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    Friday
    Jan012016

    On the Coast Starlight and American Monsters  

    When you want to destroy someone you always define them as unpeople – not really human – monkeys maybe, idiots maybe, machines maybe, but not people.

                                                                                                                                                            -Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind

    Our science and our technology have posed us a profound question. Will we learn to use these tools with wisdom and foresight before it's too late? Will we see our species safely through this difficult passage so that our children and grandchildren will continue the great journey of discovery still deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos? That same rocket and nuclear and computer technology that sends our ships past the farthest known planet can also be used to destroy our global civilization. Exactly the same technology can be used for good and for evil. It is as if there were a God who said to us, “I set before you two ways: You can use your technology to destroy yourselves or to carry you to the planets and the stars. It's up to you.”

                                                                                                                                                                    -Carl Sagan, Cosmos

    I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: the great initiative in this war is ours, the initiative to stop it must be ours… And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

                                                                                                                                                         -Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam

     

                    Though the Amtrak train from Oakland to Salinas comprises a small fraction of America’s railway network, there is an abundance of beautifully flowing scenery and inspiring curiosities to observe during this two-hour trip.  These things – natural and manmade – exemplify the beauty of this country, and are testaments to the remarkable diversity of its geography and people.  I often rail against the United States government, and rightly so, but sharing a train with a diverse array of citizens and visitors traversing the gorgeous inland landscape of the Central Coast is a experience which serves to reaffirm the fact that our nation has come a long way in the ongoing fight for the preservation and expansion of protected lands and seas, as well as in the defense and further attainment of liberty.  Although we still have far to go to ensure that our nation and species can prosper in a paradigm of justice, peace, and freedom, we should be proud and appreciative for having made it this far.  

     

               I believe that the overwhelming majority (at least ninety-nine percent) of people on Earth are good, but that there is a bad minority which is better organized and therefore running the show.  I believe that people desire to live in peace and freedom together, regardless of race, color, or creed (the eight million inhabitants of New York City are a testament to this).   I believe that the United States of America is the most beautiful country I have ever stepped foot in, and although it’s painful to reflect upon the fact that the roots of our nation were founded on slavery, genocide, and annexation, I am grateful to those people have fought with their lives to save the natural places and soul of this country.  But when I think of the treacherous, psychopathic, barbaric, despicable, and borderline-suicidal actions and ideologies held and exercised the corporate-sponsored government, military, and politicians who are carrying this nation forward, I am reminded of the difference between a nationalist and a patriot: a nationalist is one who supports their government and other predominant national institutions in any endeavor, however foolhardy or immoral; a patriot is one who speaks out against their government when it acts against the interests of its citizens, territory, and values, and can relate to patriots in other countries.  A nation can only be as good as those individuals that reside within it, and like all individuals, our nation is flawed and fallible, capable of taking steps of both angels and demons.   As Martin Luther King states in his sermon, Unfulfilled Dreams:

    There are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us. And we end up having to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, "I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do." We end up having to agree with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. Or sometimes we even have to end up crying out with Saint Augustine as he said in his Confessions, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet."  We end up crying out with the Apostle Paul, "The good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do." Or we end up having to say with Goethe that "there’s enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue."  There’s a tension at the heart of human nature.  And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it.

                    Since its inception in 1776, the United States has been embroiled in conflict for 93% of its existence.   We seem incapable of extricating ourselves from this vile habit and insane addiction to perpetuating war for the sake of money and resources.  The United States Congress recently allocated $573 billion to fund the Department of Defense (which, prior to 1949, was called the Department of War).  It’s important to remind yourself that aside from the fact that a significant portion of this money could be put to better use at home, these funds are being used to sustain the aggressive military force of an Empire that is inflicting death upon innocent people and ecosystems alike.  When you step back and look at the world from a global perspective – that billons of human beings are scuttling about like microbes on this relatively small planet floating through space, and that we’ve created these nation-states with invisible borders which separate us, and therefore each major nation, locked in a global standoff, pours vast amounts of energy and resources into sustaining their individual militaries, fueling wars, and maintaining a system of nuclear weapons aimed at each other and capable of obliterating life on Earth – then the insanity of the situation becomes more evident.  What are we doing attempting to annihilate each other like this?  What are we doing pushing buttons to launch missiles which blow up innocent people and devastate this sacred planet?   That almost every major power on Earth possesses nuclear arms and is prepared to destroy each other is absurd enough, but when you incorporate the fact that weapons manufacturing, warmongering, and bomb dropping comes not only at the expense of innocent human life, but at the expense of the ecosystems that all of humanity and most other plant and animals species in the natural world are dependent upon in order to survive, let alone thrive and prosper, it becomes imperative for the sake of our lives and future to identify the murderous monsters who are responsible for proactively sustaining this suicidal structure of inevitable self-destruction and remove them from power.    

