (when a DGC-like record company can help a Nirvana-like band break through), niche will stay niche.
Which is a situation that is playing out in other medium as well. The communal experience that television fostered (despite us being confined to our homes to experience it together) splintered first through the vast array of channels that cable allowed for, and then through DVR, where you suddenly had the power to decide when to watch something. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl - where watching it live is practically a necessity to experience it properly - time matters not. And as the capabilities of your smart phone continue to expand, your location will also matter less. All of which adds up to the lowering of the chances of seeing the same thing that everyone else is watching. You might come to it weeks, months or even years down the road after a friend recommended it.
Which means traditional marketing is becoming less effective, which means there is less money available as well, which in turn affects the awareness (and funding) of new creative endeavours large and small.
And speaking of money, the elephant in the room, of course, is that for once the greed of movie/music/tv/entertainment executives pales in comparison to the cost of piracy.
Don't get me wrong, the previous system disproportionally rewarded executives, CEOs, and investors when compared to the many people actually involved in creating the music or movie, but everyone got a slice of the pie. And in the capitalist spirit of things, if your albums sold in the millions or you topped the box office, you could perhaps get an ever bigger slice when your contract negotiation came up.
But all of that's gone now. The uneven, corrupt system that did a half-assed job at taking care of a lot of people (from everyone who worked on the production of the music, to the creation of music videos, to the music press, to music stores, to the entourage, etc.) is gone, and it's been replaced by barely any system at all. And the squeeze hits everyone but the executives and CEOs first.
So the result is that the creative people have to take on the role of the CEO and executives:
Now the writer/director is a producer, playing the role of someone who has to sweet talk, amuse and placate possible investors (who can be fans, someone with twenty bucks in their paypal account to blow, or a hedge fund manager who wants a tax dodge).
Just another hat, and perhaps not one worn with the deftness that film school or a basic interest/obsession with making films can train for.
Arts collectives/foundations/groups/clusters that already exist will streamline their fundraising systems to align as harmoniously as possible with their fans and followers’ internet spending habits.
If they grow big enough and get enough mainstream attention (which once again favours previously established organizations and artists), their funding might even be attached to the services that people inevitably pay for, through their always increasing internet/cable bill.
Still optional of course, and you could choose to not fund these projects (and consequently have to pay a premium if you wish to view them after they've been produced and are now available).
Suddenly the option is much less voluntary and generous. You're no longer seeking the art out as an ardent fan or curious web surfer. Now you're confronted with a 'click yes or no' on your billing plan.
And that's the new normal, but it still might be a couple years away.
Currently, it would be a stroke of luck that a twenty five year old with a trust fund happens to like your strange internet cartoon.
But instead of what it was in the renaissance, where the wealthy bankrolled almost all the arts projects (with the wealthy church also taking part) while the lower class had just enough to survive (and the middle class only just emerging as a force), now people regardless of their income are confronted with a basic, slightly irritating question:
What is art worth?
Answer: Whatever you can afford, which is why it's...
The Rise of Niche Culture
Niche in this context means a more selective form of supporting the culture you find engaging. In the past you simply turned on the TV or radio and let it wash over you.
The internet has been a great leveler for many forms of culture and the exchange of information (good thing, too, as the collapse of the middle class means there are fewer people that can afford to become connoisseurs any other way).
Illegal downloading - first of music, but now also of television and film (with PDF files of books bringing up the rear) - has become so commonplace that media corporations have thrown up their hands and decided to make a truce with the world instead of trying to sue it.
Music will be free.
TV and Movies will be dirt cheap (or exist mostly via a Netflix-like subscription service) but if they have anything resembling a sizeable budget they will resemble one long ad with a familiar narrative and explosions. Other than that, all bets are off. The plethora of animated cartoons on Adult Swim, the comparative success of Comedy Bang-Bang and like-minded 'underground' humour shows, even the infrequent (but dazzling and inexpensive) work of Shane Carruth are examples that great art (and great fun) can survive with audiences in the hundreds of thousands instead of the millions.
Not that egalitarianism will unquestionable rule the day. Vinyl and art-house cinema will become a past time with a more pronounced price tag. Fine art will probably be the least changed, as it has traditionally been a hobby for those with second homes.
But for those with the purse strings and those with less money to play around with, the positive aspect in all this is that you can wear your investments as a badge of honour.
Like-minded artists have banded together and sang for the supper for centuries. The internet, like it has done for many other aspects of society, hasn't revolutionized this process as much as it's accelerated it.
And one of the first things that happen when technology makes things faster is make the previous way of doing whatever obsolete, upending plenty of economic dependencies in the process.
There will be grand, expensive exceptions (the $300 million movie, the omnipresent song of the year released by a celebrity/musician), but for the most part niche markets will have a bilateral relationship between creators and audience.
A couple hundred or thousand people pony up ten or twenty bucks to have the creator screw on his or her thinking cap and release the results into the great wide world.
Will it all be good? No. Will there still be meetings where people concerned with the bottom line will give notes? Certainly.
But at least we can all make business cards with the words 'producer' on them.
You can’t breed genius. Or ‘above average’. Or even ‘average’. Statistically speaking, though, ‘average’ is what you’re going to come up with when you – the happy couple – push out your offspring (granted, the lady will do most of the heavy work), but the randomness of social conditions upon the individual are such that raising a mentally and physically healthy human being is more a matter of odds than a guarantee.
And it’s with that acknowledgement of trying to raise children properly that we hopefully can all understand and appreciate the importance of playing the role of a responsible citizen in our society. To be aware of the conditions and challenges facing the micro and macro institutions that govern our communities, and to act upon these challenges when necessary. A responsible citizen plays a continually active role, and in a democratic state this ranges from participating in elections to keeping well informed on the latest developments in almost every field of human achievement and interaction that could affect them (from economic policies to war).
This is the ideal, anyway. In a representative democracy, citizens outsource many of these activities to politicians (who are voted into office via free, fair, and transparent elections...at least that's the ideal). So instead citizens are to keep up with the actions and policies of their elected overlords, and ensure that these people-with-power consistently reflect their interests.
And this is where freedom can complicate matters. Are citizens free to not pay attention to the actions of their government, or to be under or misinformed of them? Does allowing this freedom corrupt the workings of a society in such a way that basic rights or interests are trod upon?
Because it needs to be stated that not all people have the time, interest, and understanding to play the role of what is expected from a responsible citizen.
And this is beyond class and culture. This is the much more basic acknowledgement that we are not all created equal.
Some people are going to thirst for knowledge and pursue it in such a way that it doesn’t matter if they’re growing up in poverty. They’ll climb up and out and make the world a better place, although without question this process will be greatly assisted if someone within the education or social support system notices this ability and help foster it.
And on the other end of the scale, you can be born with the proverbial silver spoon and not contribute anything. You can go to the private schools, get the primo tutors, slide your way into the ivy league thanks to a family connection, and still be a indifferent, uninterested, pile of consumerist culture and nothing else.
The waste comes in when the guy or gal in example one is taking orders in a diner or busting up concrete, and the guy or gal in example two is running a business of some sort into the ground, given to them as gift.
But this isn't meant to be a piece focusing on talent and ability.
Responsibility is completing tasks that you are expected to complete. In many ways it is the basis for simple human interaction, and therefore human civilization.
It can be extremely complicated.
Beyond our jobs, which allow us to eat, be clothed, sleep under a roof, and buy everything from pulled pork sandwiches to plane tickets to Paris, our responsibility to modern society is a challenging one to understand, and there are signs that we might not be up to snuff.
I am basing this on the belief that the manifestation of being a responsible citizen of human civilization is to assist to the best of your ability in its continuation. I'm even willing to turn a blind eye to the notion of progress, which suggests that things should always get better and better. At this point, I think we can all settle for 'keeping things from getting worse'.
But we're failing in that respect in confronting many large-scale, inevitably devastating challenges that are facing our society today. There are a plethora of them - worldwide economic recession, climate change, food shortages, energy policy, nuclear arms control, human rights crimes - and both the basic points and details of these concerns are well documented.
I'm interested in whether each one of us has the ability to assume the responsibility required to make tiny changes to our own lives - and therefore, our society - to at least attempt to fix these problems.
First off, what evidence do we even accept to agree that this concern in question is a pressing problem that deserves our immediate attention? How do we communicate to people who are indifferent, suspicious, or even hostile to our arguments?
And that question sadly places part of the solution in the hands of the public relations industry, which now plays a greater role in presenting and shaping policy for the masses than ever before.
It is also through the public relations and marketing industries that we are presented with our 'roles' in contemporary society. From a wide swath of mediums - the dying print, the fading television, the ever-encompassing digital world - we are told that choice in our consumption habits is the greatest proof of a healthy and free society (despite many statistics and studies criticizing this). With entertainment and leisure at the forefront and news and political issues pushed to the margins, the participation of the average citizen in the latter realm is greatly diminished. Small groups of concentrated capital are able to have greater influence in the halls of power. The same groups which own the mediums which deliver messages of whatever they wish to the populace. One of the more overarching missives to the masses over the last several years is the belief that the government is becoming more of an overbearing meddler than the organizational structure that makes sure society runs smoothly.
It's not so much that people are being duped, but that we are only as effective as our experience allows us to be. And even with the vast information repository that is the internet, the natural inclination is to keep ourselves focused on the narrow and familiar.
So this is what needs to be changed. A re-examination of the role of government in our society seems like it would be a natural reaction by many if they grasped the devastating current relationship between politicians and concentrated capital. But short of that. a greater understanding of how our personal decisions - especially economic ones - affect company profits, employee wages, and social programs across the world is an excellent start. Acting smarter in this respect will make us smarter (not much of difference, really). The tools we need are cooped up inside our heads, perhaps spending too much time being wasted on a new app or netflix (not that wasting our intellectual potential is a byproduct of modern culture. Some sort of simple entertainment has always kept us from working or thinking as hard as we could).
Even if the government does attempt to feebly represent the whims of the people, then the solution for, say, energy conservation cannot just be a matter of being instructed or ordered by the so-called nanny state to use a compost bin or reduced your energy usage by lights that automatically turn off when you leave the room.
We have to agree that it's the right thing to do, and on a much more local (family, neighbourly) level. For ourselves in the short term, and for our children (and children's children) in the long term. But agreement is in short supply when understanding is (and sometimes even when there is a plethora of understanding). Consensus will rarely reach one hundred percent, but how do we make it so that enough people are on the same page when the discussion - in all its formal and informal guises - begins?
Humanize the institution of science and learning? Try to educate the masses? What’s the common ground? Who decides what is essential for everyone to know, and how do you make sure they do? Because without everyone on the same page, we’re going to get rifts of misunderstanding that will lead to an unevenness of policy (meant to be based on what everyone believes is to be best for the majority in a democracy), which can lead to many forms of inequality.
One of the problems with institutions is that they are, by nature, institutionalized, and don’t offer much flexibility when it comes to accepting the new, the unorthodox and the beneficial, choosing instead to focus on the old, the orthodox and compromised possible.
At the same time, institutions (social, political, financial, educational, cultural) are necessary because they're still the best way to provide basic foundations of society. Putting trust in these institutions is the smart thing to do, but smart also has to include maintenance of these institutions. Anything with power that's left to its own devices will ultimately get corrupted, and it's the responsibility of the populace to prevent this from happening.
Even in a free society, there is a necessary level of responsibility impressed upon each citizen to protect the precepts and laws of the free society. That is, there is an infringement on some of your rights in order for the majority of your rights to be properly upheld. Examples of this can range from having to not assault people at random to having insurance when driving a car.
Disconcertingly, this level of responsibility is not extended to the most basic act of representative democracy. One is not forced to take part in elections. On one hand, the right not to participate can be seen as an act of just how free a society is. On the other, it means that the policies can be shaped without being fully representative of all the people in the state. And this affects both the people who participated in elections because they want their voice heard, and the people who did not participate for whatever reason they had (from not caring to protesting what they believe are flaws with representative democracy). The effects of this situation can create a vicious circle, where, when people who are indifferent to wielding their political power (via voting) passively surrender it to those who may have the means to consolidate power for their own ends (corporate and special interests who bend the ears of politicians). Watching this bureaucratic corruption and cronyism happen in government dissuades even more people from participating in elections, accelerating the speed at which power is accumulated by smaller and smaller niches.
At the same time, forcing people to take part in elections - ideally in order to prevent the above from happening - is no solution at all. Making people step into a voting both doesn’t necessarily mean they know what the issues are. Why should the misinformed/under-informed be allowed to vote? Isn’t not knowing what you’re voting for/against the basest perversion of democracy, even worse than not voting at all? So the solution then is the idea to prevent misinformation, but that comes with the problem is how you draw the line at what makes someone ‘misinformed’. Do they have to name their political representative? The fiscal policy of the party they support? A brief history of the country? Names of the newspaper(s) they read? And who judges this? Really, you can’t filter out the people labeled as 'misinformed' because as you do your standards rise and even among those that ‘pass’ the ones one that just barely passed become the new exclusions. So the attempt for perfection slowly weeds out everyone except the idea of perfection of whichever person got the job of deciding who’s in and who’s out.
Informed decisions, though, are necessary for the vast challenges that confront a globalized, Western-style economic system. An overhaul of energy and financial policies - to put it rather bluntly - is needed, but it is not wanted. It is not wanted enough by the many, whose power comes from their literal numerical strength (who must act as a cohesive unit of concentrated capital to have influence in economic policies), and it is not wanted at all by the few, whose power comes from abstract numerical strength (who can act easier as a cohesive unit due to their size and similar views).
So what do people want unequivocally?
People want something for nothing, more play for less work, and the freedom to shrug off responsibility whenever it gets too heavy. If given the option, people will take the easy road for short-term gains than the hard road for long-term gains.
That is what we want, but it’s not what we need.
The individual can make a convincing argument that they shouldn’t save for tomorrow – or act in a certain way in preparation for the future – because it’s possible that they might not be here for tomorrow. This awareness of one’s own mortality is manifested in such superficial actions as spending money on luxuries and leaving budget balancing - whether at the kitchen table or on the floor of the house/senate/parliament - for another day.
This individualism is a hallmark of the industrial and post-industrial periods in the West, but for much of the mid twentieth century it was coupled with a level of bureaucratic restraint that today many free-market supporters would see as overregulation at best and socialism at worst. During this period, the financial industry was dependable, dull, and heavily regulated (this was due to correcting the wild speculation and irresponsible investing and trading that led to the Great Depression).
Acceleration of technological developments were reflected most strongly in the communications industry, but it beget a perspective that everything is better when what people wanted was delivered to them faster, from being able to talk to someone on the other side of the world, to doing business with a company across the country as if they were right beside you, to sharing your opinion with everyone earth instantaneously via any sort of social media platform.
Short term gains quickly became much more attractive if the inevitable risk of such efforts could be offset, and this could be seen in all aspects of an Western-style economy being freed from regulation and expanding into other regions of the globe. Wall Street could gamble with Main Street's money and lose it with minimal impact to their own profits (seen through scandals ranging from Savings and Loan to the various bubbles to the 2008 Crash). Wal-Mart could offer immediate savings by undercutting their competitors and forcing cheap labour to become an essential engine to its success. By participating in either of these endeavours - people were making a choice with which they were indifferent or ignorant to the consequences.
The trouble with choice is that people choosing a particular option at stage A can affect many other people at stage B. For a long time, these effects were local, because trade and politics were local. Buying eggs from the farmer next door meant the supply chain was simple and uncomplicated. Today, the manufacturing and use of a pencil takes place over several continents. It is a testament to technological innovation and the power what millions of people working together can achieve. It is also a fine example of how we have never been more disconnected from the creation of most of the materials we consume. Fish raised in farms in the South Pacific are sold in European supermarkets. Every smartphone, tablet, and laptop have at least one component built in high tech sweatshops in China. Nike still means Michael Jordan instead of eight year old Malaysian children sewing the shoes.
The choices people have in their average lives are limited on a macroeconomic scale, but quite wide on a microeconomic one. You have little say in how the gasoline you purchase is procured, refined, transported and sold (and no real alternative at all if you want a vehicle that runs on another type of energy). An individual has little sway in shaping the laws that a corporation must obey to ensure its actions are in the public’s interest.
But there is a wealth of choices for the vehicles you can drive to buy gas, dozens of flavours of chips, candy, and cereal, and news organizations – both on television and online – that can fit into your prevailing worldview. Reinforcement is easier than being confronted with and considering contrasting viewpoints.
Which brings us back to responsibility. If being informed and active voters is no longer the bastion for political agency in the 21st century, then we must replace it with the power we do retain: Purchasing Power.
Being more aware of the greater ramifications of one's economic choices is a responsible activity that should be championed apolitically. We can longer be aware solely of what it costs us when we buy something. We have to be aware of what it costs everyone else.
Practical changes can help mitigate some challenges.
