Presidentially Screwed

Dear Americans, you are royally–rather, presidentially–screwed. Your country has installed someone as president, given wide-ranging powers and even wider influence to someone who not only believes and acts like he is above the law, but declares it openly with no repercussions and only the briefest, strangled outrage, while his apologists and propagandists work unceasingly to mislead, normalise and gaslight your nation, a nation that should by now be camped permanently in the streets defending, if not mourning, its democracy.

When the election was won, and the attacks only intensified, I became suddenly aware, and horrified, of the likelihood of a second term. Now I am almost resigned to it. Memes aside, people are not getting tired of winning yet. The president’s popularity has not waned, contrary to all logic, because his support was never logical. (Plus the opposition has not changed in any meaningful way.)

Some of you voted for him because you thought it more important to deny rights to your perceived enemies even though it meant endangering your own rights. Some of you felt yourself forced to choose between terrible business-as-usual and something worse but new, and you chose new. Some of you believed the lies you wanted to believe, and many of you believe them still. And some of you just didn’t care, you felt powerless anyway, you’d long ago given up on a rotten state of affairs and chosen instead to watch with voyeuristic and masochistic ennui as the situation continued to, predictably, deteriorate. I wonder, what are you thinking now?

Five hundred days into this presidency, I’ve hit a major problem. The problem is this: I can’t even express what’s wrong anymore. As much as I want it to be true, this unfortunately does not mean there’s nothing wrong; I just find it increasingly difficult to enunciate the problem with anything approaching coherence. There’s all that stuff about the environment, for a start, and the thing with the financial markets; taxes, of course, and what they’re doing to education; there are the asylum seekers finding none, and trade disputes, and the military-industrial complex jonesing for war, and how many judicial appointees have there been now? Not forgetting the corruption and nepotism and weaponised incompetence, and the unapologetic racism, and the trampled rights of women, children, veterans, and seniors. And the insults and lies, oh yes, the lies, the big, beautiful lies!

That’s what the president of your country has achieved with the sheer volume and pace of his attacks. His has been a simultaneous, unrelenting and unflinching assault on everything within his purview. There is simply too much to fight over now that it’s become impossible to ever get to the point. All we do is snipe along the periphery. All we do is run from fire to fire, but there are too many fires and not enough buckets. Until, finally, even the language–the mechanics of communication: vocabulary, means of discourse–has been taken from you, as has the humility to seek understanding.

How many time have we heard, ‘In any normal news cycle, this would be big news…’? How many times have we heard, ‘This controversy would bring down any normal administration…’? Except this is no normal administration. Sometimes shame can be the most effective weapon against those in power, and sometimes it is the only one, but this administration is uniquely and utterly shameless. ‘We must not let this behaviour be normalised’, we said, but it has been normalised, even with me. ‘We must never get tired of resisting’, we said, but even I am tired.

So today, it was the president’s declaration that he has the absolute right to pardon himself. I can’t even remember last week’s drama. I see only the one right now, maybe because it’s a big one, but then they’re all big ones. And tomorrow another crisis will displace even this, and even as I fume and despair over that abuse, I’ll forget to wonder what it was I’m this moment telling myself not to forget to stay angry about. In fact, it’s taken me about 48 hours to sit down to write this, and already the headlines have been purged. Like a pitiable spectre who can form no memories, we stumble from trouble to trouble, outraged by all but powerless to change anything, not least of all ourself.

-BeLessHuman

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BBC: Is there a link between mass shootings and mental illness?

According to studies cited in the BBC Future article, in the US, people with mental illness, while composing up to 18% of the population, account for just 3-5% of violence and less than 1% of gun-related homicides. Renee Binder, a professor at the University of California, is quoted as saying, “When one of these horrible mass shootings occurs, people say, ‘Anyone who would do such a thing must be mentally ill. But we need to be careful with our definitions because, while something is clearly wrong with them, it’s often not a serious mental illness.”

So what the article is saying is that definitionally, most people who commit mass shootings do not suffer from mental illness, or as Binder puts it, a serious mental illness. Serious-ly? Then perhaps now would be the time to change the definition of mental illness, or start working outside of that definitional framework entirely, as it is clearly no longer useful.

Unless what you want to tell me is that mentally not-ill humans in our modern world must needs on occasion kill lots of other humans, because that’s just what humans do, in which case I say maybe we need to do something about being human, that is, be less that.