     

                    It is both heartbreaking and mind-boggling to watch humanity barrel down this current spiral of terror, toward an unknown yet unpromising abyssal destination, perhaps not unlike those which we have visited in the past, but maybe now for the final time.  We have missed so many opportunities to turn away from this masochistic path and embark upon a brighter, more promising and sustainable one.  Yet we continue to make the wrong choices, and in this possibly fatal sojourn we are unfairly bringing down everything alive in the world.   99% of all creatures that have ever lived on Earth have gone extinct.  Our time will eventually come, yet we appear hellbent on accelerating the day of our demise.  The existence of life in the universe and on Earth is an inexplicable and incomprehensible miracle.  Endowed with the wisdom and comissioned with the honor to be stewards of the myriad marvelous creatures on this living planet – a planet that defies nearly impossible odds and is flowing with rivers, flourishing with forests, pumping with molten lava, coursing with seas, and is breathing like a lung and beating like a heart - we must cherish this world, learn from it, and defend it with our very lives if necessary, for without Earth we and everything we know are lost and doomed. 

    We use the word "monster" to describe an animal somehow different from us, somehow scary.  But who's the more monstrous the whales, who ask only to be left alone to sing their rich and plaintive songs, or the humans, who set out to hunt them and destroy them and have brought many whale species close to the edge of extinction?

                                                                                                                                                                                -Carl Sagan, Cosmos

    Sunday
    Nov222015

    The Bloodiest Century on Earth and the Fifth Miracle

                 Beyond M31 is another very similar galaxy – its spiral arms slowly turning once every quarter-billion years.  This is our own Milky Way, seen from the outside.  This is the home galaxy of the human species.  In the obscure backwaters of the Carina-Cygnus spiral arm, we humans have evolved to conscience and some measure of understanding.  Concentrated in its brilliant core and strewn along its spiral arms are four-hundred-billion suns.  It takes light a hundred-thousand years to travel from one end of the galaxy to the other.  Within this galaxy are stars and worlds and, it may be, an enormous diversity of living things and intelligent beings and space-faring civilizations… In the Milky Way galaxy, there may be many worlds on which matter has grown to consciousness.  I wonder: are they very different from us?  What do they look like?   What are their politics, technology, music, religion?  Or do they have patterns of culture we can’t begin to imagine.  Are they also a danger to themselves?

                                                                                                   -Carl Sagan, Cosmos, The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

             The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it; aliens.  And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that were are the eternal universe, each one of us.  Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads.  We’re going to commit suicide, collectively with courtesy of H-bombs.  And, alright, supposing we do, well that will be that and there will be life making experiments on other galaxies.  Maybe they’ll find a better game.

                                                                                                       -Alan Watts, An Independent System

    Shame on us, doomed from the start
    May God have mercy on our dirty little hearts
    Shame on us, for all we have done
    And all we ever were, just zeroes and ones.

                                                                                                      -Nine Inch Nails, Zero-Sum         

     

               As humanity prepares to enter 2016, the 21st century seems on track to top the 20th century as the most murderous century in history.  Granted, we still have a ways to go before exceeding the 160 millionth violent death mark achieved last century, but having learned little insofar far as averting war and genocide, there is every indication that in the next eighty-four years humans will succeed in making the 21st century the bloodiest on Earth.   The human species is the ultimate paradox, “capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares,” as Carl Sagan put it in Contact.  I can think of no other species that represents such a danger to itself and its environment; that is capable of simultaneously loving members of their own family while desiring to annihilate entire segments of other populations because of a difference in race, religion, or in order to seize the resources contained within the land they inhabit.   The violence, oppression, and destruction currently sweeping the globe is nothing new, for ours is history born of blood, manipulation (human and environmental), and intolerance – qualities which likely served to our advantage in our evolutionary rise to dominance.  Yet these qualities which have characterized and accompanied the rise of humans from a primitive state, in which violent defense mechanisms ensured the survival of the fittest, may in fact spell doom for ourselves in an age of thermonuclear weapons, when the world’s most powerful nations are locked in an ever-deepening death spiral which threatens the collective destruction of all the people they claim to represent.

    El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya, from Prado thin black margin.jpg
    Francisco de Goya, The Third of May

                As we descend into the familiar throes of political insanity, posturing, brinksmanship, war, and death, it is important to remember to be grateful for the life we have been granted, and for many of us, to be living at the pinnacle of history in terms of our ability to live healthy, stable, and safe lives complete with family, friends, art, and travel.  A fourfold miracle was required for us to arrive at this unlikely existential juncture.  The first involves the aggregation of the Earth in the eons that followed the Big Bang; that our planet was formed over billions of years and happened to fall within the “Goldilocks” orbital zone which is not too far or too close to the sun, but in such a realm that you can feel the warmth of the sun as it breaks through the clouds on a cold day. (In relation to the planetary body miracle, I am inclined to mention the creation and existence of the moon, without which it is doubtful that we would exist.)


