Sep 02

Lessons in confidence and individualism with Conor McMoneyweather

you are what everybody says you are

 

On August 26, 2017, an aged Floyd Mayweather beat MMA lightweight champion Conor McGregor via TKO in round 10 (in a boxing match, need I say). Both fighters have their fans, and both are unlikable shitbags: one is a serial batterer of women, the other a bully and a dick.

There was little to suggest the universe needed the two of them to box each other, but box they did, and it was interesting, in ways. The fight itself, only slightly. The reactions of people– fans, journalists, other boxers and MMA fighters, etc—more so. Finally, there are things to be learned from the event itself, the fight game and its’ practitioners, and our societies’ embrace of such spectacles. Bread and circuses, as they say.

From round 4 on, Mayweather came at Mcgregor like he had no respect at all for his power or ability. The MMA “community” by and large seemed to think Conor did their sport proud, but that’s just wishful thinking and a lack of understanding of the other sport. Even I could tell that after the first round Floyd wasn’t taking his opponent seriously, loading up on his punches and trying to make a point instead of boxing as he would an equal. Conor was embarrassed by a 40 year old, much diminished fighter, perhaps 20 pounds lighter on fight day, who didn’t even spar in preparation for the fight.

In the past, much was made of McGregor’s visualization of his goals or whatever it is he does, as in the book The Secret. This outing clearly showed that no amount of visualizing will make up a gulf as wide as that between Mcgregor’s and Mayweather’s respective boxing skills. Did anyone think that all you had to do to succeed was visualize desired outcomes? Conor did not sit on his living room couch for the duration of his training camp deep in meditation, visualizing—he trained his ass off. But the visualization addresses one aspect of the ingredients necessary to win: confidence.

Both Conor and Floyd are positively brimming with confidence. I think it’s fair to say Mcgregor has more consciously incorporated confidence into his arsenal as a fighter, though Floyd surely has an equal amount. Their confidence comes from different sources (aside from the confidence they both get from the evidence their past bouts provide of their sporting excellence). Conor believes in the power of visualizing desired outcomes. Floyd believes in the “0” on the right side of his win/loss record. This alone allows him to claim “The Best Ever” status, although most boxing insiders place him nowhere near the truly great boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson, Roberto Duran, or Muhammad Ali.

The concept of visualizing yourself succeeding, a la The Secret, is one way in which some have tried to take control of their confidence. The idea is to brainwash yourself into erasing all doubt from your mind. Having not read the book, I’m not sure whether the author emphasizes the point that this technique only works (to the extent that it works at all) in conjunction with rigorous training, or work, or effort towards the desired goal. I sort of doubt it, since doing so invites the question why one would need to practice self-hypnosis if one already did everything humanly possible to make one’s goals a reality.

This is a whole can of worms. The truth is, we are none of us anymore completely safe from self doubt because the society we live is in many ways a self-doubt inducing mechanism. Busting our confidence is what modern western society does best. I talk at length about why I think this to be the case elsewhere, but understanding how our society induces self-doubt is pretty straight-forward. Insecurity goes hand-in-hand with capitalism; confusion is the flip side of “democracy,” at least the kind we practice. In a capitalist society, one is never attractive, successful, or rich enough. In a democracy, one only has him or herself to blame for their miseries. Hypothetically, “the people” are the “highest power in the land,” a funny thing to think about while wasting one’s best years slaving at some job or stuck in traffic with all the other members of this awesomely powerful group.

Perhaps more importantly, capitalism operates by destroying human communities wherever they occur.

Closely-knit families and communities are the only true source of confidence.

I know, this is a shocking reversal of that tired truism: Believe in yourself! Pay no mind to what others think of you, you’ve only got to please yourself! These sayings are the western equivalent of the Soviet “All power to the workers!” and “Proletarians of all nations, unite!” You didn’t think the we have propaganda in the free world? Tsk tsk. More, by far, than the commies ever did– it’s just not as gaudy.

So, the idea that you are to be complete unto yourself is the opposite of how humans actually work. We call someone who takes their cues for what is appropriate behavior solely from themselves a sociopath or a nut; it is no secret that mental illness and sociopathy are on a steep rise in America of late. We get not only much of our confidence from our communities and kin, but our very identities and meaning in general. Without others, we have no frame of reference for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

Capitalism takes over these functions from our communities and kin once they have been broken up and destroyed. The difference is, our families and friends care about us and want to see us succeed, while capitalism is just trying to sell us things. Not to mention, being a part of a human community is fulfilling; being a part of a capitalist society is inherently demoralizing since your only role is that of consumer.

How does Floyd Mayweather know who he is? How does anybody know who he or she is?

I’m not Floyd’s biographer, so please forgive me if I get a detail or two wrong. I also don’t know what Floyd is like in private, save for the incidents that became widely known because they involved beating women and such things—and just to be clear, I am not saying that women-beating is somehow a cultural trait. But the person Floyd Mayweather is, as a whole, is a product of the specific cultural, geographic, socio-economic, etc. milieu that he was born and raised in. Floyd Mayweather wasn’t born into a family of Vietnamese immigrants. If he was, he might be a Vietnamese boxer with all attendant details that involves: for one, he probably wouldn’t sport the infamous “Money” persona everyone loves to hate, and he certainly wouldn’t be a worldwide celebrity. The persona Floyd possesses today is the product of specific cultural, etc. conditions. This much is obvious, but somehow no one ever squares this banal truth with the bullshit self-affirmation mantras we all so casually proffer.

Conversely, if Floyd was really, exclusively self-directed—if anyone was really self-directed—taking his cues for who to be, what to believe, how to behave, from no one but himself, he would not possess any culturally specific traits, the signifiers by which we recognize and understand one another. Such a thing is an impossibility—we have no other way to be, to understand ourselves, or to present ourselves to others, except through what we pick up from the people around us. We re-arrange the elements given to us to make them uniquely our own, but not all that much. When we’re done customizing our “unique” identities, they end up pretty much just like everyone else’s in our peer group. And that’s a good thing. Or, at least, it is an essential thing: it is how each one of us knows who to be, what to do, what to believe. It is also essential to the function of society as a whole.

We all tend to exaggerate the extent to which we are unique individuals, just as we tend to exaggerate the extent to which our successes are of our own making while our failures are the results of fate. These are not altogether separate tendencies—it seems to me a similar mechanism is at work in both. This self-delusion, too, is essential for individual and social well-being.

Camus describes this paradox best in the story of Sisyphus. For fighting the gods, Sisyphus’ punishment was to roll a huge boulder up a mountain side, only to see it roll back down again when he reached the top, over and over, forever. But Camus thinks that we must imagine that Sisyphus is happy in his meaningless, tedious task. By accepting responsibility for his fate, Sisyphus is as free as anyone living out their eternity in leisure and comfort. The act of taking responsibility for our own being allows each of us to live as though we have free will, when in fact we (mostly) do not.

For our present purposes, it doesn’t matter whether we actually have free will or not. Each of us is compelled to go through life as though we are in control, when in reality all but the most mundane choices are already made for us. Who we are, what culture we are born into, what our demeanor and external attributes are (and therefore, to a large extent, how we are going to be perceived by others), whether we are to spend our lives working or playing–the most important things are decided for us.

Existentialists believed that the universe is cold and uncaring, devoid of all meaning. This means that there is no logical reason good things should happen to good people and vice versa; it certainly also means no amount of visualizing is going to induce the ether to help you reach your goals.   In plain English, the universe doesn’t give a shit about you.

The world being indifferent, the highest virtue for existentialists is “authenticity,” which is taking responsibility for your fate even though we are to live out our short lives in an uncaring, meaningless world. But most of us don’t fight against the meaninglessness of the universe as Kierkegaard did. Some people go through an intense searching phase in adolescence, and most probably don’t even experience that.

