Officially Broken

Now that democracy is officially broken, it was with some poignancy that I stumbled upon a piece of ancient history.  Everyone has a box that contains their past life.  It used to be a physical box with papers in it, and in mine (which still has actual papers), I stumbled across a letter yellowed with age, dated 1980 from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  In an ill-fated career as a teenage journalist, I reported in the results of the presidential election from one of the polling places in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  The envelope held a serious letter from a state official letting me know how important my duty was.  As I looked at my teenage scrawl two things became clear: the Democrats had won in what is now a deeply red zone, and even when democracy worked it didn’t work well.  

You see, I had a number to call to report the results.  Since toll-free numbers hadn’t proliferated at that time in history, I was to make a collect call.  And since I lived in Rouseville, some three or four miles away, I couldn’t get the results in immediately.  On my way home, before making the collect call, it was announced that Reagan had won.  The ballot results, still tucked away in my envelope, hadn’t been reported, and obviously they weren’t important.  It was the first election in which I voted and I learned then that the system didn’t take all votes into account.  Now that Trump is firing those who managed to testify at his impeachment Republican senators reply, “Yes, that’s good, that’s right.  It’s as it should be.”  Democracy is dead.

These United Orwellian States displayed their predilections long ago.  I’d read 1984 about that time, before the eponymous year of the title.  I’d been deputized to report on an election whose results were declared before every vote was counted, and I lived in the Eastern Time Zone.  I didn’t vote in elections for several years after that.  When politically conscious friends asked why not, I said “what’s the point?”  You see, the reporting assignment was part of a current issues class in high school.  It was to teach us how government worked.  My teacher’s signature still graces the form inside.  As one political party has embodied massive dereliction of duty, we limp along toward November.  I don’t know if my vote will count or not, but I will be at the polls again.  Anyone who believes in democracy will have to be.  And perhaps, just perhaps, all the pre-planned cheating won’t work this time around.  Eric Arthur Blair, it is said, died a paranoid man.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

1985

My edition of 1984 contains an afterword by Erich Fromm. I’m afraid I’ve been in publishing long enough to be somewhat cynical about “value-added content” that’s used to sell subsequent printings. Those who buy a book off the shelf want the text of George Orwell’s classic, not the comments of some academic, right? The intended market, however, is for classroom use—the sweet spot for academic publishers. A few adoptions at major university and what is otherwise any old tome from the used book market becomes a profitable venture. My edition of 1984 is a 62nd impression with a copyright of 1961. The class I took where it had to be read was two decades later than that. In any case, Erich Fromm. I first learned about him in college, and given the underlining in his essay I know I read it back when I took the class. In rereading it decades later, an un-remembered point came clearly to me—Fromm’s brief essay is on prophecy.

In the popular mindset, prophecy is predicting the future. While there’s some element of that in the Bible, by far the majority of prophetic texts serve as a warning to change how things are done before it’s too late. There’s a contingency about it. “Or else.” If there’s no possibility of change, why castigate people you’re only going to destroy anyway? Prophecy, despite its often dire outlook, is ultimately hopeful. Wrote Fromm “it was quite obviously [Orwell’s] intention to sound a warning by showing where we are headed.” But more important are the next words: “for unless we succeed in a renaissance of the spirit of humanism and dignity” all will be lost. The spirit of humanism.

Fromm was writing during the nuclear fear that I recall very well from childhood. As soon as I was old enough to comprehend what we had created, I feared we would eventually loose it upon ourselves. I was hardly a humanist at the time, but I was, even in my young days, an unwitting advocate of its spirit. I believed all people had a chance, or should have a chance. Foreign evil, as it was being presented by Ronald Reagan, seemed more fictional than Orwell. The average person didn’t want war. It was the Party that needed our fear. I graduated from college, seminary, and my doctoral program, eventually forgetting Fromm’s words. The Whitehouse had finally found its way out of the Bushes and into moderate humanism. Then Fromm came back.

Making Prophets

I first read 1984 around its eponymous date. The context is informative. I was a student at Grove City College, a conservative, Reagan-esque school of strong free-market inclinations. Being a first-generation college student I knew nothing of choosing a school, and since my upbringing was Fundamentalist, and since Grove City was a place I’d been many times, it seemed the natural choice. As my four years there wore one, my conservatism became effaced before what should be the effect of higher education. I was reading and learning new things—ideas that in the pre-internet days were simply inaccessible to someone from a small town which had no library, no bookstore, and, to be honest, no charm. How was someone supposed to learn in those circumstances? Largely it came down to high school (for those who finished) in a nearby town, and television. George Orwell saw the potential of the latter far too clearly.