    Francisco De Goya, The Dog

               The second miracle is the element of chance involved in the series of evolutionary steps leading up to the creation of the human species.  An unfathomable chain of evolutionary events was required for humans to emerge as the final product on our particular branch of the biological tree.  The vicissitudes of evolution, countless random variables – such as genetic mutations, the extinction of a predator, the disappearance of a virus, the eruption of a volcano, the flourishing of mycelium – are responsible for our existence.  One more microscopic cellular derivation, or one less macrocosmic asteroid strike, and the evolution of life on Earth may turned out wildly differently, as I suspect it has on other planets in the outer reaches of this extensive galaxy and endless universe.  Furthermore, we owe our existence to the successes of our direct progenitors: the handful of primitive men and women whom, hundreds of thousands of years ago, roamed the plains and hinterlands of this dark world, competing with sabretooth cats and giant hyenas for survival, wandering the Earth in disparate bands with torches beneath the glowing stars and carrying in their ancestral bosoms the seeds from which the entire human family would eventually blossom.

     

    El coloso.jpg
    Francisco de Goya, The Colossus

                The third miracle is that of chance on an individual level; that we as individuals actually came into being, having originated from a single cell in an act of procreation.  In the average ejaculatory load roughly two-hundred million spermatozoa are released.  That we were given the opportunity to participate in the egg fertilization race is unique enough, but that we won the race, apparently outcompeting millions of other swimmers, is truly miraculous (but obviously, someone had to win.)  In alternate reality scenarios, it is possible that our fathers may have felt inclined to masturbate prior to intercourse, thereby subjecting us and our squirmy brethren to die in a mass-drowning within the pipes of the municipal plumbing system, or that the timing of the attempt conceive was incompatible with the reproductive cycles of our mothers, in which case we would have suffered a similar fate, or if for some reason ejaculation was postponed indefinitely, the spermatozoa versions of you and I would have been left to wither away and die in seminiferous tubules while a more fortunate team of swimmers would have possibly been given the chance to compete in the sperm Olympics held at vaginal stadiums across the world. 



    Francisco de Goya, Fight with Cudgels

                The fourth miracle pertains both to the individual and era in which he or she lives.  Most of us are extraordinarily lucky to be who we are when we are.   The conditions established by the aforementioned miracles set the stage for our arrival to town, but to be fortunate enough to be born in at a time of great material abundance and wealth, and in a place of relative stability and safety, is truly remarkable.  100 billion people have already died throughout the course of human history, and the overwhelming majority were not as fortunate as we who live with the luxury of food, jobs, free time, freedom, functioning infrastructure, and shelter.  (That said, there are many drawbacks to modern man’s dependency on technological services and amenities, for he constantly expects them but is ignorant as to how they came to be and how to operate without them.)  Yet this miracle of time and place clearly does not apply to billions of people whom have lived in the modern era.   At least half of the world’s current population live in squalor, under oppressive governments, or in conditions of war which prevent them from fulfilling lives in which they can meet their full physical, intellectual, and spiritual potentials.  It is only right that we who are in positions to help them do so.  Lastly, the time and place miracle may be a godsend for many humans, but it has translated into an absolute travesty for the natural world.  We are living large at the expense of the biosphere; we are engaged in wars which may escalate into nuclear holocausts.  If humans destroy the very foundation upon which these miracles rest, and exterminate each other so as to prevent anyone else from experiencing these miracles, then the time and place miracle will be nullified, for the planet will have transformed into a living Hell.



    Francisco De Goya, Witches' Sabbath

                There exists what may be considered a fifth miracle, but because it has yet to materialize and is only a possibility, it cannot be officially be considered a miracle, for it has yet to manifest.  A concept originally devised by the Ionians in the 4th century B.C,  the fifth miracle relates to the fact that planet Earth appears to contain all the necessary resources and rare earth minerals required of intergalactic space travel.  It is a miracle that this planet has everything we need not only to flourish upon it, but, if we can last long enough, to potentially travel to other star systems.  The Earth could have easily been deprived of some critical element required for interstellar space cruises, or endured a shortage of a particular resource needed to fuel spaceship missions to other planets and potentially other stars, but it looks like we have everything we need right here on Earth, including a wealth of ingenuity, which is found in human beings. 


