I was recently wondering about the root and rot of the tree of liberty. America is a crazy experiment and these are crazy times. I’m not sure if to embrace the crazy or resist it. Ironically, the new immigrants hated and/or feared by the nativists are about the only Americans left who (naively?) believe in the American Dream.
Matt Cardin over at Teeming Brain just posted a bunch of links that are as interesting as usual. There is the apocalypse thingy:
Adieu: On the downward slope of empire
William Deresiewicz, The American Scholar
This will not be pretty. I mean our national decline, and yes, it’s going to happen, sooner or later, one way or another. We can stave it off for a while, especially if we manage to get our heads screwed on a little straighter about a number of things—like immigration, which has always been the source of our renewal, or clean technologies, which might provide another burst of economic growth. China could stumble, as it seems to be doing right now, and in any case there’s still a lot of kick left in the old mare. But empires fall as surely as they rise, and mostly for the reasons that we’re seeing now: they overextend themselves; their systems grow sclerotic; their elites become complacent and corrupt. There’s almost something metaphysical at work. The national sap dries up; the historical clock runs out.
In America’s case, the end is likely to involve a lot more bang than whimper.
The Comforts of the Apocalypse
Rob Goodman, The Chronicle of Higher Education
We’re living through a dystopia boom; secular apocalypses have, in the words of The New York Times, “pretty much owned” best-seller lists and taken on a dominant role in pop culture. These are fictions of infinite extrapolation, stories in which today’s source of anxiety becomes tomorrow’s source of collapse.
. . . All of this literature is the product of what the philosopher John Gray has described as “a culture transfixed by the spectacle of its own fragility.” Call it dystopian narcissism: the conviction that our anxieties are uniquely awful; that the crises of our age will be the ones that finally do civilization in; that we are privileged to witness the beginning of the end.
Of course, today’s dystopian writers didn’t invent the ills they decry: Our wounds are real. But there is also a neurotic way of picking at a wound, of catastrophizing, of visualizing the day the wounded limb turns gangrenous and falls off. It’s this hunger for crisis, the need to assign our problems world-transforming import, that separates dystopian narcissism from constructive polemic.
I’ve been too depressed for too long to get overly excited by the ravings of the apocalyptic crowd. I’m also too well informed to almost ever feel surprised. When the 9/11 attack happened, after drowsily and surreally waking up to the radio report, my first coherent thought on the matter was how sadly inevitable was such an incident. For anyone who knows the history of US government meddling, blowback was unavoidable and was going to have real consequences one way or another (see: All of Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer).
Many of the horrible apocalyptic scenarios have a plausibility about them, maybe even a fair probability, if not entirely unavoidable. Why the continuous surprise about horrific events? And why the paranoid obsessiveness that tries to make them into something more they are? How is global warming a shock considering how much pollution we’ve dumped into the soil, water and atmosphere? It is so boringly predictable.
As for America the empire, we are simply playing out the story many other empires have played out before, although with some new twists. Move along, folks, there is nothing to see here.
I’m not being cynical or I’m not trying to be. It just that somethings begin to seem excruciatingly obvious after awhile.
It is easy for humans to get trapped in reality tunnels, media bubbles and echo chambers. That is how the obvious becomes less-than-obvious in our thoughts and perceptions. We come to take things for granted and don’t even realize there is something to be questioned and doubted. We seek to maintain our sense of reality, the status quo social order, the known and familiar… simply for the sake of it for what else would we do?
It is all about keeping ourselves occupied and distracted, keeping up with the Joneses, keeping on keeping on. And the potential forced ending of all that can indeed feel apocalyptic. Everything comes to an end eventually, whether the ending be death and collapse or an awakening. Although this game can’t go on forever, we will try to keep it going for as long as we can. I guess that is just human nature.
This brings me two other links Cardin offered and I’ll present some of the text as well:
On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
Rather than [technology] allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. . . . These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs.’
It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. . . . Through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand. . . . If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job.