An expansion of the sticker price, just as there are nutritional information labels on jars and wrappers of food. In the wake of terrible sweatshop disasters in Bangladesh, certainly more oversight and transparency by the stores that ultimately sell products made in developing nations should be enforced, if these corporations are not up to do so willingly ('self regulation' in a free market system is oxymoronic when it gets in the way of profits). There should be more encouragement for locally manufactured products, much like how so many people have embraced locally manufactured foods. And no one should stand for corporations hiding profits in offshore tax havens, which is utterly deplorable since it involves making money from citizens but then avoids the act of recycling a share of that money back into the economy (via government spending of the tax money), harming the state as a whole (and forcing the government to borrow money to pay for essential services).
We have to be smarter about our actions now, and that goes hand in hand with a greater sense of responsibility. But that is a procedure that we must choose as individuals. It shouldn't require mandating weekly education seminars or quizzes before ballots. It doesn't necessitate a massive overhaul of the majority of citizens' common sense worldview (this, as some might say, is the rub. Some citizens' worldviews might be challenged and changed, which immediately creates the always troubling accusation that there is partisan and specific agendas at work, perpetuating the us vs. them scenario). Reforms to tax codes and fundraising/lobbying guidelines and improving the effectiveness of regulatory bodies is not going to bring the Western economy to its knees. And what might look like a step down in terms of corporate profits will be offset by an even slightly more powerful and efficient bureaucracy that can better cater to the needs of the people. A stronger infrastructure that does not exist for the profits of a small group of investors is in a better position to rehabilitate the quickly decaying Western middle class.
What needs to be stressed is that this has to be long term project, and monitored by all citizens throughout its implementation. If there is one viewpoint that does need to be changed without question, it's the abandonment of the short term, high reward high risk method of conducting international business.
If a few thousand people with power can do so much damage, think of what a few million people with power could do to fix it. It's matter of getting all our ducks lined in a row, which means, for starters, simply talking to other people about these issues. Long term planning is apolitical, and is the best interests of the banker and the Wal-Mart greeter. Responsibility, then, comes in the form of delayed gratification, sacrificing one's own wants and needs for the present moment for wants and needs at a later date that might benefit more people even further down the road. With the challenges we face today and in the upcoming years and decades, the changes in our own actions must only be slight to make a positive impact, as long as our attempt to bring them to fruition is clear and assiduously maintained.
[note on the title: 'Class Warfare' is one of those misnomers that should be avoided at all costs, as using it to describe the act of discussing inequality is a damning insult to those who sacrifice their lives in actual war]
Globalization has made class discussion more complicated.
The tenets have not changed (a strong, robust middle class is central to a functioning democratic state), but the amount of players have expanded, as have the networks and the relationships between corporations and governments.
Labour and trade laws in one country can create massive social and financial upheavals in a dozen others.
Two different scenarios are unfolding across the globe. In the West, inequality is growing, with the wealthiest citizens making more money than ever before while the middle class shrinks and the amount of people slipping into the lower class designation increases rapidly. In southeastern Asia, where much of what is manufactured is sent to Europe and North America, a middle class is emerging, but their gains are dwarfed by the achievements of the upper classes. In China this typically means government officials, as most Chinese billionaires are members of the communist party. Despite some advancements, there are still hundreds of millions of people living in poverty in China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, many of whom work in slave-like factory conditions to build toys or sew clothes for a few dollars a day.
Living in poverty in the West is still very different from living in poverty in other regions. Even our inequality is unequal.
On a global scale, one of the great challenges is to create a basic charter of human rights that is actually enforceable (and which is precisely the problem with the United Nations' document of the same name). When a country that has freedom of speech and the right to public and private assembly does business with a country that does not, is there immediately a conflict of interest? Are the citizens of the rights-laden nation tacitly approving the actions of a nation that they, if subjected to the same laws, would find abhorrent?
In discussion of such matters, very powerful and flowery rhetoric can be deployed. Talk of freedom can quickly be replaced by mere symbols of freedom, as if a waving flag or latin motto can somehow equate the actual act of speaking one's mind without fear of reprisal. Thus, it is important to remember that inalienable rights are illusory. If they truly were ‘inalienable’ they couldn’t be taken away. Society will agree that it’s a good idea and will try to extend such ‘rights’ to each and every citizen, but our own human frailty betrays us, on both personal and public levels. Governments can suspend basic rights when they deem it necessary to protect the nation. As for justice, juries will make mistakes and lawyers will look for loopholes, and justice will be denied (accused ‘enemy combatants’ will not be given their day in court, innocent people will be put in prison or even killed by the state). Self-interest will cloud the truth in the media and suddenly certain groups of people will know more than others, creating serious gulfs of (mis)information. Concentrated power means inequality not only when it comes to wealth, but rights as well, with the upper classes being given more (short jail times, better access to legal aid) and the rest of society receiving less.
All these things we consider rights will soon be considered privileges that the average citizen receives on occasion, not as a constant.
This is the challenge of post-industrial societies (regions typically labelled the West, along with Japan and Australasia): To acknowledge that the current economic slowdown is a new normal (unless you are in the upper classes, who have recovered quickly and now make more money than ever before), and that certain rights will have to be altered, if not suspended outright, to keep society functioning in some recognizable form. Where is this seen? Corporate rights have expanded (or at the very least, corporate law is barely enforced), union rights/power have shrunk, executive power in military decisions are unchecked (whether under a more liberal or conservative administration), and under the guise of 'national security', citizens are more likely to arrested or investigated if they participate in a protest or become critical of the government.
It's as if the potential for freedom and its philosophical discussion is more valuable than the inevitable practical messiness of freedom itself.
When the ‘grass is always greener’ perspective (‘if I was in a different situation, it would be better and I would do this…’) is applied to some of the most basic elements of human understanding it's disconcerting that there’s little difference between how we feel about freedom and, say, grass itself. There is always the feeling that you are missing something, that the problems that dog society can be solved if only [insert any partisan political position here].
Because in the West, once you have freedom, what next? Cradle-to-grave social safety nets? And if you get that, what next? Protecting these privileges? Is that something to devote one’s life to? Maintain the status quo?
Everyone wants what they don't (or can’t) have. Whether it's success you're after, or freedom itself. That’s the purest manifestation of freedom, and the pursuit is, in many ways, more important, more character defining, than the catch. A person who struggles to gain freedom in repressive countries enjoys it more than a person in an already free country, who have never gone without.
Here it will be acknowledged the flippancy with which I am comparing such mental blind spots with very real dangers like death squads, military police, and gross abuses of power that can occur in countries where human rights are cruelly ignored.
While we may be reluctant to admit it, human fallibility plays a greater role in our daily global affairs than human idealism, the latter of which is where much of our philosophical foundations come from.
The belief that 'all men are created equal' is grossly inadequate. Certainly all men (and women, as we should update the phrase) deserve equal treatment under the law, but to say that all people have the same faculties, abilities and opportunities when born is ridiculous.
And because people are unequal, that there will be inequality in society is a given. In the system we have now, someone has to be given more power and more responsibility to oversee the functioning of society (certainly there are echoes of Hobbes' Leviathan here). Inequality is inevitable in a free market system, and the regulating bodies of the state are meant to prevent inequality from growing so large that society no longer runs smoothly. This means ensuring the lower classes are provided for with basic services (such as health care, infrastructure, financial assistance, social programs), and that the upper classes/wealthy/elite provide the funds for these services through taxation. This is not a particularly revelatory arrangement, but heated debates occur in many different Western nations over how much the upper classes should give and how much the lower classes should receive. As the upper classes have more resources at their disposal, in many instances it is their voice that carries the most weight.
But who really does rise to the top, if someone must? Sometimes it’s people who have worked hard and provided an extremely important service for society, and sometimes it’s people who haven’t worked hard yet provided an extremely important service for society, and sometimes it’s people who have worked hard yet provided an extremely questionable service for society, and sometimes it’s people who haven’t worked hard and provide an extremely questionable service for society. In America (and by extension, most of Western Society) anyone can be successful; that’s the problem. (this is paraphrasing a George Carlin quote regarding the presidency)
Dire inequality is the modern democratic state's biggest enemy. It attacks slowly, from within, and is lethal when it comes to destroying the social fabric that made a country great - or even functional - in the first place. Rising inequality means the breaking down of the middle class, with a few rising up to join the upper, but most sliding back down to be part of the lower/working. This is effectively creating a society that is overclass and underclass. Which is incredibly dangerous for social stability, and even if the large groups of people just scrapping by cannot effectively mobilize change in a supposedly democratic state, then they must still face the condescending 'ritual' of a few amongst their ranks being elevated to the overclass, as if having won a lottery.
Why did managing inequality work better in the middle of the twentieth century? Quite simply, for a while the people with power were much more generous (or really, forced by the state to be generous) to the people that didn’t have very much of it. High tax rates on wealthy citizens and heavy regulation on the companies they owned meant that they bankrolled the betterment of everyone else. Of course, the West was busy exploiting other nations and toppling local governments for its own benefit during this time, so the shining benevolence of 1950s America should be taken quite lightly.
Aside I: A Blast in the Past
-you say that democracy is under attack? Well stop the fucking presses, of course it is. When was this hallowed time of milk and honey freedom? It better not be before 1964, before the Civil Rights bill was passed. Was it right after that maybe? I mean, nothing particularly inflammatory or controversial happen in the mid to late sixties, right? And it’s not like a president resigned over abuses of power in the mid seventies. Or that his successors turned a blind eye to genocides and coups they helped foster, heavens no. And what the fuck was Reagan doing ‘in the name of democracy’ to defeat ‘the evil empire’?
-hey, instead let’s go backwards. Maybe the fifties was the period for democracy. Maybe when white men ran everything and installed puppet governments anyplace in the world where there were resources they wanted.
-the further back we go, the fewer and people were allowed to participate in elections. Know why there are only fifty six signatures on the declaration of independence? ‘Cause those guys didn’t trust anyone else. George Washington was the richest man in America when he was president.
-it’s pretty insane that there are working class movements that seems to embrace the precepts of the founding fathers when they were the ultimate embodiment of liberal elites.
-for most of America’s history, the government’s chief source of revenue was not taxing its citizens, but taxing imports (customs duties). In some ways, the passage of NAFTA was the furthest push away from the early period of American history, but then again, the US bickering with China over tariffs is probably the one thing the founding fathers would recognize if they were around today.
In America the 1%'s rapid swelling of power in the last three decades should be cause for great concern, and should not be confused with 'class warfare', an already insulting term for simply the discussion of wealth redistribution. It is the attitude that the people who do not succeed in reaching the overclass are somehow undeserving completely ignores how many people did reach the overclass (either through similar levels of hard work and opportunity, or simply birth). This attitude is disrespectful to one's fellow citizens, harkening back to a period of antiquity, where the nobility turned down their noses at the rabble below them. It's the birthing pangs of a middling, half-assed dystopia. It's like Saudi Arabia without sharia law, where the royal family number 25,000 strong, lives in opulence, and then there is everyone else.
Power needs to come with clear and well-defined strings. You can accumulate power (typically measured in monetary terms), but there has to be heightened responsibility as to how you yield it, ensuring that it benefits the greater society that has allowed – yes, allowed – you to become powerful.
It’s the problem with the elites. In an ordered meritocracy they climb their way up, and in doing so they (ideally) kick the wizened husks of the previous elites back down into the morass below. This is to keep the wheels turning. If the same elites hold onto power for too long, the wheel gets rusty, starts to squeak and slow down, and ultimately everyone suffers. It’s not that much different from animals that live in groups. When the aging head of the pride or pack gets too old or dies, the younger(s) fight the patriarch or each other for supremacy. It’s a French revolution every couple years among lions, rams, and wolves.
And for democracies, much of the problems can be seen in the halls of power. Incumbency rates are extremely high, with the same politicians voted in year after year, clinging to the same donors and empty procedures. With this in mind, it’s slightly easier to trust wealthy citizens that finance their own political campaigns than candidates that take ‘public’ and 'private' funds which are mainly from corporations and wealthy people. During a debate it’s useful for ‘rich guy’ to say, ‘hey, my main donors are right up here on stage with me, because they are ‘me’. You know the influence they’ll have on my administration, because you know my policies. My opponent, meanwhile, has gotten millions of dollars from corporations and wealthy donors who hide in the shadows when it comes to revealing what they want. Shouldn’t my opponent have his donors, his influences, up here explaining themselves so you know what you’re going to get if you vote for him AND them?’ Obviously this has nothing to do with his actual policies, which might be absolutely terrible, but there should be a level of transparency there that most politicians lack. The devil you know is much preferred to the devil you don't.
Aside II: Enter China…
-the contextualizing of human suffering, from Somalia to Guangzhou to Houston: So the people in China who make your iPod in a feudal-like existence are better off than the billions of people living in absolute poverty and near starvation in Africa and parts of underdeveloped Asia. And almost everyone in the West is just so far away from that level of existence that it’s mind-blowing. It is very difficult to starve to death in the West. It has to practically be a conscious choice. Now that’s not to say we don’t have huge problems with poverty, and that it’s not shocking and immoral that it exists when there is so much wealth that could go around, but there is a support net strong enough to ensure people get fed and can be sheltered from the elements in order to get back on their feet. This could come in the form of government assistance, a charity organization, or simply support from family and friends, who are able to offer such care because the greater society has given them enough disposable income to do so.
-But it’s troubling how we put certain issues ahead of human suffering. People who are livid over the treatment of animals raised for slaughter will think nothing of buying a neat electronic gizmo that was made under near-slave labour conditions on the other side of the planet. Do they not even think about it, or just quickly write it off thinking, ‘hey, they have a job, sure it’s not the best conditions, but at least they’re not being kept in dirty crowded pens and then being hacked to pieces for consumption’? Should the suffering of our species in all its guises take precedent over other animals? Is suffering itself the measure by which we should decide what issue to tackle first?
-Is China's record on human rights proof that money triumphs freedom? That we believe these truths to be self-evident unless they affect our bottom line? It is the scourge of cheaper everything.
-the devil’s advocate – that is, the argument from manufacturers – states that we are improving these otherwise impoverished regions by giving them some work to do, which – while poorly compensated, heavily corrupt, and empowers the state and weakens the political power of the citizenry – is better than no work at all. And if the people rise up, or the government listens to the people and passes some basic workers rights legislation, do the manufacturers say we’ll pack up and move to country that still has lax labour laws, screwing your whole country over, so quit your whining and keep sewing.
-and so it becomes clearer that the action in some respect lies in the powerful companies that decide to manufacture their products in China. If they all agreed to certain standards, they could conceivably decide to support the rights of workers overseas, or simply return the jobs to the West. Hell, just threatening to do the latter might get China to loosen some basic civil rights restrictions.
-buy American? Maybe it was as obvious as the early seventies – later mentioned quite openly in the 1976 film Network – that there was no America anymore. But that doesn’t really mean much either, unless you create some criteria for ‘America’ and weigh it against the current vales and practices of the state. Is a company American if the manufacturing sector is in China, the profits stored offshore in the Cayman islands because they don’t want to pay tax on it if it’s brought into America, but the corporate headquarters are on the southern tip of Manhattan? I mean, can you get any more unpatriotic than that?
-people really need to start giving a shit whether their ‘domestic’ company builds stuff domestically, or even has a domestic headquarters so they pay taxes domestically (this after seeing many companies with headquarters in the Netherlands for tax purposes). Not that it’s ‘only’ the people’s fault. The companies should actually have – gasp – a conscience and realize the importance of staying in the community, or at the very least the state, and helping it grow.
[a note to this writer: perhaps to remind you that you’re part of the problem with your wonderful Macbook. How many computers are built – from start to finish – in the West? Have we sold our morals by buying cheap products from countries who treat their citizens terribly? How do we justify this? And why doesn’t it ‘click’ that this is source of the complete collapse of Western manufacturing, that many citizens lose their jobs because even more citizens want to save money by buying a ‘made in China’ product? Is this democracy in action, or just capitalism? People choosing to buy one over the other? Were we forced (by having no alternative when almost every company took this manufacturing strategy)? And if we were forced, was it forced via government legislation (letting Western companies build products in China and then ship it over, because it was cheaper than having it all built here)? Are we choking to death on our own greed and small-mindedness?]
The problem with democracy is that it’s everyone’s problem. Where business people see synergy, conspirators see conspiracy. And like many things, the truth is can be found in the still-boring middle; yes, the activities of major institutions and industries can be dangerous and irresponsible, but no, together they are a far cry from the perfect ‘Big Brother’ machine hell bent on world domination. It's possible the couple thousand people who holds large swaths of power – in charge of various corporations and government officials – would love to institute this polyarchy behind a veneer of democracy, but it’s always going to have limited success because some of the people who are going to run it will drop the ball, and some of the people they try to force it upon will resist.
