Cranky Conservatives and Hypocritical Liberals

I’ve slowly been adjusting my view on many topics. The most obvious example has to do with politics and political labels, specifically that of conservatism and liberalism.

I’ve written about this for years, because it endlessly fascinates me and confounds my thinking. Mainstream political labels, at first glance, seem to be simple and straightforward. Those who identify with these labels do tend to portray themselves in standard ways. However, if you look deeper, you  begin to realize there is more going on. I’ve explored many other angles previously, and so let me explore a new angle.

The other day, I read a dual review by Kenan Malik. The two books he reviewed were Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette. The topic uniting the two was that of free will.

I’m not familiar with Baggini’s writings and politics, but from the review I got the sense that he is probably more or less a mainstream progressive liberal. His general approach in defending free will, in relation to the Enlightenment project, seems fairly typical for a well-educated liberal. That is fine, as far as it goes. However, what I’d love to see is Baggini (or Malik) attempt to take on something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Then such a writer would have my full attention.

My own view is that of agnostic. I’m agnostic about so much in life, from God to free will. Such issues are of the same quality, whether overtly theological or not. They are about beliefs, not scientific knowledge, and so I feel wary about those who seek to politicize such debates.

Both Baggini and Gray are doing that very thing (and so is Malik in his review). Their beliefs about free will are inseparable from their beliefs about human progress and hence of political progressivism. I’m not sure where that leaves my agnosticism, but I certainly don’t find myself neatly taking sides.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a pointless debate, as neither side can prove they are right and that the other is wrong. Free will can’t be formulated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis and so can’t ever be tested. Beliefs are just beliefs, even when they are based on powerful personal experiences of perceived reality. I have nothing against beliefs in and of themselves, but they should be kept in proper context.

Nonetheless, I found John Gray’s view more interesting, because his mind seems more interesting. A proper label for him might be that of a cranky conservative, having shifted from Thatcherite neoliberal to a captialism-criticizing paleoconservative. What makes his view worthy of serious consideration is that he is a wide reader and a deep thinker, which is probably what allowed his views to shift to such an extent.

I call Gray a cranky conservative as a term of endearment. He is what I think of as the prototypical INTJ (MBTI type: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In my experience, INTJs have minds that spiral inwards toward what to others seem like a mysterious sensibility or odd perspective. They love the idiosyncratic and obscure, which is what can make them interesting, at the same as it can make them perplexing or even frustrating and irritating.

INTJs have ever curious minds, but it is of a particular variety. It’s definitely not that of a linear-focused, analytical intellect (some readers complain that many of Gray’s books feel like a jumble of thoughts with important issues overlooked and useful connections not made). This kind of curiosity is also not of the endlessly expansive and exploratory tendency, as seen with the strongly extraverted intuition types.

This is demonstrated by Gray’s interest in Philip K. Dick, of which he writes in great detail in The Soul of the Marionette. Both are intuition types, but of opposing attitudes (introverted versus extraverted). Gray, in his recent book, sees PKD as having in a sense failed because his attitude of intuition just goes on and on, ever searching for what can’t be found. Gray rightly notes that this made PKD crazy at times. Still, that partly misses the beauty of PKD’s view.

Nonetheless, the fact that Gray takes PKD seriously at all is what I appreciate. I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of Malik and Baggini writing in detail about PKD, although the latter does one time briefly mention him in Freedom Regained but only then in reference to a movie based on a PKD story (I discovered this one instance by doing a search on Google Books). For this reason, I’m reading Gray’s book and not a book by either of those others, despite my being politically closer to them.

I first heard of John Gray many years ago. I never gave him much thought until I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin has a chapter of that book where he discusses Gray as a reactionary conservative, similar to that of Edmund Burke, both holding positions as partial outsiders (although not too far outside, for otherwise the political right would never pay them any attention). Robin makes the argument that this is the basis of all conservatism, but I think distinctions need to be made. Even Robin sees Gray as being a unique figure on the right, as he explained elsewhere:

“There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.”

He is, as I put it, a cranky conservative. He is a pessimist and highly critical at that. He isn’t going to be easy on even former allies. If anything, he is likely to be more harsh toward those with whom he once shared a view. He seems to place a high standard on both himself and others, and based on that he points out failures and hypocrisy.

I respect that more than I respect, for example, what I too often see among mainstream liberals. I particularly have in mind what I call conservative(-minded) liberals. I’ve become ever more aware of, to put it lightly, the inconsistency of so many liberals. Behind the facade of rhetoric, there is so much of the biases and prejudices as found everywhere else in our society. Simply put, I’d vote for John Gray before I’d vote for Hilary Clinton, for at least he criticizes some of the worst aspects of capitalism, not to mention neo-imperialist war-mongering.

There are surprising number of liberals who are, for example, highly race and class conscious. They are willing to talk about helping the unfortunate, as long as it doesn’t personally effect them. In their own lives, they’d rather not interact with minorities and poor people, and they will sometimes complain about such people behind closed doors. It’s one thing to support welfare or affirmative action for the underprivileged, but it is a whole other thing to have one of those perceived low class people living in your neighborhood or community.

There is at least an upfront honesty with a cranky conservative. As for free will, someone’s personal beliefs are the least of my concern.

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon Pilot

Over at Amazon.com, they just put out a bunch of pilots. I only watched one of them, “The Man in the High Castle.” All the other pilots were either mainstream trash tv or kids shows.

I really want “The Man in the High Castle” to be made. It is based on one of my favorite novels by my most favorite writer, Philip K. Dick. There have been a number of movies based on his fiction, some better than others, but there has yet to be a tv show.

I was surprised to see the pilot. I hadn’t heard anything about it. I’m so freaking excited about it right now.

Please go watch the pilot. Then take the survey. Make your voice heard, if you like the pilot, as I’m sure you will. This show needs to be praised to the high heavens so that the Amazon gods will hear our plea for an awesome PKD show.

If the show ends up not being produced, I may throw myself off the nearest parking ramp or tall building. Lives are at stake. Take pity on us PKD fans. May VALIS have mercy on all of our souls!

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Master’s Tools

In speaking about violence, injustice and utopias, Ursula K. Le Guin offers an interesting metaphor. She writes that, “Audre Lord said you can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. I think about this powerful metaphor, trying to understand it” (“War Without End”, The Wave in the Mind). It is an interesting, albeit troubling, metaphor. It frames a particular way to think about our society.

This metaphor implies a number of things.

First, it portrays society as something intentionally created and actively formed. It is built by someone and for some purpose. A social order doesn’t just happen anymore than a building just happens.

Second, it claims that what has been built isn’t just any building, but the “master’s house”. It is built with the master’s tools and one assumes according to the master’s specifications. We can throw out the master’s blueprint. We can surreptitiously build something else while the master isn’t looking. Or we can try to tear it down. The master might punish us or we might get the upperhand. We could become our own builders for our own purposes. We could become masters in our own right. Even so, the tools we have are still the master’s tools with the limitations that those tools present.

This metaphor represents the view of the outsider, the person already standing back from the work being done and those attempting to undo it. It doesn’t automatically imply a particular ideological standpoint. But, in our society, this view is most often presented by the leftist and often directed at liberals most of all. I’ve increasingly been persuaded by the criticisms originating from the leftist perspective. I wonder what we have built and what or whose purpose it really serves.

Liberals attempted to dismantle the house of, in our case, the slave master for that is what our society was built upon. We dismantled slavery and other overt forms of oppression, but we weren’t able to fully dismantle the cultural structures that made oppression possible. This is, according to the metaphor, because we have continued to use the same tools.

 * * * *

Whose Welfare?

I’ve come to this understanding most directly from my thoughts on welfare. I’ve speculated that, if all welfare were to end instantly, revolution would happen over night. Our entire society, both the social and economic orders, is being propped up by the welfare state. Capitalism (as we know it) most of all couldn’t operate without the welfare state, without the direct and indirect subsidies of the government supporting companies and their employees in a thousand different ways.

I gained some insight when trying to make heads or tails out of Edmund Burke’s politics. Why would a supposed conservative or reactionary have been so adamant and consistent in his pushing progressive reform? An insight gelled in mind when I read a comparison of Burke and Theodore Roosevelt (Edmund Burke in America by Drew Maciag). In their own words, it became clear that they promoted reform within the system in order to defend the status quo of the system. Small changes prevent big changes (i.e., revolutions).

This is why Burke took a reactionary stance when actual revolution threatened, when progressive reform became less relevant and brute oppression deemed necessary. This is also why Burke only cared about the complaints of Americans until their independence was won, and afterward it was no concern of his as they were no longer part of the British Empire which is the only social order he cared about. Burke’s concern was about the British Empire, not so much about the people who might be oppressed or otherwise affected by the British Empire. He only concerned himself about the problems of people when ignoring such problems might threaten the social order he was part of.

(My complaint against Burke here isn’t ideological. I would make the same complaint against a mainstream liberal in modern America, which is my entire point. Also, my inner libertarian wants to know where Irish Burke’s social identity and moral concern would have fallen when the British Empire violently suppressed the Irish bid for independence, a clash that caused more deaths than the French Reign of Terror he so harshly criticized.)

We focus so much on the calls for reform that we rarely stop to consider what is being reformed. And we defend what we identify with without really understanding why. We need to look beyond individual issues and parochial concerns toward a broader understanding. We need to consider what we are building as we consider how we go about that activity. We need to consider the foundation upon which our house is built.

* * * *

Tools and Blueprints

Progressive reform is one of the master’s tools, to be used or not as necessary for the master’s plans. But it’s just one of many tools, not the blueprint for what is being built.

I say this as someone whose natural impulse is to support progressive reform, slow and steady changes from within the system. I’m not a radical. It just isn’t in me to be a radical. And yet I find it impossible to deny the radical’s critique. Like it or not, I suspect leftists are at least partly correct in what they say about liberals.

