Category Archives: politics

The truth and Brasília, 1: Land of the Future

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This series of posts springs from three sources.  First, my research for “The truth and change,” recalled the poem Brasília, by Sylvia Plath.  Second, I have lived in Brazil for long periods of time and consider Belém, the “cidade das mangueiras” at the mouth of the Amazon River, as my second home town.  Third, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath was one of two English-language books I brought with me to Belém in 1992, as I began a year-long stay for my doctoral research.

These are stories of exile, suicide and hope in a world caught just between a despair-ridden past and an open-ended, possibly bright future.  They are stories of writers and writing.  They are stories close to my heart and deeply tied to my own passions.  The first is that of Stefan Zweig’s tragic love affair with Brazil.  The exiled Austrian Jew will give his story to Sylvia Plath, the expatriate American poet of Autsrian extraction writing of a metphor sprung from a city she never visited.  Like Zweig, she died by her own hand in a foreign land.  Finally, Renato Russo brings us back to his Brasília, in an epic poem that marries the cinematic Western to the story of his own country.

These are stories of gifted storytellers whose lives were dealt a blow by the hubris of others.  Their achievements in the face of all this are a thing of drastic beauty and desperate truth.  Life is hard, a friend of mine once said, and it is.  But worth every ounce of the struggle, no matter how it ends.

The truth and Brasília, 1:  Land of the future

In 1942, Stefan Zweig and his wife, Lotte, commited double suicide in Petrópolis, Brazil.  Ever the writer – one of the world’s best known, at the time – Zweig left a note to explain why.

Zweig stated that his decision was “of my free will and in my right mind,” and he told the world why he chose to leave this life.  In the dozen years up to this point, Zweig went from being the world’s most-translated author to literary refugee, fleeing his native Vienna for Britain in 1934, then the United States, and finally Brazil in 1941.  By this time he was morally and spiritually homeless, “my own language having disappeared from me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself.”

No mention is made of Lotte in the letter, so her role, contribution, or support in the decision is only as clear as the fact that she was there on the bed with Zweig at the end of it all, free of struggle, her body like his finally free of the life within it.

Had Zweig the wherewithal to hold out a few years, so the critics say, he might have been able to reinvigorate his spirits – but such conjecture is pointless.  Europe in the late 1940s was no picnic, either, and the onset of the Cold War was for many simply a continuation of Europe’s long demise.

For Zweig, the tragedy of Europe was deeply important.  He was a stalwart of the pacifist movement, going back to the early years of the century, and he was a famous champion of European integration.  A secular Jew from Vienna, he was of the great class of pan-European intellectuals whose history and inclinations drove them to think of a larger cultural world of ideas and human progress.  To see that dream dashed so spectacularly by fascism was indeed, I imagine, a tragic, numbing blow to the soul.

Brazil-16-map

Zweig wrote two books in the final years of life that spell his struggle in simple letters.  In 1941, he published Brazil:  Land of the Future, a love letter to his newly adopted country.  On the day before he committed suicide in 1942, Zweig mailed another manuscript to his publisher:  The World of Yesterday, an autobiography.  Zweig’s European world was on the brink of genocidal horror, and it was killing him.  In Brazil, he was trying, heroically perhaps, to follow the European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle, war, and religious strife.  He tried, but as he says in the suicide note, he was simply too old to keep on.

. . . after one’s sixtieth year unusual powers are needed in order to make another wholly new beginning. Those that I possess have been exhausted by long years of homeless wandering. So I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth.

Even as Zweig lived and wrote and died, young Brazilian idealists like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer were establishing themselves as world class designers and architects.  After World War II, Niemeyer’s design for the United Nations in New York placed his ideas on the world’s stage – a House of Tomorrow for the hopes and dreams that Zweig himself had given up on.

Costa and Niemeyer would go on to design Brazil’s city of the future, Brasília, its capital of the future, a gleaming, white, rational city reflecting their beliefs in a truly democratic world that would work for everyone, regardless of class or any other distinction that made life difficult in the old world they inherited.  Like Zweig, they looked to a land of the future that was their own Brazil.

Notes and Credits

Cidade das mangueiras = city of mango trees.  It’s the local nickname for Belém, where the avenues are lined with mango trees.  Every November, when the fruit falls, children scurry into the streets, dodging busses and cars (and sometimes horses) to pick up a free snack.

There are a number of wonderful blog sites, radio interviews, and other web resources available to learn about Stefan Zweig.  My source for Zweig’s suicide note is Artopia:  John Perreault’s Art Diary.  WNYC’s Leonard Lopate did a radio show on August 13, 2007, for which he interviewed George Prochnik, who was working on a book about Stefan and Lotte Zweig.  Monica Carter of Salonica writes of Zweig’s Amok and Other Stories,

Three out of the four stories in this collection put us in the hearts of those suffering from unrequited love. Zweig’s style is so elegant and descriptive, the purity of this love scares and engages us. The last story draws us in to man who cannot find his way home, due to the war. This is the story I found most tragic because of its autobiographical slant. Zweig and his wife committed suicide because the home that they knew, was one they could never get to again. These stories are so worthwhile and if there is any credence to the adage ‘write what you know’ then Zweig was a man who wrote about loss and love with equal knowledge.