-BeLessHuman

Strength of the Outsider

It might sound strange to say this but be thankful you’re an outsider: a woman in a man’s world, a negro in America, the black sheep of the family, a freak, an alien. I don’t mean to be insensitive and it’s certainly not intended to provoke. All I want to say is: there is strength in being the outsider.

See the white heterosexual male. See him cruise through life, oblivious to his privilege, blissfully ignorant of all notions of harassment, discrimination, struggle. Sure he has it all, sure he’s insured, sure he’s happy,[1] but aren’t you not-even-so-secretly glad you’re not him? Because just as the best art blooms out of suffering, so oppression challenges our creativity, our morality, our resolve, and gives us something to fight for. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son in Between the World and Me: ‘I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you–but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life…’

Only being outside the system, can we truly see the system. While others are blinded by their denial of its flaws, we are able to recognise the problems, because our worldview is not at stake.[2] As outsiders we are free(r) from the myths of normalcy and the pressures to conform. We can think differently and act differently. If the system works for you, why would you want to change it?

But the strength of the outsider is also a negative strength, by which I mean the strength not only to be our best, but the strength not to be our worst.[3] The poor, become rich, lose their charity.[4] The oppressed, become powerful, lose their humility. History festers with revolutionaries who become dictators, who never wanted a fairer world; they just wanted to be on top.[5] And ultimately, it was only their lack of power protecting them, and us, from their own brutal humanity.

So, yes, if you’re an outsider, though it can be lonely, difficult, dangerous, be thankful–I am–for it’s here that we can do the most good (and the least ill).

-BeLessHuman

[1] Except they’re not happy, not really, because ennui’s a bitch, and just like the Matrix 1.0, they’re lives are spiritually void and socially bland, which is why so many of them now jones for conspiracy theories and red caps to feel alive and relevant.
[2] Paradoxically, though, outsiders by definition exist apart from the real power to change things. Like Cassandra, we see but are not heard.
[3] This does not mean outsiders cannot indulge in the suffering of others, only that they can be much worse. Also, the same person can be an outsider in one context and not in another. Think: an oppressed minority in society vs a ‘leader’ within that minority, or a cyclist harried on main roads vs same cyclist on the sidewalk; basically, little fish in a big pond vs big fish in little pond.
[4] As Orwell observed, rich people are are just poor people with money.
[5] Or perhaps they did want a fairer world but stopped wanting it when the caviar was served.

 

The Game

We’re living in an increasingly polarised world swirling with alternative facts and (social) media bubbles, populated by those who denounce bigotry without even knowing what the word means. Originally I wanted to write that “all the people who don’t need to know this know that facts don’t change our minds, and the rest don’t care”, but the truth is everyone needs to know this and there’s a good chance that even those who think they know don’t really know.

I’ve been reading some great articles recently about why facts don’t change our minds,[1] about cognitive dissonance, the backfire effect and confirmation bias, and what it basically comes down to is that we are “only” human. We are emotional and irrational beings. We reject facts that don’t fit our world view, and cling even stronger to our beliefs when they are under attack because it is more important for us to belong than to be right (this to the point sometimes of believing things that are actively harmful to ourselves). And the scary thing is, everyone does this; our brains are just wired that way. What’s more, studies show that the more intelligent you are, and the more inclined you are to reflect on your opinions, the more likely you are to fight new contradictory information! Then it suddenly occurred to me: What am I missing?

I believe that I base my opinions on the best evidence and would change my views if they are demonstrably wrong. I like to think that I know when I don’t know and that I want to know when I’m wrong. But isn’t this exactly what the studies say I would think even if I didn’t do what I believe I do?[2]

And why are we like this? Why do people hold onto their beliefs so tightly[3] and, moreover, view change as weakness. Look at the language we use: Stay true to yourself! Stick to your guns! I love you just the way you are! There is no greater offense in our society than wanting someone to change. It all supposes something inviolable about who we are. But who are we, really?

Who Are We, Really?

We all want to believe that we are who we are because of the decisions and choices we make; we need to believe that we are in charge of our destiny (or have at least moderate control). I’m not here to argue that we have no free will–certainly the needle with which I would prick that thought-balloon is but a humble one–, I want no more than to suggest that we are a lot less free than many of us are comfortable admitting. The fact is that some of the biggest influences on who we become are decided for us even before we take our first breath: who our parents are, what social class they belong to, what nationality/ language/ culture await us. It doesn’t end there, of course. Everything from what music our parents played when we were little to who sat next to us on our first day of school to the circus that did or didn’t pass through town each year affect the course of our lives in ways much more penetrating than we realise.