So who are we going to get to run the world? Someone is going to have make major decisions on energy use and someone else is going to have to take out the garbage, and these roles are going to have different levels of requirements, responsibilities and power. We don’t want giant corporations who put their own profit (the owners, the small pool of investors) ahead of the public good. Fine. Easy to say.
The rich white men who run everything (and not very well, might I add, so forget them being the cool, knowing shadow conspirators) are terrified of risk unless it's someone else's money they're betting with. They’re terrified that any a minute someone different from them (different age, belief system, sex, race, culture, etc.) is going to come in and take their shit, steal their power. And this fear is as old as power itself. And throughout the years this group has raised alarm bells every time they think they might lose it all and try to warn us that if the somehow lose their grip on the power they have everything will fall to pieces. And it kind of looks like we fall for it (or enough of us fall for it) because they still have a stranglehold on the decisions that shape the modern world.
And here’s the next little secret: is there any reason to think that if a more diverse group of people (young! Women! Minorities!) were put in charge, that they would do anything different? If we acknowledge that power itself (along with the desire for power) is the corrupting factor and no inherent quality of the person, then why does it matter if the Fortune 500 Company CEO list looks more like a Benetton ad?
Can we get liberal enough policies to reflect our leaning left in time? The conservatives in many western nations are worried about the future of their populations that are growing more liberal over time, since it will leave them with a severely depleted voter base, resulting in less power and perhaps irrelevance, if not outright extinction. In other words, it’s evolutionary politics (a term that the conservatives themselves already grumble about). Adapt or die.
So they frame politic arguments – at least in the US – as the last ditch attempt to save their country from oppressive and destructive liberal policies, even though more and more citizens are supportive of said policies. They are fighting for their own careers/livelihoods, and try to frame it to their supporters as a fight for the whole country.
But the liberals also play the card of 'vote for us now before it's too late'. Saying they need x amount of power to reverse the destructive and dominant conservative policies that still dictate how much of the Western economy is run. Their claim is a bit more legitimate, however, as the continued decline of the middle class is proof enough that the monetary policies of free-market capitalism is benefiting chiefly the very rich at the expense of everyone else.
It’s a shift that underscores the fact that people are more educated, more tolerant, more diverse, and more aware of the challenges of the global socio-economic processes that govern civilization. Even as some critics can jump on the ‘less religious’ factor as a negative thing, it’s really just an indication that fewer people are following obstinate dogma of centuries old religions that refuse to adapt to new ways of thinking. People’s spirituality levels are still quite strong – the idea that there is some order to the universe, with no certainty that a sentient, relatable entity has to be involved – it’s just the ‘love this interpretation of god and his rules or go to hell’ type of idea they’re rejecting en masse.
The spirit of the many may be strong, but at the moment the flesh is weak. The difficulty in uniting under a single cause or banner coupled with the power of the mass media under almost complete control of the elites make for difficult roads for an inequality movement. At this point it might feel natural to quote the end of 'The Communist Manifesto' ('nothing to lose but your chains', etc.), but even that's too simple. So how about this: If you have unchecked power, it’s more of a challenge to restrain yourself from using it.
Packer, George. ‘Upgrade or Die’. The New Yorker. March.6.2013.
I read my 2011 Review blathering (click here). I lamented the list of unresolved problems that seemed to be getting incrementally worse and worse, and suggested that we were on the cusp of major changes.
I was mostly wrong, I think.
Mainly in that we're still on the cusp. 2012 was another twelve months of dangling. Maybe history is being on the cusp for 95% of the time. 1% is the actual 'everything changes', and the remaining 4% is the bizarre sensation of reorienting ourselves and our society after the 'everything changes'.
And while we wait on this cusp, we go about our daily lives, working, sleeping, relaxing, reading a magazine while sitting on the toilet, happy enough that things aren't yet worse.
Maybe the problem is perspective. How big is your big picture? And the trouble is just that. It's your big picture, and much of it is relative to how you yourself were doing in the years past. Saying you're doing better right at this moment than the average serf four centuries ago is 'big picture', but not very helpful when assessing the few years behind or ahead.
It's easy to pick over the past and say this or that year or few years back to back to back were incredibly important and the changes that occurred within them ultimately changed everything, but while you're living through that particular period, prescience is tough gig. And in today's instantaneous media environment, failed predictions can simply be ignored or deleted from the archive.
Looking back on it, 1942 was deep in the thick of World War II. And indeed it was, but the year itself - as you lived it - was a cusp year for many. An invasion of mainland Europe by American and British forces was inevitable, but not forthcoming. The fight in North Africa went back and forth, the Pacific War hadn't yet picked up much speed at all, and Stalingrad was mired in a seemingly endless, bloody stalemate.
Assessing the present or very recent past by looking back much further. We can use this practice to make the present seem better or worse than it once was. And looking at certain regions of the world can also affect the conclusions drawn.
Hundreds of millions of people in Asia continue to climb out of poverty into a class that would be considered 'lower' by Western standards, but certainly seems to be the advent of the biggest middle class explosion since, well, the West in the first half of the twentieth century.
And The West now? The good-ish news: The European economy continued to bend but not exactly break. Less good-ish: Mass protests in Greece and Spain. Outright bad: The UK finance minister admitted the two years of austerity measures his country had put in place has not worked, and in fact made things worse.
It's frustrating for many reasons, some of them even legitimate. A multinational economic recovery plan has to factor in the countries that are a bit worse and much worse off than five years ago, and the countries that completely screwed up their line of credit and lived high on the hog for years before the bottom fell out (say, Greece). But how do you treat (punish?) those countries that shouldn't have really embraced the Euro currency in the first place without punishing everyone? It's 'too big to fail' all over again, on a much wider scale. It's the darkest side of globalization (and there are admittedly plenty of dark sides to it), where interconnectedness is suddenly a huge liability.
And how does this affect the average citizen? Fewer social programs and essential services offered by the government, who are also privatizing revenue generators like land and parking meters for a quick hit of cash to balance this year's budget. With steady employment harder to come by (underemployed is not a new buzz word, but it's certainly on of the most appropriate for 2012), personal budgets are stretched even tighter, and the idea of any long term savings is postponed again.
This is the new normal for more and more people in the West, slipping out of the manageable, comfortable middle class and into the 'one missed paycheque and everything falls like a house of cards' lower class.
What's disappointing is how this has become an easy talking point/boilerplate speech for politicians. They promise to 'fight for middle class', but ultimately nothing is done (helping the middle class means expanding social programs and essential services, but instead they're being cut). Increasing taxes on the wealthy has somehow been linked to success-hating socialism, instead of 'the way things were paid for in the twentieth century'.
Which bring us to America, which had an election this year that was stupidly close, considering one of the candidates represented the very worst economic policies of the last thirty years (just so we're on the same page, I'm referring to Romney). It was exhausting, and with very little change and basically the only hope was that things wouldn't get much worse.
There wasn't much revelatory political wonk being discussed. Just numbers that were made up (Romney) or impossible to achieve when have the Congress opposes everything you do (Obama).
At least it was easy to cover for the nation's media, which would rather show three state of the art graphics than string together three though-provoking sentences. It's frequently decried that elections have become PR campaigns, but that fits in perfectly with advertisements around the news. It's one long set piece of selling, either pills, cars, or the idea that your opponent is just a terrible human being.
This is rapidly becoming a run-of-the-mill article on complaining on the current state of things, but it's typically what you're left with when examining a year where the lulls of no real news at all were the best parts of it.
The discovery of the Higgs Boson and Felix Baumgartner jumping out of a balloon on the edge of space are possibly the only good stories that doesn't have a cynical addendum to them.
Otherwise it's power outages in India, factory fires in Pakistan, sanctions against Iran, and a line of tortoises went extinct when Lonesome George died in the Galapagos. After a series of horrendous spree shootings, gun control legislation might finally return to America (with past statutes expiring or having been overturned in the last several years).
But that's the biggest problem in America. Not by a long shot.
While not as easy to discuss than gun control, the debt ceiling/fiscal cliff resolution (still pending as of this writing) can reshape the American economy - and therefore America (and therefore the world) - for years to come.
You can try to rephrase the problem to make it more understandable - how does a nation tighten its financial belt? - but that's still a far cry from having a workable solution. And offering up a mix of spending cuts and tax increases is only the tip of the iceberg (as European nations who had to do this whole thing a few years back could tell you), since so many people's lives are tied up in what might get cut, and very important wealthy people are resistant to having their taxes raised (making it legislatively difficult to enact).
No one lines to admit that in a democracy, 'compromise' means your position is going to be watered-down on the way to the solution. And being obstinate strokes your ego and fires up your base, but so many other people and institutions take it on the chin when nothings get done in the halls of power.
But how does this change when the status quo seems to be more or less in a coma? Where are the people clamouring for change? Of course some are there – a healthy number of ‘some’ are always there - but political change is a numbers game, and if you don't have the dollar signs, you need the head count. But to go all 'big picture' again, when was there this type of activism? When was the average citizen well informed and participated in politics with a level head and reasonable expectations? Even the period that I frequently lauded as America's golden age was filled with sexism, bigotry, and the belief that anything that seemed different was Unamerican (there was even a 'committee for Unamerican Activities'). The Civil Rights Movement is certainly one of the best examples of mass participation for change, but that had the benefit of a very clear message ('equal rights for all') that one agreed with, or did not.
Fiscal responsibility in the 21st century is nowhere near as simple. Can we claim that our challenges today are bigger and more unwieldy? Certainly the latter, which makes kicking the can down the alley much more appealing than dealing with the issue right then and there. So, to take the fiscal cliff, it's the same problems from summer 2011 with no long term solutions in sight.
Perhaps the West will just get used to it.
Admittedly, the current state of affairs is a pretty massive 'it'.
It's a new world where things don't get solved. They get absorbed into the ever-complicating world of fine print.
And that's a terrible form of change that has only been explored in the driest of satirical dystopias (Brazil, Idiocracy).
The end of an era is a tough thing to wrap your head around, considering we've been adding 'post’ to many fields of discipline and concepts (postmodern, postindustrial, postfeminism, postmillennial, poststructural) for many years. It's as if every new idea we've had for the last four decades or so involved with something ending, although it never really does. It - whatever 'it' needs to be - just keeps sputtering along.
The future seems to dance that much more beyond reach as the exhausted present drags more of the past with it into the vaguely known.
Truly there are small cracks in the dam of American hegemony, and with each one, the world looks to... where exactly? What does post-American (ha!) hegemony look like? Simply replaced with China? That 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' mantra?
Beijing certainly has the numbers, but 99 problems to go along with it (bitches need not apply).
India – the world’s largest democracy, it boasts – has several issues as well, from rampant corruption to wayward infrastructure, and the biggest news to come out of the country recently is the mass demonstrations for social change after a shocking incident of gang rape where the victim ultimately died. Once again, the silver lining can only be that positive legislative changes could come from such horrors.
The Middle East is still about to split at the seams.
Africa suffered from continued droughts, food riots, and instability.
And to prove big problems never stop at the border - or care a whit about something like a filibuster - the climate is still changing in the predictably unpredictable fashion that is costing us all billions of dollars every year. Extreme weather means expensive repairs to infrastructure and huge insurance claims. Droughts and flash foods mean less food. For three years running, all of us on this planet have consumed more than we produced in terms of agriculture and food production. That is a huge problem that is going to catch up with us.
The longer the bough doesn't break, the more devastating the effects will be when it does. But that kind of talk ferments within the 'worst fears realized' part of the imagination.
The future won't be apocalyptic. It will just be lousy.
At worst it will look like East Africa. Or Syria. Or parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It should be heartening that the most terrible and dangerous places on earth are not wholly written off. That's not to say the rest of the global society is doing an A+ job in fixing them (far from it), but we are trying. That we believe these places can be pulled out of the darkness. Not only for the sake of the people who live there, but for our own standards of what society should be as well.
This is an insane way to end a year in review.
I don't know if things actually have to get worse before they get better, but as this is also the time of year where you are thankful for what you have, I'm glad it hasn't gotten much worse just yet.
Watch out 2013, all seven billion of us are coming for you.
And on a blessedly lighter note...
Cultural Detritus We Enjoyed 2012
We blathered on about the loud violent majesty of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans here, but the one album that sat on the top of the heap by the end of the year was Liars' Wixiw. We first wrote about it here, and it's attraction hasn't waned. A warmer but still unsettling entry from a band that continues to defy genre and location, Wixiw has soft acoustic intros and outros bookending angry post-rock anthems (Flood to Flood, Brats), and bizarro club non-hits (No.1 Against the Rush). They trade the guitars for synths but kept a sense of restless experimentation and mistrust of anything too easy. It's pretty much an impossible sound to put into words, and perhaps you need to immerse yourself in their discography to feel it, but Wixiw resists the idea of culmination of past work, and is instead another stepping stone into the unknown for Angus, Aaron, and Julian.
Also: With their album Hunting Season, Hands & Teeth proves that good pop is not dead. Metz proves with their self-titled that angry psycho rock is still kicking. And whatever the hell Death Grips does, they did it damn well on The Money Store.
Not that it's proof that we're sick of the present state of things, but the settings of some of the best movies of the year are decades or even centuries in the past. PT Anderson's The Master situates itself in the halcyon days of post World War II America, and both Spielberg's Lincoln and Tarantino's Django Unchained take two very different approaches to dealing with the practical and ethical problems concerning slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. Django is a violent release of unstrained righteous anger, and Lincoln merges political wonk and a personable man in a top hat who liked to tell anecdotes.
All three of these films are made by acknowledged auteurs and each are unquestionable high points in their oeuvre, although only The Master stares down convention long enough to make it beg for mercy. You don't know what's coming next, you can't see any of the strings, and neither Django and Lincoln can claim that (admittedly, you know how Lincoln ends).
Also: Even Zero Dark Thirty turns the clock back a couple years and ends with the best foreign policy news for America since the end of the Cold War. Really, no one wants to think about right now right now.
We don't have cable and can't be arsed to download/torrent entire series. We hear the new seasons of Louie and Homeland were pretty up to snuff, though.
Hipsters and Hippies: The Groovy, Groovy Irony
So an articulate and intelligent young professor wrote an article on hipsters on the New York Times Website. Here is the link:
Complaining that the new generation of youth is particularly disenfranchised, particularly rudderless and dependent on cobbling together past cultural modes to express themselves, is something that people have been doing for centuries. Apparently it was always better in the past. A simpler time, when people reflected respectfully, talked to each other face to face, and, when confronted with society at large and its challenges – both public and private – turned small farm grown lemons into fresh, chemical free lemonade.
And from this complaint in article form comes the throngs of responses decrying Ms. Wampole's assessment (like this one). No doubt some of which will have a particularly high percentage of the basic irony molecule, snark. Because you just know that hipsters are practically staring at their watches (well, the clocks on their smartphones, unless we're at the point where cheap Seiko's are cool again), going, 'oh wow, here's an article decrying our wayward ways that we're supposed to take particularly seriously because it's written by someone of our generation. Right on time.'
But look at me! I'm being self-aware, mocking the expected reactions of the apparently homogeneous targeted group known as 'hipsters'.
No doubt about it, there are hipsters out there. Just like there were actual hippies. But today, just like in the sixties, most of the people in their twenties and thirties exhibit some form hipster behaviour without identifying themselves specifically as such (even Wampole admits to having a few qualities herself).
Just because you had long hair in the sixties didn't mean you were a hippie, just like having a well-maintained beard doesn't you're a hipster today. Or if you have a large record collection. Or quote 'The Simpsons' frequently. Or have a rather apathetic view of the world today (there's some pretty legitimate reasons for that, I think we can all agree).
As for the conceptual weapons that Wampole decries as negatively affecting this group of young people: Irony and self-awareness is old. How far back do you want to go? The rise of postmodernism in the sixties and seventies? Foucault admitting there is nothing but power relations? Monty Python interrupting their sketches because they're too silly?
How about Sartre and existentialism? Nietzsche? Velazquez's 'Las Meninas'? Descartes thinking therefore he is?
Zeroing in on postmodernism - the field of intellectual pursuit that holds there are no truths, that everything conceived and perceived is relative to the conceiver and perceiver - can certainly help Wampole's argument. Assessing the assessment you just made is an attempt to not be caught holding a concrete position. Temporary connections and relationships in a conceptual realm doesn't necessarily filter down to affect how people behave on a day to day basis, but culture that embraces the absurdity of postmodernism can certainly spread its message (and foundations of the message) to the masses.
I think there are plenty of examples of a postmodern mindset in contemporary society, from literary criticism to the diffusion of information to the lower circles of popular culture. A hipster considering how people might react to his t-shirt is not unlike the reality show contestant acting in a certain way to get the camera's (and therefore the audience's) attention.
Postmodernism embraced its own demise (critically, anyway, which means acknowledging its own faults and limitations), and like so many other symbolic sacrifices before - know your archetypes - such an act means it's destined to outlive us all.