It was in this great conservative bastion that I read 1984—I don’t even remember what course it was for. I do remember vividly the discussion of the Appendix on Newspeak—that it was a danger, a very real danger, to engineer language to prevent free thought. That was conservatism in the literal era of 1984. When that year passed we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy hadn’t happened. Maybe Orwell wasn’t a prophet after all. The thing about prophecy, however, is that it unfolds slowly. Trump may have caught the world by surprise, but the evidence is there that the Orwellian groundwork was being consciously laid from the time of the Clinton Administration onward. Those who seemed to think Ingsoc was onto something good began working in local politics—the level of school boards and state elections, to build a strong conservative bloc. How many states have Republican governors? Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

Progressives blithely moved ahead, making real ethical strides. One problem that they’ve always had, however, is believing that Evil is real. It’s an outmoded idea, fit for Medievalist thinking only. There are, however, very real racial supremacists out there. And avowed, unrepentant sexists. They feel that the great white way has been slighted and they are itching for revenge. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news. This is not your father’s Republican Party. In 1984 the Republicans were warning us about 1984. By the next decade they were actively emulating it. Orwell died paranoid and the world was relieved as his prophecy was harmlessly classified as fiction.

Radicalizing the Normal

Reading Orwellian headlines on a daily basis can wear you down. Think about it—we know because of the endless obfuscation that the Trump administration has deep entanglements with Russia. We know that Russians tried to sway the election toward Trump. We also know that the incumbent refuses to release his taxes or divest from his personal business interests and we can only infer that our tax-payer dollars are going into more personal pockets than ever before. We have on tape evidence that the commander-in-chief is a sexual predator who wants to remove the healthcare of millions so that his lackeys can get even more of that lucre. And when the White House speaks its message is that we, not they, are the problem. What used to be normal life in America is now radicalized. Fascism is the flavor of the term.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-005-28 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I’m inclined to be philosophical about such things. After all, I lost my job at Nashotah House while doing things as I always had—the administration had changed, not me. Don’t get me wrong. I know that you have to be flexible and adaptable in the world these days. The policies I see being spewed from the corridors of power, however, are backward facing. Trying to make America as great as it was during the Depression. They call it the Great Depression, after all, don’t they? And the war before that, before it acquired an awful twin, was known as the Great War. Doesn’t everyone look back at those times with a rosy glow of nostalgia? The problem I’m having is trying to figure out what’s normal. You see, you’re born into life with no instruction book. If you’re from a working class family you’ll be told that an education will improve your job prospects. Who am I to question those who know better?

It used to be, back in the good old days, that you could count on the government looking out for your own best interests. You didn’t have to spend every day signing petitions and calling your congress-persons simply to avoid the next disaster. You didn’t spend your weekends at marches and huddles and organizing meetings. The little time you had for leisure has now become time we owe the government to make sure they don’t intentionally ram the iceberg straight ahead. What used to be normal—a drowsy weekend with time to work on your latest book—has now become a radical dream. Midterm elections, in my humble opinion, can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to get back to normal.

The First Weak

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!” I always thought this couplet came from Shakespeare, but in fact it’s from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Marmion.” The quote has been in my head all this first week of the new administration as alternative facts, lies, and statistics have flooded out of the White House. Along with gag orders slapped onto federal agencies. I’ve worked for people who rely on gag orders. This obvious lack of transparency signals loud and proud that they have facts to hide. Then they will feed the public alternative facts and later claim they never did. Mission accomplished. Sir Walter Scott may not have been William Shakespeare, but he sure got that web analogy right. At times like this we need our writers. Of course, Trump bragged in pre-inauguration interviews that he didn’t like to read.

Since last weekend sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked. From the first words out of Sean Spicer’s mouth (or any words out of the mouth of Kellyanne Conway}, many of us knew the only thing Orwell got wrong was the date. Frankly I’m surprised the government hasn’t tried to ban 1984 yet. It was required reading when I was in high school and that date was still in the future. The press—what still exists of it anyway—passed along stories that Trump had ordered photos of the inauguration day crowds hung in the White House in his first week. Such pressing matters of state! The photos had the wrong date on them. Facts are cheap. This should be good for the economy. You can get them in any flavor you like—true facts, false facts, alternative facts, statistics. Arachne has returned to her loom.