In Praise of Laziness
Yet the biggest problem in the business world is not too little but too much—too many distractions and interruptions, too many things done for the sake of form, and altogether too much busy-ness. The Dutch seem to believe that an excess of meetings is the biggest devourer of time: they talk of vergaderziekte, “meeting sickness”. However, a study last year by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that it is e-mails: it found that highly skilled office workers spend more than a quarter of each working day writing and responding to them.
Which of these banes of modern business life is worse remains open to debate. But what is clear is that office workers are on a treadmill of pointless activity. Managers allow meetings to drag on for hours. Workers generate e-mails because it requires little effort and no thought. An entire management industry exists to spin the treadmill ever faster.
All this “leaning in” is producing an epidemic of overwork, particularly in the United States. Americans now toil for eight-and-a-half hours a week more than they did in 1979. A survey last year by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost a third of working adults get six hours or less of sleep a night. Another survey last year by Good Technology, a provider of secure mobile systems for businesses, found that more than 80% of respondents continue to work after leaving the office, 69% cannot go to bed without checking their inbox and 38% routinely check their work e-mails at the dinner table.
This activity is making it harder to focus on real work as opposed to make-work.
I pondered this in a more personal way some years ago – The Elephant that Wasn’t There:
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 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?
Ultimately, the apocalyptic vision isn’t necessarily about the losing of the known at all. The more fundamental fear is the facing of the unknown… which will transform the known, give it new context and meaning. What is fearful about this process is that the unknown once known can’t be made unknown again, can’t ever again be easily forgotten or entirely denied.
The world is an ever-changing place. Apocalypse and transformation are two sides of the same chrysalis. We worry about the destruction of what we know, but that is just a perception. Take the perspective of someone in the past and the present we seek to save can be seen as the destruction of the past world that others sought to defend. Take the perspective of someone in the future and maybe we in this period are seen as standing in the way of a better world, mere children clinging to our blankeys. We are pretty fucking clueless is all I can say. Some of us are more analytical and all that, but it is mostly just a front, a rationalization we present as a lucky charm to protect us against evil.
We all have our favorite story. I’d go so far as to say we all live out a story, usually without full consciousness, assuming consciousness is involved whatsoever in most cases. I read a good articulation of this in a story by Quentin S. Crisp (“The Mermaid”, Morbid Tales):
I believe that everybody has a story. It falls to their life’s epicentre like a meteorite. Even before the story has actually happened the person knows somewhere, with an infallible sense of precognition, what that story is. They predict it again and again in all sorts of ways. They are bound to it by irresistible forces of gravity and magnetism. That is why, knowing they are inevitably taken up with their own story, they feel they are missing something and look to the lives of others with envy. But even those who are envied are enslaved in private by their own particular stories. The hardest part of it all is that stories take place over time. Nothing is revealed all at once. One scene follows closely upon another leaving no gaps, fitting tightly together, slowly and carefully picking out details so that all sense of fulfilment is perpetually in abeyance. And in each new scene we are no longer the same person who wanted the things that scene brings. It is the story of how we age. But if our stories tie us down, make us particular, limit us, they also offer us consolation. In my case, I have tried to escape the sequence of my own story and its temporal limitations by writing more stories, expressing things that I hoped would attain permanence beyond my life. I have learnt, however, that the story in my own life is far more important than any story I might present to the world. Now that it has happened I feel real. Why should I need to write stories when I am a story?
Unlike the storyteller, few of us ever become so self-aware. Stories are most engrossing when we don’t even realize they are stories and that it is we who are telling it. The story becomes real by being mistaken for reality and in doing so our reality is altered. Stories become self-fulfilling prophecies and self-reinforcing reality tunnels. That is certainly the power of religion, but it is the power of everything, including science.
We sometimes forget how young we are as a species and how younger still is science. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the reality around us and within us. Even within science, people have their favored theory and of course other people’s favored theory is bullshit.
I came across this type of thing just the other day with a blogger who goes by the pseudonym of JayMan. He is an human biodiversity (HBD) proponent. HBD is a theory that is so far outside of mainstream science as to have little scientific research backing it up at present. There is some data offering clues, but the scope and quality of research is severely lacking at present. HBD proponents would claim this is because most scientists are being politically correct. Maybe so and maybe not.