I believe this is because most people don’t look for meaning in an abstract sense.  For the vast majority of us, the meaning of life is clear: it is to thrive as an individual living among his or her group. What greater challenges does one need? This is plenty hard enough, but at the same time, it is not unattainable. Finally, this is a kind of meaning that everyone naturally understands. The quest for success in the eyes of our peers is the most basic narrative there is.

So, the idea that we are all individuals and should look no further than ourselves for self-affirmation is quite contradictory to our basic instincts. We get it, this isn’t a new idea; but the relentlessness with which it is currently hammered into everyone’s head is. It is perhaps inevitable, for any number of reasons. It is in line with our normal tendency to imagine ourselves as more in control of our lives than we actually are. It is also essential to the functioning of modern capitalism, since lonely “individuals” are infinitely better workers and consumers than people who are focused on their communities.

But it’s impossible for us not to pay attention to what other people think—of us, of themselves, of everything, because that’s basically what being human is about. We are social animals first and foremost. Believing we are mostly self-guided is just as delusional as it is natural, though most people seem to have no problem doing so while continuing to check with everyone else for what is considered acceptable and what isn’t. Still, there’s a staggering number of lonely people today, and I’m pretty sure this heavy emphasis on self-affirmation is part of the reason why.

It’s no solution to suggest that we need to give up our belief that we are best off without others’ opinions. We need to believe we are in control, so we can face life as sentient creatures. And we need to actually be almost entirely the product of social consensus, because we are social to a fault and lose our human identities if cut off even briefly from our conspecifics—as the cases of “wild” children attest. But as Camus’ story suggests, we can still be happy with this arrangement. So long as the balance isn’t thrown too far off.

Jul 20

Women in Love with Rick and Morty

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Rick and Morty on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network

satyrs with woman

D.H. Lawrence is known today as some kind of a racy writer whose book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of an obscenity trial which opened the door to today’s multi-billion dollar a year porn industry. Lawrence inspires extremes of positive and negative emotions in his readers. He has been praised as a philosopher of modernism, a brilliant student of human psychology and character, and a great story teller. Others consider him a misogynist and proto-fascist. In fairness, his works provide ammunition to each of these views and then some: he pointedly refused to be pigeon-holed. But that doesn’t mean his ideas can’t be understood or are not coherent. Was he all the bad things people said he was? Lets consider that as we explore the amazing world of Women in Love.

The content of Lawrence’s work is a reflection of his time. He’s as good as any writer or thinker ever, meaning he had his finger on the pulse of his world. To use just a few examples, Women in Love rails against the reduction of men to machines as factories grow increasingly sophisticated; illustrates and dissects with amazing clarity the “generation gap” we are to hear so much about later; offers a fully developed theory of human mind, motivation, and desire before Western society was familiar with Freud. This all in a book written in 1916 and published in 1920. Reading Women in Love, I had the strange feeling that western society stopped making any progress towards understanding itself in the early 20th century.

Lawrence is hard to pin down because as soon as he commits to a position, he seems to renege on it in one way or another. In his fiction, he clearly enjoyed putting bits of his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters, knowing he can maintain deniability if need be. Even Birkin, the character in Women in Love most modeled on his own person, is held up to ridicule by his supposed friends at one point, and by the author himself at many others. Birkin is self-absorbed and suffers delusions of grandeur. The description of his and Ursula’s sexy time is insane and hilarious, so much it’s very hard to read it as anything but slapstick. What’s not clear is who is being lampooned.

Unconsciously, with her sensitive fingertips, she was tracing the back of his thighs, following some mysterious life-flow there. She had discovered something, something more than wonderful, more wonderful than life itself. It was the strange mystery of his life-motion, there, at the back of the thighs, down the flanks. It was a strange reality of his being, the very stuff of being, there in the straight downflow of the thighs. It was here she discovered him one of the sons of God such as were in the beginning of the world, not a man, something other, something more.

This was release at last. She had had lovers, she had known passion. But this was neither love nor passion. It was the daughters of men coming back to the sons of God, the strange inhuman sons of God who are in the beginning.

Her face was now one dazzle of released, golden light, as she looked up at him, and laid her hands full on his thighs, behind, as he stood before her. He looked down at her with a rich bright brow like a diadem above his eyes. She was beautiful as a new marvellous flower opened at his knees, a paradisal flower she was, beyond womanhood, such a flower of luminousness. Yet something was tight and unfree in him. He did not like this crouching, this radiance—not altogether.

It was all achieved, for her. She had found one of the sons of God from the Beginning, and he had found one of the first most luminous daughters of men.

She traced with her hands the line of his loins and thighs, at the back, and a living fire ran through her, from him, darkly. It was a dark flood of electric passion she released from him, drew into herself. She had established a rich new circuit, a new current of passional electric energy, between the two of them, released from the darkest poles of the body and established in perfect circuit. It was a dark fire of electricity that rushed from him to her, and flooded them both with rich peace, satisfaction.

‘My love,’ she cried, lifting her face to him, her eyes, her mouth open in transport.

‘My love,’ he answered, bending and kissing her, always kissing her.

She closed her hands over the full, rounded body of his loins, as he stooped over her, she seemed to touch the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him. She seemed to faint beneath, and he seemed to faint, stooping over her. It was a perfect passing away for both of them, and at the same time the most intolerable accession into being, the marvellous fullness of immediate gratification, overwhelming, out-flooding from the source of the deepest life-force, the darkest, deepest, strangest life-source of the human body, at the back and base of the loins…

…Soon they had run on again into the darkness. She did not ask where they were going, she did not care. She sat in a fullness and a pure potency that was like apathy, mindless and immobile. She was next to him, and hung in a pure rest, as a star is hung, balanced unthinkably. Still there remained a dark lambency of anticipation. She would touch him. With perfect fine finger-tips of reality she would touch the reality in him, the suave, pure, untranslatable reality of his loins of darkness. To touch, mindlessly in darkness to come in pure touching upon the living reality of him, his suave perfect loins and thighs of darkness, this was her sustaining anticipation.

This is the all too familiar “amateur” blowjob scene we’ve all seen, complete with the mandatory jiz-filled mouth, overwritten victorian spuritualist style.  I don’t know. Maybe he’s serious. There is the idea floated in Women in Love that sex and sensuousness, equated with “primitive” cultures, is a pathway to knowledge unavailable by any other means, a deeper, separate kind of knowledge. Seen in this light, trying to gussy up a fellatio scene with all manner of spiritual-philosophical mumbo jumbo may be serious, or at least deliberate. More likely, it’s half-serious, like everything else here. Lawrence jokes around so much elsewhere, and this “loins of darkness” business is so insane it’s hard to not laugh…

Lawrence was, if anything, his own man. It’s no wonder he rubbed so many the wrong way. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, which sickened literally everyone with previously unseen levels of carnage and misery for no reason anyone could understand, he was making light of Victorian sexual taboos, high philosophy, and anything anyone took too seriously. I can’t tell whether he was equally silly about art, but he clearly thought everything humanity has worked so hard to create was a ridiculous joke at best. Eventually, others would come to the same conclusion. The period between the world wars saw the rise of Dada and Surrealism, and eventually pure abstraction—movements that, while not at all equal in merit, are all joined together by a common renunciation of the project of humanism in favor of various types of decadence or nihilism, which are in the final analysis the same thing.

Lawrence was far ahead of almost everyone in seeing the dead end western society had come to, the impasse in the ideology and myths by which we live as well as the physical barriers preventing us from working together. Consider the inter-generational conflict between the young protagonists of Women in Love and their village-bred parents. Ursula’s incomprehension of what motivates her parents in the scene where Birkin comes to ask for her hand in marriage is among the most genuine, and genuinely bewildering narrative passages in literature. The incomprehension is, of course, mutual. Though written a century ago, it’s something as true today as then, and if it ceases to be true it will only be because the old world, the world of the village, may no longer exist at all.