Although “Marmion” wasn’t written by Shakespeare, I can still say it was because I need a segue to Harold Hecuba. Hecuba was a Hollywood producer who accidentally landed on Gilligan’s Island. After he insulted Ginger the castaways put on a performance of Hamlet to showcase her acting skills. Hecuba, the unelected president of the island, awoke during rehearsal and, like other narcissists we know, took over. He says that Shakespeare was a hack and that if he were alive he’d have him working on a complete rewrite. Of course, he doesn’t know what Hamlet’s about. Or “Marmion.” Actors only mouth the words. They make us believe what is not true. We’re in for a period when we’re going to rely on the authors for the true story. I suggest we all start with 1984.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Love Thy Enemy

The line for the train snakes through Union Station before 6:00 a.m. Many of us, maybe all of us, were at the Women’s March on Washington. Listening to strangers speak to one another, it’s clear that this was the largest “love in” in history. Trump supporters say it was about hate—we know they rely on “alternative facts” now. Nearly every speaker at the rally emphasized love. The government gives us Orwellian doublespeak. 1984 must become required reading once again. We can’t let the fascists control the narrative. Those who control the narrative sway the crowds. The Women’s March on Washington was not hateful. This was a peaceful gathering in the name of love. I write fiction as well as non. (My fiction has even fewer readers than this blog.) The point is, I know about controlling narratives. If you let a government with a documented history of distorting the truth (at just one day old) control the narrative, friends, we are lost.

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The March was the beginning. I saw children just old enough to march. Children so young they had to march in strollers. I saw grandmothers in wheelchairs. I saw mothers and daughters. Sons, brothers, fathers. Not one unkind word among people standing shoulder-to-shoulder for over four hours. No room to sit down. Bathrooms inaccessible. We were united. We are united. This government has already shown that it will offer post-truth rather than facts whenever possible. Do not let them control the narrative! They will be trying to silence our voices. They will, like all fascists, try to make lies our national narrative. George Washington, they will tell us, voted for Donald Trump. And those who find blindly will believe it. Those who don’t read history will have no way to assess this. They will follow any narrative with a combed-over talking head. Question everything. Question what I write. Check it out. I believe in facts.

We are embarking on a dangerous journey. These waters, however, are not uncharted. The Bismarck steamed this way. Marches have been documented around the world. Millions of eyes are watching. They are part of the narrative. Write the story. Talk to others about this. Incessantly. The truth is not arbitrary. There are groups near you that you can join. Resist. Peacefully protest. Write the narrative. Share the narrative. If we need to March every weekend, we will. If we need to take turns, so be it. This is our story. Unlike the blatant post-truth we’re already being fed, our story is non-fiction. Read it and tell everyone else to read it too. This is what democracy looks like.

Post Post-Truth

One of the benefits of working with words is that you get to participate in reality. George Orwell famously wrote that if people didn’t have the words to express concepts the government didn’t like, those concepts would cease to exist. At least as long as they allow us to have the internet, concepts may survive. Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year reflects just this. The word is “post-truth.” Post-truth is a word of hard currency in the political marketplace. It essentially means that objective facts no longer outweigh emotion and personal belief in establishing reality. Think “global warming isn’t happening because it cuts into my bottom line.” Think “humans didn’t evolve from a common ancestor apes because an outdated book doesn’t say they did.” Think “Donald Trump won the election.” Truth is no longer truth without “post” in front of it. Believe what you will. No, I mean that. I choose to believe Trump was not elected. Post-truth cuts both ways.

In a world where reaction has replaced dialogue and where you win arguments by revealing your NRA card, truth is merely the first casualty. Already mainstream media, who told us the post-truth that Trump, according to the polls, couldn’t win, are now telling us it’s all politics as normal. This will be a simple transition of power. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. There is no wizard in Oz. Politicians lie. Only those born without a brain stem don’t realize that objective fact. We can be sure that even George Washington lied from time to time. There was no cherry tree-gate. Unless you choose to believe there was, then I guess it has to be okay. Your truth’s as good as mine.