We are all brainwashed to some extent. Teaching is brainwashing. Just look at what you can teach people: You can teach them absolutely anything! You can teach them to believe in magic, in God and god and gods, that black people are not people, that women were created only to serve men–and all the conspiracy theories being sold on YouTube and slideshows in back of lonely community centres! You can teach positive stuff too, of course: resilience, confidence, fairness, kindness.[5] You can teach imagination! You can even teach people contradictory things like religious faith and scientific curiosity. You can teach them to love and you can teach them to hate, and you can teach them to care and you can teach them not to care.[6] Ultimately, a child born 1000 years ago is no different from a child born today, but think of the differences in their world views.

Take slavery, for example. I’m sure we all agree slavery is evil. But do you think you would have still thought that if you had been born to a plantation owner in Virginia in the nineteenth century? Or imagine you grew up in a country where they drilled you from a young age to be patriotic. Later, as an adult, even knowing where the compulsion comes from, your heart still clenches whenever someone criticises your country. Let’s say you are a Man U supporter. Would you still have supported them if you had grown up thirty miles to the west? Maybe you’re Roman Catholic. Would you still have been Roman Catholic if you had been born in Pakistan to Pakistani parents? How can there be any true religion if what people believe is as random as the place where they were born?[7]

When I was 16, I had the idea that the only way for me to find out who I truly am is to rebel against everything, then rebel against that, and that, so many times until I am free of my upbringing and can be whatever I want to be, or maybe just what I happen to be at the time, because it didn’t escape me that if who we are is but a product of chance and randomness to begin with, then rebelling against that must necessarily be just as arbitrary. It’s still chosen for you, but at least you did the choosing.

Who we are is just who we happen to be. What we believe is just what we happen to believe. Each of us could just as easily have ended up completely different people with completely different, even antithetical, beliefs, opinions and tastes had we been born 10 km across an arbitrarily drafted border or even just to the nice couple next door. And yet each day, 7 billion people launch into the world thinking that only their opinions are right and smash into one another and fail utterly to soften their views–in fact, it only hardens their minds. And that’s when I realised: We don’t hold the opinions we hold because we believe they are right, we believe our opinions are right because they are the ones we hold! We defend our beliefs when they are under attack because they are under attack. Our antipathy to change has little to do with the merit of our opinions, only ownership.[8]

Which leaves only one question worth asking: Knowing that our brains are programmed to resist change, can we change? Can we change opinions that are wrong?[10] Can we change any of them? Or is it like being in a 12 Monkeys time loop where we see the future but remain powerless to change it? And if you tell me, look, the science has clearly shown that we can’t help being this way, it’s just how our brains are wired, our brains won’t let us, I say, hey, well, who’s in charge of your brain, you or your brain?

The Game

Everyday we are confronted with tragic proof that people can’t change their minds when presented with information contrary to their world view.[11] And it’s not the scientific evidence I’m talking about. The evidence is the actions of politicians, CEOs, celebrities, academics, journalists, activists, neighbours, friends, and family. We would all do well to ask ourselves which of our beliefs we would never change even if we were shown incontrovertible proof; when would you reject the proof over the belief? The unavoidable fact is that our brains are conservative, and they become increasingly so as we get older. We lose plasticity in our brains; it’s as much physical as mental. We become set in our ways, in thought and habit, and before long every sentence we utter begins with, “Back when I was growing up…” and, “Kids these days…”

But even if it is the “human” thing to do–or rather because it’s the “human” thing to do–I don’t want to be one of those people. I don’t want to be that closed-minded person who refuses to even admit that they might be wrong. I don’t think that I’m like that, but the fact is that everyone thinks they’re not like that, so we have to assume that we probably are like that, or at least that if we were like that we would still think that we weren’t.[12]

What we need is a way through this impossible epistemological tangle without having to solve it, and I think I just might have a solution. I’ve come up with a game. It’s a simple game (though not an easy one): All you have to do is pick an opinion that you hold–and change it.[14]

The game is a game of mental gymnastics, an exercise in mental flexibility. Just as stretching can keep your body flexible, so by practicing changing our minds, we should be able keep our minds flexible, even as we get older. Because we can change our minds, we’re just not good at it. And like any new or difficult skill, we need to learn, and we need to practice. Until hopefully, one day, when faced with good evidence that contradicts even our strongest held beliefs, we may be able to not only recognise that we are fighting it only because it’s new, but even embrace it and change.