‘No, I won’t,’ she cried. ‘I won’t hold my tongue and be bullied. What does it matter which day I get married—what does it MATTER! It doesn’t affect anybody but myself.’

Her father was tense and gathered together like a cat about to spring.

‘Doesn’t it?’ he cried, coming nearer to her. She shrank away.

‘No, how can it?’ she replied, shrinking but stubborn.

‘It doesn’t matter to ME then, what you do—what becomes of you?’ he cried, in a strange voice like a cry.

Ursula is a brat, and her father, while perfectly together, is destined to be left behind by history. This passage seems very significant to me because of how vividly and starkly Lawrence describes the two parties’ inability to understand what motivates each other. Elsewhere, he seems to suggest that individual freedom is the highest aim, but here it is impossible to picture such characters achieving any kind of self-realization: the younger generation is too confused and self-absorbed, and their parents are not individuated by definition—they belong to the old, communal world. Perhaps Lawrence meant to reserve individual freedom for the Übermensch. Perhaps he believed himself one. But on the evidence of Women in Love alone, it would seem Lawrence has no answers for the confusion: he understands where each side is coming from, but can’t see a resolution so long as the world of the village continues to be swallowed by the world of the urban, the mechanical, and the trendy. The only thing for certain is that the old world is on its way out, and the new world has its head up its ass so deep it is useless to anyone, including itself.

I don’t think Lawrence would have championed the individual as artist as the solution, or even as a solution, had he lived much longer into the 20th century. He was too smart, too open-eyed, and too honest with himself for that. The truth is, being an artist, in the modern sense, only works when one is tethered to the old world, and breaks down when everyone crosses the threshold into the brave new world of yuppie individualism. The reason why should be obvious: a world full of individualists is a recipe for disaster, it is the prisoner’s dilemma rendered in flesh. Such a world is uniquely unsatisfying. To the extent that it is possible at all, it is doomed to self-destruction, as our world currently is. But the main thing is that it is unsatisfying, no world fit for human beings or other life.

What, then, are we to make of it all? What’s the answer? D.H. Lawrence was already clear at the start of the last century that it’s not in amassing wealth and power, nor in living a life of austerity or suffering and renunciation. Elsewhere, he seemed to lean towards the answer being individualism, individualism and art, but I think a little more time would have revealed to him the trap that individualism is as well, at least when it is channeled through capitalism. What’s that leave?

Pretty much everything, so long as it’s down to earth. The lesson seems to be that our lives are about what they always were, which is friends and family, little pleasures, fucking, fighting, being male and being female, eating food and smoking DMT, feeling better than others, and feeling together with them. Whatever we make our lives about, from now until the end, however long that may take, will center around the way we relate to our loved ones and our environment. There is nothing else. Really, there never was anything else, even though the story of progress made this hard to see.

It seems fitting that, these days, the most prescient commentary on these hefty issues comes from group projects, TV shows and movies. We are out of the age of bigger than life geniuses. Shows like Community, Parks and Recreation, Walking Dead, the Office and many others are about the way meaning in life comes from the way our lives are intertwined and mutually interdependent. You won’t find a heroic protagonist in the lot, someone to emulate as a role model: every cast member is a faulty individual whose very identity is the product of their relationships with their group. As are all the rest of us. It’s done no one any favors to live through a century of heroic protagonists in fiction because we are only capable of individual heroism to the extent that we are grounded in a communal reality. When we forget that we are defined by our communities, when we neglect to maintain them, everything goes to shit because we are, in essence, going against our very natures.

It’s interesting to test D.H. Lawrence’s ideas through the animated show Rick and Morty. Rick is a super- genius scientist, which is close enough to artist to make comparisons fruitful (though naturally, it’s more appropriate that he be a scientist—what with the complex and worshipful relationship our society maintains with science and technology). What does the strategy of individualism and creativity achieve in the 21st century? The adventures of Rick and his grandson Morty seem to indicate it’s nothing to write home about.

rick and morty season 1 episode 9

Rick creates a little sentient robot that he lets loose on the dinner table. “What is my purpose?” the robot asks. Rick says “You pass butter.” The robot looks at his arms, slumps, and says, “Oh my god,” to which Rick replies, “Yeah, welcome to the club pal.”

The show is only at the start of season three, so there’s plenty of time for conclusions to change dramatically. But so far, the only thing Rick seems to truly value is hanging out with his grandkids. It doesn’t matter what they do—they seem to mostly watch and guffaw at inter-dimensional cable. But everything else is a distraction, at best. Even, or especially, the fact that there is a galactic government which considers Rick a terrorist, as well as a city of Ricks from different dimensions who also hold little favor for c-137 Rick, the “main” Rick whom the show has mostly followed since its beginning, aka “the Rickest Rick.” Science and art hold no promise of redemption here. But family, friends, and simple pleasures do.

I don’t know if this qualifies as anti-intellectualism. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of stupid smart-ness, seeing where it’s gotten us. But that doesn’t mean anti-intellectualism can offer any solutions either. Both suffer from a focus on the wrong thing, and both fall short of providing any respite from the mess we’ve dragged ourselves into. Now, everything points to the fact that there is no answer, no respite for us collectively seeing as we’ve uncorked forces we don’t understand and can’t control. But individually, we can still have a good time, and collectively, we can (and should) still do the right things, even if they be ineffectual.

Anyway, I’m sorry, it looks like this essay suffers from the same conceit as when I tried to write about other things I saw on the telly: the part about the popular things is obviously extremely thin. I had the thought that this Rick and Morty show is in some way a good update to D.H. Lawrence’s thought, but on closer inspection, I think the two have more in common aesthetically.  Philosophically, Rick and Morty is a pretty existentialist project, which is hardly very modern. Though this does lend further support to my feeling that our society stopped coming up with anything creative or new in the early 20th century—machines and fads notwithstanding.

I do really like this show. There’s nothing like it on television, but just barely: I think the combination that’s unique to it so far is the extreme cynicism towards modern society coupled with an unapologetic earnest affection towards family and friends, faulty as they may be. I think this is the direction all popular entertainment is heading, as indicated by a number of TV shows emphasizing the inter-relatedness of their characters’ lives, but for now the combination is still new. New to Americans, at least—it strikes me as interesting that this is probably the attitude embattled and oppressed people have maintained against (mostly) western hegemony for ages. Now Americans, too, are becoming third-world-ified disposable people. Better late than never—an overfed, over-stimulated populace is a terrible, useless thing, and this one looked like it was gonna masticate and eliminate the world for a minute, at least if you believe its own propagandists.

Enough wanking for now, huh? Just one question remains to be considered here.

What is D.H. Lawrence’s philosophical position, exactly? What is it that has proved to be so confusing/ inflammatory for his readers, and to lend itself to the various uncomplimentary labels he has been saddled with? Was Lawrence a misogynist? A budding fascist?

To be fair, there’s evidence for every one of those views. But none of them are true, and it is disingenuous or stupid to insist that to be the case. You can pull all kinds of statements from the oeuvre of a prolific writer, statements such as that below, from a 1908 letter to a friend.

If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.