Wampole doesn't decry irony completely (in the past it gave us 'a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions'), but now she sees us immersed in it. Too much so. We're, like, drowning in irony.
[despite being associated with the Valley Girl archetype, the usage of 'like' in the sentence above could be a great example of this kind of irony Wampole is concerned about. People almost unconsciously use a term when speaking that implies a comparison, a separation, a distance between the words used to describe the thing and the thing itself. Wampole would say that our placeholder words suggest the inability to confront situations head on]
Irony as a mental tyranny. The result of having too much of a good thing. It's Western decadence yet again. Instead of 'tune in, drop out' it's 'you know encapsulating an entire decades' worth of social change into four words is pretty shitty, right?'.
Because irony is a shield against criticism - since you are taking criticism into consideration before creating what will ultimately be criticized - we are eschewing directness and responsibility. She claims we react, rather than act (wait, are we actually going to have a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg here?). For Wampole, worrying about how people are going to respond to our words and actions have made us behave in an unnatural, detached way. I should go right out and say that I don't agree with this argument at all. First off, adjusting our actions based on how we'll be perceived is how people have always behaved. Only sociopaths act without thinking what people will think of them.
People always worried about whether they appear cool or not. Whether your buying zoot suits, beads, secondhand clothes, or tweed jackets. There's that constant inner reflection - am I coming off as cool? - in all these instances, it's not a new phenomenon by any means.
In the portrait of a hipster - or a person immersed in irony - that Wamploe paints, the individual is emotionally isolated and socially stunted, endlessly denying themselves a bit of sincere and honest reflection. But in reality everyone has - and have always had - some fragments of this quality within them. Perhaps there are people for whom "inwardness and narcissism hold sway", but they are the exception, not the norm. Most of the generation criticized in this article doesn't buy something just because others have it. Don't worry, Ms. Wampole, people still like stuff.
But wait, are we sure we like stuff? I mean, commercials have gotten pretty damn clever in convincing us that we need certain products. This is one of Wampole's examples of irony run amok. She decries self-aware ads. That is, an ad that acknowledges 'yeah, yeah, we're trying to sell you something here, no fooling you, you uber-smart consumer, you'. The idea being that we let our guard down, and are then suckered into pulling out our wallet. Apparently this is all Joe Isuzu's fault.
[don't get the reference? All you have to do is google it, and now you can be part of the 'club' that gets it! See how easy you can be included? Would Wampole say this access is too easy, too egalitarian? Does everyone being able to get the reference by looking it up destroy something valuable?]
It's always tempting to say that everything's been done, and that culture is just repeating itself. In this respect, there are critics beyond Wampole who believe that we are poaching too much from our past. This is in part because the past has never been closer. It's a reaction to having everything at our fingertips, thanks to the internet.
Well, not everything. Just particular things. Things that can be digitized, really. And don't get me wrong, that's a hell of a lot of stuff. Almost all forms of information and culture. (you can find a video on YouTube of a dance show from the 1980s that premiered the proto-Detroit Techno track, 'Shari Vari'). But consequently, what's dying a slow, honest death according to Wampole is:
"The art of conversation, the art of looking at people, the art of being seen, the art of being present."
The assumptions here are that most conversations in the past were of higher quality than now, that there was a golden age of socialization that has faded thanks to text messaging and hulu. This is rather ridiculous. Thanks to the internet you are more aware of what is going on around you, as you are inundated on social networking sites with messages and event notices so you know where your friends are drinking, certain bands are playing, and what x amount of people in your neighbourhood thought was cool or worth checking out this afternoon. It's your responsibility to get up off your ass and take part in the world beyond the screen in front of you (this not a new problem. It was one of the most constant criticisms of television).
The minutia of conversation evolves as how we absorb language and the information it carries evolves. If we characterize 'hipster' as a subculture (although Wampole seems to see it as a movement that could possibly permanently corrupt the youth like never before), then it should come as no surprise that it has its own lexicon. With the internet so prevalent, simple turns of phrase or tweaked words immediately become absorbed into the mainstream. A meme's rise and fall can be measured in weeks.
As a buffer from the above for the hipster crowd, speaking in pop culture (or cult culture) quotes and references is the new slang. It's an attempt by a fragmented group of people to reach out to other like minded people. Relying on less familiar pieces of cultural debris was practically inevitable. A very laissez-faire counter culture beats its own chest by quoting Arrested Development, Anchorman, or a deeper-than-usual cut from The Simpsons ('dental plan!'). They complain about Centipede Hz (meaning it's already underrated) and can't understand why the new Liars album isn't a crossover hit.
Those that respond positively to such references or remarks are engaging in a basic form of social interaction. It is known as 'shooting the shit', and it's a pretty good way of finding out of you could possibly hang out with this person in the long term.
This sounds dull and common sense, but that's because it is. Wampole is going after windmills she thinks are giants. Technology may be changing at a breakneck pace, but people change much, much slower. Setting her targets on Instagram's ability to a immediately 'age' as recently taken digital photo, Wampole notes that:
"One cannot accelerate meaningful remembrance."
Nostalgia has already been decried as a selective and constantly altering form of recollection. Why are worried that such a thing is speeding up? Once again, Wampole is seen the situation in the most negative light. A quirky way of sharing photos becomes proof that there is a spiritual malaise crippling those that use Instagram, since apparently they want what's happening right now to seem like a cherished memory from yesteryear.
Sometimes an app is just an app.
In fact, with increased documentation, we can remember such events as they actually were, keeping a more accurate perspective of our past. Although I suppose that Wampole will criticize such a thing, as destroying the romantic notions of the past.
'Ironic living' a labelled as a first world problem, one that is the luxury of 'the relatively well educated and financially secure'. Well right off the bat, she's shrinking her sample size, because today fewer young adults are financially secure in the first world than in the last three decades. And they're finding that being well educated doesn't exactly make you a shoo-in for becoming financially secure any time soon.
She might just be upset with an even smaller circle of well-to-do twenty and thirty year olds engaging in simple 'slumming'.
To give some much needed weight to the piece, Wampole includes personal anecdotes, suggesting that as a youth in the nineties and seeing environmental activism, social advances for women, and a booming economy at its peak, everyone steeled themselves for when these achievements slowed to a crawl in the early twenty first century by ultimately caring even less. That we retreated further to our ever more powerful and smaller gadgets. In fact, usage of our phones, tablets, and laptops are, slowly but surely, simply replacing television, radio, and magazines (since we use our devices to do these same activities). And it's a hard argument to make that there is a connection between the rise of irony and the decline of political activism among generation x and millennials (especially considering many of them are much more connected and mobilized, thanks in part to the technology they know like the back of their hand).
Another anecdote: She admits that she likes to give gifts that are kitschy and not exactly useful or sentimental in the long term. Wampole sees this action as 'aversion of risk'. By buying something silly, there's less of a chance that she will feel bad if the receiver is not happy with a sincere gift. While I admire her willingness to critique her own actions up in such an article, I think she's forgetting the importance of 'it's the thought that counts' (and even getting a jokey gift while thinking, 'hey, I bet Bob will get a real kick out of this' is still a sincere thought), and nostalgizing a past that I'm sure was filled with silly, hideously impermanent birthday gifts.
And sure enough, she can't 'risk' resting the article on such mundane ideas. From this she jumps into politics, wondering if a dangerous result of all this irony from a political standpoint is that in a something always fills an empty/vapid cultural landscape and that 'fundamentalists are never ironists', nor are dictators or anyone who wants to change things on a grand scale.
Wampole seems to connect a lack of sincerity on a micro level with a lack of sincerity on a macro level. That hipsters do not care about politics. Or worse, understand political situations - thanks to that 'relatively well educated' position - but don't believe that things can change for the better and so do not even try. Are there people who simply shrug and say 'everything's fucked, let's get another pint of beer from some obscure brewery in Central Pennsylvania' (hipsters are a pretty easy stereotype to nail down)? Sure, but
the numbers simply do not add up for Wampole's argument. Unless she is worried that the denizens of Williamsburg are going to be the only thing to stop the latest variations of the military-industrial complex.
Who has evaded the paralyzing grip of irony? Wampole looks to four year olds, the elderly, people with mental difficulties, and those who have suffered incredible hardships in their lives.
It's a disparate group that says what they mean and isn't overly afraid of looking foolish in the eyes of others if they can't list at least five artists on the Warp label. They also have a rather limited role of responsibility and agency in a postindustrial society. Meanwhile, the group of people that exhibit hipster-ish symptoms are the ones expected to take the reigns and deal-with-plus-fix the litany of problems that now plague America, Europe, and everywhere else.
Can people who Wampole sees as full of 'numbness, resignation and defeat' rise to the occasion? Just to be on the safe side, she offers a list of questions that hipsters can use to self diagnose. Do you really like things? Do you quote cultural references a lot? Do you feign indifference? Is your style an anti-style? How would it feel to change yourself from within?
Searing questions to be sure. A support group based on sincerity and openness, with - I suppose - the belief being that a person who doesn't live their life in quotation marks will be that much better at confronting issues like climate change, economic instability, and resource management. In some ways it sounds like a team-building exercise at work, that some employees always roll their eyes at because attending means they aren't actually doing the work they've been hired to do. I'll grant that a person's outlook can certainly affect their job performance and their social graces, but deprogramming a hipster seems like a vanity operation. As if a hipster problem requires a hipster solution.
There have been attempts to neuter these irony-ish tendencies in the past. Wampole notes that the recent 'New Sincerity' work of Wallace, Anderson, and Cat Power was the most recent antidote, but ultimately could not slay the latest beast, Deep Irony.
Sadly she does not expand of what this is, but she does end on the note that seems to suggest that she believes irony is why young people are not taking part in the political process in droves.
So Wampole ends being very disappointed in her generation and half of the generation younger than her, even though kicking the youth and young adults in the shins is nothing new. The hippies got the brunt of it in the sixties. Where unkempt hair, beads, and a lack of interest in work meant the American Dream was dead.
But like, maybe that dream was more of a nightmare, anyway, man.
The threat was bullshit because the stereotype was unrepresentative of the general public. Most young people in the sixties didn't tune in and drop out. They watched the riots on television and still liked The Beatles as their music became all the more mature and experimental without having to take acid.
The world didn't end. The seventies were the big come down, but that storm was weathered (maybe that's where we are now, the bottoming out of the nineties, about to crawl back up to...what, though?).
So maybe, just maybe, irony is a symptom of the decline of the current incarnation of Western Civilization. But in terms of its importance compared to the actual mechanisms of its decline - economic policies that favour the very few, an outdated energy policy, a dearth of resources, both natural and manmade - it's on par with giving your friend a silly gift for their birthday.
This is not to say Wampole can't vent her annoyance of the foibles of her generation. I'm also upset that people walk while texting, their eyes glued to the tiny screen instead of whatever's in front of them (like myself). But those are rude, myopic people, and such a group is older than smartphones. They are also the minority.
This article looks beyond the artistic works being created today and the challenges of the up and coming generations and takes shots at the people who engage with both. And in some ways that's the easiest shot to take. To pigeonhole millions of people into a narrow stereotype that involves not caring the same way people used to care.
You don't like the cultural landscape? Then you paint something new.
You see something wrong in the world? Write, protest, take action.
But if you're mired in deep irony, only a complete personality overhaul can help you.
It's a diagnosis that might upset hipsters worldwide. But Ms. Wampole doesn't have to worry about that. Her article was published in the New York Times, so she's already mainstream and off their radars.
(note: Certainly this article will be seen by some as insensitive and/or offensive, so if comparing a still extremely recent terrorist act that killed thousands of innocent people with a series of films that co-stars a stuffy english robot is not your thing, I advise you stop reading now)
(second note: For many of these analogies to work, you have to be familiar not only with the exciting and fun Original Trilogy of Star Wars (1977's A New Hope, 1980's Empire Strikes Back, and 1983's Return of the Jedi), but the more recent trio of films (1999's The Phantom Menace, 2002's Attack of the Clones, and 2005's Revenge of the Sith), which everyone pretty much agrees are mediocre at best and terrible at worst)
It's a dark time for the American Empire...
How's that for a nice jumble of real and fantasy, good and evil in the opening crawl?
George Lucas's Star Wars films (which can be considered a hexalogy or two trilogies) take place a long time ago and far away, but certain aspects of the film can definitely hit close to home. Initially the connections were between the first film's contents and the many storytelling mythologies it poached/paid homage to. The fisher king narrative of a young hero's quest to save his homeland. The damsel in distress. The wise old mentor that teaches the young hero. Clowns (in robot form) to lighten the mood from time to time. Historian Joseph Campbell made a point of praising Star Wars for introducing these millennia-old narratives to a new generation (although truth be told, they're pretty much ingrained through many other forms of media, from fairy tales to reality television).
On the face of it, the politics of Star Wars and its morals are pretty black and white (to the point where the two biggest villains in the series - Darth Vader and The Emperor - wear black all the time). The big bad Empire is crushing freedom left and right across the galaxy, and it's up to a scrappy bunch of rebels to overthrow them and restore peace and justice for all. Now in any well run propaganda machine, these rebels would be portrayed as terrorists, and each of their violent acts that they see as a 'blow against tyranny' would be portrayed as evil and cowardly by the government they are attacking. But are the many citizens who don't take up arms against the Empire buying it? This is a question that really doesn't get answered in Star Wars, and is instead considered in stoner nerd movies like Clerks and columns like this one.
In Star Wars we never see the people living harshly under the Empire's vile boot. They don't seem to be considered by the Rebel Alliance at all. Only military targets are in the freedom fighters' sights, and the few times we see average folk who don't seem to have a dog in the fight between good and evil, they're growing dirt on farm, drinking in a bar, or walking around a city in the sky paid for by its mining industry. Early on in A New Hope, even Luke Skywalker admits that - while not liking the Empire - he's not going to off on an adventure trying to attack them when there's work to be done for his Uncle (his Uncle being murdered by Imperial troops is a useful catalyst to change that opinion).
But overall, if it's supposed to be 1984 with droids, it's not very convincing. In fact, through the first half of the film, the only reason you'd think the Empire is so damn evil is that it would do practically anything to destroy the rebels/terrorists (which sounds like the foreign policy of most nations today).
At least that's until they blow up a whole damn planet as a form of interrogation against Princess Leia (her home world of Alderaan). Now call me old fashioned, but I think Grand Moff Tarkin overplayed his hand here (it's got to be a tough spin for the Empire-controlled media machine to justify the destruction of a planet), even if it does forever brand the Empire as 'the bad guys'. Notably, Tarkin dies when the Death Star is blown up, and the two men that didn't really have anything to do with destruction of Alderaan are now portrayed as the worst men in the galaxy, even though neither of them do anything nearly as terrible (compared to killing millions of people in one stroke, Vader killing Obi-Wan (who really sacrificed himself anyway) is a distant second).
Was Alderaan a legitimate military target if only parts of it had rebel sympathies? (*cough*Afghanistan*cough*) Well, the rebel's retaliation certainly was, as they blew up the battle station that blew up the planet. Certainly the history books from a long time ago and far away would portray this as a sort of tit-for-tat revenge, even if blowing up the Death Star was the rebels' plan all along.
And history and how it's portrayed ends up playing a huge role in the next two films, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Luke angrily confronts the now dead but alive in spirit Obi Wan, telling him, 'you said Darth Vader killed my father'. His mostly-ex-mentor tries to worm his way out of the above statement by saying that the dark side of Anakin Skywalker overcame and destroyed his good side, meaning that it was true, 'from a certain point of view'. 'A certain point of view?' Luke Skywalker asks incredulously.
In the black and white world of Star Wars, Luke being pissed off is pretty legitimate. He was taken for a ride by his mentor, not knowing the truth about his family tree throughout much of his training, only finding out that (not at all a spoiler alert) Darth Vader is his father in the worst way possible (his friends were tortured, he gets his ass beaten, and is then told the truth, followed by 'join the dark side or die' threat).
In our own more complicated world, however, where realpolitik is practically the only politic, fudging an essential truth to get someone to do you a massive favour is considered having excellent bargaining skills. If someone attacks you it's terrorism, and if you drop a bomb on someone else it's let freedom ring.
If your worldview is that America is either the greatest nation on earth or a damn fine nation on earth that occasionally makes mistakes, then 9/11 was a bizarre mix of the dangers of bureaucratic inefficiency and the proof of the danger of trusting the wrong people. The disaster, then, in the Star Wars timeline, is what happened around the end of the Prequel Trilogy. Just as America's security and intelligence services dropped the ball that day (and if you wanted to add to the finger pointing, a president who didn't take notice of the 'bin laden determined to act US' memos), and the nation got double-crossed by a man they really shouldn't have trusted (bin Laden worked with the CIA in the 1980s in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan), in Revenge of the Sith, the Galactic Senate of the fading Old Republic is hampered by petty infighting and an inability to keep many of the distant planets under its wing in line (and doesn't see the separatist groups make a play for power), and trusts a person they really shouldn't (a powerful and charismatic senator that ends up being a Sith lord that makes himself Emperor).