Mind you, this isn’t just about flip-flopping between wearing the red dress or the black, or whether to go out or not. For the game to work, it needs to be about things you actually care about.[15] Otherwise you’re not really changing your mind about anything, you’re just being indecisive or indifferent (though there may be something in that too).

For example, I believe there should be equality between the sexes, so I could change my mind about that and say men should go to work and women should keep house. Of course I don’t want to do that; that’s just an example. Besides, are there really still people who believe that? Well, yes, there definitely are, but they’re assholes, and I don’t want to be an asshole. But hold on a second, could this just be my brain defending itself against change? It’s certainly conceivable that for people who believe women belong in the kitchen, arguing against equality would be a case of the brain rejecting new ideas, but is that also the case for people fighting against sexism? Yes… no… maybe?

Something else, then: I believe we shouldn’t judge people based on their race, nationality, heritage, etc., so should I change my mind about that and sign up for some form of race supremacy? I want humans to protect the environment; should I become a lobbyist for fossil fuels? I’m against war; I could applaud the benefits of instability in the Middle East. I believe our system of predatory capitalism will lead to social crisis and collapse; I could embrace the new class divide and make sure I’m on the top side. I think everyone is entitled to the basic human rights of food and shelter; I could shrug and say they only have themselves to blame. Good education should be free and accessible to all; education is wasted on the dumb (read: poor). I’m against animal cruelty; I could care less. Greed is bad; greed is good. Essential freedoms; national security. Power corrupts; power is all.

Can’t say I really liked any of the alternatives. But there are people who stand firm on both sides of these issues, and not forgetting that the side each of us has ended up on is itself in no small part a result of random and predetermined events. So why do I make such a poor argument for changing my views?[16]

How about religion? I’m an atheist. Most people are religious. Can they all be wrong? Should I convert to a faith? Is it just the stubbornness of my brain that I can’t believe in a god when everything around me stands in contradiction?

Maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way. After all, this is supposed to be training, and just like any form of training, it’s best to practice a more basic proficiency before graduating to bigger skills. Also, the game is supposed to be an ongoing exercise to keep my mind flexible, not just a one-time performance. Maybe what I need are lesser opinions that I can play with and change, and even change back another day.[17] So what do I care about but not that much that I can practice changing my mind about? This shouldn’t be too hard. I have thousands of opinions–some would say I have too many opinions–but suddenly I can’t think of anything. There must be something but my brain’s not letting me see it.

Still I believe in the game. The idea is rare, the logic irrefutable: to keep our brains flexible by practicing changing our minds. Unless I’m wrong, and I just think this is a great idea, when in truth I can’t see the impossibility because the idea is mine. Or maybe I’m wrong, but not because the idea is bad. What if the only people who would want to play the game are the ones who need it the least? All the people who don’t need to know this know… After all, I’m the only one who came to training, so am I not the only one who can go home?

-BeLessHuman

[Postscript: Narrative aside, I did find some opinions to change, and deeper beliefs too, as was inevitable. And I’m working on it, playing the game.]