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Over the past several years some prominent scientists have been saying philosophy is but misguided navel-gazing. It tells us nothing of reality. Truth, however, is a philosophical concept. Post is something to which you tie people before a firing squad. Truth has, until recent days, been considered that upon which all reasonable people could agree. The earth is not flat. We are flying around the sun so fast that it makes me earth-sick. We were able to put people on the moon. All of these are now post-truths. Along with the fact that every vote counts. In this slurry of fear, hatred, and distrust, who has time to worry about objective facts? Lexicographers do. And I praise them for giving us the most relevant word since Moses stumbled down the mountain with a tablet that read, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

For the People

The complex of holidays that make up the transition from light to darkness represents a different mix, depending where you are. Life on the equator, for example, experiences no real variation in daylight hours and I would expect that equinoxes and solstices are relatively meaningless. Or at least less so than where darkness encroaches. For those of us in temperate zones the difference in day length can be quite dramatic and our holiday calendar guides us through it. Getting through the darkness. So this weekend, on Bonfire Night—also known as Guy Fawkes Night, or November 5—I watched V for Vendetta again. This isn’t actually an annual practice, but some years the need to remember the fifth of November is quite strong. This is one of those years. I can’t remember having ever been this anxious about a presidential election. Tomorrow we are voting on whether we want democracy to continue or if we want a dictator who can stir hate like no candidate I’ve ever seen. He even makes Ronald Reagan look tolerable.

I’ve posted on V for Vendetta before, so I need not go over the story. The theme, however, that governments are to serve the people is a message that bears repeating. Governments are to serve the people. We’ve come to a crises point in self-government. A vote for Trump instead of Hillary is saying “I give up, I want Big Brother to take over.” Perhaps the movie I should reference is 1984. Orwell may have got the year wrong, but the story right. Make people afraid, stir the pot of negativity and they will act in desperation. Reactionary governments quickly become dictatorships and that message, mean-spirited and full of ugliness, has been placed squarely in our faces.

The point of V for Vendetta, and the point on which the movie ends, is that V is each of us. We have the ability to make smart choices just as we have the ability to act out on irrational hatred. Who would’ve thought that election years would become days of such terror? I’ve always felt strongly about social justice, and I always vote with a conscience. I have never voted for a hate-monger or someone who believes the way to help the poor is to give the rich even more. There is a deep perversity here, a cultural psychosis. And the problem is we’re locked into four years of the result. For the sake of human decency and sanity, we all need to get out and vote. And I sincerely believe that pulling that lever is a choice for self destruction (Trump) or a future of new potential (Hillary). I just hope we’re smart enough to make the right choice.

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Zoo or Farm?

It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I read lots of fiction. While not every book I read makes it onto this blog, a good many of them do, along with some I haven’t read yet. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is one of the latter. A suspicion is itching way down deep telling me that I’ll probably end up a fan. Part of my suspicion comes from having read a story on NPR about the book. First of all: dystopia. Need I say more? I admire those who try to paint a future with a lighter palette, but I’ve been observing the way those in power behave and it kind of makes me think optimism about improvement is just a tad naive. People are too easily lulled into apathy by things like sports and the internet. The Romans used bread and circuses. Meanwhile those in power help themselves to a bit more until you can’t even get on an airplane without a total stranger seeing you sans briefs. If I can’t be trusted by those I elect, what cause do I have for hope? But enough about me. The book’s the thing.

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Night of the Animals, according to the NPR piece, is kind of a reverse ark. The animals in the London Zoo are understood by a man and they ask him to release them. I don’t know what happens, but I sure hope to find out. When interviewers ask Broun what it was like to spend fourteen years working on a novel, he responded in a way that, I suspect, many writers would understand. He said that it was a spiritual journey. Writing this book was his search for God. Many of us must nod our heads to that.

Concentration is becoming a dying art. I’ve written a number of books in my life—by far the greatest number remain unpublished—and I know there’s nothing like the intense concentration you experience when lost in such a world. Yes, it is spiritual. It is also a cry to be heard. As George Orwell well knew, we are the animals hoping to be heard. Zoos represent entrapment. Broun states that he wanted to explore how people are trapped in his novel. Looking at a system that rewards greed and keeps workers in unfulfilling jobs just so they can keep the system going while their CEOs buy another hotel chain or sports team and decide to run for office, I begin to hear the oinks, whinnies, and neighs all around me. And I haven’t even read the book yet.

R’lyeh Reality

It’s always a sign that I’ve been too busy when I lose track of Cthulhu. Few created deities receive the attention of the web like the terror dreamed up by H. P. Lovecraft. The internet has created an environment, like the bottom of the sea, where the old gods may lie dead but dreaming, ready to reawaken. It was with great pleasure that I was pointed to Cthulhu for America. At last, a presidential candidate who is willing to admit that he is merely a myth. His agenda of destruction and domination is not at all hidden. If only real politicians would be so honest!