This means that in the years after 9/11 - just like the gap from Sith to Hope - America was trying to get its act together to once again become a shining beacon of light in the world for freedom and democracy. Now it can easily be argued that they did a terrible job at all this (going after the evil-doers half-assed, and then attacking an unrelated evil-doer), all while restricting the freedoms of its citizens (via the Patriot Act), but hey, big corrections take a lot of time.
The good-ish news is that, just as it took time for the rebellion to gain steam in Star Wars (A New Hope picks up eighteen years after the end of The Revenge of the Sith), the hope would be that eventually America will get its act together, blow up the Death Star, suffer some setbacks (that would be Empire), but then ultimately triumph and dance with the Ewoks on Endor (or whatever the equivalent is here. Models in Miami Beach?). Now how you want to insert certain actually events of the last eleven years is up to you. Is 'blowing up the death star' catching Hussein, killing bin Laden, or voting in Obama? Are 'some setbacks' Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, and voting in Obama? That there can be such divisiveness in today's political climate to what can be considered good and bad is a stark contrast to the good and bad in the myths we use to allay our fears and be entertained/comforted (in fact, it is probably the main reason we seek them: a nice break from the massive confusion of actual and far reaching problems).
Certainly it's a great tale of Luke Skywalker and friends/America, but that people have two wildly divergent ideas of what the United States' ultimate defeat of the Evil Empire will look like - one side seeing a free-market-Christian-values hybrid overturning Obamacare, the other seeing a tax hike for the wealthy and a curtailing of corporate power - it's likely that some people will never see the fight as ever really ending, even if the economy recovers (or maybe that's the only vague nebulous victory we can hope for: a lowering of the unemployment rate).
So that's the pro-America (and to a larger extent, pro-Western) perspective of Star Wars and 9/11. Now we can get a bit more creative.
If you want to get onto the 9/11 conspiracy train, then you're in luck. Conspiracies - like myths - take excitement and simplicity over well researched facts, embracing certain ones that support their ideas, and ignoring the many that don't. Just as a Star Wars film doesn't paint a detailed perspective of life in the Republic or Galactic Empire (focusing on obvious heroes and villains), a conspiracy film gives you a very narrow view of a very complicated situation.
But hey, that makes it easy to align these two tales up. If you believe that 9/11 was an inside job, then Bush/Cheney/PNAC/Bilderberg are the Siths and the military-industrial complex are the separatists that support them (including Count Dooku). This group of people have been conspiring to take over the galaxy (earth) by blaming terrible acts of violence (9/11) on the Jedi (ascetics in caves in the Middle East) and that the only way to make sure they're all dead and that freedom can reign is by giving all the power (the Patriot Act, permission to go to war, locking up any dissenters) to the Emperor and his robotic right hand man, Darth Vader (I'm not sure which one would be Bush and which would be Cheney. but put glasses on Tarkin and he looks a bit like Rumsfeld).
So if that - once again - is how the Prequel Trilogy ended, that means we're currently at the time where the Evil Empire rules all, and that a small group of rebels are trying to bring justice back to the galaxy (the beginning of the Original Trilogy). Now I'm not sure if the '9/11 truthers' consider themselves as these rebels by producing conspiracy films and protesting, or whether there's just a series of events they see as attempts to foil this Empire (perhaps Occupy Wall Street?), but I'm pretty sure they see Obama as a 'meet the new boss, same as the old boss' type leader. Maybe in the eyes of the conspiracy theorist, you actually have to blow up something to get the rebel ball rolling. Which hopefully they never do, as - and let's be clear here - life's not a movie, and if we look at how actual rebellions typically fare, most fail under a hail of bloodshed, and those that succeed have years of bloodshed to look forward to. Maybe that's why these movies have blasters and lightsabers that seem to cauterize wounds immediately so there's never any blood on screen. When you get right down to it, there's a hell of a lot of killing by both sides in the name of freedom.
Which in some ways is a decent segue into the final perspective of 9/11 and Star Wars. If you believe America (and the West) is the great satan, then it works pretty well, too. The Original Trilogy links up with your struggle quite handily. Al Qaeda makes for a easy rebel force. Bringing down the twin towers via ingenious and carefully manipulated holes in America's unsuspecting security apparatus is pretty much the plan for blowing up the Death Star at the end of A New Hope.
The Empire Strikes Back is full of your setbacks trying to defend yourself against a nation (or Empire) bent on destroying you. The defeat at Hoth can be the West coming to get you in Afghanistan, and Vader nearly breaking Luke into pieces can be the defeat of your head guy Osama.
Fortunately for you, The Return of the Jedi - where the rebels finally win, thanks in part to the Empire doing something as ridiculously stupid as rebuilding the same failed Death Star with similar security problems and defects - is a chapter that is still being written. America is not doing too well economically, its politics is corrupt and inefficient, its army is exhausted after fighting two wars with very little to show for it except a pair of barely stable, not-exactly-friendly nations that they are still pouring money into.
It's almost too good to be true. Your massive enemy that no one thought you could defeat is teetering on the brink. All you need is one more big strike and it will collapse, and then you can party on Endor all through the night. Although in your particular case, maybe the women would have to have a special, cordoned off area for them.
And therein lies the problem, of course. You're a small group of violent political extremists with religious beliefs sewn into everything you do. Now in the Star Wars universe, it's certainly glossed over that this is essentially what the rebels are. A disenfranchised group of militants fighting against a giant system that most people have eventually accepted (and the oft refrained good luck line, 'may the force be with you', can be considered 'amen' or 'allah akbar', although I'd chalk up the character name of 'Admiral Akbar' up to some innocuous wordplay). When you bring the Empire (America) down, suddenly you've got the galaxy (earth, or at least Afghanistan) expecting some sort of organization from you, and all you've done is live in caves and train for the next battle (and if we go back to American conspiracy theorists with a penchant for guns, not much different if you're part of fringe militias in the States).
What do you do when you're in charge? (whether were talking about the galaxy or America or Afghanistan) Pretty much consolidate power as quickly as possible via uneasy alliances and make concessions left and right that make some of your followers question your allegiance to the more purer tenants that got everyone involved in the first place. As the sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick noted, 'to fight the empire is to become infected by its madness'.
But perhaps this repetition of 'freedom here, freedom gone, freedom returns' is inevitable, both in the far reaches of space myths and on earth, which might not be so different when you take a closer look at each. After all, the entire Star Wars story got started in The Phantom Menace with a bunch of rich guys not wanting to pay their taxes.
Postscript: Only when typing the title in the beginning did I realize how awful a name 'Attack of the Clones' is for a movie. Wow, that's bad)
It wouldn’t be so bad if…
And it’s hard to finish that sentence.
Thank goodness for slow collapses. A much as we acclimatized ourselves to the rapid pace of the 21st century in terms of the transmission of information both valuable and useless, we probably couldn’t really handle anything more than our wi-fi changing on a dime.
There are so many problems with the global financial system that the effects of them on the average person are typically lost in monumental and sometimes meaningless-sounding statistics relating to debts and deficits of nations and financial institutions. Even hearing about rising prices for essential commodities like food, gas, heating, and other utilities can sound like it’s a problem that can be solved by a pencil pusher in some government office holding an eraser. The cause and effect from a farm on the other side of the planet to a grocery or energy bill can get unwieldy very quickly.
With the crisis so interdependent, it’s a tempting challenge to unify as many of the factors and agents as possible and attempt to make some sort of hazy conclusion as to what the steps forward might be.
And there are hazards in this, as making connections and categories is actually a form of reductionism, parsing the unlike from the like, drawing a line via dates, location, and even philosophical mindsets, for what to include and discount in the overall assessment.
A great number of books have been written about the financial crisis, and considering we don’t seem to be even remotely out of the woods yet, there will be a great many more to come that will probably shed great heaping amounts of hindsight onto this period that seems to be full of quite a bit of smoke and the constant threat of sparks that can easily catch fire in this upcoming angry, politically charged summer.
There’s that word.
Perhaps that could be the term to use in the opening sentence above that trailed off.
‘It wouldn’t be so bad if…politics…wasn’t the method that has to be used to solve this problem’.
A lamentation, then, for the inefficiency of government organizations in handling this crisis. And lest you think I support the two extreme alternatives – corporate involvement and anarchy – I say fie to both of them, the first for being even greedier and corrupt than government, and the latter more toothlessly idealistic and hopelessly archaic.
It’s aggravating that government can be the tool to solve these problems, but instead politics gets in the way.
Problem that requires years of sustained and carefully monitored regulation are in the hands of political departments that are held hostage to a democratic process which has become so toxically partisan that no one really knows when a program will start, stop, have its budget cut to shreds, or be absorbed by a larger department whose goals run counter to it.
It’s a unhappy paradox that we need a very large bureaucracy to fix the glaring problems with our very large bureaucracy (‘are you part of the problem or part of the solution? ‘It depends on what day it is’).
This summer is going to be an exhausting one. Take the economy that’s still in a ditch which seems to be filling with water, then combine it with the fallout from recent elections in France and Russia, and the lead up to elections in places like Greece, America, and Mexico.
Greece is voting and it’s made out to seem like the fate of the European economy is hanging in the balance. And that might not be too far off the mark. Regardless of whether the plan is austerity or stimulus, most of the people in and with power agree that letting Greece default on it’s many loans and dump the Euro as its currency is not an option.
A lot of people across the continent will suddenly lose a lot of money if Greece crawls back the drachma, unleashing a very ugly and dangerous domino effect, much like the financial crisis that plagued the US throughout 2008.
It just happens to be a country this time, not Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers.
And just like the consequences extend far beyond Greece’s borders, so too does the blame. Now certainly the Greeks deserve the brunt (especially those that had almost any sort of access to power, since as soon as you have that you pretty much loot the coffers as much as possible), but the world economy is so interdependent that quite a few people made a lot by exploiting the Greek economy. During the process to adopt the Euro as its currency, Goldman Sachs (in)famously doctored the country’s books to make it seem like its finances were much more robust and reliable than they actually were.
So yeah, when one gets right down to it, there was a pretty clear-cut bit of fraud (still a crime, in some places) on behalf of the country. Or the country’s government, if we are to be more specific. But is that the same thing? In a democracy the elected officials represent the people. The people are in charge and are responsible. But what if the people don’t know what their representatives are doing? Are citizens expected to look over their congressperson or MP’s shoulder the entire time? Are we back to having trust issues?
At least in Greece you can ask these questions. Putin won again in Russia and it’s gotten to the point where the victor is crushing talk of voter fraud with a half-assed public defense and a full-assed police offense. Sadly, mass arrests of protesters seem to be a marked improvement over the previous policy of actively assassinating democracy advocates and journalists who tried to expose the corruption and brutality of the regime.
So compared to this, China is getting close to becoming a utopia, where house arrest and bogus tax evasion charges are now common punishments against dissidents.
What is the responsibility of other nations when it’s clear that democracy is being stifled in some of the most influential and powerful nations on earth?
The answer is that it’s complicated, since China can control the media and jail critics because of their global manufacturing and purchasing power, and Russia can support Syria pretty much unequivocally while the rest of the world decries the country’s slaughtering of its own citizens because Europe still imports most of its oil and gas from Putin’s pocket.
Speaking of which, the current ‘heinous massacring of your own people’ is taking place in Syria (George Clooney getting arrested in a DC protest over Darfur barely made headlines in March), and there doesn’t seem to be much the rest of the world can do about it without making it worse. A peacekeeping force going into Syria is going to break the country into pieces. The risk of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan (albeit smaller) is too fresh in the rest of the world’s mind. That’s a recipe for dead soldiers, dead citizens, and further holes in defense budgets that are typically filled with cuts to domestic social programs, further crippling the economic recovery of the middle class (and therefore the respective nation).
It’s only mildly better further down the coast (and we’re not even going to bother with Israel and Palestine).
In Egypt the judiciary couldn’t wait for actual elections, and simply tossed the bums out. The Islamist bums, to be more specific. And this results in even more power being relegated to the generals and to the tattered remains of the Mubarak regime, members of which, the Mubarak-chosen judiciary said, could now run in the next round of elections.
Which is good news of sorts for the West (Mubarak had always been a pal), but the West doesn’t live in Egypt, and the citizens there shouldn’t be forced to have a leader that even appears to be slipped into the government by the previous regime.
The tragedy of Egypt is that the only organized opposition to Mubarak and the military was the Muslim Brotherhood. All the more secular and democracy-minded groups were subject to infighting, disagreements over policy, and the lack of a strong and effective leader to unite them under a single banner.
But is that in itself almost a good thing? Should we recognize real democracy in these small splinter groups with specific political goals? With the alternative apparently – if we look to America – party A versus party B with little to no overlap in between that causes utter gridlock instead of watered down but still crawling compromise, it’s best you take what you can get, even if it’s temporary coalitions that only last for three or votes before falling apart.
Suddenly the idea of a single party having a majority strikes terror in the hearts of everyone else in the country who didn’t support them. And that shouldn’t be the case if they were democratically elected, but said party is sensibly expected to govern in a democratic fashion.
Although in Canada – and regarding the notion above – Prime Minister Harper continues to take legislative strategy cues from George W. Bush’s administration and offers up the new budget in the House of Commons that is so sprawling it includes non-budget related legislation, such as intelligence gathering oversights. The budget also goes out of its way to not detail where the spending cuts will fall, angering those that rightfully expect greater transparency in such matters, such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer (!). In addition, the government is silencing and cutting funding to Environment Canada (not some political action committee, but the actual federal department responsible for researching and protecting the environment) because of non-partisan reports that point out just how damn dangerous the oil sands truly are. After all, considering that for a second risks disappointing the nation’s major customer and number one fan to the south.
Speaking of America…
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza explains the bad news facing the country no matter who wins in November:
“Reelected Presidents often enjoy a brief respite after their second campaign. The new Congress isn’t sworn in until January, and the interregnum is used to hire new members of the Administration and plot out a fifth-year agenda. But the aftermath of the 2012 election will be unlike any other transition in memory. Election Day is November 6th. Fifty-five days later, on New Year’s Eve, the size and the scope of the federal government are scheduled to be radically altered. Federal tax rates for every income group will shoot up to levels not seen since 2001. Payroll taxes for employees will jump by two percentage points. Unemployment benefits for some three million Americans will be cut off. The Pentagon will start the new year with a fifty-five-billion-dollar budget cut. The budget allocated to everything from the F.B.I. to the Park Service to meat inspections will be slashed by the same amount. Soon after, federal payments to doctors who treat patients using Medicare, the federal health program for the elderly, will be slashed by about a third.”
It’s all about the benjamins, but people don’t even know the half of it.
There’s your bank account and then there’s the money ‘you’ owe as a citizen, who has apparently spent trillions and trillions more than ‘you’ have.
That there is a mental gulf here – trillions of dollars you never see or have direct power over is very easy to remain in the abstract – is no surprise. In fact, because it’s spent by elected representatives who barely glance at binders full of zeroes, it’s that much easier to fold your arms in the direction of Washington and say, ‘you made this mess, you clean it up’.
But that doesn’t solve the problem. Taking the above approach is not much different than the obstinate members of congress who refuse to bend from their impossible positions (‘no tax increases ever!’ or ‘no military cuts ever!’) and so nothing actually gets done at all, making everything that much worse. It’s gotten to the point that no one will actually agree to kick the can down the road.
Will the elections in November finally break the stalemate? Well Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi pretty much nails the 2012 presidential election in one paragraph:
“In other words, Obama versus Bush [through McCain] actually felt like a clash of ideological opposites. But Obama and Romney feels like a contest between two calculating centrists, fighting for the right to serve as figurehead atop a bloated state apparatus that will operate according to the same demented imperial logic irrespective of who wins the White House. George Bush's reign highlighted the enormous power of the individual president to drive policy, which made the elections involving him compelling contests; Obama's first term has highlighted the timeless power of the intractable bureaucracy underneath the president, which is kind of a bummer, when you think about it.”
That the election is a referendum on Obama’s first term is not wrong, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good basis for how one should vote. If Romney’s platform appears to be no better, why would you vote for him?
Strangely enough, it can almost be explained via the notion that the appearance of solving a problem is in itself a success on some level. If most of what Obama tried to do stalled, it looks bad on many levels, including that he’s ineffective as a leader, who apparently can’t get enough politicians to support his policies.
And the same might happen to Romney, although he has the advantage that by holding centre-right policies (well, pretty darn ‘right’, actually) these would be more likely to pass in the house and senate because these legislative bodies also lean centre-right (well, pretty darn ‘right’, actually). Even if most of the country leans centre-left, and would be more likely to benefit from centre-left policies that Obama – not Romney – espouses.