[1] The New Yorker: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds; Scientific American: How to Convince Someone When Facts Fail; The Guardian: Why Do People Persist in Beliefs That Are Wrong – And Even Harmful?
[2] Because that’s how our brains work sometimes. For example, I might remember seeing something when in fact it’s just my brain telling itself that I saw it and I didn’t actually see anything. It gets even more complicated when it’s not a memory but a thought that our brain plants in itself (I think I thought something but it’s just my brain telling itself that I thought it when in fact I didn’t). It’s like a programmer who alters code then erases the record of the code being altered, or like the movie Inception except you’re doing it to yourself.
[3] I’m talking here about beliefs and opinions about important things, not which colour capsicum is best.[4]
[4] Obviously orange.
[5] Indeed you must if you want a child to grow up sharing those values.
[6] Your brain’s too clean, said the philosopher. Get some dirt on it!
[7] Look at the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in the region of former Yugoslavia. They are a southern Slavic people who through the vicissitudes of history have now diverged into three distinct ethnic groups with different religions (and who don’t like each other very much). Here, more than anywhere else I’ve been, it really stuck me how what religion we are can be arbitrary and predetermined.
[8] We don’t even need to think we’re right; mostly, we don’t think at all. One of our deepest psychological needs is to be able to live with ourselves. This form of mental self-preservation is automatic. Have you ever asked yourself how murderers or billionaires or politicians live with themselves? The answer is: quite well. (True, some people can’t; in a way that makes them the strong ones.) If we kill, killing becomes okay. If we steal, stealing becomes okay. If we lie, lying becomes okay.[9] And it’s the rest of us too. Everyday we walk past homeless people on the streets, are witness to injustice and suffering, make decisions that harm others or the planet. No one stops to agonise over each slight. No one can.
[9] BBC Future: How Liars Create the ‘Illusion of Truth’; The Guardian: From Porkies to Whoppers: Over Time Lies May Desensitise Brain to Dishonesty
[10] And if you’re that person who always interrupts to say that there is no “right” or “wrong”, then we can still agree that your opinion about that is not “right”.[11] Conveniently, though impotently, this very situation is itself another illustration of this “human” failing, because everyday this tragic proof is itself rejected.
[12] For what it’s worth, I think it would be the most amazing feeling to be that person who grew up in a cult and one day realise that the guru is a psychopath, or a Republican and one day understand how the world would be better if everyone had healthcare instead of guns, or a heavy smoker and quit and finally understand how stupid and disgusting the habit was. I imagine it must be like heavy fog clearing over a bright ocean, or coming out of a deep, dank cave and seeing the Milky Way. (Probably it’s like being hit on the head and waking up with amnesia.) It almost makes me want to join a cult, or maybe just take up smoking.[13]
[13] In fact, I had a very similar conversation with a friend when I was younger about doing the Alpha Course just to prove I could break their brainwashing once I came out, complete with a contingency plan for my friend to deprogram me if I truly found Jesus.
[14] Studies suggest that curiosity can protect our brains from bias (BBC Future: How Curiosity Can Protect the Mind from Bias) and I agree. The problem is that most people are not curious. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t know what else I can do!” instead of asking what s/he can do, or “How is that supposed to work?” with that tone of voice that betrays absolutely no interest in hearing an answer?
[15] You might be asking yourself, isn’t it dangerous to purposely fuck with your own brain? Really, there’s no reason to worry; you can always change you mind back tomorrow. And if you can’t, well, you’ll just think your new opinion is the right one anyway.
[16] My phrasing here is not exactly neutral, but I don’t think it’s that biased either. Here are the same concepts, reversed: I believe white people are inherently superior to other races; should I not judge people based on their skin colour, nationality, heritage? I work as a lobbyist for an oil company; should I instead support environmental causes? A state of guided instability in the Middle East is of great benefit to western countries; I could denounce all war and military conflict. I do very well under the current economic system; I could support a fairer division of wealth. I think poor people have only themselves to blame; no one should be without food and shelter. I worked hard and paid for my own education; good education should be free and accessible to all. I enjoy eating meat; I could become vegetarian. Greed is good; greed is bad. National security; individual freedoms. Power is everything; power corrupts.
[17] It’s not that our core beliefs may not need to change–in fact, the stronger the belief, the more likely we are to be blind to our prejudice, and our blindness–but they’re not the best to practice on. If you find some big revelation that you’ve been denying without good reason, that’s great, but you don’t want to go uprooting your life–for example, quitting your job then begging for it back–every week. That would be performance of Olympic proportions.

A Lifetime Subscription to Life

Have you noticed that society’s moving towards a subscription system? I’m referring to things like Netflix and Spotify, and I just saw a billboard for subscribing to all your favourite magazines. Some of the other things we’ve had for a while already, like Satellite TV, library membership and season tickets to your favourite sporting team. Internet and phone are predominantly flatrates these days, as well as health and other insurances, and travel cards for public transportation. Even our utility bills (electricity, gas, water), though they’re technically based on usage, are a lot like subscription services. Some people already get boxes of seasonal fruits and vegetables delivered regularly to their homes. And as for rent (or a mortgage), it’s pretty much a subscription for your home.

The benefits for businesses are obvious. They have a stable and predictable income (and correlating expenses), and very few people seem to be able to cancel a subscription once they have it. And for the consumer, it just makes everything easier, doesn’t it?