    Francisco de Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

                Due to our inability to get along with each other or our environment, I suspect humans won’t last long enough to witness the coming of the fifth miracle.  Indeed, neither did the Ionians.  They speculated that it is more likely that humans will either destroy themselves or be visited by spacefaring extraterrestrials before the fifth miracle is realized and we achieve intergalactic spacefaring status.   If aliens were to visit Earth, their reaction to the current state of human affairs in relation to our interactions with the natural world and own species would probably be a mixture of pity, horror, and disgust.  We should neither be surprised nor blame them if, after collecting a few animals to study and politicians to probe, they turn their spaceship around and fly elsewhere to seek out more promising forms of intelligent life.  Humans, on the other hand, would likely react to extraterrestrial contact in a manner similar to how the boys in Lord of the Flies reacted when the naval officer appeared on the beach and they, in a moment of clarity, realized the diabolical extent of their destructive and murderous behavior.  Perhaps then we would step back and see how foolishly we’ve behaved, how fortunate we are, how stupid it is for us to be risking everything as we destroy each other and the planet,  squandering our resources, and losing our chance to achieve the fifth miracle.  


    http://thegreatestwonder.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/earth2.jpg


    If the Earth Were Only a Few Feet in Diameter
    , Author Unknown

     

     

    Wednesday
    Oct142015

    A Carnival of Militarism and the Enucleation of San Francisco

                    A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

                                                                                                                                         Martin Luther King, Beyond Vietnam

              The annual Fleet Week event took place in San Francisco last weekend.  For this event six U.S Navy ships (a guided-missile destroyer, frigate, and cruiser, a Coast Guard Cutter, and two amphibious assault ships, whose collective costs exceeds $4 billion) were docked along the Embarcadero piers for civilians to climb aboard and tour the vessels which were constructed at tax-payer expense and presumably for their defense, while six Blue Angels fighter jets ($21 million apiece, unweaponized) tore through the skies above San Francisco.  Flying at over 650 miles per hour, the jets screamed over the city, setting off car alarms as they performed their synchronistic aerial acrobatics before soaring away over the Pacific Ocean only to curve back around toward the city and execute their maneuvers and stunts yet again.  (The planes fly in such close proximity to structures of the city that one is forced to imagine the disastrous scenario of a jet losing control and crashing through Financial District skyscrapers and bursting into flames and wreckage.)  The jets are a testament to the brilliance of human engineering and a demonstration of the incredible technological progress scientists have made in the in the fields of aviation, aeronautics, and rocketry since the Wright Brothers flew the first plane in Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903.

                Thousands of people came to San Francisco to watch the Blue Angels.  They were blown away by the amazing feats and superlative horsepower and speed exhibited by the jets wheeling overhead, but for tens of thousands of people in distant lands, the tremendous roar of U.S fighter jets means something totally different, something much less entertaining and auspicious, and much more terrifying.  We live in a country that is using its military aircraft and armed services not for defensive purposes, but aggressively in multiple theaters of war, bombing places we have no moral justification for bombing, places that most of our citizens are unable find on a map.   We are killing men who have never lifted a hand against us; sinfully, we are killing infants and children and mothers who should never had have died by the blast of a bomb or a missile strike launched by our fighter jets or naval ships (yet the horrible irony ((and quite possibly the plan from the very beginning of the War of Terror)) is that we have created true enemies throughout this ongoing war in which greed, arrogance, and lies have continually trumped diplomacy, negotiation, and compassion.  And so we have turned against each other as brothers and sisters in an accusatory realm of hatred, death, and suicide; the global commoners divided against each other ((even though we may have never met)) and willing to kill one another for actions the other supposedly has committed or ideologies they supposedly advocate or represent).  Currently, the immediate theaters of war that the United States is directly involved in include Iraq, Afghanistan (countries which we invaded and have occupied with ground troops), and Syria, where innocent men, women, and children residing in villages and townships are being killed by the same types of jets that we in America are so entertained by.  The scale and intensity of violence that the United States government and military have inflicted upon innocent people abroad is beyond anything that ISIS has ever dared to reach.  Since World War II, the CIA has been directly involved in overthrowing numerous democratically-elected foreign governments, and the United States has consistently offered military and financial support to authoritarian governments or regimes that have murdered their fellow citizens, often on mass scales (such as in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Iraq, Iran, the Congo, Ethiopia, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Turkmenistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc.).  We have blood on our hands.