This one is on Lawrence’s Wikipedia page. The “military band playing softly,” among other things, should tip you off that he is being facetious here. More characteristic of his true thoughts are passages like the following:

“Now we see the trend of our civilization, in terms of human feeling and human relation. It is, and there is no denying it, towards a greater and greater abstraction from the physical, towards a further and further physical separateness between men and women, and between individual and individual… It only remains for some men and women, individuals, to try to get back their bodies and preserve the flow of warmth, affection and physical unison.” Phoenix II: Uncollected Writings, Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (New York) 1970

d h lawrence was a hippyIt has to be remembered that D.H. Lawrence and his friends were essentially hippies.  And not even the first.  Eveything good and bad about the hippy hippies of the 60s, the proto-yuppies we’ve come to know so well, can be said about Lawrence’s friends too.  They dabbled in identity politics and worked hard to undermine what they perceived as the conformity surrounding them, not realizing they were digging their own graves.

I won’t comment on whether Lawrence was a misogynist here because it’s a can of worms.  For his time and place, he was surely a progressive guy!  Women received the right to vote in the U.K. in 1918 if they were over 30, and only in 1928 on the same terms as men–at age 21.  In the final analysis, D.H Lawrence was a smart, creative, and funny guy who took some joy out of fucking with people’s expectations of him. He was also a faulty human being, just like the rest of us. He despised the rich, but he also despised the poor. He seemed to equate capitalism with democracy and view them both as dehumanizing forces, somewhat presciently if we consider the Freudian (specifically Erich Fromm’s) thoughts on the effect of freedom on the average person. But he had at least as much derision for socialism. Here is a passage from Women in Love on the subject:

The two couples went asunder, Ursula clinging to Birkin’s arm. When they had gone some distance, she glanced back and saw the young man going beside the full, easy young woman. His trousers sank over his heels, he moved with a sort of slinking evasion, more crushed with odd self-consciousness now he had the slim old arm-chair to carry, his arm over the back, the four fine, square tapering legs swaying perilously near the granite setts of the pavement. And yet he was somewhere indomitable and separate, like a quick, vital rat. He had a queer, subterranean beauty, repulsive too.

‘How strange they are!’ said Ursula.

‘Children of men,’ he said. ‘They remind me of Jesus: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”‘

‘But they aren’t the meek,’ said Ursula.

‘Yes, I don’t know why, but they are,’ he replied.

They waited for the tramcar. Ursula sat on top and looked out on the town. The dusk was just dimming the hollows of crowded houses.

‘And are they going to inherit the earth?’ she said.

‘Yes—they.’

‘Then what are we going to do?’ she asked. ‘We’re not like them—are we? We’re not the meek?’

‘No. We’ve got to live in the chinks they leave us.’

‘How horrible!’ cried Ursula. ‘I don’t want to live in chinks.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘They are the children of men, they like market-places and street-corners best. That leaves plenty of chinks.’

‘All the world,’ she said.

‘Ah no—but some room.’

The tramcar mounted slowly up the hill, where the ugly winter-grey masses of houses looked like a vision of hell that is cold and angular. They sat and looked. Away in the distance was an angry redness of sunset. It was all cold, somehow small, crowded, and like the end of the world.

Pretty hilarious. Lawrence seems to have nothing but derision for the working classes, even though he was himself brought up in a working class home. Even the sight of a working-class neighborhood evokes nothing so much as the end of the world.  But this isn’t fascism at all, it’s kind of a softer, more humane version of Nietzsche, insofar as the greatest sin Lawrence and many other artists of the time could imagine was conformity. And I get it: I imagine at the turn of the 20th century, anyone with an ounce of integrity could see that either the society mankind created was a terrible sham, or human life was not the sacred thing our society maintained it was, or both.

Lawrence, an observant and intelligent man, could see that society was not treating man or the planet fairly, or even in line with its own ideology. This conflict is the subject of his writing, as it was the subject of the works of almost every worthwhile artist and writer from that period. But when it comes to offering explanations and solutions, things were a lot less clear. The best that D.H. Lawrence could do was the idea that mankind was turning into robots, and needed to (re)connect with their primitive, submerged, passionate selves, their Dionysian side. This is obviously no solution at all, but then again none of his contemporaries had any better ideas either. Imagine, for example, Gregor Samsa connecting with his Dionysian side! Answers were hard to come by, in part because virtually no one was prepared to suggest that our society as a whole is built on a terrible foundation and needs to be torn down and re-built. Few are calling for such measures today, even as we prepare to collectively stumble down the most tragic chapter of our terrible history to date, but it was almost unthinkable in Kafka’s and Lawrence’s time.

Birkin looked at the land, at the evening, and was thinking: ‘Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is this beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost. After all, what is mankind but just one expression of the incomprehensible. And if mankind passes away, it will only mean that this particular expression is completed and done. That which is expressed, and that which is to be expressed, cannot be diminished. There it is, in the shining evening. Let mankind pass away—time it did. The creative utterances will not cease, they will only be there. Humanity doesn’t embody the utterance of the incomprehensible any more. Humanity is a dead letter. There will be a new embodiment, in a new way. Let humanity disappear as quick as possible.’

And a few chapters later:

“But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no ABSOLUTE loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit, the intolerable burden of myriad simulacra of people, an infinite weight of mortal lies…’

‘…I would die like a shot, to know that the earth would really be cleaned of all the people. It is the most beautiful and freeing thought. Then there would NEVER be another foul humanity created, for a universal defilement.’

‘No,’ said Ursula, ‘there would be nothing.’

‘What! Nothing? Just because humanity was wiped out? You flatter yourself. There’d be everything.’

‘But how, if there were no people?’

‘Do you think that creation depends on MAN! It merely doesn’t. There are the trees and the grass and birds. I much prefer to think of the lark rising up in the morning upon a human-less world. Man is a mistake, he must go. There is the grass, and hares and adders, and the unseen hosts, actual angels that go about freely when a dirty humanity doesn’t interrupt them—and good pure-tissued demons: very nice.’

It pleased Ursula, what he said, pleased her very much, as a phantasy. Of course it was only a pleasant fancy. She herself knew too well the actuality of humanity, its hideous actuality. She knew it could not disappear so cleanly and conveniently. It had a long way to go yet, a long and hideous way. Her subtle, feminine, demoniacal soul knew it well.

‘If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri. If only he were gone again, think what lovely things would come out of the liberated days;—things straight out of the fire.’

‘But man will never be gone,’ she said, with insidious, diabolical knowledge of the horrors of persistence. ‘The world will go with him.”

Mar 09

The opposite of freedom is wellbeing

etching of adam, eve, and serpent by dmitry myaskovsky“Freedom is being you without anyone’s permission.” Anonymous

“Freedom lies in being bold.” Robert Frost

“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” Thomas Jefferson

“Doing what you like is freedom. Liking what you do is happiness.” Frank Tyger

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom assumes responsibility and most people are afraid of that responsibility.” Sigmund Freud

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Janis Joplin

and of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” George Orwell

Throughout most of my life, I never thought twice about what freedom means. It seems self-evident: the more the better. In high school, I donned colorful shirts and stopped cutting my hair because I thought that the hippies of the 1960s were free while almost everyone I knew was not. Freedom from oppression and coercion is always at the front of our consciousness because being coerced is a terrible experience. It’s impossible to miss or ignore.

The concept of freedom as a negotiable quality is slightly harder to pin down. As in, everyone has freedom and therefore we all have to curb our individual freedoms when they come in contact with those of another. Related to this is the idea of the social contract, a controversial theory from the 18th century which says that everyone agreed to exchange some of their individual freedom for protection and the rule of law administered by a government.

But the experience at ground level is very different from that posited in theories. When I chaffed under the coercion of my parents and school rules as a kid, freedom seemed a simple thing: I wanted it and didn’t have it. I was denied freedom by parents, teachers, principals, society. Now that I’m an adult, I don’t feel significantly more free, but who’s coercing me? I’m not talking about the coercion of laws and economics, social constraints placed on all of us in supposedly equal measure. Even though I’m well aware that some in our society are much more equal than others, to use Orwell’s phrase, I’m not particularly upset by my lot in society in relation to everyone else. I can work with what I’ve got. As a citizen of the United States of America in 2017, I’m not very oppressed or coerced, at least compared to most other people. But I feel limited nevertheless.