So it shouldn’t be long now before someone introduces the first “life” subscription, one simple account for everything: rent, food, health, and entertainment. You go to work and with your wages, you pay your monthly or yearly fee and everything else is organised for you, packaged and delivered. And when inevitably the total mechanisation of industry and the resultant redundancy of human labour forces the transition from our work-based economy to a form of universal income, all we have to do is offset this against the subscription fee for “life” and, well, we will finally be free of humanity’s greatest and most destructive creation: money. Now that would be a rare utopia, wouldn’t it?

-BeLessHuman

[Postscript: I promise nothing will go wrong. I promise there won’t be different subscriber levels: “Life”, “Life Plus”, “The Good Life” and “Dorian Gray”, and you won’t be caught at the bottom again. I promise no one will have to do the jobs no one wants to do that still need to be done and somehow become contract terms of your subscription to “life”. I promise you won’t all be put into boxes of what you like or don’t like that you don’t choose yourselves. And I promise, of course, that subscriptions can be cancelled at any time. But then what are you gonna do?]

Talking to the Future

I just finished watching the documentary Into Eternity on the final repository for nuclear waste that is currently being built in Finland, the first of its kind in the world. Construction on the project, called Onkalo, began in 2000 (the search for a suitable location began in 1983) and it is projected to be completed in 2020. Over the following 100 years, so the plan goes, it will be filled with Finland’s nuclear waste until finally, in 2120, the complex will be sealed forever, or at least 100,000 years. Because that’s how long nuclear waste remains dangerous for.

One hundred thousand years! That is an almost impossible timeframe for us to think in. Any discussion of such spans of time must inevitable become a philosophical discussion beyond all technical details of this immense project. Who can say what the Earth will even be like in 100,000 years? Certainly nothing like our world today. Looking back on human history, the first ever nuclear detonation took place only 73 years ago. Both World Wars (not to mention countless other armed conflicts) took place in the last 100 years. The industrial revolution only began 250 years ago. Christianity has only been around for 2000 years. Even the pyramids of Ancient Egypt are only 5000 years old. How much has the world changed in that “short” time, technologically, politically, even morally?

Then there’s the even more fascinating problem (for me and the documentary maker) of communication, of how to warn future generations of the dangers buried at Onkalo, of, so to speak, what to put on the “door”. Certainly, lacking understanding of the dangers buried there, it is unlikely that future explorers would heed our warnings even if they could understand them. No curses kept us out of the pyramids. At the same time, any attempt to pass down knowledge over such a timespan is almost certainly doomed to failure.

What languages will be spoken in 100,000 years? Certainly not any language existing today. Even symbols or pictures need a common frame of reference that will most likely be lacking. Spikes, skulls and radioactive ‘rays’ could all mean something completely different to them or mean nothing at all. And who are ‘they’ anyway? Assuming intelligent life still exists in 100,000 years, will it even be “human”?

Perhaps it will be better, as some suggest, to bury the project and lose the records, to try to forget it was ever there. Perhaps all that will remain in 100,000 years is a story, a myth, a cautionary tale passed down from parent to child, from philosopher to student, from storyteller to storyteller. In the words of Michael Madsen, the writer and director of Into Eternity:

Did your parents tell you stories about the fire in the burial chamber deep in the bowels of the earth, the chamber you must always remember to forget?

-BeLessHuman

Palace Intrigue: Where Have You Gone?

If the super-rich are supposedly the royalty of today, whatever has happened to the drama? Where is the selfishness and pride? Where the jealousy and rivalry? Where, if I may be so blunt, is the treachery and murder? If they have to rule us, let’s at least have some palace intrigue!

Don’t tell me today’s half-brothers and stepmothers and third cousins twice removed have outgrown the base–I mean, basic–no, I mean, base–human drives of ambition and greed! Don’t tell me the children of the super-rich today are more loyal and content than their blah-blah-divine-right frères! Maybe they think they’re guaranteed their slice of the pie one day, they only need to bide their time, but if there’s one thing your parents taught you, and it’s likely the only thing, it’s that, one, it must be the whole pie, and, two, the pie has to be had now!

And besides, irrespective of the promised life expectancy in your generation, you know–you know–your parents are going to outlive you anyway, and even if they don’t, they’re still going to give more to your snivelling, butt-kissing little brother and your oh-so-innocent-let-me-sit-on-your-lap daddy’s-little-princess sister. They’ve ignored you your whole life, parcelling out affection like dog treats. ARE YOU A DOG? Remember the cards you made that they never opened, the cake untouched on the restaurant table? They didn’t even show for the state finals, your big day, just made certain that your dad’s lawyer was umpiring and double-faulted Johnny Goodspeed thus crowning you champion. Ahhh, who else in your life–your life of strength and power and perfect control!–can make champion sound so much like loser?