              So what does it mean when crowds gather in San Francisco to genuflect beneath the rise of the Blue Angels while hospitals in Afghanistan have been attacked by U.S gunships?  What does it say about our culture (we are the third most populous nation on Earth) if it is ardently obsessed about Sunday Night Football on the same day that massive explosions rip through a peace rally in Ankara?  What does it say about America (our government, our media, ourselves) if we care more about football and airplane stunts than about the fact that the anniversary of the longest running war in U.S history has just passed without protest?  What does it say about a city that cares more about hosting a carnival of militarism than about helping out its own homeless residents who are going hungry on the streets?  A substantial amount of double-think, ignorance, and nationalism (a notion much different from that of patriotism, for patriots have the courage to speak up when their government is doing something wrong) is required for us to arrive at this mental space of obliviousness and apathy where a mature adult can enjoy the thrills of the Blue Angels without feeling that there is something horribly bizarre, twisted, and backwards about being entertained by fighter jets at home while very similar fighter jets, armed with the most expensive and technologically advanced weapons in history, are at that very moment thousands of miles away launching airstrikes against people in the towns and villages of some the poorest countries on Earth.
     

                Meanwhile, we have turned a blind eye to those in desperate need of clinical help here in our own backyard.  Enormous penthouse apartment complexes are springing up throughout the Mission Bay and South Beach neighborhoods of San Francisco, and living in the shadows of these urban gated-community skyscrapers are thousands of homeless people who have pitched their tents on sidewalks and sleep in the streets.  Many are drug addicts and alcoholics that are not offered proactive care from the city, which is the richest in the country.  San Francisco, like many other cities, is home to extremely wealthy families and young adults whom are isolating themselves from those unable to afford to live or emulate their dangerously internet-dependent and “fashionable” lifestyles.  The economy is largely based on tourism and consumerism, and in the social race to consume the poor are being left behind to dig through the remnants of consumption discarded and regurgitated by the rich.  And although they walk and beg on the very same streets as the rich, the poor have become invisible, yet it is not they who have gone blind.  Immersed in both an interface-induced state of narcissistic delirium and an instant-gratification wonderland of texts and likes, compounded by televised touchdowns and fighter jet shows, our society has become enucleated (a surgical term referring to the removal of an eye).  And it is due to this enucleation that we are being driven apart as individuals and communities, and that our military is allowed to get away with murder.  So think about that next time the Blue Angels come to town.   

    Wednesday
    Oct072015

    Econ. 101* – By Alan Watts

              In a lecture titled The Veil of Thoughts, Alan Watts examines how ideological and economic abstractions impact humanity and the natural world.  I’ve transcribed the first part of the lecture, in which Watts talks about money, the Great Depression, and the stupidity of American congressmen.  I’ve also transcribed what he says around the thirty-nine minute point of the lecture, where he talks about how letting go can sometimes be the best way forward, the responsibility of the individual in the self-preservation of our species (as an example he cites a funny conversation he once had with Margaret Mead, which is also referenced here), and being tolerant of the fact that we a fallible creatures.

    (*This blog entry was initially going to be a single entry that included three or four different Watts lectures in which he touches upon economic principles, but I’m going to break them up so as to make them more easily digestible.)

                       Now there is another myth that still gets around: it is a kind of over reliance on the bootstrap philosophy. There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of the slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself. And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.  They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been a slave on American soil. The people who say this never stop to realize that the nation made the black man’s color a stigma. But beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery two hundred and forty-four years…. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

                                                                                              -Martin Luther King,  Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution

     

    Alan Watts, The Veil of Thoughts

              The subject of this seminar is The Veil of Thoughts, and following out the theme that somebody once suggested by saying that thought is a means of concealing truth, despite that fact that it’s an extraordinarily useful faculty.   But in quite recent weeks we’ve have an astounding example of the way mankind can be bamboozled by thoughts.  There was a crisis about gold, and the confusion of money in any form whatsoever with wealth is one of the major problems from which civilization is suffering.  Because way back in our development, when we first began to use symbols to represent the event of the physical world, we found this such an ingenious device that we became completely fascinated with it, and in ever so many different dimensions of life, we are living in state of total confusion between symbol and reality.  And the real reason why in our world today where there is no technical reason whatsoever why there should be any poverty at all; the reason it still exists is people keep asking the question, “Where’s the money going to come from?”  Not realizing that money doesn’t come from anywhere and never did, except if you thought it was gold.  And then of course if to increase the supply of gold and use that to finance all the world’s commerce – prosperity would depend not upon finding new processes for growing food in vast quantities, or getting nutrition out of the ocean, or getting water from atomic energy – no, it depends on discovering a new gold mine, and you can see what a nonsensical state of affairs that is, because when gold is used for money it becomes, in fact, useless. Gold is very useful metal if filling teeth, making jewelry, and maybe covering the dome of the capitol in Washington.  But the moment it is locked up in vaults in the form of ingots it becomes completely useless.  It becomes a false security; something that people cling to like and idol, like a belief in some kind of “Big Daddy Oh God” with whiskers who lives above the clouds.  And all that kind of thing diverts our attention from reality, and we go through all sorts of weird rituals; and the symbol, in other words, gets in the way of practical life…

    http://uploads2.wikiart.org/images/alma-tadema-lawrence/spring-1894.jpg
    Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Spring.  Image from: http://www.wikiart.org/en/sir-lawrence-alma-tadema/spring-1894