All I want from life is extremely modest. I want to have a good family to love and be loved by. I want good friends and neighbors, a group of decent people to belong to and to share my remaining years on Earth with. I want to be able to practice the craft which is important to me and which I’ve spent my entire life getting good at, although I am more than willing to accommodate the tastes and interests of my fellow humans in the exact manner in which I practice this craft, or even to switch crafts altogether if need be. Finally, I want to be able to continue learning and bettering myself, so that I can be the best person I can be to myself, the people around me, my society, and the planet on which I live.

Ok, you got me—I don’t know how to segue into what I’m trying to say… It’s possible for a person’s completely modest, boring goals to be impossible to realize through no fault of their own, or of their fellow humans, or even of their elected and non-elected leaders. What’s preventing us from living our lives in a halfway decent manner is something much harder to point to than any of these, more nebulous and harder to grasp.  We can start figuring out whats going on by addressing our misunderstanding of the idea of freedom.

During the later Middle Ages in Europe society was going through changes which would have great influence on the way we think of freedom. A growing acceptance of trade and commerce combined with new technologies was undermining the rigid social order, which had remained largely the same since the fall of the Roman Empire. The difference was that now people could buy their way into a higher social position. Before this, whatever station you were born into was the one you died with, no amount of desire or effort on your part making any difference.

Social mobility in practice meant that you were responsible for your own success or failure. When everyone’s lot in life was a foregone conclusion, no one could blame a carpenter for failing to make it rich and send his kids to a private school—no amount of dedication or genius could change that. While it’s distasteful to modern sensibility, this arrangement had an important plus side: if no one can rise to the top or fall to the gutter and god is the only one who controls men’s stations in life, no one need be anxious about failing to strike it rich. All evidence points to the fact that people were relatively content with their lots under a feudal system compared to what came after. I’m not saying they had nothing to complain about, as wars, famines, diseases, and who knows what else were certainly a feature of early medieval life. But it is a historical fact that peasant uprisings, lunatic asylums, the black death, and decades-long, genocidal wars began in earnest for Europeans at the same time as they underwent the shift to early capitalism.

Many factors which played a role in the transition from feudalism to modern society can be identified, but it’s hard to ascribe a causal relationship to any of them. These included growing urbanism, continued enclosure of the commons traditionally reserved for shared use by the peasants, increasing accumulation of capital by merchants vying for power with the nobility. For our purposes, the important thing is that starting in the late medieval period people were more and more likely to view themselves as responsible for their own lives, whereas before this everyone was secure in the role they played in their community and needed only to do their best.

Ironically, the events of the 1960s accelerated this trend toward personal responsibility. Hippies insisted that no one need to follow anyone else’s path, that everyone could be their own person. Not only was everyone now responsible for their own success or failure, but one’s very identity was up for negotiation. It’s easy to see the effects of this pressure on teenagers, at the moment in their lives when they don’t know who they ought to be yet and are desperately trying to figure it out. The question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult things. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society’s obsession with individualism makes it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

Imagine being told that you could be president of the United States, that anyone could, when you can’t even pay attention in class, don’t know anyone whose parents aren’t in jail or on drugs or whatever? That kid is going to grow up with a sense that he’s a failure so deep he’s not even going to know it’s there. He’s just going to go from one experience which confirms what a fuck up he is to another, from juvy to jail to some shitty job flipping burgers. If he was born in a feudal-like environment instead, let’s say, 1980’s Guatemala, he would go through life expecting to pick produce alongside his parents, siblings, eventually children, and as long as the Army didn’t come in to steal the land his village reclaimed from the jungle over the course of seven hard lean years, he would be relatively content.

In contemporary American understanding, everyone is always competing with everyone else, and being poor is not ok, is your own damn fault. This is a really good way to get everyone to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. We’re just not made for this kind of constant stress and judgment, and increasingly, we don’t have adequate support networks to help each other deal with the psychological and physical burden imposed by the rat race, or simply to blow off steam.

A familiar way to think of this might be the juxtaposition of individual freedoms and the common good. Everyone probably remembers this concept from government class. Different societies can be placed on this scale relative to each other. In doing so, we would find that many eastern societies like China are closer to the common good end of the scale compared to present-day America, which is closer to the individual freedoms side. Modern globalized capitalism is, as a whole, incompatible with the common good side of the scale. It is a force pushing everyone toward the individual freedoms side. But, it is entirely possible that humans as currently constituted are incapable of living meaningful, fulfilled lives without a strong common-good ethos to guide them and keep them grounded. This doesn’t mean that everyone living in less individualistic societies is happy, obviously there are many ways to make life hard for people. But in general, we aren’t made to be “free” on our own: true freedom is being a part of a thriving community.

It can be said that freedom is inversely correlated with sanity insofar as it is only possible to succumb to the pressure of expectations (the main cause of many psychological disorders) when you live in a society in which you possess the freedom to succeed or fail. Conversely, in a society in which everyone is tied to their station in life and understands themselves as a member of their group rather than as a free-willed individual, issues of belonging, identity, and success or failure simply can’t arise.

Essentially, an increase in freedom implies a decrease in well being. I say this because medieval peasants didn’t miss the extra freedom we’ve gained over the centuries, but we free citizens of the free world clearly and profoundly miss the security and sense of belonging which the medieval peasants enjoyed. Modern capitalism relies on this fact to keep us buying shit we don’t need day in and day out. They’re quite clear on the mechanics of using our need to love and belong to sell us things.

Here is theologian Jacques Ellul on the trade-off between freedom and well-being

…man himself is exalted, and paradoxical though it may seem to be, this means the crushing of man. Man’s enslavement is the reverse side of the glory, value, and importance that are ascribed to him. The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more one will see men alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured, in it. Humanism prepares the ground for the anti-human. We do not say that this is an intellectual paradox. All one need do is read history. Men have never been so oppressed as in societies which set man at the pinnacle of values and exalt his greatness or make him the measure of things. For in such societies freedom is detached from its purpose, which is, we affirm, the glory of God.

There is an interesting theory by Julian Jaynes called bicameralism which essentially says that meta-consciousness (awareness of awareness or thought about thought) was a relatively recent development in human history, as recent as the ancient civilizations of the Near East in the millennia preceding the Common Era. I find this very intriguing. I associate meta-consciousness with the strong sense of self that characterizes late capitalist societies. Meta-consciousness, strong sense of self, may be both the evolutionary hurdle which, once crossed, spurred mankind to amazing technological achievements, and a barrier to being happy. It’s possible that we simply can’t have both advanced civilization like we have today and relatively happy people.

On the other hand, I don’t think that civilization per se is incompatible with high levels of meta-cognition. It may be that most people do not have a highly developed sense of self in any case, so that we’re talking about relatively low levels of highly individualistic people in any scenario. Also, I can’t for the life of me see the reason a low density, low technology (limited if any fossil fuel use), mostly small scale agrarian society can’t exist and even support billions of people. This is obviously an uphill battle at best, but it seems more grounded in reality than the utopias conceived by libertarians, communists, or anarchists. Although it’s possible this would be an anarchist utopia, out of necessity. In any case, such an agrarian society would not necessarily mean a complete absence of meta-consciousness or strong sense of self, perhaps just the opposite.

Almost everyone would be a farmer and agriculture would be extremely intensive. Lots and lots of technology would still exist to help us farm and live good lives, it would just be a tiny fraction of current amounts, in both total number and variety, because there would be no way to create or power it using any energy source more concentrated than wind or hydro. It could still be extremely sophisticated, like, we could still have limited internet in a more stripped down form for communication and laser tag if we’re hellbent on it.