So where was he? Yeah, you know exactly where he was. Blowing your rightful inheritance on the Côte d’Azur, that’s where, with his hands, leg and feet model of a third wife. It’s not okay. All of it is just not okay. Something must be done. And it’s so easy, it doesn’t even have to be a thing. He’s old and on too many pills for this heart and liver, and you can certainly make sure that she won’t get a cent. Your brother races powerboats which is the most dangerous sport in the world, and of course you’d still look after your sister, as long as she does what she’s told.

Why not, right? Why not?

-BeLessHuman

New Years Despair

The week around New Years is one of the saddest times of the year for me in Berlin, not because yet another year is ending, thinking of all the projects I didn’t finish, or the friends I haven’t kept in touch with as well as I would have liked. Not because of the pressure to really make something of it, meet up with people, celebrate, the stress of getting the right friends together at the right parties. No, it’s none of that.

What makes me so sad at this time of year is being again surrounded by the stupidity of humanity, seeing how far we haven’t come, our primitive selves, our smallness of mind. And the trigger for this: DIY fireworks. Shop fronts filled with firecrackers, banners unfurled over sidewalks. Otherwise sensible people reduced to troglodytes. Less sensible people, so much the worse: Adults and children firing rockets at each other and strangers. Firecrackers tossed into traffic. Everywhere rubbish and cardboard burning in the street. The irresponsibility, if not outright harassment. As a friend of mine said, It’s not New Years, it’s war. Yes, war without the killing and dying, but war nonetheless. I ask myself, Is there any hope for a humanity that, when there is peace, plays at war?

Think of the waste. Think of the rubbish. Think of the pollution. Every year Germans spend over 130 million euros on fireworks over just 4 days. Think of all the good that can be done with that money. Think of all the people we can help. But, hey, who’s thinking?

Loud noise. Bright light. They look forward to this every year. This makes them feel alive, makes their lives interesting, makes them happy. It really makes me despair that this is what humanity wants, this is all humanity needs. No deeper truths, no higher goal. Just  loud noise, bright light.

-BeLessHuman

 

Guardian: We know how to solve homelessness. So why aren’t we doing it?

We know how to solve homelessness. We know how to reduce poverty. We know how to eliminate starvation. We know how to reduce violence, and discrimination, and mental illness. Why aren’t we doing any of these things?

I wish more people would start asking themselves these questions. I wish more people would start asking themselves these questions and acting on them. But I’ll settle for more people just asking themselves these questions.

Don’t be put off by answers such as: Because people are greedy. Because people are mean. Because people are stupid. These are real, valid answers but they should not be the end of the discussion, rather the beginning of change. Once enough people recognise this, then we can start making things better.

-BeLessHuman

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/19/homelessness-temporary-accommodation-social-housing-benefits

https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2017/dec/08/welsh-lesson-housing-crisis-english-problem

Not a Book Review: It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

“I think I’ll indulge in the luxury of being independent, for once, and vote Prohibition or the Battle Creek bran-and-spinach ticket, or anything that makes some sense!”

Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here is an alternative history novel about fascism coming to the United States of America. It’s not so much prescience. The book was written in 1935 as the Nazis were ratcheting up their good works in Germany, and a lot of the story was more or less a direct transfer of Nazi tactics to a North American sensibility. But there are some fascinating parallels, not with 1930s Germany, but with the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly in the early chapters, before the election of Senator Benzedrine “Buzz” Windrip [sic]. No, it’s not prescience. These are timeless Americanisms. Almost a century later, politics in America has gotten better, has gotten worse, has stayed exactly the same.

Trump supporters aren’t called the League of Forgotten Men but they could just as easily have been. There isn’t a Reverend Paul Peter Prang, whose “weekly radio address … was to millions the very oracle of God”; there are dozens of them, though there certainly have been competitors for the title of Lee Sarason. And men, it seems, have never stopped paying lip service to “draining the swamp”.