But sadly, the importance of the appearance of success is unmistakable. It’s easier to spin a successful vote that benefits the corporations and the wealthy (‘it will help the economy, and therefore everyone in the country’) than one that fails to pass that would have helped millions of unemployed people (‘well, we tried…’).
What’s happened? Has the concentrated money and power of special interests and corporations simply outplayed and outlasted the diffused money and power of the many?
Fortunately, elections still matter. But it really is the fighting over scraps. Legislation that can benefit the greater public at the expense of the wealthy few is consistently shot down. Legislation that can improve energy and environmental policy (helping present and future generations) but eats into the profits of large energy companies is stifled.
The remaining (and shrinking) tax revenue that doesn’t immediately go to defense or social security is fought over by politicians and states tooth and nail. To pay for outrageous pensions for government employees, cities and counties have had to invest in the riskiest stocks and investments, only to find themselves penniless when these bets – not much different than a roulette wheel – go belly up.
So if you’re looking to cool off this summer, tough luck, the city pool’s closed.
This wouldn’t be so aggravating if it didn’t seem like, for a good chunk of time in the not too distant past, that all this worked much, much better than it is now.
But there are countless arguments as to how to get back to that time, and whether going back is even more painful and difficult that going forward with gritted teeth and no sense of direction.
It’s that Macbeth quote all over again:
“I am in blood , Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er.”
This can almost define politics for the early twenty first century.
No brand new beginnings, only a slight, barely perceptible tweaking of the old, regardless of whether it was successful or not.
Apparently familiarity is more valuable than innovation in the Western world, unless we’re talking about smart phones.
Good luck to everyone this summer. Wear sunscreen.
The complicated systems that run the world today are boring. That does not bode well for the great many of us.
When someone complains that some of the explanations of important scientific discoveries or convoluted legal jargon that shapes a state’s laws are boring or too complex, the reaction can be, ‘of course they’re boring. The path to understanding – and therefore controlling – powerful ideas is boring, doesn’t matter if it’s physics, contractual fine print, or economic theories. To master these extremely important disciplines that govern how the world operates today, you gotta get a cup of coffee, crack your neck and knuckles, open the textbook or PDF file and force yourself to fucking care about yawn-inducing facts and figures. If you can’t hack it, hey thanks for playing, here’s your parting gift: an okay career that at best stops around middle management. It’s a natural way of thinning the herd. Obviously it helps if you have a steely-eyed determination or an actual passion for such details, but those are barely shortcuts. It really is just a shit load of work that many people don’t want to or cannot do. It’s not totally fair – certainly human fallibility means many instances of ‘favours for favours’ and deserving friends helping out friends who are not so deserving – but it is meritocracy-based for the most part, which is a huge change from how most of civilization has worked in the past.’
The problem with this is that it still screws over a lot of people, especially when we rightly hold egalitarianism as a wondrous trait in postindustrial western society. And what exactly is ‘postindustrial western society’? And what’s its relation to everything else on the planet? Well, the answer is complicated. And kind of boring. Even the obvious stuff that come in platitudes and affects each one of us – corporations have an uncomfortably large say in how the economic factors of the earth are run – can receive little more than a ‘cool story, bro’ from the masses (whoever they are…).
Even more troubling is when certain circles try to gloss over the boring parts of complexity and just mash everything up into an interdependent conspiracy-filled flow chart. For too many people, you don’t have to know Milton Friedman’s theories on the free market. You just have to know that he advised these presidents, who belong to this think tank and invest in this company, which means 9/11 was planned by…
Believing that near-supermen run the world from skyscrapers, chateaus and secret meetings with powerful sounding names (the Bilderberg Group, the Council of Foreign Relations, the World Economic Forum) is much more exciting than finding out that these guys are all trying to boost up quarterly earnings in any way possible (whilst glossing over the mechanics behind risky financial instruments that mathematicians and physicists have number-massaged into existence), live in fear of a populist uprising, and get jealous when another CEO gets an award or limited edition lamborghini. Simpler on the brain, too. You don’t have to understand how the minute details of their agendas work. You just have to know they’re there and resent them.
It’s the easy route. So’s not giving a shit one way or another and taking a ‘just the vote the bums out’ approach to elections. The hard work – the constant vigilance that true democracy requires – is learning what the people ‘in charge’ have learned.
Which really gets in the way of living your actual life. Anything we all can’t do we have experts for. From the plumber that fixes your sink, to the accountant that does your taxes, to the congressional aide that writes the bill with a lobbyist leaning closely over his or her shoulder.
What’s frustrating is that while more information than ever before is available thanks to the internet, it doesn’t necessarily result in more people accessing, considering, and acting upon said pertinent information. And that’s an uncomfortable fact. When given the opportunity to access this knowledge – which is, despite the cliché, certainly power – many people don’t take it. It almost reinforces a hierarchical (elitist?) notion of human society. Those who will, do. Those who won’t, don’t.
Chomksy said that the proof that Americanw could retain highly detailed, technical knowledge can be seen in the obsession with sports statistics and strategies (sometimes the wildcat is more counter-intuitive than the two slit experiment). Not one to miss an opportunity, it wasn’t long before the news media covered political campaigns like sports events, where winning strategies and the perception of victory took precedent over already thin policy discussion. Oops. Not that we can quickly blame the media (that would be too…easy). When given the opportunity between a sensational news channel and a less-sensationalist news channel, most people take the former.
So we all have our limits. We accept that we can’t know everything, but then what should we know? What is our responsibility to our present and future society to understand and base important decisions upon? Elected officials typically focus on test scores of children as the barometer for the state’s level of intelligence and understanding, while thoughtlessly lauding the average citizen for knowing the hows and whats of the nation. This is dangerous (of course, an elected official calling his or her constituents a bunch of dolts is a danger to their re-election hopes). The people you want to make sure are the most knowledgeable are the ones casting the votes. The problem is that knowledge itself has become unwieldy, with niches blossoming into sub-niches. And even a bullet pointed list would reach into the thousands. And it’s complicated by the suggestion that what does it mean to really ‘know’? That you remember reading how something works? That you can recall it and explain it to someone else? Is this still a skill, when google and Wikipedia are in your back pocket? Our ability to access any sort of information instantaneously - through the wonders of technology, developed faithfully by science - is partly responsible for a dwindling attention span, but the dirty little secret might be that most of us are just not equipped to handle boatloads of desert dry facts and figures that quickly spirals off into its own lexicon.
In a complex world, understanding how important issues interact with each other is just as important as understanding how the issues function on their own. And while many of them are problems we’ve had to deal with for centuries, the world has changed so fast in becoming one massive interdependent community that solutions that could have worked a century ago are now hideously obsolete. Science has grown like, well, if you know anything about cosmic inflation, like cosmic inflation. About one hundred and fifty years ago, you could be a scientist, and dabble in all things that this discipline included, although of course you would have a focus (say, electricity). Now, atomic physicists and molecular physicists don't share the same department. Explanations in science for why things are the way they are has taken so many winding – yet sound – paths in recent decades hit as made it hard to encompass physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology into one cohesive, interlocking whole. The idea of any system is interesting to non-doctorate holder in the way the story about how Einstein discovered the theory of relativity is interesting (patent clerk surprises everyone). It better have a glossy, superficial narrative heavy on the human element of overcoming obstacles. Relativity – that is, the idea that existence is experienced uniquely by everyone – is built into the fabric of the universe. Time is relative, and matter is constantly in a non-rest state, vibrating between unlikely-but-infinite possibilities. We have the uncertainty principle, practically an oxymoronic phrase if there ever was one. And while people can understand this on the level of word meaning, and perhaps make a philosophical construct and ramifications, the mechanics behind many of these ideas – which is, in fact, quantum mechanics – are so convoluted that even proponents of such theories admit to being baffled at some of their own discoveries. Stephen Hawking was told that for every equation he added to A Brief History of Time, it would cut book sales in half. Consequently, he only included one, the one that everyone knows, but does not necessarily understand (e=mc2).
It doesn’t get any easier when the power of money is brought more forcefully into a system. Even when explaining derivatives and credit default swaps, newscasters found themselves retreating to analogies, which implicitly suggests that ideas are too complex for the average viewer. These are math equations that destroy economies and are meant to overwhelm people with supposed inarguable numbers logic. And in the end, these things were being used to prop up rotten human decisions. But it’s hard to apply a sense of focused outrage to these ideas of perilous leverage and bad accounting (much more went to the sizes of their undeserving bonuses, a much more obvious thing to understand). White collar crime is staring at numbers on a spreadsheet. Blue collar crime is the exciting opening to another episode of Law and Order or COPS.
Humans are naturally curious, but many of us are able to put a deadline on our curiosity, as other aspects of our lives get in the way, from eating, sleeping, working, socializing, and the travel of varying lengths between these activities. Concentration on ideas that become larger and more complicated cannot compete with short disposable blasts of ‘curiosity nuggets’ like gossip, sports, and whatever’s new on the internet. How to change the arcane rules of governance that favour the few – or simply reading a three hundred bill about to be voted on – is an episode that cannot necessarily be accomplished in one sitting and requires a great deal of planning and research before getting down to business.
Deferring to the experts seems to the sensible course of action, but it's also throwing one’s hands up at ever trying to understand entire disciplines and fields of knowledge. And of greater concern, it still leaves us vulnerable to the careful tweaking of the presentation of the information (not necessarily the information itself) by intervening parties that could use public support for their own ends. Which can lead to catastrophic problems of misinformation, certainly some of which is happening now (and has happened in different ways since civilization began). Believing one understands when they really don't is much more dangerous than not understanding at all. Or what if only a fraction of the population or of a specific group or movement understands the basics of an important, pressing issue? Does that give them more of a say in how to move forward? Are they still ultimately expected to bring their decisions to a wider non-expert vote? All of the Occupy Wall Street protesters knew that the top 1% have been getting richer, but not many of them could explain the dangers of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Modernization Act of 1999. Being under-informed in situations like that can harm the movement’s reputation and its own ability to make decisions.
These issues are long and winding, and even large-scale victories or achievements are only temporary, with future debates and discussions inevitably down the road. Democracy requires round-the-clock supervision. Meanwhile, sports games end. Highlight reels end. You’ll be done television in an hour. You can read gossip for five seconds, do something else, and then come back to another juicy tidbit, not having to remember anything that came before. It’s throwaway information in tiny fragments, which makes it easier on the most basic level to deal with.
Can you appeal to one's sense of duty? That there are things more important than ‘interesting’? Does mandating an hour of statewide education classes every day reek of proto-totalitarianism? You could try for duty, but it would have to be voluntary. One has to choose to be a well-educated citizen. The Catch-22 (of sorts) for democracy is that you are free to not protect it at all. The end result is that there can be an actual reversal of what ‘matters’. Part of the interest in sports and certain aspects of culture is that they do not matter in the same way politics, economics, and war matter. That football, music, and television are diversions from personal– work, family – and public realities. Oddly enough, many people claim the opposite: that it’s these cultural touchstones that affect and inspire them, and it’s politics and the economy which doesn’t matter (because they feel they can’t do anything about it). It can be considered a fleeing of responsibility or an acknowledgment of the entrenchment the larger system finds itself stuck in. And this dismissal can be done so quickly and effortlessly but still count as a political ‘opinion’, as if it could be a reasonable position for a person to take in a participatory democracy. We’re hardwired to do ‘easy’, and only begrudgingly accept ‘hard’. And those that can do ‘hard’ with more focus and finesse are the ones that have a better chance of succeeding in this world of complexity. Not that this ability means they’re going to be particularly moral or charitable when it comes to how they’ll wield their ‘power’, it just means they’ll have a better chance of wielding it in the first place. Don’t think that’s fair, or are afraid it might lead to huge problems? Better go get yourself a coffee and started reading up on Locke, Keynes, Zinn, and Fukuyama…
It’s Christmas time. The malls are packed, the traffic’s slow, and alcohol – that wonderful social lubricant – is making inevitable get togethers that much more bearable.
Oh, and most of the Western world believes that the half-god saviour to all humankind was born on December 25th, roughly around zero BC. Just thought we should be clear on that.
Despite no reprieve from the global financial crisis, the holiday season and the gift giving it inspires are alive and kicking. Out materialist, consumer culture can squeeze blood from any stone, as long as marketing has an enough of a lead-in time to convince us it’s actually a diamond.
Like all good free market structures (well, maybe good isn’t the right word), materialism cares not a whit for your social background or religious affiliation. While a noble progression in human civilization in one sense, it does demand the one thing that divides the world into the haves and have-nots: cash.
Yet while this constant drive for more is especially acute during the Christmas season – and should probably spur on a rather intense dialogue over its present and future merits – the debate that typically comes up this time of year is the place Baby Jesus has in this increasingly holy-less holiday in an increasingly holy-less world.
An x percentage of people who recognize that there is a decline in the adherence to Christian doctrine typically see this time of year as when this concern should be screamed most vociferously. After all, as they see it, it’s their holiday the rest of us are snatching from them and rebranding as feasting and presents, even if most of the people still claim to believe in a personal god.
But the drive to ‘Keep the Christ in Christmas’ is not the responsibility of the sellers and shoppers, but of the genuine religious folk who feel the celebration of their messiah is being usurped by the latest ‘[something] me Elmo’ and the iPad 2. Your chosen house of worship and living room should really be all you need when it comes to giving glory to god. If you’re going to make a public display of it in a democratic state, you’re suddenly putting it in the hands of the ever-swaying majority, whose tastes might not dovetail so easily with yours, and can change over time.
Christians tend to turn to history and tradition as the backbone for their arguments, but it rings rather hollow considering there’s no reason to believe at all that the events of Christ’s birth actually occurred in the month of December (which on Roman calendars, was the tenth month). The gospels don’t give any dates, it wasn’t adopted until the fourth century, and it didn’t get its name until the eleventh. It was a relatively minor celebratory event in the early days of the church, paling in comparison with Easter.
But pre-Christian celebrations around the end of December, ah, those were quite popular with those troublesome pagans (which most of the world was in the early centuries of the church). Even if they all didn’t have a concept such as December, they did have the sun, and something very special happens around the same time in yearly cycles. It is the Winter Solstice, and it’s nothing to scoff at. We’ve been looking to the heavens for so long for guidance, it was only a matter of time before people made some basic observations that the three to four days of which is now December 21st to December 24th was when the sun was at it’s lowest point all year. But then it begins to rise, and stay in the sky a bit more each day afterwards. For the Romans this was good news. That’s always been the silver lining of December 21st. Sure it’s the first day of winter, but it’s also the date that days begin to get longer.
The celebration was the return of the sun, and such meaning was not lost on the Christians trying to convert the many revelers of this day. Assimilate! Your return of this sun can now be the annual celebration of the entry of god’s son into the world. Synergy is not just for late twentieth century business philosophy.
Oh, and the fundamentalist pilgrims that landed in the American colonies initially banned the celebration of Christmas, going so far as to fine people that did.
But just ‘cause it’s been pinched from the pagans and you’ve turned a blind eye to historical contradictions to your argument doesn’t mean you can’t stress the religious importance that Christmas means to you, or to a society where a majority of the citizens claim to be Christian.
If you want the holiday to be a solemn acknowledgement of the Virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ in a stable manger in Bethlehem, so be it. Buy nothing, worship ardently, judge not yet ye be judged, and yours is the kingdom of heaven.
But why on earth would you expect Wal-Mart to approach this momentous event with the same level of humility and reverence? How could they? It goes against their own most basic and highly important values: Whatever the customer wants at rock bottom prices. And for millions of people there is no problem with this. They can live with believing in Jesus Christ and still max out their credit card in the electronics and toy sections. Should we be concerned that there doesn’t seem to be even a slight hint of cognitive dissonance in celebrating the entry of the godhead into our world while loading up on wrapping paper, bottles of Bailey’s and Best Buy gift certificates? The collision of the symbols of ultimate permanence and ultimate disposability are going to rub some people the wrong way, but if most can thoughtlessly do this balancing act, what is the harm? Does one dare imply that this makes god angry?
And if you have a Jesus fish on your car it makes sense that you’d be disappointed that someone might say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’, but what exactly does a Christmas Tree or egg nog have to do with the messiah?
If you believe that Christ is really the reason for this holiday, why load up on anything else? Why dilute this divine miracle and gift with too painfully human gifts? Maybe it makes sense that our poor aping of the actions of God and the wise men are typically measured in dollar-form, but if that disappoints you, by all means, do not take part and keep your soul and/or conscience clean.
And it’s the same thing with the issue of Christian symbols or terms on government property. People are getting upset that in some instances at City Hall a ‘Christmas’ Tree is a now a ‘Holiday’ Tree, but that’s one of the qualities of the modern democratic state: as Christmas has moved away from a Christian-only celebration, it’s adopted to incorporate a wider berth of citizens, which is the point of democracy itself: participation. And if you’re still upset, remember that you’re to love your god more than your country. The qualities of the earthly kingdom got nothing on the heavenly one. And if you follow Christ’s beatitudes, your possible ‘suffering’ because of all this government rebranding, is actually a fast pass to salvation.