In a world with millions of diversions, it amazes me that Lovecraft’s nihilistic creation has taken on such popular interest. Perhaps it’s because those of us who grew up with monsters have now reached a dubious sort of adulthood where we are bossed around like children and given only those limited freedoms that capitalism will allow. We can’t go into public places without seeing heavily armed guards in fatigues. We can’t get into work without electronic chips in cards to keep us safe from those of our own nation. We can’t fly without being scanned like a week-old loaf of bread. We can’t even store our own files on our own personal computers any more since some software company would rather charge us for the privilege. At least Cthulhu says what he wants. Orwell may have had his Big Brother, but Cthulhu is an obvious overlord who wants nothing but his own satisfaction.

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Watching the circus of candidates vying for position, I can’t help but think of Rome before the fall. Historians are still debating the causes—lead poisoning may be too easy a way out. Perhaps it is, as Lord Acton declared, the result of power itself. Those who taste it can’t stop eating it until every microscopic crumb is devoured. It’s shameful to watch. I’m embarrassed when Dumb and Dumber sounds intelligent next to the utterances from political talking heads. Cthulhu would have none of it. Although the website is a parody, it, like all myths, is truer than what we often call reality.

Romney Wordsworth

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The Twilight Zone, one of my favorite fallbacks when I’m alone, doesn’t shy away from religion. I remember watching some of these moody tales in my childhood, already in reruns by the time I was old enough to appreciate them, and occasionally having my young mind shaken as a result. The frisson of having reality not being as it appeared kept me wanting to see more of Rod Serling’s universe, evaluating, re-evaluating, speculating. Often heavy with psychological realism, despite the obviously outlandish premises, these half-hour plays in black-and-white still have a strange power to alter a mood. I recently viewed the episode “The Obsolete Man,” which closed season two. Having been declared obsolete myself, more than once, I found this story particularly chilling. A totalitarian state declares what worthwhile occupations might be, and Romney Wordsworth, as a librarian, doesn’t hold one of them. With shades of both Orwell and Bradbury, Wordsworth is sentenced to death.

In startlingly strong language, Serling has Wordsworth declare that, despite the decision of the state, there is a God. He wants his death televised, to which the Chancellor is happy to acquiesce. Locking the Chancellor into his room where, Wordsworth reveals, a bomb is about to go off, he tests the steel of the state by accepting his fate. Wordsworth spends his last hour reading the Bible. The Chancellor sweats and chain smokes himself frantic, finally calling out, “In the name of God let me go!” Wordsworth, of course, does. Rod Serling was not known as a particularly religious man. Many of his characters are hard-bitten, tough-talking caricatures whose bravado masks a profound uncertainty about life. The writing may not be stellar, but the ideas are beyond the stars. Religion is very human.

Many of these Twilight Zone episodes I have never seen. Still, they do reveal a world of imagination that had a tremendous impact on Cold War America. Bomb shelters, revolutionaries, and invaders haunt the minds of not just those born in the fifties, but of every generation since. The state that protects us is the very one that breaks open our luggage to look at our unmentionables when we want to fly. To keep us safe from ourselves. A decade before Serling’s series, George Orwell was looking a quarter century ahead, calculating the trajectory. The good guys, it turns out, have the wherewithal to decide who is obsolete and what is subversive. And if you don’t see things their way, they’ll start talking impeachment or perhaps worse. Your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

Hemlock and Crucifixion

Rhetoric is dying a slow, painful death. In this world where literalism reigns, the use of words to elicit an illicit truth deeper than the factual is no longer recognized. We see it both in the humorless antics of the New Atheists and in the ravings of the Fundamentalists. Writers have always known—serious writers at least—that truth is so much more than an objective ticking off of what really happened. The post-modernists may seem insufferable at times, but they have taught us that true objectivity is false, a mythic holdover from imperialistic thought processes that believed here, in this single mind, bias does not exist. We all have biases. Except me, of course. Rhetoric again.

I do not get many comments on this blog. Usually it takes someone to disagree with my ramblings to gussy up the energy to dispute what I write. I try not to distort facts, but facts are rare commodities these days. George Orwell is not really dead, I mused as I stood by his gravestone in Sutton Courtenay. Should someone deny that I was there how should I prove it in this day of Photoshop and pixelated truth? And that wasn’t even his real name.

When I regularly taught, students would ask me what I believed. What I believe, I would respond, is not important. I am teaching a subject, a field of study. When is the last time you asked your chemistry professor what she believed? Would it matter? Of course, thoughts, I’m told, are only chemical reactions that lead to electrical charges. Miniature storms inside our skulls. Literally. Rhetoric folds its hands across its metaphorical chest and lays quietly, awaiting the pall.

