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.




Marcela’s Retort

If anyone calls me a wild beast and a basilisk, let him shun me as a mischievous and evil thing; if he calls me ungrateful, let him serve me no more; if he calls me strange, know me no more; if cruel, follow me no more; for this wild beast, this basilisk, this ungrateful, strange, and cruel creature will in no way seek, serve, know, or follow him.

-Miguel de Cervantes, The Adventures of Don Quixote

BBC Future: How Western civilisation could collapse

If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution – all perfectly doable things – then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory …

Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities.

Seeing the Edge

count zero the edge clip.jpg

“He says that’s too bad, in a way, because there are so few people left who can even see the edge.”
“The edge?”
“The edge of the crowd. We’re lost in the middle, you and I. Or I am, at any rate.”

-William Gibson, Count Zero

Futurism: By 2030, you’ll be living in a world run by Google

The most sinister aspect is that it won’t appear at all sinister that they can make it practically impossible to not participate.

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.


Guardian: Ex-FB exec.: Social media is ripping society apart

Social media are useful tools. But like all useful tools, we grow to rely on them too much. Our once balanced intercourse becomes unhealthy and the tool starts to use us.

Yes, social media are just tools, but as much as we enjoy them and rely on them, when we finally recognise the harm they are doing, maybe it’s time to put these harmful tools away.

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.”