              Do you remember the Great Depression?  When one day everybody was doing business and things were going along pretty well, and the next day there were breadlines.  It was like someone came to work and they said to him, “Sorry, chum, but you can’t build today.  No building can go on, we don’t have enough inches.”   He said, “What do mean we don’t have enough inches?  We’ve got wood haven’t we?  We’ve got metal, we’ve even got tape measures!”  He said, “Yeah, but you don’t’ understand the business world, we just haven’t got enough inches – just plain inches – we’ve used too much of them.”  And that’s exactly what happened when we had the depression, because money is something of the same order of reality as inches, grams, meters, pounds, or lines of latitude or longitude.  It is an abstraction.  It is a method of bookkeeping to obviate the cumbersome procedures of barter.  But our culture, our civilization is entirely hung up on the notion that money has an independent reality of its own.  And this is a very striking, concrete example of what I’m going to talk about.  Of the way we are bamboozled by our thoughts, which are symbols, and what we can do to become unbamboozled, because it’s a very serious state of affairs.  Most of our political squabbles are entirely the result of being bamboozled by thinking, and it is to be noted that as time goes on the matters about which we fight with each other are increasingly abstract.  The wars fought about abstract problems get worse and worse.  We are thinking about vast abstractions – ideologies called communism, capitalism, all these systems, and paying less and less attention to the world of physical reality, to the world of Earth and trees and waters and people, and so are, in the name of all sorts of abstractions, busy destroying our natural environment.  Wildlife for example is having a terrible problem continuing to exist alongside human beings.  Another example of this fantastic confusion is that not so long ago the Congress voted a law imposing stern penalties upon anyone who should presume to burn the American flag.  And they put this law through with a great amount of patriot oratory and the quoting of poems and so on about Old Glory, ignoring the fact entirely that these same Congressmen, by acts commission or omission, are burning up that for which the flag stands.  They are allowing the utter pollution of our waters, of our atmosphere, the devastation of our forests and the increasing power of the bulldozer to bring about a ghastly fulfillment of the biblical prophecy that every valley should be exalted, every mountain laid low and the rough places plain.  But you see, they don’t see, they don’t notice the difference between the flag and the country, or as Korzybski pointed out, “the difference between the map and the territory.”

     http://www.learnnc.org/lp/media/uploads/2009/11/800px-dust_bowl_-_dallas_south_dakota_1936.jpg
    Image from: http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-worldwar/5955

              There was a Russian philosopher who accused the communists in their various five-year plans and progressive notions wherein people were always preparing for tomorrow as converting all human beings in caryatids – now you know a caryatid is pillar shaped in the human which supports a roof – and he said, “You are turning all men into caryatids to support a stage upon which others will dance.”  But of course, you know they never will.  You have one row of caryatids supporting a floor, and very soon your children are the new row of caryatids supporting another floor, so that it get higher and higher, but we don’t really know where we began and we’re always in the same place.  Always hoping, always thinking that they next time will be it, and this of course is an eternal illusion.  It’s much better, actually, one would be much happier to think that the future is deteriorating.

              I can explain that very simply: human beings are largely engaged in wasting enormous amounts of psychic energy in attempting to do things that are quite impossible.  You know, as the proverb says, “You can’t lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.”   But recently, I’ve heard a lot of references in just general reading and listening where people say, “We’ve got to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”  And you can’t, and you can struggle and tug and pull til’ you’re blue in the face, and nothing happens except that you’ve exhausted yourself. 

              All sensible people therefore begin in life with two fundamental presuppositions: You are not going to improve the world, and you are not going to improve yourself.  You are just what you are, and once you have accepted that situation, you have an enormous amount of energy available to do things that can be done.  And everybody else looking at you from an external point of view will say, “My God, how much so-and-so has improved.”

    http://www.viejospuertos.com/web/imagenes/FA_267_112b.jpg
    Baldung Grien, Las Edades Y La Muerte.  Image from: http://www.viejospuertos.com/web/imagenes/FA_267_112b.jpg