There are two sides to Christmas. You can try to have 70% god/30% Santa, but you can’t kick up a fuss when many people just want those percentages flipped, or one dumped completely.
Christmas became secularized as the societies that celebrated it became secularized. We took the parts that were enjoyable to all – the food, the gift giving, the social gatherings, the music – and carefully marginalized the more dogmatic aspects of the religious celebrations (although angels and nativity scenes are still found on window ledges and in front yards). It’s not the only religious holiday this has happened to. Look at Easter, whose ‘mascot’ is not Christ suffering for our sins but a mystical rabbit that gives chocolate eggs to children. At least Santa Claus is based on the actions of a saint. He was Saint Nicholas until Coca-Cola got a hold of him in the early twentieth-century.
So in some ways this alleged ‘war on Christmas’ is really a ‘war against modernity’ (man, it’s pathetic the way we’ve abused the term ‘war’, belittling it by applying to the complaining about how people celebrate holidays). The changes to the foundations of society have occurred so swiftly in the last century that the only things that unify us as people are crass and superficial commercialism. The stable family unit, the stable accepted form of worship, the stable accepted hierarchy of people, all of this has fallen by the wayside, creating lumpy and confusing egalitarianism. And in many cases this is wonderful (the emancipation not only of minorities across the globe, but of women, homosexuals, and other cultural groups long-maligned), but it’s been hell trying to get everyone organized and on the same page once again to make big ideas and projects work. Even if the idyllic time when Christmas was celebrated properly by god-fearing Christians was not exactly real, certainly there is something disconcerting to be said when corporations are exploiting the holiday and its built in goodwill to sell everything under and behind the sun for a tidy profit. When you can buy nativity scenes that cost thousands of dollars, even an atheist should shake their head sadly (it’s almost something evangelical Christians and anti-globalization/corporate protesters have in common).
In other words, absolutely everyone has a right to be annoyed or disappointed at what Christmas has become, but only because it has become so many things to so many people. To use a tired and overused term, it’s become post-modernized. It’s a religious holiday, a cultural holiday, a religious holiday stolen by PC-thugs, a cultural holiday stolen by the corporations. And on the most functional level for the millions of people around the world who are involved in the retail and manufacturing industry, it’s practically their meal ticket for the year.
On top of that, never doubt the importance of practical positivity. Many North Americans and Europeans celebrate this last week of the year regardless of their religious leanings just to bolster their spirits before the two and half months of cold shitty weather comes in with full force.
It also happens to end the calendar year, so it’s a time of reflecting and celebrating of the year that’s past (also a ‘relatively’ new development. The year change – as going from December 31, 2011 to January 1, 2012 – used to take place in the spring), and looking forward to the upcoming new twelve months. It’s a period of transition and change, even if in the most basic sense it’s just a movement of a number in an arbitrary date in our counting of time.
As the numbers change, so do we, as do our customs, and just as people wish it was still 1659 or 1956 (and whatever traditions we might have had then), you can’t really go backwards. You can just go forward and adjust the best you can, with goods friends and family to help you along the way.
So to one and all, Merry Christmas, whatever the hell that means.
When is art completed?
The most popular and seemingly sensible answer is when the artist finally premieres it. And that once it’s out there in public its gestation period is over, it’s set it stone, it is what it is, end of story. The bits of the curious public make up their minds, and a star is born, killed, or tossed back into the heap of irrelevance.
But it’s not that simple.
As artists and writers emerged in the Renaissance as talented individuals, as auteurs (to use an anachronistic term) given almost complete freedom in their work, their benefactors and the public gave them plenty of rope, albeit begrudgingly. As Johnson notes in his tome, Art: A New History:
“Art history is often presented as though artists are in the grip of irresistible forces, spirits of the age, trends, periods, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, etc., and create their works under compulsion. Nothing could be further from reality. The truth is, art is all, or mostly, a matter of self-confidence, which comes from the acquisition of reliable skills, and a major artist always possesses it. It allows him to follow his daemon, to the degree he wishes, consistent as always of course with making a living, and a self-confident artist can usually do that.” (Johnson, pg.415)
‘Self confident’ could be both a great overstatement and understatement. An artist unsatisfied with his or her work after the fact could be the sign of a raging ego (‘it’s brilliant already, yes, but I’ve just had a flash of inspiration that can make it better’) or a nonexistent one (‘it’s not good enough, let me just fix it up over the next week or two, please’).
Yet even then there were grumblings over delays and the sudden request or demand for a wealthy buyer to return their purchase for ‘touch ups’. While Dutch artist Frans Hals would finish other painters’ portraits (or have them touch up his own), Giorgione would change his own compositions frequently (notably La Tempesta), and masters like Michelangelo and da Vinci left many commissioned works unfinished or abandoned due to constant toying. It was tolerated because of appreciation for the artist’s talent, but because this relationship existed in the typical economy of monies-in-exchange-for-goods-and-services, the customer was not simply a passive receiver. For his or her investment, it was expected that the artist would meet their requirements and deadlines. To burn your patrons – or even simply treat them badly – is a guaranteed way to find yourself ostracized from the community that your livelihood depends on.
On the other side of this perspective, some pieces are meant to be open ended, with audience reaction a key part of the feedback loop for the artist. This can range from simple commentary at one phase or another towards completion, or actually participating in the creation of the work by picking up a brush or assembling the pieces of the work a noel fashion. Cage’s 4’33 – with the noises of the theatre filling the void of the piano not being played – cannot exist without an audience. The Gates – installed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York’s Central Park in February 2005 – practically demanded that people encounter them in their daily affairs going through the massive park.
To further this, the argument can be made that the art or cultural work in question is never truly finished, as it actually exists as a relationship between the creator and witness. If the meaning of a work can evolve over time, as different generations can ascribe their own interpretations to it, why should the content itself remain static? This can be seen in some Dadaist philosophies (Hugo Ball: "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.”), or how New Order remixes its own music years after initial release.
In twentieth century popular culture, though, the relationship is typically unilateral, at least until the ratings, box office receipts, or sales reports come in. In the desire to keep the audience, an artist – with a certain amount of pressure from the financers – can find themselves pressured to tailor their works-in-progress to whatever is successful at the moment. After the success of Star Wars in 1977, it was ‘add space’. After Nirvana, it was ‘find shaggy loud guitar bands’. In the last decade, it has been ‘add vampires and/or zombies’.
It only gets more complicated when the art in question is popular in such a way that there several hierarchies of fandom to describe just how much the millions of people like, love, or are obsessed with it.
Such appreciation can make an artist rich, and free them from any constraints that producers, editors, or executives might impose upon them. The problem comes when one acknowledges that altering released popular art and culture is a rarity, and that when the artist or creator does decide to make changes, he or she risks the ire of the community that has embraced the original piece.
With this, we now move to George Lucas, and his incessant toying with his creation, the Star Wars Sextology (or would dual trilogy be more appropriate? The term ‘Original Trilogy’ is used by the fan community to describe the three films released between 1977 and 1983).
The entire saga is being released on Blu-Ray DVD (re-re-released?), and with it come big and small changes to the original three films that, now revealed, have upset the large fan community whose hearts and minds are fused to the initial versions.
Thing is, it’s been quite a ride since 1980 for Star Wars fans, who have had to get used to a lot of sudden changes. The second film – The Empire Strike Back – was labeled ‘Episode V’ in its iconic opening crawl, and the first film – released as ‘Star Wars’ in 1977 – was re-titled ‘A New Hope’ and christened ‘Episode IV’.
But these were superficial changes. It wasn’t until 1997, when the original trilogy was re-released in theatres (to introduce a new generation to Star Wars, and build up hype for the three prequels – Episodes I, II, and III – that would be coming out starting in 1999), that parts of these films were changed. Deleted scenes were added in, with computer-generated graphics. Backgrounds were made more detailed, also thanks to high-tech wizardry.
Lucas at this time was extolling the virtues of the power of digital computer images and video, that he could create alien worlds and battle sequences with greater ease, detail, and complexity with a hard drive rather than miniatures, models, and camera tricks.
And he was right. He could.
But should he?
As noted above, a lot of people like Star Wars (understatement). A lot of these people have proven their affinity with their wallets, with many spending hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands of dollars on merchandise, collectibles, and limited editions. Star Wars fan fiction – which is exactly what it sounds like – became such a big underground industry that Lucas authorized dozens of books written by others to expand the universe much further than the six official films (and the Clone Wars animated miniseries). It is no longer a cottage industry. It’s big business, but like all businesses, it can’t afford to ignore the concerns of its customers. The Star Wars fan community has invested plenty of time and money in their little big world, and whether Lucas likes to admit it or not, had some sort of seat at the table when it came to his tinkering with the past. And they could walk away at any time. Not unlike the wealthy Venetian merchant who got Caravaggio to paint his wife’s portrait and still had the right to bitch and complain if he thought the painter didn’t capture her eyes. It doesn’t mean Caravaggio had to go and change it, but the merchant might not use the guy to paint his kids or horse in the future.
So the question is also, who owns this particular form of mass art?
It’s certainly not public domain. All those little circled c’s and tiny tm’s are there for a reason. Millions may revel in the world of Star Wars, but it’s Lucas who has the law on his side. But that doesn’t he should avoid walking the boards lightly. While obviously unofficial ‘investors’ in Lucasfilm, changing the stuff of people’s nostalgia should be done with surgical like quality, and with a compassionate ear.
Or, if that’s not your thing, you could just tell everyone it’ll look better. Maybe now that the Ewoks’ eyes blink, you’ll bury those nagging doubts about a teddy bear army defeating several platoons of Stormtroopers.
In his defense, Lucas was by no means the first person of artistic stature of recent times to do this. In fact, early on, much more innocent changes were met with similarly harsh criticism.
In the 1980s Stanley Kubrick made slight alterations to the sound quality of Dr. Strangelove and was labeled as an obsessive, forever toying with his films and never satisfied. For Kubrick it fed into the public’s persona of him as an American expat recluse perfectionist. Requiring one hundred takes of Tom Cruise walking into a room for Eyes Wide Shut didn’t help his reputation, but that film felt the wrath of high-minded cinephiles when it was announced digital figures would be added to obscure sexually explicit images during the orgy scenes. Kubrick had just passed away, having handed in the final cut to Warner Bros., who announced that the director was okay with these new changes. A handful doubted this, but certainly not enough to protest to get the decision overturned. Maybe if there had been a line of HAL 9000 action figures a bigger deal would have been made.
By the time Stephen King was wrapping up his three decade old magnum opus – the seven part Dark Tower series – he was dissatisfied enough with the first novel – The Gunslinger – that he rewrote sections (humanizing the protagonist, altering characters, removing certain cultural references) and re-released it, claiming the original was the work of a ‘young, inexperienced writer’ and that the changes would make it more consistent to the overall story. Few fans grumbled, but the lack of having an original still available seemed to be a rather concerted effort to rewrite a history that was much beloved in the first place. The positive feedback from the first novel helped spur King to keep going. Why mess with success?
And if the work of Stephen King is a bit too ‘plebeian’ for your tastes (although I suppose that puts it right on par with Star Wars), let us not forget there are well over a dozen different editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce scholar Jack Dalton claims that the first edition is the most accurate, and yet still has two thousand textual errors. An ensuing ‘Han shoot first’ type-debate took centre stage in various literary publications between the various factions that believed the corrected text (published in 1984, sixty two years after the original) was Joyce’s original intention, and those that felt if Joyce wanted it to be different, he had nineteen years between the first publication and the time he scheduled his own Irish wake.
George Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg altered a re-mastered edition of E.T., digitally replacing the authorities’ guns with walkie-talkies (spoofed on South Park by showing what it would be like if the same change was made to Saving Private Ryan) and removing the childish insult, ‘penis breath’, but saw the light and atoned for his sins at a recent public appearance, saying it was like, “robbing the people of their memories of the movie”. To tumultuous applause, he announced he wasn’t going to make any further changes to any future editions to his films.
In terms of absorbing hostile receptions to changing beloved pieces of art and culture, Kubrick (in the case of Eyes Wide Shut) and Joyce have the bulletproof defense of being dead.
In the Spielberg and Lucas cases, the alterations comes on the heels of some sort of new edition of the work or a new type of hardware that will play the – in these cases – film. So some cynics can certainly argue that it can simply be a matter of marketing, where making these changes can help sell a product the fans already own, as it’s the ‘extra little something’ that they don’t yet have.
Even if they don’t really want it.
Because for Lucas it doesn’t seem to be part of a simple marketing campaign. He gets the brunt of the criticism for making changes to well-loved work because he seems unapologetic and determined to continue making them.
His defense is that he is making them better, but it feels like the only way this is true is purely in the visual sense. HD and Blu-Ray give the picture an incredible clarity and sharpness, which allows one to appreciate the rich visual details of these films, and it does a great job at merging the original and added digital special effects from the 1997 editions.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Adding CG to backgrounds is one thing, but replacing an original character – human or puppet – with a computer graphic is another matter entirely.
It’s not that it suddenly looks wrong, or even that it looks different. It’s that it looks unreal, because, in many ways, it is. Yoda is a fictional character, but the puppet used in Empire, Jedi, and The Phantom Menace is real, voiced and operated in part by Frank Oz. It is brought to life like any other character in the story and acts alongside Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamil. What we are looking at on screen he is looking at on set. There is physicality to the interaction between the two that disappears when there is an overreliance on computer-generated images. Why would you suddenly create a sense of disembodiment in the audience by replacing the puppet with pixels?
The excuse that these films can now look like you initially wanted them to appear (and with scenes you can finally film properly now that you have the technology) ring quite hollow. If you only grudgingly accepted the technical limits of special effects of the late seventies (even though in Lucas’ case by making Star Wars he practically reinvented the special effects industry), you seem to be tacitly admitting that it would have been better to wait and make the films decades down the road when computers could better serve your dreams. That you compromised initially, and the films were in some way a disappointment (which many, many people would digress).
But that’s my personal opinion, and Lucas can add or alter whatever he wants in his films. I don’t go in for the ‘these are treasures from my childhood and he is destroying them’ argument. So while it is frequently overblown, the only gripe I have with making changes is if it weakens the movie or art in question. And suddenly we enter the realm of subjectivity, tempered strongly by some very forceful opinions of people who liked the art ‘just the way it was’.
It’s just that if the scenes you add are redundant – Han arguing with a CG Jabba in Mos Eisley in A New Hope, the extended dance sequence in Jabba’s liar in Jedi – why are you bothering with it at all?
Even worse is when it breaks up narrative consistency, and while a sci-fi fantasy space opera isn’t a stickler for realism, that’s no excuse for ignoring established and accepted continuities. Lucas confusingly does this in newer editions of Return of the Jedi by having the youthful spirit of Anakin Skywalker stand alongside the wizened spirits of Obi Wan and Yoda at the end of the film. In the original it was a middle-aged man, the same who recently died in his son Luke’s arms on the Death Star, which reinforced the idea that when a Jedi died and became a spirit, he (or she) appear as they do at the time of their death (Obi Wan was progenitor of this trait). Instead he now appears as he did at the end of Revenge of the Sith (the third episode and sixth film), just before becoming ‘more man than machine’, with younger actor Hayden Christensen playing him. And while it can be argued as that was the time that Anakin Skywalker ‘died’ and became Darth Vader, it ignores the redemption of the man that occurs at the climax of Return of the Jedi. Was saving his son the act of a man becoming Anakin Skywalker once again, or was it Darth Vader just killing his boss?
Speaking of that bit…
If you are hitting the viewer over the head with a ‘noooo!’ at the climax of the original trilogy when Vader turns, you seem to be suggesting that it wasn’t good enough originally when it was done in silence. What changed? Was there really a sense of confusion of what was going on? Who is this for? Children? How dumb do you think they are?
It was easy to accept the CG changes made in the last fourteen years or so, but that’s because the special effects weren’t the main reason people loved Star Wars. Sure that was a real cool part of the film, but it was mainly a well-told action story with good acting, the occasional subtle moment making these broad character clichés seem human. The dawning look on Obi Wan’s face when he realizes ‘that’s no moon’, an obvious hand puppet dispensing brilliant Zen aphorisms, ‘I love you’ ‘I know’, and Vader’s silent decision to throw the emperor down an elevator shaft (an absolutely perfectly done example of cinematic subtly with immense and grandiose repercussions).
For a world of sci-fi, which requires a lot of expositional information for the audience that doesn’t live in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars did a great job at ‘show don’t tell’. I have no idea why Lucas is sabotaging one of his own trump cards.
After all, to use a great line from another famous trilogy, ‘when you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk’.