“[E]ven if our Buzzy maybe has got a few faults, he’s on the side of the plain people, and against all the tight old political machines …”

Windrip was a clown, a liar, and a charlatan, “ascending from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing … in front of a microphone.” He was “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. … [He] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts–figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

When approached by supplicants vis a vis the moral defense/condemnation of a burlesque show, he “called the clergymen “Doctor” or “Brother” or both; he called the promoters “Buddy” and “Pal”; he gave equally ringing promises to both; and for both he loyally did nothing whatever.” Similarly, “it was known that, though he drank a lot, Senator Windrip also praised teetotalism a lot, while his rival, Walt Trowbridge, though he drank but little, said nothing at all in support of the Messiahs of Prohibition.”

So, at the tragic end of the tragic day, the people saw in him, “for all his clownish swindlerism, a free vigor which promised a rejuvenation of the crippled and senile capitalistic system.”

Coincidentally, Windrip is a Democrat, but then so was Trump once. In the end, it makes no difference. America is a two-party country, both of them for the rich, and the poor are just pawns kicked around the chess board.

Windrip’s opponent in the presidential election, Walter Trowbridge, “quietly, steadfastly, speaking on the radio and in a few great halls, explained that he did advocate an enormously improved distribution of wealth, but that it must be achieved by steady digging and not by dynamite that would destroy more than it excavated.” Windrip flatly promises $5000 to every “real American family”.

As Lewis writes, the “conspicuous fault of [the opposition] was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for … all the primitive emotions they thought they found in the screaming of Buzz Windrip.” It didn’t matter that “one tenth of 1 per cent of the population at the top have an aggregate income equal to 42 per cent at the bottom. Figures like that are too astronomical. Don’t mean a thing in the world to a fellow with his eyes–and nose–down in a transmission box …”

It’s an obvious observation (though not obvious enough for the country to have done anything about it) which Lewis puts keenly when he writes that “Windrip’s just something nasty that’s been vomited up. Plenty others still left fermenting in the stomach … No, Buzz isn’t important–it’s the sickness that made us throw him up that we’ve got to attend to”. At another spot, he adds that “Windrip is only the lightest cork on the whirlpool. He didn’t plot all this thing. With all the justified discontent there is against the smart politicians and the Plush Horses of Plutocracy–oh, if it hadn’t been one Windrip, it’d been another.” Of course this is also where life outstrips the greatest imagination. Who did 2016 America elect to defend this “justified discontent” but the plushest of the Plush Horses!

Dark times follow, which we are not here to discuss. A good history book of Nazi Germany will suffice. Instead, Lewis offers up a prayer for all of us:

Blessed be they who are not Patriots and Idealists, and who do not feel they must dash right in and Do Something About It, something so immediately important that all doubters must be liquidated–tortured–slaughtered!

With respect to this, Trump’s America is both better and worse. Trump has not built an overt state-run terror machine to violently suppress minorities, the press and political opponents, but that is not to say that every one of these groups has been terrorised in myriad ways more insidious and thereby more difficult to combat and resist.

Lewis astutely observes that “the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”

But the book does end, there is an ‘end’ to the trials of Doremus Jessup–yes, he’s the hero of the story, the editor of a small local paper called The Informer, and sure it’s quite a late introduction for the main character, but this is not a book review so what does it matter, here he is anyway–and approaching the final chapters, I couldn’t help being nervous about the potential resolution. Was everyone going to die? Does he love Big Brother? Part of me wished for a happy ending but as Lewis himself reminds us (referencing Romain Rolland), “a country that tolerates evil means–evil manners, standards of ethics–for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” How does a country recover from totalitarianism?

Let’s not forget that It can’t Happen Here was written and published in 1935, before the outbreak of the second World War, nor had a world war precipitated in the book by the time the story ends in 1939. But yes, spoilers ahead, I’m going to tell you how it ends. Like I said, there is no easy road away from totalitarianism. The dictator Windrip is deposed by his second-in-command Sarason, who is soon after removed by the Secretary of War and head of the military Colonel Dewey Haik, and things, which up until that point had been atrocious and irredeemable, get even worse. War is declared on Mexico, less for any substantial reason than in the hopes of uniting the country against an outside enemy. Fortunately, the move backfires and instead plunges the country into civil war, which, very soon thereafter, in one final dig at America and perhaps highlighting the root cause of all the aforementioned and -quoted evils, “halted, because in the America which had so warmly praised itself for its “widespread popular free education,” there had been so very little education; widespread, popular, free, or anything else, that most people did not know what they wanted–indeed knew about so few things to want at all.”

-BeLessHuman