The welfare state doesn’t simply or even primarily serve the interests of the poor. Rather, it serves the master(s), the ruling elite and their status quo. It is the bread part of the bread and circus equation. Does anyone genuinely think the leaders of the Roman Empire ordered bread to be thrown to the poor because of some liberal agenda to steal from the rich and spread the wealth? No, they wanted to keep the hungry masses under control by any means necessary, which sometimes meant bread and other times violence, but more often some combination of both (the carrot and the stick).

As a lifelong liberal, I feel pulled in two directions. To seek to reform the system may just continue the suffering. To seek to end the system, though, will also likely lead to more suffering. In terms of immediate options, it can feel like suffering is unavoidable. Is the only way to force change by forcing suffering to its extreme? Then what? We have no guarantee that anything good will result. Suffering isn’t a magical elixir.

A desperate people are as likely to turn to demagoguery and authoritarianism as to face up to the problems that are the cause of their desperation. The liberal’s complaint is that we might end up worse than we already are. Small steps of progress toward the public good is, as the liberal believes, much safer than risking it all on a gamble.

The vision of suffering, no matter what form it takes, too easily play into the hands of the powerful. A state of despair isn’t inspiring. It makes us feel impotent and apathetic. Isn’t there a third option, one that would offer genuine hope?

* * * *

The Problems We Create

The welfare state is just a single example among others. We could also include the minimum wage, which in a sense is another aspect of the welfare state.

If we had a society where economic (and political) inequality was less extreme and where social mobility (along with the attendant opportunities) was higher, then a minimum wage might be unnecessary. A minimum wage deals with the symptoms, rather than the disease. When you are sick, it is natural to want the doctor to make you feel better, even if it is just symptom management. You also hope, though, that the doctor is meanwhile seeking to cure the disease and will bring you back to health.

In our society, the metaphorical doctors are technocrats who have little concern, much less understanding, about fundamental causes. Their purpose is the purpose of the master, which is the building and maintaining of the master’s house: the status quo of the established social order. It would be as if doctors were more concerned about the hospital and their place within it than they were for their own patients’ care; the patients being seen as serving the purpose of the hospital, instead of the other way around. Such dystopian doctors would be mainly concerned about symptom management in the way technocrats are mainly concerned about human resource management and population control (along with economic manipulations and military coercion).

We look for solutions to the problems we create. But, as Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

* * * *

Building Something New?

The system precedes any individual person, and so the individual person by intention or default serves the system. But whose system is it?

It is first and foremost a system for the minority, a system of wealth and power. It is the master’s house. As always, the majority are the builders who build what the master(s) tell them to build. We are born into this society without choice, the house already under construction, the foundation and walls already in place. We reach adulthood and someone places the master’s tools into our hands. What can and should we do? Throw away these tools and starve? Throw the monkey wrench into the works and see what happens? Or use these tools to try to build something new? If so, how? One could argue that many have tried and failed.

We have seen the near continuous implementation of progressive reforms since the revolutionary era. Have our social problems been solved? Of course not. Even with the ending of slavery in the Western world, there are still more slaves in the world today than there were in the past and there are more African-Americans in US prisons now than there ever were in slavery. It is hard to see this as evidence of progress. Some have benefited while many have suffered.

Progressive reform, sadly, doesn’t necessarily solve problems. It can feel like a band-aid on a gaping wound. And a band-aid won’t stop the blood gushing out. Even if the wound stops gushing on its own, the band-aid won’t prevent infections and gangrene, won’t prevent scar tissue from forming. The wound needs to be opened and cleansed. It needs stitches and salves. It needs regular care until it is healed. And, if the injuries turn out to be deeper still, bones may need to be set or invasive surgery may be necessary.

* * * *

An Arsenal of Metaphors

We need to use every metaphor in our arsenal. Metaphors are how we make the abstract concrete, make the unconsidered real.

I particularly like the bodily metaphors of disease, of wounds and trauma, and of health and healing. We often use these metaphors to describe the experiences and behaviors of individuals. We speak of otherwise healthy veterans and rape victims as having been traumatized. No physical trauma may literally be detected, but it is as if there is an unhealed injury and a process of healing that can be assisted or thwarted. One of the greatest leaps of insight comes from seeing how this applies on the larger scales of entire communities and societies.

This has become clear to me in studying history. There is a reason we collectively are obsessed with past wars and conflicts. It is because they aren’t merely in the past. We keep reliving them as someone suffering post-traumatic stress disorder keeps reliving the original trauma. Some describe this as a victimization cycle, but that doesn’t do justice to the lived reality. It’s not just a cycle, a pattern repeating. It’s as if the suffering of the dead still haunt us. Borders aren’t mere lines on a map. They are still tender wounds, not just in the minds of individuals, but in the societies on both sides.

Like the welfare state, borders aren’t there for the good of the common people. They exist for the purposes of power, of enforcing social order. But the powerful are as afflicted as the rest of us. It is a psychological complex of fear, around which all sorts of rationalizations accrue. The desire for power and control is most often driven by fear. This isn’t to say that fear is never warranted, but it is to say we too often perpetuate the conditions of fear like a battered woman returning to her abusive spouse or else marrying another man who is just as abusive.

Once we realize the metaphors we are living, we are in a position to consider different metaphors and with them new understandings, new possibilities, new choices.

* * * *

Unnatural Boundaries

International aid relates as well. It is a globalized welfare system. It serves to numb the worst pain caused by the wounds of borders.

Modern nation-states are largely the result of colonialism. The borders in many parts of the world were created by the former colonizers who had very little concern for the native populations. They divied up land based on geographical conveniences, natural resources, and historical claims of power. It didn’t matter if such imagined boundaries divided tribes and ethnic groups or if they mixed together tribes and ethnic groups that were in conflict. These boundaries weren’t natural, are never natural.

The former colonizers have supported oppressive regimes for their own purposes. It is still the master’s house, even when the master isn’t living there for the time being. Local tyrants may sleep in the master’s bed while he is away, but such tyrants only maintain their position as long as they serve the master, as long as they act as caretakers in his absence.

Before modern nation-states with their borders, people traveled and migrated rather freely compared today. It is hard for us to understand that. Borders used to be much more vague and malleable human realities. They had more to do with cultural differences than political power and military force. In the past, before modern militaries, a border that was anything besides cultural didn’t tend to last very long.

A border isn’t a physical thing, permanently etched upon the landscape. It is at best a temporary truce among people who often don’t even remember what created it in the first place. It is simply where two violent forces stopped fighting, until eventually conflict breaks out once again. This is why borders throughout history have constantly shifted, each new designated border being a new wounding, scar tissue upon scar tissue forming in the shared soul of a people.

* * * *

The House of the Nation; Or a Mansion of Many Rooms

Welfare, minimum wage, international aid, borders, etc. All these are forms of social control. This what is found in the master’s toolbox.

These are various ways of mollifying the masses and dividing them into manageable chunks. When transnational corporations are wealthier and more powerful than many small countries, how can local workers even begin to unite across these boundaries that instead pit workers against one another. Foreigners and immigrants get scapegoated for taking ‘our’ jobs. Meanwhile, people in other countries scapegoat us in return for the problems they also face.

These problems aren’t national problems. They are international problems, shared problems. But the systems of control don’t let us see that. And our language doesn’t allow us to understand it.

If these systems of control were ended, it would suddenly force us all to deal with our shared problems. No longer could costs be externalized onto particular groups of people while not affecting those who do the externalizing. If people weren’t limited and oppressed by borders and governments, if people could freely choose to live where and associate with whom they wanted, we could no longer ignore the glaring problems and injustices we face. Besides, whether we like it or not, externalized costs and and projected problems always blow back, whether as illegal immigration or terrorism or worse.

The process of uniting people has happened within nations. What historically were seen as regional populations with regional problems have come to be correctly understood in a larger understanding of cross-regional challenges. The English, Welsh, Scottish, and many Irish are now all Britains (along with many British citizens from present and former British colonies). The First Nations tribes, French Accadians, and British are now all Canadians. The same process has happened in Mexico and the US. To extend this past pattern into the future, it is more than likely that one day there will be a single socio-political identify of “North Americans”.

This is what we now face with national borders all over the world. Borders, as they relate to geography, are one type of metaphor used for social identity and one of the most powerful metaphors at that for they are so easily conflated with concrete reality. That metaphor is what inspired early Americans to imperial aspirations. They saw themselves as a people of a continent, not a mere island as was the case with the English. They identified themselves with all of North America. And if they had had the power to do it, they might have gladly taken over all of Canada and Mexico. But their metaphorical imagination outran their military force. We the citizens of the US still call ourselves Americans despite our political boundaries only occupying a small part of the Americas, our imagined continental aspirations remaining unfulfilled, a minor detail that makes nervous other people in the Americas.

The problems within and between the US and Mexico have never been and never will be merely national problems. Most of the US once was part of the Spanish Empire and after that part of Mexico. There are populations of Hispanics who descend from families that have been in the US longer than when English colonizers first set foot here. There are parts of the US that have always been Hispanic majority with a majority of Spanish speakers. These people have family members living on both sides of the border. The border cuts through a historical population like a knife, divides a people and their communities, creates a culture of fear and conflict.

Yet still the borders aren’t secure and never will be. Metaphors, although powerful, remain as fictions and so can only be enforced imperfectly. They aren’t real and can’t be made real, however real they are treated. Only the violence that enforces them is real and it is only real as long as it continues, but even the most violent of societies eventually tire of pointless bloodshed and oppression or else runs out of money to support it. As human lives bleed, so does the wealth of a people. Lives are destroyed, communities are crippled, and social capital is lost.