Johnson, Paul. Art: A New History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
Shock and horror comes in all sort of flavours, and they have to be properly tweaked, dulled, or shaped to be presentable to us in an artistic form. While the order of importance of the following traits can vary depending on one’s personal inclinations, it is generally agreed that the arts should entertain, educate, and illuminate (or at least attempt to, save for the canon of Michael Bay).
Dealing with horrible subjects – or subjects in a horrible way – can send these three qualities into a tizzy, depending on how the artist(s) approach the material.
Since art is a form of representation (that is, not real) liberties can be taken that cannot in real life (yes, yes this is all quite basic, but a lot of arguments against the acceptance of certain artistic works seem to forget this simple fact). People can be safely killed on stage, in front of a camera, or on paper. If the artistic work is based on fact in some way, representations of people can be safely killed.
As murder is the most egregious of crimes in human civilization, it has been the subject of art for a very long time. A tragedy – usually referred to when something horrible happens – was originally a term for a type of play where something horrible happens, typically to the protagonist. The Greek play Oedipus Rex loads up on terrible, shocking topics that are still frowned up today: murder, incest, eye gouging. It is an epic tale of pride, ignorance, lust, free will, and the abusive power of the state, with one of the most shocking and depressing endings in the history of narrative tradition.
And on the other end of the scale there’s Naked Gun, where a man explodes in an apartment hallway because our hero sticks a flowing firehouse down his throat. Later he appears to be sexually assaulting the Queen of England. The sequel begins with him accidentally beating up the First Lady.
So our appreciation for the depiction of death, sex, and folly has plenty of room to play around in. Here are takes on two extremes:
Schindler’s List: Abject Horror with Credits
Schindler’s List is an anomaly not only Spielberg’s canon, but essentially modern mainstream filmmaking in general.
During his interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio (not necessarily my favourite program, as the guest(s) is/are typically not the most interesting (Jennifer Lopez? The cast of Will & Grace?) but when they have a great director (who can share great stories about their craft) or comedians (‘cause they’re just, y’know, funny) I’ll actually watch), Spielberg noted that there were none of his cinematographic ‘toys’ involved in the film’s production, and Lipton opined that, ‘the Spielberg style was almost invisible in this film…this is a film where it just seems to be happening’.
Which kind of hits the nail right on the head, making it in some ways difficult to analyze as a work of art.
Coming out 48 years after the end of World War II and consequently the Holocaust, the memory of the event was – and still is – one of the vivid, shocking, and complicated in modern history (yes, the memory, as it could range from shocking first hand accounts to outright dismissal). We each bring our understanding of the genocide to the film, although, as Spielberg notes, most of our images were in the form of printed anecdotes, black and white photographs, or brief newsreel footage. Schindler’s List fills in these gaps by making these memories come to life. Chilling, inhuman snapshots now have a distinctive and authoritative before and after.
It is the most shocking docudrama in the world. Its scenes of life in the Krakow ghetto and Auschwitz are effective on a visceral level. Dialogue becomes sparse because none is required. We know what happens, and while that in many cases can lessen the surprise or effectiveness of the storytelling, because of what happens – not a pleasing, or even fair resolution – we can only continue to watch with shock and shame. The film’s true ‘end’, with actual holocaust survivors placing stones – a symbol of respect – on Schindler’s grave, drives the point home that we are to remember this event, that we should learn from it and do whatever power we have from prevent it from happening again. An extremely noble yet unfeasible goal, considering that since both the end of the second world war and the release of the film, genocides have sadly continued, taking the lives of millions of innocent people.
So what to make of the hopeful aspect of the film that gave it its name? Oskar Schindler saved the lives of six hundred Jewish people by having them work in his factory, and while not the most noble man in the world, can easily be cited as a beacon of light in a time when all around was horrifyingly dark. And to create a definitive hero, there needs to be a definitive villain, and so we are given Amon Goeth, a brutal Nazi soldier charged with running Auschwitz, although when your enemies are Nazis, you’ll never have a problem with presenting any and all as cold and depraved.
Which is fine for a film. Actually, perfect for a film where good and evil truly is as black and white as the print. But making it so simple is almost cheapening the magnitude and historical context of the event itself. Traditional storytelling narratives in Schindler’s List fall flat because what they are being injected into – the systematic slaughtering of ten million Jews and other people the Nazi’s deemed as ‘undesirable’ – is beyond traditional storytelling narrative, certainly in respect to what is expected by a film funded by a major American film company and one of the most successful directors of the previous two decades (another decision of note, then, is the speaking of English – catering the film to American audiences – rather than the accurate Polish and German, but Spielberg felt that including subtitles would distract viewers from the visuals).
Claude Lanzmann, director of the nine hour holocaust documentary, Shoah called it a ‘kitschy melodrama’, but of course that what these parts are going to feel like when contrasted with images of unspeakable cruelty and the killing of millions.
This is what the art is expected to do, sometimes more awkwardly than some would like. By importing a holocaust documentary into a film about hope and humanity within such a shocking event the art can be better absorbed by millions who may not have been prepared or willing to learn about such periods of history.
Is it a ‘dumbing down’ of the holocaust? Well it’s certainly not nine hours of authentic interviews with survivors. It features a trio of movie stars from the UK and Ireland. Spielberg claimed to have directed the film for a salary of $0, claiming it would otherwise feel like ‘blood money’, but certainly some people made plenty off its nearly three hundred million dollar profit.
Does this make it in inauthentic? A fraud? An insult to the memory of the holocaust itself? A missed opportunity? I would argue that it’s none of these things, that it is simply art and the people who are looking to find a perfect representation of the horrors of the holocaust are never going to find it and that they will have to satisfy themselves with such reflections and fragments that are slave to their own artistic form, such as Schindler’s List. Shoah is a historical document. Spielberg’s film is a tale within the same history that Lanzmann’s documentary explores. If the goal of art is to educate, entertain, and illuminate, then something must be said for the success of being able to reach as many people as possible, especially for such an important and tragic event like the holocaust. Lanzmann’s films may be more faithful – really by nature of it being a straight up documentary – but it’s better known by scholars than by the general public.
But that does not necessarily end the debate over the presentation of the film. Despite its historical ties and public familiarity, it remains a film that – due to its graphic nudity, violence, and disturbing images – is still debated for its level of appropriateness. When it was first shown unedited on network television in 1997, it was criticized by then Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn, who took aim at its violence, profanity, and nudity. Figuratively punched in the face by everyone who knew better than to attack this film, Coburn quickly backed away from his comments (the same debate came up when Saving Private Ryan was about to be aired, violence and profanity in tact). It’s also an unofficial but popular choice for high school history classes, as it can be both educational and inspiring at the same time. It exists in that liminal space where its topic means infinite exceptions that most films could never warrant when it comes to being allowed into the classroom (a teacher friend of mind laments that in a recent film version of Merchant of Venice, thanks to exposed breasts in the background of the scene where Shylock gives his famous soliloquy, she cannot show it in class).
Because the matter of ‘The Final Solution’ is so sobering and serious, it evades the typical criteria of what is offensive because the entire matter is offensive and despicable. It’s so horrible that it’s an insult to treat it with kid gloves. Spielberg didn’t pull any punches, but he did add a story, which was a step back from the abyss, which seemed to have perturbed certain critics, from Lanzmann to Terry Gilliam. But then how should the holocaust be studied? By no means should one consider Schindler’s List the final say on the event, but nor should one consider Lanzmann’s take – even if it considerably more accurate – as the ultimate perspective, either. Spielberg’s film – with its hints of soothing narrative familiarity – could be seen as a gateway instrument to a greater understanding to the holocaust and life in Nazi Germany as a whole.
So in its attempt to be both historical document and inspirational tale, the film seems almost schizophrenic, but mesmerizingly and stunningly so. Schindler’s List is a scattered film, but that is probably inevitable when trying to retell these parts of history that effortlessly combined bureaucratic-like efficiency and mass murder. Of course the theme of hope is laboured. But it’s important that it’s there.
And now we go to the other side of the issue. If the previous section looks at when seriousness succeeds, then part deals with when laughs fail.
Part of my background is Scottish, and my Dad was once given a book of Scottish jokes, which is where I learned a lot of Jewish jokes. See, a stereotype for Jewish people is that they love money, and a stereotype for Scottish people is that they are incredibly cheap, which is apparently close enough for jokes regarding the former to be only slightly tweaked to apply to the latter. Case in point:
Q: How does a Scotsman/Jew cure sea sickness?
A: Lean over the side of the boat with a penny in their mouth.
I didn’t say they were good jokes…
But such stereotypes by now are so ridiculous that the only people that take them seriously are racist/conspiratorial-morons. This of course does not mean they are not capable of offending (for obvious reasons, people can certainly react negatively when they find out how you can fit twenty thousand Jewish people in a Volkswagen Beetle). The trick for the art of comedy then, just as Spielberg attempted to educate and illuminate in Schindler’s List for the art of drama, is to properly align entertainment, education, and illumination, and not have it blow up in your face.
TV star and comedian Tracy Morgan recently apologized for an anti-gay rant he made in the middle of a standup comedy show in Nashville (http://www.avclub.com/articles/updated-tracy-morgan-under-fire-for-homophobic-ran,57385/). Already I’m complicating the issues by making it sound like he stepped out of his standup comedian persona and addressed the audience with a serious, from-the-heart complaint, which is not true, as the rant was certainly part of his comedic routine. If you read the text, anything remotely resembling a joke is pretty hard to find within that screed, but – and this isn’t defending Morgan for this material – his style of standup is such that divesting the words from the contextual delivery does a great disservice to the material and how it is presented. Morgan speaks in a rather silly, faux-idiot voice, so in some respects when talking about possibly offensive ideas the joke is meant to be on him, and that makes it funny. Of course, you have to be careful with possibly offensive ideas, otherwise it’ll sound like, well, what you read up there.
Context is everything and within the context is the form. In his own standup comedy specials, Louis CK has used gay and racial slurs, said he would consider fucking a dead child, and that it might be okay to rape Jews. Why is CK never called upon to apologize or faced with walkouts? Because the way he treats these ideas do not come off as inherently offensive or abhorrent, and the audience finds it okay to laugh. In the recent HBO documentary, Talking Funny, Jerry Seinfeld equates CK's ability to do this as, 'jumping over six laser beams'. Handled badly, offensive jokes come as a simply offensive. A month or two later, an Onion AV Club (the ‘serious’ culture section of the newspaper) article by Steve Hayden concerned what genuinely offends him (http://www.avclub.com/articles/what-is-morally-offlimits-in-pop-culture,57054/), and he cited a bit from a Larry the Cable Guy film – Witless Protection – where Larry interrogates an Arab, which was full of the most base and ridiculous stereotypes. Hayden found the scene appallingly written, denigrating towards two cultures, with no redeeming value (obscenity is typically defined as that last one). Now I'm positive that the producers of that film did not intend to be offensive with that scene, but because it was a poorly made film, it was handled badly, and came off simply as offensive. Tracy Morgan's comic persona tried to make a detestable idea – violently hating homosexuals – funny, and the laser beams got him. Should he have apologized for saying such things, which he quickly did at great length? Well it would sound pretty lousy if he just said that he was sorry his joke didn't work, even if that was the true problem.
And with a spat of criticisms coming upon the usage of the term gay and gay jokes – in addition to serious and important campaigns to make coming out easier and more acceptable (itgetsbetter.com) – it seems time to discuss what the future might mean for jokes of all sorts that take aim at a particular group or person.
To get started, here’s my favourite gay joke:
Two gay guys are in their apartment, and they’re bored out of their minds. The first says, “Hey, let’s play hide and seek. I’ll hide, and if you find me, I’ll give you a blowjob.” The second says, “that sounds great, but what if I can’t find you?” The first replies, “I’ll be behind the piano.”
Is this an offensive joke?
First off, what’s the funny kernel of truth here, if anything? That gay men like to have sex? Well, geez, I think we can be a lot more accurate by saying that there are many jokes were the basic ideas is that men – straight or gay – like to have sex (popular punch line: “You’ll only be able to use one of them at a time”).
Furthermore, it’s not focusing on one supposed characteristic of homosexuality. It focuses on the actual definition of homosexuality – sex between two men (or two women) – rather than any unfair and alienating stereotypes (based typically around effeminate traits for gay men, and masculine traits for lesbians).
And it’s slightly odd as this is the only group where such a blanket activity definition is possible (although there are certainly variations on the activity itself). There are no ‘Jewish’, ‘Black, ‘WASP’, or ‘French’ way of acting. There are unalienable facts that define those groups (skin colour, place or lineage of birth), but any activities attributed to them en masse are based on stereotypes.
Does this mean a gay joke about stereotypes of homosexuality - how they speak or having a love of showtunes - should be considered more offensive than one that’s are about oral sex?
It’s a weird question, certainly, and there is still the taboo of discussing sexual acts – whether straight or gay – that means it can always trigger a negative reaction in some people, sometimes no matter how deft the teller – whether professional comedian or co-worker – is. There are very few guides or rules for comedy – hell, breaking the rules is considered an excellent way at branching out and creating new forms – but if one goes basic enough, there are pearls of wisdom to gleaned.
You can only mock the less powerful if you also portray yourself in some sort of less powerful way. Not necessarily in the exact same way – meaning that only people of a particular culture can make jokes at that culture’s expense – but in a way that shows that you are by no means superior. Part of Louis CK’s success in making jokes about various races or groups is that he stresses how he himself is fat, pathetic, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and chronically dissatisfied with his existence (“my life is shit”).
Tracy Morgan’s standup persona is that of a man-child, saying the first thing that comes into his head with a just-farted-in-church grin plastered on his face. Watching him on a talk show, you might wonder if he was drunk or on drugs. Is that an excuse for being able to say whatever he wants onstage at a theatre since it’s a comedy show and not a pulpit or podium?
Well, yes and no. Earlier this year comedian Gilbert Gottfried got fired as the voice of the Aflac duck after he tweeted several jokes about the Japanese earthquake days after it occurred (the insurance company does big business in Japan). Once again, context is everything, and sometimes a smidgen of tact or self-depreciation can go along way in smoothing out such jarring wisecracks. It’s one of the unintended drawbacks to the internet. Now it’s possible to experience certain things – in this case, jokes – completely stripped off their original context (where they would typically be told in a comedy club where people are primed and ready for laughter, with a more open mind that when they read about the jokes the next morning at work).
Tracy Morgan tried to make fun of gay people in the same way he talks about Michael Jackson or superheroes and it didn’t work. But if there’s one thing – beyond talent and professionalism – that allows for such attempts at humour to occur with scathing condemnations, it’s the passage of time. At one point explaining what an Irishman’s idea of a seven course meal was – a six-pack of beer and a potato – could be considered offensive. Today a poster of the Hindenburg disaster with the caption ‘oh shit!’ can be viewed at with a chuckle. This doesn’t mean that is always okay to make fun of certain groups or every (including recent) plane or blimp crashes, but neither of those ‘jokes’ would be taken in the same way in the late thirties.
Now obviously certain things take longer to be accepted than others – although it should be noted that the Nazis and their policies were successfully lampooned as early as 1968, with The Producers – but history is always recontextualizing itself, and in the future even events like the holocaust will be remembered with a different level of solemn and brooding humanity that we currently offer it
This doesn’t mean though that when gay people are firmly embraced by civilized people across the globe as equals in every way you can successfully joke about stabbing your gay son without fear of retribution. The rules might be loosened over time, but they are not necessarily removed.
The handling of offensive or shocking ideas – whether for serious or silly purposes – need a careful steady hand, and sometimes even that won’t stem the tide of criticism. Both extremes – Spielberg and Louis CK on one hand, Witless Protection and Tracy Morgan on the other – need to exist for the line of what is accepted and isn’t to be assessed and investigated, with the merits of the art itself at the centre. The debate of how such ideas are handled – whether within the world of film criticism or the instant-reaction-plus-press-releases of the internet – are signs that not only while such a debate never end, but that it is a healthy facet of a functioning free society.
(editors note: Since the last update was a 22,000 word essay on the destabilization of contemporary political discourse, we’re lightening the mood with some lists concerning that supreme cultural distraction of the twentieth century: the feature film)
(this is the obligatory spoiler alert)
TEN AMAZING MOVIE SCENES (in chronological order)
-Two Grouchos and a broken mirror (Duck Soup)
By offering up an over-the-top plot (Groucho’s the president of a country! Chico and Harpo are spies!), the Marx brothers tie up and flog slapstick and satire, but in the infamous mirror scene, only the former is tackled. Trying to steal some war plans,
Harop dresses up as Groucho in a pajamas and cap, only to run into the real Groucho on the other side of a recently broken mirror. Sensing something awry, Groucho tests his ‘reflection’ with a series of absurd gags that Harpo matches to a t. In a movie filled with some of the most joyous diversions from its crazy plot, the mirror scene is rarely equaled for its timing and originality (and proof that Groucho didn’t need to open his mouth to be damn hilarious).
-Kane clapping alone (Citizen Kane)