Stations, Everyone

Station11There has been a movement, of late, among some sci-fi authors, to envision a more optimistic future. I have always been a fan of dystopias, myself. Perhaps it’s the working-class mentality backed up by being raised in poverty speaking, but sometimes I feel that collapse is more fair than progress. What passes for progress, anyway. Maybe I’m thinking this way because I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. This book has been on my radar for some time since it is one of the more hopeful dystopias out there. The story of a group among the very few who survive banding into a traveling troop of musicians and thespians is about the most hopeful outcome I can imagine. Not a day passes when I don’t feel the effacement of humanity that has been slowly taking place since I first became aware of the world. Sure, I do appreciate the strides made in medicine. Of this internet, which is the only place anyone ever really sees me, I’m less sanguine. It has its benefits, but even Mandel mentions the cell-phone zombies that are all too real and as omnipresent as an omnipotent deity used to be.

Station Eleven has, as many dystopias do, a religious sect that emerges after society collapses. This element of bleak futures is actually very accurate, I anticipate. We’re constantly being told by the “intellectuals” of the public variety that religion is for weak-minded dreamers with milquetoast aspirations for fantasy. The fact is the vast majority of people in the world are religious. The numbers are nowhere even near close. If a pandemic were to wipe out all but one percent (and hopefully it wouldn’t be the one percenters that survive) those who remain would, without doubt, turn to religion. People are easily led in this area of life. Mandel gives us The Prophet. His vision of the world is not helpful, but he has no trouble gathering a following. He’s also somewhat messianic: child of a single parent, raised in Israel, he comes to bring a sword to a nation already prostrate in the dust. This is powerful stuff.

Societies that try to rebuild themselves after traumas quite often rely on religion. This is hardly surprising as civilization itself began as religions coalesced into temples and their priesthoods. What is surprising is that so many intelligent people today can’t see just how important religion is to our species. As I suggested before, part of this is that religion defies simple definition. It’s easy to belittle “magical” thinking when it’s assumed religion has to do only with the supernatural. Religion, however, reaches into whatever we believe. Some ideas in modern cosmology, derived from physicists and their mathematics, can look sort of religious when viewed from a certain angle. As those who write dystopias know, religion is complex. It may lead to massive destruction. Chances are, however, that if there are any human beings left to crawl out of whatever pit we dig, they will do so with religious ideas in their heads. As usual, the writers have foreseen it.

Naming Evil

WetikoBooks don’t tell us what is true; books tell us what could be true. When I was growing up, under the influence of the Bible, I thought that non-fiction books were the truth. I came to understand that people disagreed about the truth, but it took a long time before I realized that books were merely the attempts of their writers to argue their version of the truth. If someone knew the actual truth that person would be a god. These thoughts came to me as I read the fascinating and mystical Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil, by Paul Levy. In many ways this is a mind-altering book. For one thing, Levy has made me reconsider how real evil is. Looking at what’s going on in the world it is increasingly difficult to deny the reality of objective evil. Levy’s book gives it a name and even attempts to analyze whence it comes. He calls it “wetiko.”

For several years now I have tried to find information on the monster known as the wendigo. Wetiko is a version of the same word, and it was this that drew me to Levy’s book. The wendigo is a shape-shifting creature that preys on humans. It is mentioned or featured in a few fictional books, and most recently featured in an episode of Sleepy Hollow. Since most academics don’t treat monsters seriously, it is difficult to find accounts of the beast. It is often discussed as a fictionalized version of cannibalism. It is a monster always hungry. The more it eats, the hungrier it becomes. It is this aspect that leads Levy to use it as his main metaphor for evil.

The evil that Dispelling Wetiko focuses on is the extreme selfishness our society has come to embrace. For example, our entire economic system is a fiction propagated by the ultra-wealthy. By defining a fiction as valuable and making it available to everyone else by a system of debt, the one-percenters keep everyone else, literally, in thrall to them. There is no gold to back up the fictional value they claim they have, and yet they consume others constantly in their evil greed. In a nuanced argument Levy suggests that this evil is real. Becoming conscious is the only way to combat it. There’s so much going on in this book that it has to be read several times, I’m sure, to get it all figured out. As I finished this one, however, I thought I had read a book that may actually be true.

Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.

Eleventh Commandment

Those who know me are sometimes surprised to learn that one of my favorite quick meals is grits and black-eyed peas. For a northerner that’s a bit strange, perhaps, but my father was from South Carolina and my mother often cooked “soul food” at home. Over the years I’ve experimented with ways of preparing this simple lunch, and I’ve found that with a little cheese and a bit of hot sauce, this makes a filling and tasty dish. A few weeks back I posted on Burning Bush hot sauce. I saw it on a tourist trip to Whole Foods. I was very pleased and quite surprised when the president and chief sauceror of Burning Bush emailed me, thanking me for my post. He even kindly sent me a bottle of Burning Bush hot sauce to try. Well, this was a chilly weekend up here in Jersey, so I splashed some Burning Bush on my grits and had my own kind of down-home religious experience. It sure beats the usual tabasco that, like my father, I usually shake over my grits.

I’m sharing this personal religious experience with you to encourage you to have a religious experience. Try some Burning Bush for yourself. If you look back at my post Mind Your Manna, you’ll find a comment from said president and chief sauceror giving readers of this blog an exclusive discount on web orders. Check out that post for the discount code. Also take a little time to browse around Burning Bush is kosher and it doesn’t just spice up grits. My favorite part about it is that it isn’t the product of a large corporation. Being one of the little guys, I prefer to help out others like myself. The one percent already have far more than enough.

Burning Bush

As I’ve confessed before, I’m not really a foodie. Still, sometimes something simple like a new flavor can improve your life. As a matter of fact, when the Burning Bush came to my door on Friday, I planned the coming week’s meals around the fact that I now had something new to try in the kitchen. I suspect I shall be very holy by the end of the week. Just like the Bible, the story of Burning Bush starts in a garden. The best things in life generally do. I’d rather support David than Goliath. Why skimping on the flavor end of things? Why not have a religious experience while you eat? Let Nestle, Unilever, General Mills, and Kellogg hobnob with each other. Remember, when it comes to hot sauce, every drop counts. Why not give Burning Bush a try? And just for reading this blog you get an exclusive discount.

Human Resources

I’m thinking about how we blithely accept cruelty and christen it “just business.” It’s legal, and even encouraged. Was a time when you wouldn’t dare trade with a stranger because he might cheat you. To make a deal implied a relationship. To get away with something unseemly you had to be able to look someone in the eye and take advantage of her or him anyway. Oh, we’ve sanitized it alright. Most workers never meet the CEO. His hand doesn’t even deign to sign the paycheck. The workers are forced to trust nevertheless. Don’t worry, it’s just business. Or is it?

Wired GeniusThe system, of course, favors those with the loudest voices, and those voices speak the language of Mammon. We don’t dare upset the order, believing we will get ours some day. Delusion is so sweet. On the cover of Wired magazine is a little girl. The caption reads, “Genius is everywhere—but we’re wasting it… Seventh grader Paloma Noyola Bueno lives next to a garbage dump in Mexico. Last year she had the top math score in the country.” Careful, Wired, you’re beginning to sound socialist. Bueno was on the cover of a major magazine because she was discovered. Those who remain hidden far outnumber those who claim far more than their share of capital. You don’t make it to the top unless you crawl over the other caterpillars. When you reach the top, as Trina Paulus sagely warned, you find there’s nothing there. Just human detritus beneath your feet.

Business has come to mean “cold and impersonal.” Keep the human element out of it. In fact, the term “just business” is a very effective shield against all kinds of unethical behavior. And it is the model on which we shape our society. Is it any wonder that the economy takes such precipitous tumbles? Funnily enough, those who support “business ethics” such as these most vehemently also claim the title “conservative Christian.” Unless Christianity has thrown its moral compass into the sea, there’s no legitimate way to claim the latter half of that moniker. We praise and wonder at our Einsteins. How many of them died in the gas chambers and ovens of the Nazi regime? How many of them have starved in Africa? How many never rose above the crippling poverty of Mexico? Perhaps it is time we as a society demanded a stop to the wastage. “Waste not, want not,” should be our mantra. And if those at the top can’t show what they’ve done to help their fellow human resources, perhaps they should live next to the garbage dump. Don’t take it personally, one percenters, it’s just good business.