The drug problem in the US is partly caused by the drug problem in Mexico; and, in turn, the drug problem in Mexico has grown because of the US War on Drugs which simply made it an even more profitable business by driving it into the black market. Likewise, the gun problem in Mexico is almost entirely caused by the gun problem in the US. Americans complain about the violence coming from Mexico or the ‘illegal’ immigrants. But why do so few ask what caused these problems in the first place?

NAFTA hasn’t helped small farmers in Mexico. The long history of the US government and business leaders undermining democracy in Mexico hasn’t helped the average Mexican.

After all that, do we really want to scapegoat the terrified Mexicans fleeing the horror we have helped inflict upon them, upon their families and communities, upon their entire society? We should be better than that and we could better than that, if we only were able to comprehend our own failings, the harm we mindlessly cause onto others, the endless cycle of violence and victimization. Empathy requires awareness and understanding.

* * * *

Change, the Only Inevitability

Like it or not, as Le Guin points out, “Societies change with and without violence.” Change can be beneficial for all or not so much, but change will happen. Progress, whether through reform or revolution, will likely continue to happen, however imperfectly and unequally, that is until society collapses. With a sense of hope, she reminds us that, “Reinvention is possible. Building is possible. What tools have we to build with except hammers, nails, saws—education, learning to think, learning skills?”

Le Guin then poses a set of questions, “Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”

In speaking of the master’s house and the master’s tools, she acknowledges that, “The metaphor is rich and dangerous. I can’t answer the questions it raises.” As with many other metaphors, this one is dangerous because it is powerful in how it forces us to think differently. It’s power isn’t in offering simple solutions, but in opening the mind to new ways of thinking, new possibilities. Societies are built. Nations are built. Governments are built. Borders are built. Once we become aware that we are building, we can begin to ask what we are building and why. And we can look more carefully at the tools we are using.

Is it enough that the master let’s us live in his house? Should we grovel out of fear that we might be evicted out among the masses who live in shacks and on the streets? Should we build more walls and reinforce them in order to keep people out? Or should we build a larger house to hold all people? What tools would be required? Do we have those tools? How would go about building better tools in order to build a better society?

Anything we build for the master to keep others out and to control the masses can and will just as easily be used against us. When a border is built and enforced, it doesn’t just keep foreigners out, but also keeps us in (something that may concern us one day). The worst borders, though, are those built in our own minds. These internal divisions create dissociation between different parts of our experience. It is because of dissociation that we go on building oppressive systems and why individuals can do horrible things in the service of those systems. Trauma lives within each of us and within our every relationship. We live through the trauma and then relive it endlessly.

We can go on doing the same thing over and over, continually rebuilding the walls of fear and oppression, continually picking at the scabs of our collective suffering and trauma. Or we can build shelters for those afflicted, places of healing and restoration. We can rebuild our communities as we rebuild society.

But first, as the metaphor suggests, we must consider the tools we are building with.

* * * *

Imagination: Storytelling and Truthtelling

Le Guin does make a suggestion. “To me,” she writes, “the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The tool she offers here is that of imagination, the mother lode of all metaphors. To wield imagination is to wield the power to create and destroy entire systems of thought, entire ways of understanding. And we are only as free to the extent our minds are liberated.

“The exercise of imagination,” she states a few paragraphs on, “is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.”

It isn’t just metaphors that matter, but metaphors given life through story, through fully imagined possibilities. It is the act of imagining that matters, the freedom to imagine. It is the tool of imagination that matters. That is the one tool that can help us build something genuinely new.

We should be careful of the stories we tell. Continuing in this vein, Le Guin laments that, “It is sad that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic or religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth. The fashionably noir dystopia merely reverses the platitudes and uses acid instead of saccharine, while still evading engagement with human suffering and with genuine possibility. The imaginative fiction I admire presents alternatives to the status quo which not only question the ubiquity and necessity of extant institutions, but enlarge the field of social possibility and moral understanding. . . —the impulse to make change imaginable.”

She brings this line of thought to conclusion with a clear assertion of what is at stake: “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

The first radical act is to imagine, and that requires we create the conditions that make this possible. Imagination isn’t just a tool for building anew, but also a tool for creating entirely new blueprints. Even an imperfect imagined alternative has the power to open us up to possibilities yet unimagined. Imagination isn’t a destination, but a doorway.

* * * *

Revolution of the Mind

“What is a manifesto? A manifesto is a galaxy. What is man? Man is a star.”
~ Jude Edze Davids

It is hard for us to grasp the fundamental issue at hand. It goes to the heart of our sense of reality. To imagine something completely new isn’t just radical. It has the potential and power to incite revolution. Not just ideologies, but entire worlds are being contested.

This touches upon the theological. Our beliefs about reality form a hidden dogma, the bedrock of our identity and perception. The metaphorical house we reside in is our, to use a modern phrase, reality tunnel. A tunnel is yet another metaphorical structure of the mind, reminding us of the ancient metaphor of Plato’s cave and quite similar to Gnostic writings, neoplatonism having influenced (via the Alexandrian Jews) early Gnostics and Christians alike.

Religion and mythology forms the earliest reservoir of imagination, of metaphor and storytelling. It was natural for a Deist like Thomas Paine to turn to Christian language in order to express his message. He wasn’t, in doing so, promoting a Christian nation. He was simply drawing upon a shared lexicon of metaphors, stories, symbols, and imagery.

The religious language resonated with Paine’s audience. And today a metaphor such as the master’s house retains its former religious significance.

The “master” theologically refers to who rules over us or what dominates our world. The demiurge is the false god who is the “god of this world”. He is the builder of our world. He doesn’t create anything ex nihilo, but builds out of what is already present. In political terms, the demiurgic forces of power represent the human archons, the rulers of our society. They simply rearrange the pieces on the board, reform the system as they find it. They have their positions in the hierarchy and so their agenda is to maintain the status quo… or, in reaction to changing times, to build a better and stronger status quo.

The metaphor of the master’s house refers to a master. But which master? An important question. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “No man can serve two masters.” The master builder, the the greatest of masons, is still just a tinkerer, a manipulator. Jesus, on the other hand, threatened to “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus was using metaphor with charismatic force.

To understand Jesus’ metaphorical temple, you must put it into context of his preaching about the “Kingdom”. This Kingdom, as both Christians and Gnostics agreed, is near you and all around you. But, the Gnostics pushed it one step further, when it was written in The Gospel of Thomas that,

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the heavens!” Then the birds will be there before you are. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you . . . is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.

To clarify this, it is declared in Acts 7:48, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands.” It does not dwell in the house of the master builder.

So, where does it dwell? What is both within and outside? I would suggest, in line with Le Guin’s view, that what is being spoken of here is imagination in its purest and most extreme form, not just imagination but visionary imagination, the territory of radical possibility. The source of real power doesn’t reside within distant heavens or governments. Rather, it resides within us, around us, among us.

* * * *

Metaphors Unleashed

How do the teachings of Jesus apply today? He was distinguishing between various kingdoms and those who rule them. The lesser kingdoms are built on brute force and false beliefs, rather than on wisdom and vision. What presently are the lesser kingdoms that attempt to rule our lives and minds?

Philip K. Dick (PKD), a friend of Le Guin, gave a speech that offered a typically unique perspective, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. He said that, “Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener.” The artificial worlds created for us are more intrusive and pervasive than ever. They dominate in a way no lesser kingdom could have in the past. “And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.”

Taking a slightly cynical turn, PKD then argues, “So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.” Modern American society is Disneyland, an imagined world enforced onto reality, but hardly a radical vision to offer hope, just mindless entertainment and bright colorful facades. And, as globalization proceeds, Disneyland not democracy conquers the world. It is a fake kingdom of fake things, of fake experiences.

As always, PKD pushes this notion as far as it will go:

In my writing I got so interested in fakes that I finally came up with the concept of fake fakes. For example, in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feel when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation. The park being cunningly transmuted from the unreal to the real, by sinister forces. For instance, suppose the Matterhorn turned into a genuine snow-covered mountain? What if the entire place, by a miracle of God’s power and wisdom, was changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye, into something incorruptible? They would have to close down.

What if the master’s house were transformed, renovated into something unexpected, made use for something not in the original plan? What if we reimagined the space we find ourselves in?

“Disneyland are never going to be the same again. . . [T]he birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.”

If we were to love democracy enough, could the simulations of democracy’s rhetoric be made real like the love-worn Velveteen Rabbit hopping in the grass?

* * * *

Normally, the envisioning of radical possibility is described as thinking outside the box. But what if we were to radically think within the box? The shape of a box, like that of a square, is an ancient sacred symbol. This symbol represents the world. It contains. It can be filled, but it also can be emptied. We need to seek that state of emptiness so as, like the Zen tea cup, to receive new visions and understandings.

It’s not just what is within us, the power of mind, of imagination, of vision. It is the possibility that is within all things — to return to The Gospel of Thomas: “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” Imagination isn’t an abstraction. We exist in the world and our imagination takes shape through the world.

Imagination is the one tool we can all claim. It isn’t a special talent reserved for the few. It is our natural right, our normal way of being in the world… if we have eyes to see, if we have the courage to take this tool in hand.