What interested me about the incident was the response he gave when I brought up another alternative theory involving non-Darwinian evolution. He called it bullshit. It was one thing to discuss his favored alternative theory and a whole other matter with someone else’s favored alternative theory. It wasn’t even my favored alternative theory. I was merely pointing out that there was research-based theories that were being discussed by scientists, but JayMan would have none of it. He is a smart guy, but it just didn’t fit into his reality tunnel. It wasn’t political correctness to ignore what he disagreed with. That was simply plain reality. Reality is reality. Deal with it! *sigh*
I’m one who will defend facts when I think they are true, but I must admit that I’m not a big defender of specific theories. I pretty much will fairly look at any perspective. If I was worried about political correctness, I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole either HBD or non-Darwinian evolution. It was JayMan who was obsessed with political correctness and judging theories accordingly. That is the power of reality tunnels. I have my own reality tunnel as well, but it happens to be a bit more porous and malleable (which can also be problematic in other ways).
I bring this HBD example up for two reasons. The first reason is that Cardin linked to another article about scientific reductionism which is definitely what JayMan and many other HBD proponents leans toward (I wouldn’t make this charge against hbd chick, though, for she is more careful in her analysis; she has the intellectual humility to admit that she isn’t doing science in her blog and that her favored theory could be wrong). The second reason goes back to the post I first linked above (The Root and Rot of the Tree of Liberty).
That post was largely a response to hbd chick. Like JayMan, she is definitely attracted to scientific reductionism. She has said many times that culture comes from biology for to all of human reality is biological and most of biology is genetics. I think hbd chick has a brilliant mind and she is definitely an awesome researcher, but to my mind her theory smacks too much of scientism. It’s not just an obsession with science but specifically the hard sciences.
I’m biased, of course, coming more from a social science perspective. If not for the social sciences, we wouldn’t know how easily scientists can get sloppy, even to the point of shaping the results they get and the conclusions they come to. If not for the social sciences, we wouldn’t have developed better scientific methodology such as double blinds. I have less trust in a hard science perspective that isn’t heavily grounded in the social sciences, and my trust is even less when we are talking about human nature which is the focus of HBD proponents. My speaking of reality tunnels is essentially grounded in my study of the social sciences.
HBD proponents tend to have a very narrow focus. JayMan told me once that we should just focus on the facts and not their implications. This seems naive to me. There is no such thing as just the facts. Everything is built on ideas, assumptions, beliefs, biases, perceptions, interpretations, etc. It is because HBD proponents (and other similar types) are so narrowly focused that they so easily fall into certain kinds of apocalyptic thinking. We live in a world of dangers and possibilities, but what they worry about is that the immigrants are going to destroy America. This seems strange to me. The immigrants are America. There would be no America without centuries of mass immigration. If they aren’t trying to protect this America that has existed for centuries, then what mythical America are they hoping to save?
I guess that is the problem with all apocalyptic thinking. It is in the end grounded in fantasy. There are real fears it feeds upon, but those real fears are often incidental or secondary. We obsess about apocalypse because we’d rather ignore the even worse problems that surround us. Instead of apocalypse and paranoia, others turn to watching lots of tv, getting lost in social media, drinking and drugging, obsessive dieting and exercising, and other options are available as well. This is also why we project problems onto others and make them into scapegoats for then we don’t have to focus on our own issues and our own personal contributions to societal challenges. Whatever is the case, the type of distraction isn’t important.
The problem that finally gets us will probably be the problem we don’t see coming. The problems we’re worried about are the ones that usually are the least dangerous. That is the point. We focus on fake threats and paranoid fantasies because they are an escape from boring reality. They are safe and easy. That way we can avoid the deep soul-searching and hard work to make the world a better place or simply not make it worse.
The above felt like a good ending point, but hardly inspiring. You can stop there if you so desire or follow me a bit further into my personal motivations and wonderings.