Socrates had his method. He ended up an enemy of the state. Jesus told parables. He also ended up an enemy of the state. Rhetoric, make no mistake, is a dangerous game to play. The hearer, or the reader, hears or reads what s/he wants to hear or read. And in a literal world, people would rather not have to read too deeply, for truth, it is believed, lies plainly upon the surface. There used to be a word for such a surface reading, but should I write it here I would be guilty of using rhetoric. And rhetoric awaits the delivery of the flowers but few are the black-garbed mourners. It is best not to disturb the dead.

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

Photo credit: Eric Gaba, Wikicommons

2014

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New York City, in a public place—I dare not say where—I see this sign. A certain Orwellian chill shivers my mind as I think back to 1984. Posters everywhere; you are being watched. If you see something, say something. NYPD Security Camera in Area. We have let our fear drive us into the arms of Big Brother. The problem with principle is that it requires a fair amount of spine. Who can stand in the face of possible, if remote, terrorist attack? Is it not the large, amorphous, faceless government that we, along with millions of strangers, have elected? I’ve read about their behavior; I’m not sure I want them watching me.

We have let fear define us. How far we have come from FDR’s admonition that the only thing we have to fear is freedom itself. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t approve of terrorists or any other cowards. If our response, however, is to cower in the many corners of our crowded cities while our own military patrols the parameter, well, the last place I recall like that was my visit to Jerusalem just months before the First Intifada. Even the bus drivers wore pistols. The heat from that burning car beside the road was worse than anything the Judaean Wilderness could throw at you. And still they long for peace.

Differing political and social outlooks need not come to blows. I’ll admit to being a shameless idealist if you’ll lay down your guns. Even if you won’t. It seems to me that we’ve forged ourselves a chain that reinforces outmoded associations. We can create the most intelligent weapons imaginable, but we can’t figure out how to cut a simple chain. Yes, I eye each jet flying a little too low with suspicion, and sometimes I walk a little too swiftly through the crowds at Times Square. I’d like to pretend I’m free, but ever since I read 1984—and it was close to that time—I’ve noticed that Big Brother looms taller than any tower in a world where inequality persists.

For the Love of Gold

Do you ever get that feeling that you’ve been led along by a false premise that has gotten out of hand, like a practical joke that has gone too far? If I had to rate the books discussed on this blog in terms of urgency, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion would top that list. I’ve felt for a long time that something’s been wrong, but I didn’t possess the training or resources to discern what it might be. I think Carrette and King may have named it. Just a few pages in and I knew there was profound insight here. Religion has been taken over by capitalism and the result is that alternatives to the godless, sanctified free market are rapidly disappearing. In a truly Orwellian sense, we have been taught the language of capitalism and have lost the ability to frame our ideas in any other way. Free markets take no prisoners—one must assimilate or die. Religions, which had traditionally served as correctives to selfishness and greed, have been co-opted into the forces of unbridled gain for the few. Amorphously marketed as “spirituality,” what sounds like religious conviction now lives in the service of consumerism.

By slowly shifting all our language and metaphors into those of Reaganomics (the very fact that you know what that means shows how far gone we already are) the capitalist machine, supported by the flaccid terms of spirituality, has established a new god—capital—and has pilloried any who dare question it. Think of the trashy phrase “prosperity gospel” for just one minute and you’ll see what I mean. Those of us who disagree with the orthodoxy that meaning can be found in money have become the resistance in a war we did not start. The twin hellions of privatization and corporatization have sunk their fangs deeply into the jugular of society and its old-fashioned value of caring for others. People are, like strangers in a strange land, just marks for the powerful. We’ll buy anything if it looks attractive enough.

The problem with consumerism is that it is easy. We all love to play along because—who knows?—we might end up getting rich in the process. We have gained the world and lost our souls. Carrette and King show clearly how entrepreneurs have learned to market the language of religion while divesting it of its venom. Go along, it urges, everything is fine. Even the economic collapse brought on scarcely two decades after Reaganomics has failed to convince the average citizen that they are but a petroleum bi-product to grease the unrelenting gears of commerce. Anything, even salvation, can be sold. Back in April I stood beside the graves of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) and Karl Marx. And maybe in an unguarded moment I shed a tear or two that critical thinking seems to have been buried along with those who were brave enough to state the obvious.