PKD on the Golden Door

Photo: Forest portal

From Exegesis by Philip K. Dick
(edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem)

“The original display of dazzling graphics which I saw, which inaugurated all of this, were characterized by their balance, not what shapes they contained. They were, like much of Kandinsky’s abstract art, modern esthetic elaborations, in color, of the ancient a priori geometric forms conceived by the Greeks, which even in their time passed over into esthetics by way of Pythagoria, e.g., the Golden Section becoming the Golden Rectangle. * Certainly this would indicate that even the start of this contained the hallmark of Apollo: the balance, the harmony— I remember noting that in all the tens of thousands of pictures what was continuous in them was this perfect balance, illustrating a fundamental principle of art. It was that aspect which caught my attention and eye and told me they had great worth. In a sense, since all were rectangles, they were permutations of the Golden Rectangle, which I saw today in its original abstracted, empty form, so calm, so enduring, so restful, reminding me of Apollo’s basic virtue: syntonos.”
(Kindle Locations 963-970)

“The “solitary” life which both Christ and Paul speak of as an affliction, [is] in contrast to the ear of corn in which all grains are together in corporate life; it was an ear of corn that was held up at Elysius, to demonstrate the mystery: I think the mystery is, the solitary grain( s) will be sown, then will grow again in corporate life , a corporate body of which Christ is the head. Paul in 1 Cor makes it perfectly clear that resurrection is in a spiri tual body as opposed to the prior physical body 107 ; as in Neoplatonism , we can expect to ascend on to a spiritual “next ring” universe in a spiritual, nonphysical, immortal body, leaving this one behind ; it grows out of this one after this one is dead and buried , as with the grain of wheat/ corn in the furrow: what comes next is different; it is a complete misunderstanding to expect— or even want —the originally physical “solitary” inferior body back ever again; it is metamorphosis which we are talking about; Paul in 1 Cor makes this perfectly clear. The incorruptible body is not a physical body, like this only eternal, but a spiritual body. Death is regarded as a doorway, with something better on the other side, exactly like the doorway I saw in 3- and 4-74, like a Greek pylon, with the moonlight and clear water beyond, which was everywhere, here and there, that I looked. A study of the other mystery religions (all based on the dying lunar god Osiris) shows this. Of all the things (visions) I saw, none is more significant than the pylon or arch-like doorway with the Greek water and nighttime island scene, so beautiful and peaceful on the other side. That was not a transformed view of this world (as with the iron ring and later spring time and Santa Sophia the building ), that was a doorway to another world for sure. It wasn’t to death; death was the doorway , the passage , with life beyond. It was a rather narrow entranceway. (When did I see that doorway? It must have either been after my shoulder surgery, or led into that period, because just after Pinky died I remember seeing him, all healthy and full-chested, squeezed through the doorway looking into this world at us.) (It just occurs to me that the doorway always had the proportions of the Golden Rectangle .) And at first I saw it as a geometric drawing of the Golden Rectangle complete with Greek-letter markings at corners, etc., at that point not yet projected into the world, found there as doorway and 3-D, but “in my 3rd eye or inner mind or mind’s eye,” not yet fused with the landscape; later, whenever I saw it, I actually picked out the Golden Rectangle in the real world, discerned it, but saw it as a doorway, and saw the lovely quiet peaceful world on the other side, waiting. Thinking about it now I realized that the discernment of this Golden Rectangle doorway within the real world here and there was on the identical order of the iron ring, God in the trash of the alley, everything else, especially equal to seeing Springtime in 2-75; it was a major event, and not to be ignored or forgotten; it was another transformation of the landscape, another vision of the next world or the New Creation. Offhand I’d say its message was, One can get from here (this world) to there, which is to say, to the Spiritual Universe. It’s immediately at hand, if we could but see it. That which is seen through the doorway is not superimposed on our world but lies beyond it. For instance, it is nighttime there. (Although midday here.) I’m sure it’s “on the Other Side, ” and you would have to die to get there; after all, Pinky, after his death, immediately after, looked back into this world from there. It is another place, another time entirely. I don’t think it’s the Kingdom of God; I think everything else I experienced is. If it is indeed a glimpse through the doorway into the Next World, then the Next World (for me anyhow) is very much like Minoan Greece, like the Aegean and Crete (where many of my first visionary dreams were set). (Also, where Zagreus/ Dionysos came from.) All the straight john uptight rigid description and attitudes by the Christians about it are just so much a row of swords to protect it; once inside it’s lovely. You can sit down on a Grecian bench and relax in the cool of the evening.”
(Kindle Locations 4227-4227)

“at the height of despair and fear and grieving I stumbled into the Kingdom, stumbled around for a while and then stumbled back out, none the wiser as to how I got there, barely aware of where I had been, and no idea as to how I stumbled out, and seeking always to find my way back ever since . Shucks. Drat . If it wasn’t the Kingdom I don’t know what it could be, with its bells and the lady singing and the void, with the trash in the gutter glowing, and the golden rectangle doorway with the sea and figure beyond, and the moonlight. There were people living there, especially the lady. It was all alive. It had personality. It explained everything to me. Now I don’t see or understand anything. At that time I could even remember back to my origins. My real origins: the stars. What am I doing here? I forget, but I knew once. Amnesia has returned ; the veil has fallen, back where it was. The divine faculties are occluded as before.”
(Kindle Locations 4333-4339)

“golden rectangle, also golden section: Figures associated with the golden ratio or divine mean, a mathematical pattern of relationship that has been recognized since Pythagoras. The golden ratio (an irrational number approximate to 1: 618034) occurs when the ratio between the sum of two unequal quantities and the larger quantity is equivalent to the ratio between the larger quantity and the smaller . Geometric plotting of the recursive Fibonacci sequence also produces the golden rectangle, as does the growth of a nautilus shell.”
(Kindle Locations 18564-18568)

 

 

PKD vs the American Mythos

I’ve been listening to audio versions of PKD’s books, mostly his novels but some of his short stories and his Exegesis. The last two books I listened to are Eye in the Sky and Counter-Clock World, both of which I have read previously. I find myself, as usual, amused with the worlds created by PKD’s unique mind.

Those two novels (EITS & CCW) have been part of the background noise, for the past week or so, to the foreground focus of my thinking about culture. A recent blog post of mine was about the linguistic history of liberty, freedom, and fairness. It’s even more fun to think about such ideas with a PKD spin.

What really got my brain juices going is how PKD’s characters grapple with the realities they find themselves in. Some of his characters are more aware and others less so. To speak in the terms of culture is to already be standing part way outside the frame of the culture(s) in question. If a cultural paradigm is truly dominant, it is simply taken as reality itself and so not easily seen for what it is.

The less aware characters in a PKD fictional world don’t question the strange nature of their reality. It is similar in our world. Every world is a fiction of sorts, but of course a world is compelling only to the extent it isn’t seen as a fiction.

Culture is in particular closely related to the storytelling predisposition of humanity. Politics as well and we can’t leave out economics. It’s easy to think about religion as involving stories. What differentiates religion from most other areas of life is how obviously mired it is in the narrative mentality. However, I suspect religion just makes obvious what otherwise can go unnoticed.

Economics is a good example. What makes economics powerful in organizing society is the same thing that makes religion compelling to the believer. The compelling quality is belief itself, especially considering the often theoretical nature of both economic and religious ideologies.

Money or even gold as a symbol of value might be the greatest fiction ever created. This is most evident with gold which has very little practical application. Paper money at least has some very basic uses in that paper is one of the most useful things ever created. Despite all the hording, no one knows what to do with all of the massive piles of gold all over the world. People have sacrificed their lives and taken the lives of others, empires have risen and fallen, all based on gold being pretty and shiny.

Any monetary system is ultimately symbolic… but symbolic of what? The US dollar is backed by two things: the brute force of a global military empire and “In God We Trust”. As such, the US monetary system is backed by power of two (some might say closely related) varieties. It’s not just the physical power that matters. US currency with its invocation of God is a magical talisman. Only God and the banking system can create something out of nothing (whether in terms of the federal reserve printing money or private banks gambling with wealth that doesn’t actually exist in the real world).

The economic systems of other countries aren’t fundamentally different. Money never represents anything tangible or else money wouldn’t be necessary at all. Relationships or rather the perception of relationships is what money is about. All of the wealth and all of the debt in the world is an imaginary agreement. It is all ephemeral. The entire scheme could shift dramatically or disappear in a blink of an eye.

If the global economy collapsed, nothing objectively would have changed. The gold in vaults would continue to sit in piles. The natural resources would remain as they were before. The human capital would still be where it always was.

The reason there is starvation and malnutrition in the world has no objective cause. There is plenty of food to feed the entire world’s population and there is no lack in our ability to transport the food where it is needed. It’s like the Irish potato famine which was an intentionally created catastrophe. Capitalists couldn’t make much if any profit by selling or giving potatoes to poor starving people, and so they sold Ireland’s remaining potatoes to less hungry people elsewhere who had money. The same basic dynamic continues today with global capitalists who are even wealthier and more powerful.

We live in a corrupt system that is rotten to the core, but we collectively can’t imagine it being any other way. This is what some people call capitalist realism. Those who point out the problems get called commies or worse.

But it goes beyond mere economics. It’s our reality tunnel.

If our world was part of a story, a reader looking in on us would think he was reading dystopian science fiction. The fictions that we live and breathe on a daily basic don’t seem ludicrous because we have no equivalent comparison and so no larger perspective. A reader from the future would find the historical accounts of our period very perplexing. They would wonder why we couldn’t see the obvious immorality that our society is built upon and why we didn’t revolt, the same kinds of things we wonder about those who lived in early America with its slavery (or revolutionary era England with its socioeconomic caste system or any other number of examples). Slavery like capitalism is just another fiction that gains its power from those who believe in it or accept it or submit to it or become fatalistically resigned to it (not to say that some of the oppressed didn’t try to resist or revolt at times).

Like many PKD protagonists, I feel confused by the world I’m in. Things are a certain way and that is just the way it is. I don’t have any more rational understanding of why time flows forward than do the characters in Counter-Clock World understand why time flows backwards. We could quickly solve all of humanity’s problems if we wanted to, but it’s beyond me why we don’t want to or, to put it another way, why there isn’t a collective will to do so.

To be cynical, one could argue that the story of human misery apparently satisfies something in human nature. It’s all about compelling stories. The story of human misery is compelling because it is part of a mythos of compelling stories: the American Dream, meritocracy, free markets, entrepreneurial progress, cultural superiority, white man’s burden, manifest destiny, spreading democracy, etc.