               But I know, I mean, hundreds of my friends are at work on enterprises to improve themselves by one religion or another, one therapy or another, this system, that system, and I desperately trying to free people from this.  And I suppose that makes me a messiah of some kind.  But the thing is you can’t do it for one very simple reason which I think most of you are by now familiar with is that part of you which is supposed to improve you is the exactly the same as that part of you which needs to be improved.  In other words, there isn’t any real distinction between bad me and good I, between the higher-self, which is spiritual, and the lower-self, which is animal.  It’s all of a piece, you are this organism, this integrated, fascinating energy pattern.  And as Archimedes said, “Give me a fulcrum and I will move the Earth,” but there isn’t one.  It’s like, you know, betting on the future of the human race.  If I were really smart I would lay a bet that the human race will destroy itself because, in practical politics one realizes that nothing is going to work out right, no candidate I’ve ever vote for has ever won the election, but the trouble is there’s nowhere to place the bet.  And so I can’t place the bet anywhere, I’m involved in the world and must perforce try to see that it doesn’t blow itself to pieces.

    http://i.imgur.com/xTKfNDM.jpg
    Image from: http://i.imgur.com/xTKfNDM.jpg   (Right-click to view in full).

              I once had a terrible argument with Margaret Mead.  She was holding forth one evening on the absolute horror of the atomic bomb, and how everybody should immediately spring into action and abolish it, but she was getting so furious about it that I said to her: “You know, you scare me because I think you are the kind of person who will push the button in order to get rid of the other people who were going to push it first.”  And she told me that I had no love for my future generations, no responsibility for my children, that I was a phony swami who believed in retreating from facts.  But I maintained my position. Robert Oppenheimer, a little while before he died, said that, “It’s perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell.  The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so.”  Because you see, all the troubles going on in the world now are being supervised by people with very good intentions’ their attempts to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this, and prevent that possible horrendous damage.  And the more we try, you see, to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes.  And it gets worse, and maybe that’s the way it’s got to be.  Maybe I shouldn’t say anything at all about the folly of trying to put things to right but simply, on the principle of Blake, let the fool persist in his folly so that he will become wise.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/IvyMike2.jpg
    Image from: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/IvyMike2.jpg

    Thursday
    Oct012015

    Regarding the Pain of Others, Decontextualization in the Media, and the American Penchant for Apathy

    The radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge recently aired several interviews as part of their Regarding the Pain of Others broadcast.  The episode featured interviews the war photographer Susan Sontag (1933 – 2004), author of Regarding the Pain of Others, and Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, creator of “The Rwanda Project” and who traveled to Rwanda during the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide there.  Susan and Alfredo make numerous significant points, and transcribed below are some of the points that hit home for me.   (Sidenote:  if you’re interested in reading an excellent book on the Rwandan Genocide, as wells the roots of several other conflicts in Africa, I would highly recommend Bill Berkeley’s The Graves Are Not Yet Full.)


    Interview
    with Alfredo Jaar:

    Steve Paulson: What did you come away understanding?

    Alfredo Jaar:  I felt that human beings can do terrible things to each other.  This is something I knew of course from history but I had never experience this in such a vivid and personal way.  I went away feeling ashamed of being a human being. I went away want to commit suicide because I couldn’t believe that, as a human being living in the world today, I had allowed this to happen.  I felt guilty.

    Steve Paulson:  Because there were news reports that this was going on while it was going on, and in fact there were plenty of reports that something terrible was going to happen even before it did.

    Alfredo Jaar:   Absolutely, but unfortunately it was on one hand played down; second, most media did not use the word genocide so we would not intervene because, as you know, there’s a convention that forces countries to intervene if it is officially a genocide, so the State Department asked not to use that word and most media complied.  The way the media works today – everything is decontextualized.  You open a paper, you might find a couple of photographs about this horror, but next week you have the new model from Toyota, and the next page you are invited to take vacations in Hawaii at a great price by this airline, and then you move on.  So, everything is decontextualized, so an image of pain, of suffering, is drown in a sea of consumption in the media today.  So it’s very difficult to affect change through the media in the way it’s built now.

     


    Image from: The Graves Are Not Yet Full

    Interview with Susan Sontag:

    Susan Sontag:  There are two pivotal moments in the history of war photography.  One is the Spanish Civil War, where for the first time a war was covered by photojournalists, most famously Robert Kappa, who had cameras that were portable.  Before that photography was basically the camera on a tripod, so the photographer was not going into the thick of battle.  But once the portable Leica and film that could shoot thirty-six images before reloading was developed, you had the photographer going into battle and producing images which really set the standard for what war photography could be.  That was on the whole very partisan photography – the famous images from the Spanish Civil War are all from photojournalists who were on one side, namely the Republican side; they were against  the fascist rebellion lead by Franco which did in fact triumph.  And the Vietnam War, that was the second turning point where again, most all the photography was taken by partisan people who sympathized with the suffering of the Vietnamese and of the American soldiers – and they were not for the war.  And a lesson was learned from the Vietnam War by governments making war: that was that one must not let photojournalists have free reign.