Such a society seems plausible to me so long as we get to it before we turn the world into a desert. It’s how humanity has lived for ten thousand years, except in this ideal society no parasitic government, warlord, or boss would exist to suck up all the surplus (This is because in a densely populated world without fossil fuels to constantly replenish the soil, there will be nowhere to move except unproductive lands. To keep the soil productive season after season, all surplus will need to be reinvested. Such a society can’t afford a parasitic overlord). I know all you modern people out there hate the idea of no cars, no iphones, and farming, but that’s cause you lack the imagination or the knowledge to imagine a way of life other than the current one. You will not be consulted should the opportunity for our civilization to transition to anything but a wasteland presents itself, as you weren’t asked whether you wanted to become lonely, overworked consumers of unsatisfying trash. But you will be much happier. And you can still chew your cud with the other livestock.

Let’s not end on that note! I have every reason to think that all you wonderful people will become much better, much more generous, cooperative, sensitive to others, thoughtful, and yes, even more intelligent should we ever dump the lifestyle we presently practice. Just as the brains of wild animals are much larger than those of their domesticated kin, all our faculties will be sharpened by the transition to a sustainable way of life. And to be fair, I realize that none of us are such crappy humans by choice.

Freedom isnt the act of shedding our attachments, but the practical capacity to work on them, to move around in their space, to form or dissolve them.

“The Coming Insurrection” by The Invisible Committee

Dec 15

Current Trends in Socialization

painting of a giant phallus running over pedestrians by dmitry myaskovsky

How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.

In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.

Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.

People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.

For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.

For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.

Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.

The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.

Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.

What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.

Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.

Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.

Aug 08

Walking Dead, depressed

night will fall on the common slave

Walking Dead

Walking Dead speaks to the malaise contemporary Americans experience: the suspicion that each one of us is completely alone in this most modern of nightmares, fighting against hordes of human-seeming but inhuman creatures intent on devouring us, and unable to fully trust even those we know to be human because they are our own kind.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve broken into uncontrollable tears when watching any play, whether the Milwaukee Highschool of the Arts production of Guys and Dolls, or Brecht, or any play at all. I was more likely to cry when already lonely, which should have pointed me to the explanation, but it was only after seeing an episode of the Walking Dead that I realized what the deal is. Almost as soon as I flipped the channel and saw the group of Walking Dead characters doing their Walking Dead thing, looking serious and talking in terse, loaded phrases, and acting selflessly and committed to each other, I was in tears. It doesn’t matter what the context, the thing that busts me up is seeing people act selflessly and support each other. It’s interesting that I’ve been vulnerable to this feeling long before I knew what caused it or what it meant.

I don’t have any evidence for this, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone experiencing this kind of reaction. The popularity of the Walking Dead show seems to bear this out: there are many good shows on TV, but Walking Dead is somewhat unique in presenting characters who are by definition an ensemble, a group of survivors forced to act in concert and rely on each other for literally everything. We see our own lives in the predicament of the show’s characters as they struggle to survive in a world populated by inhumanity. Equally importantly, we wish we had the kind of mutual support and close-knit community they do. We are attracted to the story because we wish we were them, which is saying a lot– the citizens of “the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth” would trade places in a flash with a band of survivors hanging on for life in a post-apocalyptic zombie infested world, if only for a couple hours each week. We are that damaged, and that starved for community.

Personally, I had a fine childhood as these things go, surely a better one than most people have these days. In the Soviet Union, most families lived in multi-generational households, and I had the benefit of grandparents and great-grandparents spending at least as much time with me as my parents as a young child. This is all that’s meant by having a good childhood: that a child is loved and attended to, that he/she has role-models to look up to, that he/she knows that though it might do something undesirable, he/she is good and only the inappropriate action is under censure. I had more problems once my parents, baby sister, and I emigrated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. in 1989. I was 9 years old. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a supportive family available much of the time as my parents threw themselves into the getting ahead in life, and to add to it, I had to deal with being an outcast at school, learning English and what all. I don’t want to overstate things or leave the impression that I blame anyone for anything, or view myself as exceptional in any way, good or bad. It seems that my experiences are roughly par for the course, at least for western families, and a huge step up from being born into effective slavery, being kidnapped to become a child soldier, or having to pick tomatoes for pennies until your back permanently gives out at age 26 and cancer from the pesticides becomes terminal at age 29.

There are more people living in an earthly hell today than ever before, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total humanity, but that doesn’t mean we should be glad we got off with merely psychological trauma. Psychological trauma can leave people unable to live satisfying or meaningful lives, just like any other kind of trauma, and because it is frequently unseen and its victims stigmatized, even, it can be as disruptive as any other curse to befall a person. Again, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that westerners with depression are as urgent a priority as landmine-maimed children. But we are making landmines and assault weapons faster than ever, and churning out emotionally scarred babies and children at equally frantic speeds, so let’s cut the bullshit out. This essay focuses on emotional trauma because it seems to me it is highly misunderstood and ignored, while victims of wars we sponsor elsewhere in the world will always receive hysterical attention from certain people, followed by airdrops of “aid”: one box of food for the victims, one box of guns for the killers. One box of medical supplies for the victims, one box of mortars for the killers. Very symmetrical, our “aid.” So glad we’ve become so impartial and scientific in the west, bias is such a dangerous thing.

We don’t have any way to compare the rate at which we suffer psychological disorders today to that of a pre-industrial, pre-urban, or pre-civilized age, but there are many clues that seem to suggest that we are much crazier than our “uncivilized” forebears. It should probably be mentioned that we are much more violent and homicidal than our uncivilized ancestors, propaganda like War Before Civilization notwithstanding. As for our mental health, depression, an epidemic affecting 17% of Americans over their lifetime, seems to be a side effect of civilized, western-style life. In North America, the probability of having a major depressive episode within any year-long period is 3-5% for males and 8-10% for females. If you believe depression is a chemical imbalance, this statistic is baffling. Why would evolution, or Jeebus, make women twice as likely to become seriously depressed? What possible advantage could there be in becoming morose and ineffectual, and how could a loving god curse his creations in such a way? If you consider depression as the result of living in conditions unsuited to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of a living being, the mystery solves itself: a misogynistic society is bound to depress women more than men.

A few thoughts on mental illness:

1. Mental illness is mostly a response of an animal to a traumatic situation it can’t escape except by rearranging its relationship to (or perception of) its environment.

2. Medicine now says that depression is the result of faulty wiring in the brain, or bad genes. If there was profit in it, the same people would be looking for the bad genes and the faulty neurons which cause people to fall in love, grieve, or experience joy. Depression is an emotion, and most often an appropriate reaction to unacceptable external experience.

3. Under capitalism, medicine will always develop and promote short term treatments which address symptoms only, rather than targeting the causes of the problem. Long-term solutions, involving deep soul-searching and examination of the environment as thoroughly as the patient, are by nature not profitable.

4. Most therapists offer their patients self-delusion as the sole remedy for their problems. I am yet to meet a therapist who will say, “what you are describing is a situation which doesn’t meet the standards and expectations of a living being. Find a way to change or escape this situation as quickly as possible, or you will continue to be depressed.” That’s bad enough, but their job is frequently to convince you that you’re dead sick and need therapy or drugs, when you are actually experiencing the appropriate response to your situation– your body and mind saying, “This is unacceptable, get me out of here.”

5. AA would appear to be a different kind of a solution to the same problem, as the methods used there appear drastically different from therapy or psychiatry. Yet, AA insists that the problems a person experiences are entirely of their own making. This is an interesting and complicated problem. On the one hand, AA works by giving people what they actually need to get better: friends, a community, an extended family. On the other hand, it insists that there is nothing wrong with the world, and anyway we’re not going to discuss it, which is so patently untrue many people can’t take AA seriously. The consequence of this doctrine is the need to repent, admit one’s guilt, and in addition, wear blinders going forward. This is why AA drives so many people away and looks like a cult to others.

6. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Niebuhr’s original version: “God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Quite a difference there. I like the original better.

7. When you’re told that you need to quit smoking or lose weight or whatever to be happy, you’re saying that you’re not good enough to be loved as you are, which everyone is. You’re also putting the cart before the horse, because achieving anything like quitting smoking or losing weight requires being to some extent loved and supported, which is what you’re trying to achieve by becoming more lovable and less smelling of smoke. Besides, many people smoke or overeat precisely because these things offer some comfort, however counter-productive, for the loveless conditions of their lives.

I spent my teenage years “depressed,” was pretty good through college, and became “depressed” again after graduating. I’m still frequently depressed today, but not like I used to get. The incidents of “depression” in my life correspond in every case to unsatisfactory conditions in my life, and the perception that there’s nothing I can do to improve things. I’m not suggesting that there is no such thing as serious depression which requires being treated with drugs, but in my life, the life of someone who was mostly raised in a loving atmosphere, serious depression has always been associated with bad things going on outside of my head, that is, my depression has always been situational. Most people are either unaware of the trauma they may have suffered, or don’t recognize unacceptable conditions in their present environment as such. When afflicted with depression, such people would have to conclude that the problem originates inside of themselves and needs to be treated with drugs, when the real culprit is the life they find themselves leading, and can at least theoretically be fixed by returning these conditions to a state more in agreement with the expectations of living beings.

We are living today in a society based on organized lovelessness, in Aldous Huxley’s incisive words. Humans, like all other animals, have certain expectations built into their development, expectations which, when not met, cause various disruptions to our development as human beings. These expectations are simple: for example, we’ve needed no instructions on what babies and children need to grow up into healthy adults for 99% of our species’ existence on this planet. Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept is a profound look at what these simple expectations are, as practiced by tribes of hunters and gatherers in the Amazon when she lived among them in the 1960s. Liedloff calls children raised according to the species- appropriate expectations Continuum children, and explains much about the differences between such well-adjusted children and the ones deprived various continuum experiences so common in our society. There’s more to it than just love, but love seems to be such a huge part of the continuum childhood experience that that will be the part I will focus on.

Children who receive the appropriate amounts and kinds of love at the appropriate stage of their development grow up into the kinds of adults their culture expects them to become. As hard as this is to believe for modern-day Americans, children who are raised by loving adults in a functioning community don’t go through rebellious stages, don’t experience “generation gaps”, don’t have to go looking for themselves. They know who they are at each stage of their life, and possess the confidence that who they are is right and good. From a helpless babe in arms, to a toddler tagging after older kids, to an older child learning about their world, to teenagers trying out their growing skills and talents, all the way to adults ready to take up the tasks of full members of society, they have the confidence that they are loved and wanted for who they are, and know that when they are scolded, it is for something they do, not who they are– and are just as eager to correct the offending behavior as their guardians. Although love is the crucial component of this process, their need for role-models can’t be overstated: we learn through observation and emulation, and being a part of a group whose members themselves know and like who they are is essential.

Many things can go wrong in a child’s life, and sometimes it seems as though we’ve set up a cruel laboratory to find out all the terrible ways a person’s life can be disrupted by withholding the appropriate continuum experiences from them as they develop. If denied the love and support they need and expect from those around them at some point of their upbringing, they will sustain trauma, a hole inside of them that they will seek to fill for the rest of their life. The many ways in which such trauma will play out in a persons life can also be somewhat reduced and simplified: they will seek to fill this void with love, or substitutions for love, for as long as the basic issue is unaddressed, if not their whole life. They will enter into relationships they will sabotage, engage in self-destructive behaviors, try to replace the missing love with food, drugs, money, sex, etc., and so on. They will be manipulable by anyone willing to offer them love or some substitute as bait. They will respond well to advertising and be very good consumers, but will make poor neighbors, parents, lovers, or friends. Unless the pattern is addressed or interrupted, they will raise their children exactly as they themselves were raised, holding out love as a reward or punishment in order to control them and extract love from them.

“Our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organized lovelessness.” In fact, our civilization not only creates unloved and loveless people, but would be impossible without such people. Modern civilization can be said to be fueled by lovelessness. Someone, at some point, figured out that people who live in large close-knit groups don’t make for very good workers or consumers, and without making their discovery public, little by little transformed the world into a cruel emotional torture chamber, graduating people into the shopping mall/ labor camp world beyond. People who live among their kin are just not depressed enough to consider spending their free time in mind and soul-numbing wage-labor so they can buy objects and experiences. As far as they are concerned, their lives are fine as is. This is something early capitalists were well aware of, and much ink was spilt trying to solve this “problem.” The history of this process is described in detail in E.P. Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class. The would-be “working class” fought the new order every step of the way, from the medieval enclosure laws to Taylorism in the early 20th century and on. You really have to isolate a person from others before the pleasure they can derive from consuming products and services is appealing to them. People had good lives, the supposed brutishness, nastiness, and shortness notwithstanding, in the days before capitalism, and in their relatively contented state couldn’t be convinced to work and consume. Their lives had to be impoverished before they would join the ranks of the workers, and the primary impoverishment was in the social realm: love, a universal condition of life for 99% of our species existence, had to be diminished and made scarce. In a world peopled by healthy, undamaged human beings, no one would work at anything other than tasks they enjoy for a minute longer than it took them to fill their belly. No one would wear their weapons and armor once the two sides have clashed, some young people got to show off their prowess and coordination, and some booty has been acquired to show the folks back home. What sane person kills other living beings for fun?

When you break up human communities that grow naturally, and make everyone starved for love all the time, you are well on your way to ruling the world. This may well be a paradox built in to human history, making civilization all but inevitable, and healthy human communities all but doomed. As Fredy Perlman describes in Against His-Story, Against Leviathan, when a group of people adopts agriculture and implements of war, their neighbors are faced with the choice of being conquered and made into slaves, or resisting and soon discovering that to resist successfully, they must become like the aggressors. Getting as far away as possible from the civilized madmen hasn’t been an option for some time, as people have occupied every habitable place on earth.

By contrast, healthy human beings have no need to prove themselves the best in the world at anything. They are not prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors or perfectionism, and needless to say, have no unaddressed anger issues or the kinds of insecurities which make members of our society such easy pray for advertisers and cult leaders. They tend to consider any idea on the basis of whether it will be fun, work only until they are sated and have no concept of accumulating wealth except to get through winter in cold climes. They identify themselves with their group, and think in terms of group welfare when making decisions. This doesn’t mean they are less uniquely individual than we are, in fact, there is greater possibility for creativity and individual expression in the framework of a healthy community. As Wendell Berry said in Life is a Miracle, “Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42) For members of functional communities, individualism is the freedom to be who you want, sure that your choices will be accepted by the rest of the members. Raised to respect others and be confident of their respect, you would never want something that would damage the people you love, and they would never think to tell you your unique take on life is unacceptable.

Walking Dead makes me cry because I, like so many others in our broken society, see myself in the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, while at the same time desperately wanting to be a part of a community like the one shared in by the characters in the show. I think that the show’s creators understand this. The characters’ survival is always a common project, and to be cast out of the group is usually as good as receiving a death sentence. That’s what it means to survive as a human being: humans don’t function one at a time. We are social animals, and in seclusion, we die. In the few episodes I’ve seen, the fact that to cast a person out of the group is as good as killing them has been repeatedly stressed. This is a basic truth of our species’ existence on this planet: an exile is as good as dead even if they survive physically, because we are not made to live apart from others of our kind. It’s striking that this basic condition of being human has been all but forgotten today. Rick continues, “But I won’t have to, because you’re going to change. Starting now.” He’s optimistic, but talking to a small group of people, he can afford to be: his opinion will be heard, considered, and perhaps heeded. I’m in no position to be optimistic, but maybe someday I will be. At the very least I have some idea of what I’m looking for, and what I’m not looking for. It’d be interesting to find out whether the Walking Dead people have had much response from viewers seeing what I see in the show: a community determined to survive together in a world where a lone person has no chance.