Human misery is just the flipside of the Devil’s Bargain that the US was founded upon. There has to be losers for there to be winners, so the story goes. It’s a Manichaean battle between the makers and the takers, between the job-creators and the welfare mothers, between the hard-working meritocracy and the lazy slaves/workers. The worse off the losers must mean that we are experiencing some serious progress.

That is the thing with stories. You can say they aren’t real, yet they certainly have real consequences. The stories we live are real to the degree we force them onto reality and hence force them onto others. For those of the less powerful persuasion, we can participate in the story of power by submitting to some role within it that might allow us to have greater power than someone, just as long as we aren’t on the very bottom… and even the bottom has its narrative-justified comforts and contentments as there is always something further below us (animals, nature, etc).

Storytellers like PKD attempt to recast our collective narratives and offer a new symbolic context. Just being able to imagine something different is a power not offered by the status quo storyline.

Stories: Personal & Collective

I came across various things this past month that taken together created a thought-web in my mind. For anyone who cares, let me explicate (or, if you prefer, skip to the end for my summarization).

– – –

The first thing was an interview on The Diane Rehm Show from a few weeks ago. The guest was Meredith Maran and she was talking about her book, My Lie. When she was younger, she got caught up in the repressed memory obsession of decades past. Therapists at the time were taught to look for signs of childhood molestation and trauma in adults. Her therapists convinced her that her psychological issues were caused by repression and she came to believe her father had done something to her as a child.

Years later after much conflict, she started questioning that there was any repressed memory there at all. She realized she had no clear memories and that she had made false allegations. The response of many callers (and commenters on the internet) was to scapegoat the author similar to how the author had scapegoated her own father.

I was too young at the time to remember that time of our culture. I did, however, get a taste of it having been a child during that time. When I went to college in the mid 90s, my parents warned me about cults which seems a bit silly in retrospect. Through study I’ve come to understand better why my parents and many people had such fears. The 80s was when the Cold War era was coming to an end. Decades of fear-mongering were coming home to roost. Before that time, people were paranoid of commies among us. The commies were gone as a serious threat but the culture of fear remained. The religious element that fueled much of the fear against the Godless commies now fueled fear about child molesters and satanic cults.

There was mass hysteria as our culture shifted into a new era. Mass hysteria is hard to understand from the outside and it’s easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight. We can look back at people such as the author and wonder how she could’ve been so naive, so easily misled by others. But this mass hysteria included not just people like the author. It included the entire mainstream media and the entire community of psychotherapists and psychiatrists. It’s not called mass hysteria for nothing.

Fears always feel real because they are real even when what they get projected upon is innocent. In the future, people will look back upon our present terrorist fear-mongering in the same way we look back at other eras. Also, what makes fears real is that there usually is a kernel of truth. People do sometimes repress memories, but it’s very hard to know the truth about what is repressed especially when it happened in childhood. I have no doubt that child abuse is more common than it should be. The Catholic priest molestation issue is just the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we are only beginning to come to terms with this uncomfortable problem. The repressed memory hysteria was simply a part of this process of society dealing with what it would rather ignore. When something has been denied and dismissed for so long, it tends to manifest in rather negative ways.

The story of Meredith Maran reminded me of Derrick Jensen. He many books dealing with his personal experiences of childhood abuse and with victimization cycle in our society. I have no reason to think that Jensen’s memories of childhood are false. Unlike Maran, he has clear memories of specific events. It really doesn’t matter to me. The larger truth of victimization in our society is true whether or not any given case is true.

– – –

My thoughts temporarily stopped there. I meant to think more about the connection to Derrick Jensen and write a post about it, but I got distracted with other things. Last night, two things brought my mind back to the subject. I was sitting at work listening to the radio while playing around with my new Kindle.

On Coast to Coast AM, the guest was Daniel Pinchbeck who is an author I’m somewhat familiar with. Near the beginning of the interview, Pinchbeck briefly mentioned Terrence McKenna which made me happy.  McKenna used to be a regular guest on C2CAM. Like Philip K. Dick, McKenna had a way of expressing wonder about the world.

On the Kindle, I was looking at books I might want to purchase. Out of curiosity, I looked at the reviews of some of Derrick Jensen’s newer books. I wasn’t thinking about Jensen because of my previous thoughts from some weeks past. Jensen just often comes up in my thoughts because his views have strongly influenced my own views. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether or not I wanted to buy Jensen’s two volume Endgame. I felt uncertain because I have the sense that Jensen’s views changed somewhat from his earliest books. Part of what made me become a fan was how he combined a sense of wonder with a sense of compassionate understanding of suffering (which is also the same combination in different form that made me a fan of Philip K. Dick), but it seemed that his later writings had lost some of the wonder that made A Language Older Than Words so beautiful and moving.

This is where the web of my thinking becomes a bit convoluted. One of the connections is that I had in mind is that of nature. Pinchbeck and McKenna discuss nature in terms of wonder. Jensen also shows his sense of wonder when he writes about nature. The difference is that Pinchbeck and McKenna seem to have an endless sense of wonder (McKenna’s enthusiasm was always contagious), whereas Jensen’s sense of wonder too often becomes eclipsed by the suffering of the world. A favorite middle position between these two attitudes is Philip K. Dick who expressed wonder and suffering as inseparable facets of the same reality.

As I was looking at the reviews of Jensen’s books, my inkling about Jensen was strengthened by two reviews I read. The first reviewer (of Endgame, volume 1) wrote about his mixed response to the book and to the author with whom he claims to have had an e-mail exchange. The reviewer’s personal experience was that Jensen was defensive about his personal trauma which made him question the author’s work:

Now I need to question the entire thesis of the book, since I find I now question the mental and emotional stability of the author. Now I look at the long screeds (rants), the repetition, the extreme focus on abuse and victimhood at every turn, the utter lack of humor, it all starts to add up to something that I frankly have second thoughts about putting much stock in. Yes, the world is in trouble, no doubt about it. Should I look at it all through a lens of abuse, violence, slavery and victimhood just because Derrick Jensen has personal issues which he projects onto everything he sees or comes into contact with? Maybe not. It’s been interesting, but the search for a sane approach to our problems continues, I’m afraid.

A commenter who claimed to know Jensen gave a defense of the author:

I will say that despite my immense gratitude to Derrick for his great work and despite my friendship with him, I sympathized with your post… up to a certain point. I do think Derrick can be harsh, often harsher than I would be in a similar circumstance. Of course, that hardly makes me right… he has experienced abuse on a level I cannot imagine.

Anyhow, the point at which I started to lose sympathy with your situation was when you actually quoted from your email to Derrick. I feel confident that I know what offended him, and I think he’s right. It may have been poor word choice on your part, I do not know. One thing you wrote is, “It strikes me that this trauma seems to be a primary “personal issue” that you are projecting onto the rest of the world.” Now, this is something Derrick has heard a lot, as have most activists who openly acknowledge that they have suffered from abuse, and he has responded to this kind of critique in his work. Derrick’s father, who raped and beat him and his siblings and mother, was an unusually extreme manifestation of the broader culture of objectification, exploitation, control, nihilism, and abuse which is civilization itself. Derrick is not “projecting” his abusive father onto the dominant institutions of the culture when he sees them obliterating life on Earth. 1% annual species extinction is real. 90%+ extirpation of large fish is real. Global deforestation is real. The BP spill and the endless spills in the Niger Delta are real. Global toxification is real. Resource wars and genocide and patriarchy and systematic rape are real. And so on, as infinitum, or as Derrick says, ad omnicidium, which is more to the point. This is not “projection.” Projection is when a battered child acts out toward neutral or compassionate elders because that child has learned to hate and fear all adults, or all men, or all men with beards, or something like that. It is not when a battered child learns the nature of batterers and fights to stop them. Projection is manifesting one’s hatred and fear of a particular abuser irrationally onto others who bear no actual relation to the abuser. This is profoundly different from Derrick’s analysis and activism, and I agree with Derrick that it is offensive to call we he does “projection.”

My own response was halfway between these two. I understand both views, but I think the commenter is incorrect in simply dismissing the power of projection. Any self-aware person knows that everyone projects their personal issues… well, everyone except maybe those who are enlightened. The reviewer probably was lacking a bit of tact and so was Jensen in his response. Both were probably feeling defensive.

Ignoring the issue of tact, I’ve often felt that Jensen has made a mythology out of his personal trauma… which I don’t mean as a criticism per se. Mythologizing of this sort is powerful and can be an effective way of creating a transformative vision of reality (e.g., Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis), but there are obvious dangers. In Jensen’s earliest work, there was a profound sense of wonder that blew me away and awoke me to the suffering in the world like few other authors. However, in Jensen’s later work, my perception is that the rage and frustration has tarnished some of that wonder.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that I’m projecting as well. It’s easy for everyone to get weighed down by life’s frustrations and lose our sense of wonder. Jensen has written about the attempt to regain that sense of wonder after having lost it and that inspired me. For that reason, it would sadden me if the ideology of anarcho-primitivism began to trump that regained wonder. I somehow doubt that any action taken without that sense of wonder will lead to positive results.

This reminds me of another reviewer who was reviewing another of Jensen’s books, What We Leave Behind:

While Jensen is clearly passionate and energizes people towards activism, I agree with Bill McKibben who is quoted on the back cover of Jensen’s book that he is “…occasionally unfair….” I know McKibben’s judgment is accurate because of what Jensen writes about Buckminster Fuller, in which he completely misinterprets Fuller. Fuller was not a “technotopian.” Fuller considered a tree or a dragonfly as the most exquisite technology, so when he uses the word technology he is not suggesting some future machine world; he’s talking about our entire physical environment. Fuller simply shows that by reforming our physical world we can bring out the best in every individual. That’s why Fuller embraced the ideas of Maria Montessori, for example. Fuller’s ideas begin and end with a reverence and awe of nature. Fuller’s roots go back to the transcendentalists of Emerson and his great aunt Margaret Fuller who celebrated enlightenment ideas not divorced from their spiritual underpinnings. When Jensen writes, “If the ultimate Fullerian future did exist, it wouldn’t include humans.” Or, “In short, technotopians are insane: out of touch with physical reality,” he is so wrong about Fuller that it calls everything else he writes into question.