The reason I care about society or even HBD is because I have insatiable curiosity. Humanity fascinates me, humanity and all that it entails. People like Matt Cardin and hbd chick seem to share this sense of curiosity which is more important to my mind than our agreeing about everything.
I had a discussion with hbd chick about culture. I tend to see culture more of as a mystery whereas she tends to see it as a set of data points. It is pretty much a difference of whether the whole is merely the sum of its parts or greater than the sum of its parts, or so it seems to me but maybe hbd chick would state it differently.
Then again, I do have strong tendencies toward being a pansy liberal with weird spiritual experiences and notions about reality. The HBD crowd aren’t known for their pansy liberals. I try to communicate with them through the lense of the libertarian side of my personality. From my crazy liberal-minded perspective, I find it hard to conform to any single theory. I’m a thin-boundaried possibility thinker and proud of it, dammit! I don’t mind too much those who lean toward scientific reductionism. We all have our role to play. That tolerance and love of diversity is part of my crazy liberal-mindedness.
I find myself always restraining my personal idiosyncracies and illnesses. I do have severe depression and probably a few other mental conditions, maybe borderline something thrown in there or else maybe some aspergers. Whatever is my personal ailment, my brainstuff obviously doesn’t work normally. This is why the strangeness of the world, 9/11 attacks included, don’t surprise me. It seems normal to me that the world is a crazy place. Do I love America so much because it is such a crazy experiment or do I love thinking of America as a crazy experiment because I’m crazy? That is definitely something to ponder.
JayMan is a typical hardcore scientific-minded atheist. It is either hard science or bullshit. There are no other options and no middle ground. The science vs religious issue confuses me. I eternally exist in the middle, the intermediate, the interstitial, the liminal or whatever it is. I’m a both/and kinda guy.
In a society obsessed with science as ours is, what takes the place of religion is secular apocalypse, paranoia, conspiracy theory, alien abductions, and on and on. It’s all fun. I don’t disparage it in and of itself. I love the Fortean. The trick, though, is to see it for what it is. I want to get to the root of fears and fantasies. That is where the tasty morsels are to be found.
We aren’t just sets of data. We are living humanity. We don’t just get trapped in reality tunnels. I might go so far as to say we are reality tunnels. We embody stories and gods. The apocalypse plays out in our souls before it ever manifests in the world.
As such, a culture is an emergent property. It can’t be predicted by that which precedes it or explained by which it consists of. In our discussion, I compared culture to consciousness, both being beyond present scientific knowledge. We can look at snapshots and the mechanisms for the physical correlates, but we are almost completely ignorant about the thing itself. We can’t objectively study culture and consciousness because we are the thing we seek to analyze.
To counter this, hbd chick stated that culture is a lot less complex and mysterious than consciousness for we can point to specific data of cultures. She used the term ‘flavor’ and I thought that a good way of putting it. So, I extended her thought. Maybe the flavor of a culture (violent, universalist, or whatever) is to a culture as personality is to consciousness. I pointed out how we are able to and have measured personality traits of both individuals and groups, including at the level of regions. Personality traits is the flavor of humanity that is the meeting point of consciousness and culture, the individual and the collective.
Cultures, like religions, are reality tunnels. But that sounds dismissive. Reality tunnels are the only reality we have and so I don’t mean to disregard them as mere negative traps to be escaped, as if we are the prisoners of a gnostic demiurge. It is simpler and more complex than that. It is simply the only reality we know and we don’t know what we don’t know.
Religions, like cultures, are lived realities. We can’t truly know them from the outside. The scientific data about cultures is to cultures as the rituals of a religion are to the mystic’s vision of the divine. A living god is a thing to behold and so is a living culture, no matter what your belief is about such things.
The same goes for an apocalypse. They are real to those know them in their own reality. They are so real that we can sometimes even make them physically real if we try hard enough. So, in our collective obsessions with apocalypse or more mundanely with work, what kind of world are we creating? More importantly, what kind of world do we want to create? If we weren’t limited by our fears and doubts, what would we collectively strive to achieve and become?