Jul 06

Life is a Miracle

family over tuscanyWendell Berry
Life is a Miracle, an Essay against Modern Superstition
Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2000

“We are not getting something for nothing. We are getting nothing for everything,” the epigraph with which Berry opens Life is a Miracle, is apt and concise. Modern society appears miraculous, the product of man’s industry and ingenuity.  It looks (and is advertised largely as) a kind of perpetual motion machine, powered by little other than human inventiveness. Attentive observers have noticed that appearances are, as usual, deceptive: we are living on fossil fuels, energy created over eons by geological processes, and in a matter of decades, we’ve used up more than half of what’s available. But there are problems even greater than the depletion of our main energy sources, destroying our ability to perpetuate our society and culture without much notice from anyone. We (and many other animals) have been passing our knowledge and ways of life the old fashioned way (and the only way) from parent to child as long as we’ve been on this planet without giving it a thought, but it appears that this simple and irreducible aspect of our species existence can be interrupted. When this happens locally, tribes and cultures die. It’s not clear whether it is possible for this to happen globally, but it seems that this is the direction we are heading. Globalization and the “market economy” have been at work disrupting and destroying local cultures and replacing them with a universal mono-culture known to its practitioners and captives variously as “capitalism,” “market economy,” or “democracy” in the west, “communism” or “socialism” elsewhere. Whatever name it goes by, its effects on the living beings and the environments they inhabit is the same.

Life is a Miracle is about this process, the loss of the ability to perpetuate the culture we’ve built over millenia. Wendell Berry looks to science for a culprit, because science is our culture’s founding myth, governing paradigm, and much more, and he picks E. O. Wilson’s Consilience as the book through which to analyze the subject. The choice is appropriate for a number of reasons: Wilson is a mainstream scientist, and in Consilience, he tackles questions like ethics, religion, art, and culture in general- necessarily, since his stated goal is to bring the different disciplines together into a working whole. He is also a conservationist, as is Berry.

Science approaches all questions as problems to be solved, and all unanswered questions as questions yet to be answered. “(Consilience) reads as though it was written to confirm the popular belief that science is entirely good, that it leads to unlimited progress, and that it has (or will have) all the answers.” (p. 24) This means that mystery, an essential and critical part of human culture, is an impossibility: Wilson attributes it entirely to human ignorance. Without mystery, reverence and propriety are impossible, leading to a society governed by profit and raw power as we’ve arrived at today, whether the power is cloaked in the accoutrements of “democracy,” “socialism,” or more transparent forms. What Wilson calls “consilience” turns out to be an invitation (or an ultimatum, taken more broadly) for religion and the arts to take on the goals and methodology of science, an impossibility if the words mean what we all think they mean. “Like a naïve politician, Mr. Wilson thinks he has found a way to reconcile two sides without realizing that his way is one of the sides… One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.” (p.99)

The crisis we face can’t be solved with more science or technology, since these are part of the cause. We have to address the way we think and talk about the world and ourselves.

The language we use to speak of the world and its creatures, including ourselves, has gained a certain analytical power (along with a lot of expertish pomp) but has lost much of its power to designate what is being analyzed or to convey any respect or care or affection or devotion toward it. As a result, we have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to “save” a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited “ecosystems,” “organisms,” “environments,” “mechanisms,” and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced. (italics in original) (p. 8)

Berry’s solution to this crisis, if there is to be any solution to it, is for scientists, artists, and religious people, whether they can work together in the end or not, to root their work in local considerations and return to such considerations at their works’ end, as well as, ideally, throughout the process.

Directly opposed to this reduction or abstraction of things is the idea of the preciousness of individual lives and places. This does not come from science, but from our cultural and religious traditions. It is not derived, and it is not derivable, from any notion of egalitarianism. If all are equal, none can be precious. (And perhaps it is necessary to stop here to say that this ancient delight in the individuality of creatures is not the same thing as what we now mean by “individualism.” It is the opposite. Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42)

Any new invention or idea or practice should, in the end, be weighed on the merits of its impact on our communities. “Suppose we learn to ask of any proposed innovation the question so far only the Amish have been wise enough to ask: What will this do to out community?” (p.134) Obviously, most people don’t have the benefit of living in anything resembling a community, so we would have to break up the corporate capitalist society into local communities first.

Life is a Miracle elicits some hysterical reviews on Amazon, as one would expect with books that challenge our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the world. I expect that if it were more widely read, the greater part of our country would be foaming at the mouth over this book. God I wish it were. This is likely one of the most important books of the decade, or century, or however long we plan on living miserable lives governed by anti-human precepts.

Jul 11

Fredy Perlman’s The Strait

Freddy Perlman

The Strait. Book of Obenabi. His Songs.
Fredy Perlman
Black & Red
Detroit, Michigan 1988

The last book written by Fredy Perlman (in fact, unfinished at his death: this is the first volume of a two volume work he planned), “The Strait” is the story of Indians and whites in and around present day Detroit, starting in the 17th century (or the beginning of time) and ending in the 19th. It is narrated by a series of characters whose lives are progressively more uprooted by the European invaders, their diseases, technology, and eventually ways and means. The book chronicles the different ways people of the community deal with the invasion and the destruction of their world.

I fell progressively more in love with this book as I read on; by the end I didn’t want it to end and spent hours looking up any extra information on the characters and events that i could find. The portrait of a human community in slow free-fall is moving and instructive. Having only briefly seen what a human community looks and acts like in my 36 years, I couldn’t get enough of the ones depicted here. Fredy Perlman is acutely aware of what it is that makes people living among each other more than a mere collection of individuals, and the ways in which this unity is inherently fragile. I think Fredy is on the same page with Wendell Berry and others who have suggested that joy is not real unless it is shared. Said otherwise, our lives are meaningless without joy, and joy is impossible without a shared human context. The “constraints” of old-fashioned cultures are revealed to be the opposite of what we’ve always been told they are (namely, fetters): the framework which makes joy and self-realization possible.

“The Strait” is initially hard to get into, in part because Fredy Perlman refuses to give his narrative conventional time markers or common place names, and in part because of the nature of the writing, which is verb-heavy and song-like, definitely no popular fiction here (Detroit is Tiosa Rondion, its Iroquois name; the lack of time references was circumvented in this Black & Red edition by putting corresponding dates at the top of every page). After a while, this seems perfectly natural, and pretty soon you are immersed in the story. Perhaps this is what the accounts of people who inhabit cyclical time would sound like. Once acclimated, the book is more than rewarding of the effort.

Like “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan,” “The Strait” is deceptive in that it reads like poetry, but is thoroughly researched and accurate with regard to what goes on. I read an academic history of the Indian-European relations in the great lakes region earlier this year (“The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815″ by Richard White), and as a result noticed early on that the events described here are historically accurate. Reading this book with the internet browser handy has been fun as well, since the characters are largely historical, and easily researched on the web.

“The Strait” and “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan” are both amazing books which will unfortunately go unread by the vast majority of people because they are unconventional and uncompromising with regard to the expectations of the average reader in our culture. The low expectations and short attention spans will not go unappeased as long as there are NYT best-seller lists, while books that require the kind of work from the reader that this one does are few. Once that “work” has been put in, the reader is amply rewarded; knowledge of the entire world and one’s place in it can be this book’s gift to those willing to try.