I don’t recall Jensen’s opinions on Fuller. I’m assuming the reviewer is correctly quoting Jensen. Going by the reviewer’s commentary, I find myself in agreement with criticizing Jensen on seemingly misunderstanding Fuller. However, I don’t agree with the conclusion of calling “everything else he writes into question.” I understand Jensen’s biases and I share them to a large degree. I’m wary of technophilia that often is disconnected from the larger world, but I’m also wary of technophobia in that it can imply a lack or constraint of open-minded wonder.

Yes, I see all the destruction of civilization. I hate it. And I can feel that hate in the marrow of my bones. Civilization is unbelievably cruel. There is something fundamentally sick about our society, but I don’t know that it’s inevitable as Jensen believes. I don’t see as clear of a distinction between nature and technology. I find myself resonating with both the views of Jensen and of Fuller. I want to feel the rage at all that is wrong , but I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder in the process. As I wrote in a post once:

Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth. And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror. Yes, yes, yes. Even so, there is something beyond all of that.

– – –

What all of these authors (Maran, Jensen, Pinchbeck, McKenna, and PKD) share is some understanding of how humans create (collectively and individually) the world we live in.

Maran’s story is a morality tale about what can happen when someone gets lost in their own confused experience of suffering and fear. When Maran tried to make sense (give a story to) her experience, she accepted the story that society offered her. It took her a long time to question this culturally approved story and to explore again her own direct experience.

Jensen’s story of childhood trauma may be true, but that isn’t what matters. The significant aspect is that it has been made into a story, a story writ large creating a cultural mythology of all of civilization. Jensen started off questioning the story society gave him by exploring his own direct experience, but his retelling of childhood experiences made his past into something greater than mere memory.

I find this fascinating. Philip K. Dick did something similar with a bit more imaginative flair. He took his twin sister who died in infancy and his experience of Nixon era California and through his Exegesis and stories he created a sprawling Gnostic narrative of suffering and salvation sought.

So, I’m far from being entirely critical of this kind of mythologizing, but not all mythologizing is equal. Despite Jensen’s profound insights, I prefer PKD’s vision of the world. There is the imagination, but also even with all the suffering expressed PKD seems to take himself less seriously than Jensen. PKD never became a True Believer even of his own mythology. Although he wanted to believe, questions compelled him more than any answer. I’m more like PKD in this regard. However, I do have a bit of Jensen in me. I tend to take myself too seriously. I wish I had an ounce of PKD’s imagination.

I was just now reminded of a previous post of mine (The Elephant That Wasn’t There) where I covered similar territory. The first point I made was about the unreliability of memory:

None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story… Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

My concluding point was about the significance of this on the collective level:

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

If we aren’t careful, we can end up creating self-enclosed stories that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

– – –

Okay… now for the last strand of my thought web.

I saw two videos that used the same phrase: epistemic closure. The first video surprised me because it’s not the type of phrase I usually come across when watching the mainstream media. The clip is from a CNN discussion and the person who used the phrase is Andrew Sullivan (in the last part of the video):

“The only answer is empiricism. You ask what the facts are and you do your best to find out what the truth is. And sometimes the truth is truly weird. It really is. And sometimes the truth is the truth. So, I think that is all you can do. I think the other thing I think you can do is constantly ask yourself whether you are trapped in your own, what they call, epistemic closure.”

Andrew Sullivan is talking about the media bubbles that can form, but he points out that we can always choose to step outside of any particular bubble. I think this relates to why people don’t trust institutions (especially media institutions) as much as they used to. It’s not that media is necessarily less trustworthy than it used to be.  It’s just that people can more easily escape media bubbles than they used to be able to back when a few networks controlled nearly all of collective reality in this country. Epistemic closure used to be the normal mode of functioning, but new generations are growing up in a permanent state of epistemic openness and some of the older generations feel their world(-view) is threatened.

The second video is about epistemic closure in terms of philosophy versus science… with philosophy being idealized as the opposite of epistemic closure and science in the form of scientism being criticized.


The latter video is a bit dry compared to the first, but the two caught my attention as I randomly happened to watch them around the same time. I don’t normally come across ‘epistemic closure’ being mentioned in YouTube videos. This serendipity caused me to consider ‘epistemic closure’ in terms of the thought web that my mind has been tangled in.

Science in it’s most extreme form (as scientism) and in it’s manifestation as respected institution is an example of epistemic closure… or, in other terms, the bureaucratization that creates Max Weber’s Iron Cage… which, of course, always reminds me of PKD’s gnostic description of this world as the Black Iron Prison – Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments:

Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.

This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences.

I want to add that I’m wary about criticizing science. Between scientism and anti-intellectualism, I suspect the latter is the greater problem. Besides, I doubt most scientists subscribe to scientism. There is an important distinction between scientific method and scientism. Also, there is an important distinction between scientific research and scientific application. Technology, of course, has many problems which someone like Jensen is correct in criticizing… but I generally think of technology in and of itself as being value neutral (although I understand Jensen would argue the opposite). I don’t think Jensen’s luddite anarcho-primitivism is any more helpful than the anti-intellectualism of certain types of right-wingers.

There is some similarity between anti-technology and anti-intellectualism. Both show a suspicion of modernism, of modern civilization… but, in Jensen’s case, one aspect saves him from complete epistemic closure – Playing for Keeps:

“PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.”

Which is basically what Noam Chomsky says:

Political anarchism is only ever respectable when it includes some element of self-questioning epistemological anarchism. There are no easy answers. And any easy answer that is given by society is probably wrong and possibly dangerous. That also goes along with any narrative offered by any authority, whether a media pundit or a therapist. Answers must come from within one’s experience rather than be forced onto one’s experience. This attitude needs to be taught at a young age. Unfortunately, our education system teaches the opposite which destroys the natural joy of learning, the natural curiosity and wonder about the world. It’s easier to teach kids to be obedient and rote memorize factoids.

– – –

So, that’s that. I just had all of that jumbling around in my head and needed to express it.

The basic point is this:

1) People want an explanation for the world and for their personal experiences.
2) The most powerful form of explanation is that which is told as a story.
3) Stories can induce wonder, but they can also stunt it.
4) Stories become most dangerous when we forget they are stories.
5) We should respect the power of stories even as we question them.

PKD’s Exegesis: 2 vol. release in 2011

For any PKD fans, there is good news. A new version of his Exegesis will be released next year.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/30/books/30author.html

It sounds like it will be a more complete version and will be published in two volumes. I have a copy of the first publication of the Exegesis (In Pursuit of Valis). It’s a very nice book to own because there hasn’t been much else available, but it only provides excerpts of the Exegesis.

If you’re interested in reading some of PKD’s Exegesis, I posted one of my favorite passages a while back:

PKD on God as Infinity

And here is my favorite quote from the Exegesis:

PKD’s Love of the Disordered & Puzzling

I actually had to develop a love of the disordered & puzzling, viewing reality as a vast riddle to be joyfully tackled, not in fear but with tireless fascination.  What has been most needed is reality testing, & a willingness to face the possibility of self-negating experiences: i.e., real contradicitons, with something being both true & not true.

The enigma is alive, aware of us, & changing.  It is partly created by our own minds: we alter it by perceiving it, since we are not outside it.  As our views shift, it shifts in a sense it is not there at all (acosmism).  In another sense it is a vast intelligence; in another sense it is total harmonia and structure (how logically can it be all three?  Well, it is).

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

I was talking to someone the other day who was telling me about a recent family visit (by the way, her telling of it reminded me of the type of story David Sedaris writes).

It was her older sister who was visiting and they were discussing the past. The older sister claimed that she used to go for rides on a pony that a neighbor had. The neighbor gave pony rides somewhere for money and would allow the sister to ride the pony home. However, the older sister also claimed that this pony owner also owned an elephant who would also sometimes follow along. The woman I was talking to didn’t believe her sister’s story about the elephant and so investigated by asking other family members and some old neighbors from the area. No one else remembered the elephant, but the older sister was absolutely certain about the elephant’s existence. It was real in her mind.

I find that amusing. None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story. I mean it’s logical that where there is a pony there might be an elephant. Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

We all live in our own private fantasy worlds. I’ve been drawn to this idea. I think I first encountered it with Robert Anton Wilson’s writings about reality tunnels. It’s not just individuals but whole societies that get caught up in reality tunnels. In the case of personal memories, another person who knows us can offer a reality check. A collective reality tunnel is different because everyone within the society will reinforce the shared view of reality. Our collective retellings are rituals that remake the world in the way the Australian Aborigines remake the world by retracing the pathways of the gods. What if there is some truth to this? Maybe scientific laws and evolution are simply forms of collective memory.

This avenue of thought is explored in great detail by Philip K. Dick and by those influenced/inspired by PKD (for example: Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon and Ursula K. Leguin’s The Lathe of Heaven). I just finished reading PKD’s Eye in the Sky. I was mostly reading that novel while at work which led me to contemplate the world around me. I work late at night and staring into the concrete interior of a parking ramp (where I work) offers an interesting opportunity for contemplation.