    Steve Paulson:  And you don’t see that anymore.  I mean, in the first Persian Gulf War there are very few pictures of actual combat.

    Susan Sontag: Actually, the model for that was in an even earlier war.  A small war waged by Prime Minister Thatcher; and when the British expeditionary force was dispatched to Argentina to recapture some islands off of Argentina that the British owned, Thatcher essentially forbade journalistic coverage or controlled it so thoroughly that virtually no battle scenes or scenes of the carnage and the deaths were caused in that war [sic]…

    Susan Sontag:  It’s absolutely true that there is voyeuristic impulse in many people, in most people, and they will slow down to look at the car wreck and then say, “Wasn’t that terrible?”  We are attracted in some way to these images; the basis on which we’re attracted is rather complicated.  Maybe it’s that we want to experience that we are safe.  You see, if I can go back to the idea of the whole book, Regarding the Pain of Others, what does the title mean?  It means that we are safe, and we’re looking at something happening to other people, but we’re not there, we’re here.  We’re here looking at a magazine or a newspaper, we’re in front our television sets, we’re looking at images on our computer, and the terrible things are happening somewhere else.  So why do we do want to look at them?  First of all we think that we ought to look at them maybe, we have an obligation to look at them, to know what the world is really like, maybe we have a particular identification with the struggle or particular interest in it, maybe we’re testing ourselves to see if we really can look at terrible things, like a kind of ordeal.  But I think in all of these expereinces something is happening which I think is real and at the same time very questionable, that it’s there and its’ not here, and if you’re not looking at it, you’re not responsible.   

    Steve Paulson:  In a sense it removes us from the suffering, and I don’t want to overplay this, but we can perhaps feel a little more virtuious by going through the pain of looking at these, but also in the back of our minds we know that’s not us, we’re safe, we’re innocent.

    Susan Sontag:  One, it’s not happening to us, and two, we’re not doing it.  Now the second assertion may be a little questionable.  If you’re country has gone to war with another country, do you have a responsibility to oppose that war?  I think that the images tend to make us feel passive, but I don’t think, as I used to think, that they necessarily desensitize us.  I think they only desensitize us when we’re told, “This is a, age old conflict, there’s absolutely nothing to be done about it, it’s hopeless,” then I think you say, “Oh that again,” and you switch the channel.  But if you have been told that something can happen, something can be different; if you have another political context, I think these images can be very mobilizing and I don’t think you get used to them.

    Steve Paulson:  Well, also, I think we tend to feel these days that given the reach of the modern media, that we see everything, that we see all the horrors, but that’s actually not true, we don’t see the worst of it.  Going back to the September Eleventh attacks.  We saw repeatedly the planes smashing into the World Trade Center, we saw almost no images of the dead bodies, and clearly they were there, but people choose not to show those.

    Susan Sontag:   Yes there was a great deal of largely self-censorship, which of course is the most powerful form of censorship, of the images of World Trade Center and the Pentagon – there are virtually no images of the destruction of the Pentagon and of the people who were killed there – and there were a lot of photographs that were taken, this is well known, of very gruesome things at the World Trade Center.  And what was the reason that the people who control the media gave about this?  “This isn’t helpful,” or something you hear very often, “This isn’t good taste.”  Now I’m very suspicious when people talk about good taste as a reason for not showing something.  It’s felt to be unpatriotic, it’s felt to be demoralizing, there are all sorts of reasons…

    Steve Paulson:  Well, the other reason that’s often given is that it would be disrespectful to the families of the dead, that somehow it would be dishonoring the memory.

    Susan Sontag:  Yes, but that’s because Americans have the rather obscene habit of thinking that American lives are worth more than anybody else’s lives and American lives have an entirely different value than other people’s lives.  We don’t have a problem about showing a foreign dead, we have a problem showing American dead.* 

    http://projects.vassar.edu/1896/coldharbor.jpg
    African-American Civil War Soldiers Burying the Battlefield Dead, Library of Congress.


    *I disagree with her last point.  If U.S news media regularly showed the foreign civilians massacred abroad by tax-payer-funded weapons; if the American public had to contend with an onslaught of images of manifold dismembered bodies of women and children destroyed by the bombs and bullets we’ve manufactured and launched, then many of our nation’s problems would be solved.  The American people would demand an end to these wars, we’d bring the troops home, close foreign military bases, save hundreds of billions of dollars, and no longer would be washing our collective, figurative hands in blood.  But instead of doing the smart and moral thing, we’re wading neck-deep in ignorance and consumerism, and shall one day drown in it all wondering what we did to deserve this.