My job at the parking ramp is cashier. In the large picture, it’s kind of a pointless job. With developing technology, it’s almost obsolete for all practical purposes. I sometimes envision myself working there in the future after the robots have taken over the job and my only purpose will be to wave and smile at the customers as they drive out. My job is merely representative of most of the pointless work humans occupy themselves with… but is it really pointless? Or is there some purpose being served that is less than obvious? Work is a ritual that sustains our society, the reality tunnel of our culture, of our entire civilization. From a practical perspective, most jobs could be eliminated and many things would run more smoothly and effectively without all the wasted effort of keeping people employed. But if all the pointless jobs were eliminated, there would be chaos with the masses of unemployed. Employing the mindless masses keeps them out of trouble and keeps them from revolting. Make them think their life actually has purpose. Still, a purpose is being served even if it’s simply maintaining social order. My point is that social order is merely the external facet of any given collective reality tunnel.

In PKD’s stories, the protagonist is often faced with a true reality that is hidden behind an apparent reality. This true reality isn’t somewhere else but is instead all around us. This is a gnostic vision of the kingdom on earth. PKD had a few spiritual visions which inspired his theologizing and his fiction writing. I too have had some visions that have made me question the status quo of normal reality.

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

“As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
~  J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments

I was thinking about two issues tonight. Both of them were thought experiments.

 – – –

The first issue is about sociopaths.

I guess I was thinking about it because I just posted a blog where I mentioned Max Weber’s Iron Cage (Self & Other in the Movies: Redemption or Destruction?). Weber was theorizing about how bureaucracy and hierarchy increases. In that post, I mentioned I learned of Weber’s ideas from George P. Hansen’s book The Trickster and the Paranormal. Hansen points out research that shows a certain type of person (Hartmann’s thick boundary type) tends to be promoted in hierarchical organizations (which would include most major organizations: government institutions, universities, corporations, etc). I was thinking about this in terms of other research that shows that sociopaths are disproportionately found in positions of power. So, I assume that extreme thick boundary types and sociopaths are essentially the same general categories. A thick boundary type would have a stronger sense of individuality and a stronger sense of disconnection from others. Basically, thick boundary types have less empathy and hence less sympathy, less compassion and concern for others. Taken to the extreme, this would manifest as sociopathic behavior.

The thought experiment was: What would happen if sociopaths were removed and excluded from positions of  power and authority? What would happen if sociopaths were separated from normal society? As it is at present, we reward sociopaths and give them immense wealth and power. All of civilization seems built on this worshipping of sociopathy. I’m willing to bet that psychopathic genetics are found most often in those of royal descent and those of old money. My theory is that it’s not just wealth and power that gets passed on from generation to generation. The genetic predispositions that lead to concentration of wealth and power also gets passed on. The question is: Are these the people we really want to be ruling us?

There has been plenty of research done on psychopathy and sociopathy. We know how to test for certain genetics. We know how to test for empathy and moral development. I think it’s only fair that all citizens in positions of power and authority should be forced to have these tests administered. If they test positive for psychopathy and sociopathy, they would be required to seek rehabilitation through medication and therapy. They would be monitored for improvement. Those who couldn’t be rehabilitated would be put into psychiatric institutions or halfway houses. If we learned how to clearly identify psychopathic genetics, those who tested positive would be forcibly sterilized.

Just imagine that. A world where only people with strong empathy and compassion were allowed to be in positions of leadership and management. This would change everything. Our entire society, at present, is designed to benefit sociopaths. If they were excluded from all important positions, all of society would restructure itself. I don’t know if it would be a better world, but it probably wouldn’t be worse than a world ruled by sociopaths. Still, I have reservations. It’s possible that sociopathic behavior (at least in its milder forms) has some benefits for society. It’s possible that modern civilization wouldn’t function (certainly not as we know it) if sociopathy was entirely eliminated.

 – – –

The second issue is about our experience of reality.

I just started Philip K. Dick’s novel Eye in the Sky. There was no particular reason I chose this book to read. I just semi-randomly grabbed a PKD book I hadn’t read. I haven’t been in a great mood for fiction in recent months, but I think my mind might be shifting back in the direction of fiction and PKD is my favorite fiction writer. I’ve read about equal amounts of PKD’s fiction and non-fiction. It was only when I started reading PKD’s non-fiction that I came to understand PKD’s fiction. PKD, of course, obsessively speculated about reality.

Eye in the Sky is a typical PKD story. A group of people become isolated in a separate reality that functions according to religious principles: magic, prayer, grace, merit and whatever else. PKD puts this all into the context of the modern world. Basically, this is a version of PKD’s idea that the Empire Never Ended. In one of PKD’s visions, he saw the Roman world during Jesus life overlaid on the modern world of California. It’s like the Kabbalah theology which interprets Biblical stories as on-going events in the world. So, the flood never ended and those who oblivious to this spiritual reality are drowning. The Roman Empire and the Nixon administration are just two manifestations of the same Black Iron Prison that we are trapped within.

In the blog I linked to above, I connected PKD’s Black Iron Prison to Max Weber’s Iron Cage. Weber theorizes that bureaucracy functions specifically by undermining the traditional religious authority. The old religious world operated according to kinship (between individuals and communities, between mortals and gods, between humans and nature). Such a society would favor thin boundary types or at least would give such people prominent positions of authority and respect (priests, shamans, healers, etc).

Thinking along these lines, I took the first thought experiment a step further. Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.

This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences. The challenge I see is that those prone to sociopathic behavior (and those prone to the thick boundary experience of the world) have personal interest in defending the Iron Cage bureaucracy that benefits them. Bureaucracy is a self-perpetuating system in that those who are promoted to the top are very motivated in defending the system and very talented in manipulating those below them. There is no doubt that sociopaths are very good at maintaining their power.

The question arises again: Is a different world, a different society possible?
And another question follows: How would our very experience of reality change if society changed?

 – – –

May the power of wonder always be greater than the power of the wonder-killers.

Self & Other in the Movies: Redemption or Destruction?

“Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched.”
 ~ Blaise Pascal

Walking through the cemetary last night, my friend mentioned the movie District 9. It turned out we both had watched it this past week, but my friend didn’t finish watching it because he didn’t like it. So, we discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the movie as we walked among the headstones.

For some reason, I was reminded of the movie Falling Down. I told my friend that I wanted to see that movie again sometime and he asked me why I thought of it. There were two reasons.

The first reason had to do with the similarity between the District 9 bureaucrat (Wikus van de Merwe) and the Falling Down businessman (William “Bill” Foster, aka D-FENS). Both are pathetic ordinary guys. They lived their lives playing by the rules. All they wanted was the normal mediocrity that was guaranteed to them as boring middle class white guys. 

The second reason was more generally about where my mind has been focused lately. I think I might’ve seen Falling Down used as an example in something I was reading lately. Anyways, it made me think of Glenn Beck being inspired by Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech in the movie Network. Howard Beale is another example of the middle class white guy being forced out of his contented stupor. So, it seemed to me that Beck would be similarly inspired by William Foster of Falling Down.

Bill Foster: I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don’t know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.

Falling Down largely puts this into a class context with obvious racial tensions. It’s not just the ordinary guy refusing to take it anymore. It’s the middle class white businessman refusing to take it anymore, the middle class white businessman who is the ultimate symbol of the American normalacy we all are supposed to strive towards. This middle class white businessman is frustrated, but his frustration doesn’t cause him to feel sympathy for all of those who have been frustrated their entire lives. No, he sees the poor and the minorities, the gangsters and other dregs of society who have refused to play by the rules, as the source of his frustration. Even the Korean shop owner is seen as an enemy simply for the perceived insult of charging too much for a soda. 

Why should these poor people and these minorities be allowed to get the better of good Americans? All the hardworking middle class white businessman wants is to be a good American and be rewarded for playing by the rules. Yet, he realizes that life isn’t fair and so he seeks retribution for this perceived loss of moral order. What he doesn’t realize is that life never was fair (even when it was personally benefitting him in the past), that life isn’t fair for anyone.

Bill Foster: I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons, you know they lied to me.
Sergeant Prendergast: Is that what this is about? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? You’re mad because they lied to you? Listen, pal, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish. But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.

Howard Beale, at least, realizes that they’ve been lying to us all… and not just to middle class white guys. Beale’s speech evokes populist discontent and righteous anger. Beale is portrayed as noble in his standing up and speaking out. Foster lacks any such noble qualities. In District 9, Wikus could’ve gone down the path of Falling Down, but eventually his sympathetic side wins out. The difference is that, where Foster clearly holds himself above all those he condemns, Wikus is literally turning into one of the aliens he had previously treated, in his role as a heartless bureaucrat, as being below him. Foster dies never doubting his own righteousness towards others and Wikus risks his own life in righteously defending the Other.

It would be too simplistic to portray Foster’s anger as mere racism. Foster has no more love for the rich white guys on the golf course than he has for the Latino gang. It’s the rich guys like them who fired him without any care for his fate. You’d think this might make him feel sympathy for all the people who have been likewise screwed over by the wealthy elite, but that isn’t what he feels. As I see it, Foster is mad not because he doesn’t believe in the American Dream of the good life but because he does believe in it and believes he deserves it. On the other hand, Beale and Wikus seem to come to some understanding that the good life they had known is not real or not worthy and so they don’t look for easy targets on which to project their frustration.

At this point in my discussion with my friend, I was reminded of A Scanner Darkly (of which I’m often reminded). In Scanner, the protagonist Bob Arctor remembers (or else has a vision) of once having lived the good life, of having  had a nice house with a perfect family. It’s in that scene he realizes he didn’t ultimately hate the momentary pain of life’s events but rather he had felt hate for how his life had once been, the life that wasn’t real and that hid the deeper pain of a world without meaning or wonder. Arctor hated what that dream of the perfect life represented. The perfect family and home weren’t as perfect as they appeared. Society and human relationships are filled with endless deception. No matter how comfortable the fantasy, it’s not enough. The realization that the dream is fake is a good thing because only in knowing what isn’t real can one then seek out that which is real.

Foster is deluding himself that if he can just get back home that the world will somehow be put right again. By tightly holding onto his dream of normalacy, he ends up hurting almost everyone he meets. As portrayed in Scanner, facing reality isn’t always pleasant… even so, there is something worthy in it. The key element is the willingness to self-sacrifice. Foster instead chooses self-destruction that achieves no end other than self-righteousness. Foster is shocked to discover that he is seen as being the “bad guy”, but he doesn’t ask for forgiveness for the destruction and suffering he has left in his wake. 

I thought of one last example of this narrative: American Beauty. Lester Burnham is yet another middle class white guy who had been living the American Dream and found it lacking. When confronted with this situation, there are many possible responses. At first, Lester responds by becoming infatuated with his daughter’s friend. So, he turns from the fantasy of career to the fantasy of youthful desire, but something stops him from following through with this infatuation. He sees the young girl as a real person and not merely an object of his desire. He seems to realize that he doesn’t want to harm another simply because he himself feels hurt by life.

Interestingly, both A Scanner Darkly and American Beauty end, after everything going wrong, with a vision of beauty. Quite differently, Network and Falling Down end on a note of almost pure cynicism. District 9 just ends with self-conscious movie cliche silliness.

However it ends, I find it a compelling story when the middle class white guy is thrown out of his middle class white world. But why is it compelling? Should we pity the middle class white guy who has been forced to face the everyday suffeing most of humanity faces all of the time? Should the middle class white guy feel sorry for himself because he has lost the sense of comfort that his socio-economic class normally provides? Why, as a society, are we obsessed with telling (and being entertained by) stories about the struggles of middle class white guys? Is it compelling because the middle class white guy as the collective symbol of normalacy represents our collective sense of self? If the middle class white guy loses his direction, will our whole society collapse? Is the middle class white guy the moral compass of modern Western Civilization?

I could leave it on the level of social criticism of middle class white guys and our fascination with them, but there is another context I wanted to throw in. The theme of the superficial normalacy of American culture has been explored in Film Noir and Neo-Noir. Starting with the first Philip K. Dick adaptation (Blade Runner), Science Fiction has become a popular form of Neo-Noir. Like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, A Scanner Darkly also has Noir elements. Important elements of Noir and Neo-Noir are memory and identity. None of the movies I’ve discussed are specifically Noir, but for all of them identity is the most central element in that the characters have their identities shaken to the core. In Arts of Darkness, Thomas S. Hibbs discusses American Beauty (p. 193):

Not technically a noir film, American Beauty does overlap with noir in a number of respects: in its use of flashback and voiceover; in its focus on a character who is already dead (D.O.A.); in its assumption that the source of American alienation is somehow connected to the infiltration of consumerism into the very heart of intimate relations; in its theme of a doomed quest; and in its setting of the final, crescendo of violence at night in rain. American Beauty is also a deeply, if not entirely coherent religious film that, according to at least one perceptive Christian film critic, can help viewers see “the world as it truly is: resplendent and suffused with a radiant, implacable love that shows itself in the exquisite beauty of the very fabric of the created world.

Hibbs, a few pages later, points out an important insight (p. 199):

A more consistent critique of capitalism as source of brutality can be found in Wendell Berry’s essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” Berry argues that giving free reign to capitalism wipes out local communal life, leaving individuals isolated and powerless in the face of large, impersonal forces. The proper, mediating role of the community is lost and individuals, liberated from local traditions and communal expectations, are increasingly subject to the whims of national bureaucracies and international markets. One of the problems with the “family values” espoused by conservatives is that it often leaves the nuclear family to itself, isolated amid an increasingly hostile economic and social order. Family values are also quite compatible with what Tocqueville identified as one of the great vices of modern politics: individualism. Tocqueville contrasted egoism, which elevates the satisfaction of one’s own desires above all else, with individualism, which is a “a mature and calm feeling” that disposes each person to “draw apart with his family and friends” and ” willingly leave society to itself.” The consequence of this sort of individualism, according to Berry, is the loss of the sense of marriage as anything other than a contract between two isolated individuals: “If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forbears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglet, community ruin, and loneliness.”

This brings me back to my social criticism of the white middle class guy who is the symbol of our consumerist society. He is the head of the nuclear family and the traditional breadwinner. The role of the individual has become so constrained, so narrow that this role takes on ultimate significance. When the white middle class guy loses his job or family, the center can no longer hold. There is no larger community for him to turn to, there is no other respectable role he can take up. However, at the same time, this role that gives him the only meaning he knows also confounds any search for greater meaning. It’s what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

This “quiet desperation” is often portrayed in the form of bureaucracy. In Falling Down and American Beauty, the protagonists just lost their important positions in large bureaucratic companies. In District 9, Network, and A Scanner Darkly, the protagonists are caught up in the machinations of bureaucracies. This mind-numbing, soul-killing bureaucracy is what Max Weber called the Iron Cage. From the Wikipedia article:

Iron cage, a sociological concept introduced by Max Weber, refers to the increased rationalization inherent in social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage” thus traps individuals in systems based purely on teleological efficiency, rational calculation and control. Weber also described the bureaucratization of social order as “the polar night of icy darkness”.

[ . . . ] Weber states, “the course of development involves… the bringing in of calculation into the traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.”

Modern society was becoming characterized by its shift in the motivation of individual behaviors. Social actions were becoming based on efficiency instead of the old types of social actions, which were based on lineage or kinship. Behavior had become dominated by goal-oriented rationality and less by tradition and values. According to Weber, the shift from the old form of mobility in terms of kinship to a new form in terms of a strict set of rules was a direct result of growth in bureaucracy and capitalism.

[ . . . ] Because of these aforementioned reasons, there will be an evolution of an iron cage, which will be a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society. The iron cage is the one set of rules and laws that we are all subjected and must adhere to. Bureaucracy puts us in an iron cage, which limits individual human freedom and potential instead of a “technological utopia” that should set us free. It’s the way of the institution, where we do not have a choice anymore. Once capitalism came about, it was like a machine that you were being pulled into without an alternative option; currently, whether we agree or disagree, if you want to survive you need to have a job and you need to make money.

[ . . . ] “Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers, but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief.”

I first learned of Weber’s ideas about bureaucracy from the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. In that book, Hansen describes the eternal conflict in our society between the forces of bureaucratic order and the forces that are beyond control. The Trickster archetype can never be entirely removed or entirely protected against. It’s the role of the Trickster to explode the alien chemicals in the face of Wikus in District 9. It’s the role of the Trickster to create such confused self-deception in A Scanner Darkly. If nothing ever went wrong, there wouldn’t be any reason to tell stories. No satisfying story ends exactly as it begins. Some learn to accept the role of the Trickster and they hold less tightly onto the story they were telling themselves. Those who do try to hold onto their self-justifying stories typically become tragic anti-heroes like in Falling Down and tragic anti-heroes have tragic ends.

Yes, “they” are lying to us, but it also must be understood that “they” are lying to everyone… including to themselves. We are all caught up in a system of lies. This relates to Weber’s Iron Cage or, to put it in the light of gnosticism, what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Ultimately, we should worry more about the lies we tell ourselves than the lies that others tell us. Most of the time, we believe the lies of others because we want to believe them, because we have internalized some fundamental lie that our society is built upon. If you must, scream out the window that you’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Then, after doing so, take a look at yourself in the mirror.

Let me end this with the context of real life.

I mentioned Glenn Beck in relation to Network. I find that fascinating considering that Glenn Beck idolizes a fictional character who ends up being assassinated for speaking out against the powers that be. What is sad about Howard Beale, and hence what is sad about Beck, is that he looks outward trying to find the source of the problem. As I recall, Beale doesn’t come to any grand realization as does Bob Arctor and as does Lester Burnham. Both Beale and Arctor are possessed by paranoid visions which isn’t the problem in and of itself. Their paranoia correctly detects real conspiracies and real deceptions, but there is a difference that matters. Arctor, through profound self-questioning, transforms his paranoia into a spiritual vision.

It’s with this contrast between Beale and Arctor that I rest my own personal struggles. I can’t entirely blame the Beales and Becks of the world for ranting against injustice. I can’t even entirely blame the Bill Fosters of the world for going on their rampages. In the real world, Bill Foster in Falling Down is Joe Stack flying his plane into the IRS building. I understand how a person can feel overwhelmed by the frustration and hopelessness. The rug gets pulled out from under us (whether it’s losing your job or having alien chemicals sprayed in your face) and one is forced to respond. Most will try everything they can to make it go back to the way it used to be, but this inevitably fails. In place of what was lost, some latch onto convictions and others seek retribution. I personally prefer those who seek understanding and those who try to find a way to end the cycle of suffering. Such things as family and career won’t save you and neither will such things as politics and religion. My sense is that genuine salvation is much more personal and existential. Like Bill Foster, it’s all too easy to become the enemy that one wishes to fight against. Righteous anger is a dangerous drug which is highly addictive. I understand the allure of self-righteousness, but I’d like to believe there is some other option… beauty, love, compassion, self-sacrifice… I don’t know… something…

Nonetheless, whether or not we are able to gain something we deem a worthy exchange, it is undeniably clear that most often what is lost can never be regained. As Thomas Wolfe so famously said:

…you can’t go home again… back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love… away from all the strife and conflict of the world… back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

I do, however, hope that at least some semblance of truth can be found or else just the awareness of the edges of knowledge. I admit I’d love to experience a transformative vision or attain some gnosis about the world, but there is no guarantee about anything and I suppose that is the only truth we can rely upon. We can’t know what lies ahead and so that is why we try to hold onto past certainties. Still, I think Bob Arctor was lucky in having entirely lost his former self. It seems to me that it was because he had no past to weigh him down that he was able to see the world in a way no one else could.

“I saw Death rising from the earth, from the ground itself… in one blue field.”