Zweig’s reputation in Brazil is uneven.  As journalist Carlos Haag reported in 2006, Brazilians have discounted the authenticity and sincerity of Zweig’s book, from the 1940s onwards.  The book was rumoured to be a quid pro quo with the Brazilian dictator at the time, Getúlio Vargas, who allegedly granted the famous exiles, Zweig and Lotte, permanent residency in exchange for the writer’s services.  Brazil was to be the land of Zweig’s future, and perhaps nothing more than that.

The photograph of the colonial map of Brazil can be found in the Wikimedia Commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Brazil-16-map.jpg.  The photograph is in the public domain.

I first heard of Zweig’s book while living in Brazil.  The book has been appropriated for an insider joke about eternal contrast between Brazil’s riches and potential for greatness with its ever-present reality of income disparity, poverty, and crime.  The joke plays on Zweig’s book title and figures in the second of these postings:  Brazil is the country of future, and it always will be.

The statement, “In Brazil, [Zweig] followed the grand European tradition of celebrating all that was American as a new world, a blank slate, and a place of abundance unsullied by the tragic history of European struggle,” is a standard of European history.  The notion of a “new world” was the result of Columbus’s discovery of a place that no one in Europe or Asia ever knew existed. John Locke backs up his understanding of the “blank slate” of human history and his state of nature theory with unrelenting references to the Native American societies who demonstrate his point.

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Jean De Lery, a French doctor and Huguenot minister who travelled to the original French Colony of Rio de Janeiro (that’s right, it was a French town at he beginning), wrote a brilliant polemic, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, aimed at demonstrating that the Tupi natives were more fully civilized than French Catholics, even if the Tupi had integrated cannibalistic rituals into their warfare.  As Lery wrote, the French Catholic monarchy was persecuting the Huguenots and massacring them en masse.

Finally, the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves European intellectuals in the Enlightenment tradition, who sought to enshrine their country’s ahistorical legacy into the very structure of governance.  Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution abolished nobility and privileged relationships with nobles (who could only be from Europe); and the First Amendment’s protection of freedoms to religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition is itself a rejection of the entire course of European political struggle since the Reformation began in 1517.

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The truth and change, 3b: From Gilgamesh to Pharma

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

The House of Tomorrow, 2009

This is the concluding post in the series, The truth and change. As part 3b, it offers a final alternative future.  In 3a, I looked at how technology is bringing out the futures within our minds and imaginations.  The virtual world is deeply connected to the organic world, and the “crossover” realm may well be the real space in which we do live.

The present posting, 3b, picks up where 3a left off – wondering about the potential for change in the essential emotional experience of being human.  This leads to a Huxleyesque future of chemical alterations and experiential morphing.

From Gilgamesh to Pharma

Gilgamesh, the God-King of Uruk, is the oldest surviving literary protagonist in human history.  He was a real man, who built the walls of his famous town, after which the modern nation of Iraq is named.  His story was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has inspired writers, readers and listeners alike for over 4,700 years.

Preserved on cuniform tablets, the Epic tells how Gilgamesh grieved the loss of his friend Enkidu.  In his sorrow and listlessness Gilgamesh became consumed with death and set out on a quest for immortality.  Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil at this point is no different than any of us will have over the death of a loved one.

Some years later, but still long ago – 2,300 years ago to be more precise – the Hebrew prophet Qoheleth wrote that there would be nothing new under the sun, and about 2,267  years later The Beatles got a number 1 hit with the same message.

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game …

If there’s nothing we can do that can’t be done, then what is there?  Do the changes that have occurred in the world really matter when it comes to the fundamental experience of what it means to be human?  The issue is not about change in the world, or change in the nature of social organization, or the changes we can effect on the world.  It’s about who we are inside:

What about being human has ever changed in some undeniably essential way?

This question doesn’t deny the reality of change.  Societies are different.  Mores and belief systems change over time.  That some technological changes have made life better for some people is absolutely true.  Some illnesses and conditions no longer make life miserable for people.  Basic everyday machines like vacuum cleaners and refrigerators have liberated countless numbers of people from demeaning and exhausting chores, even while they take up new chores for new reasons.

The undeniably essential experiences I am thinking of, however, belong to other moments in our lives.  They are moments of being.  They are fundamental.  They are emotional.  They are constitutional.  They are moments critical of passage:  birth, love, marriage, death, loss, success, envy, anger.  In these kinds of moments, has what it means to be human really changed all that much?

The answer is yes, maybe, sort of.  These are emotional moments, and emotions are not purely given, because we can tinker with them.  A change in scenery is sometimes enough to change one’s emotional state.  Want to feel better?  Find the sun.  Get some air.  Climb a hill.  Have a drink.  It is in the last instance that we people began to find real power over our emotions.

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

The House of Tomorrow, 2009, Park Slope Version

We’ve been tinkering with chemical alterations to emotions for millions of years, well before Gilgamesh.  This may not even be unique to the human species; chimps use chemicals, too. People, however, have a way of taking things to extremes, as any history of the species will demonstrate.  There’s a cost to chemical happiness in terms of addictions.  Some chemicals even change who we are and give rise to social ills, such that most societies ban certain forms of chemicals.

What gets banned and what doesn’t – or as Jennifer Michael Hecht poses the issue, what makes a good drug bad – is really an outcome of cultural power politics (though other issues are also involved).  From the late 1800s, upper middle class, liberal, Americans of Northern European descent acted out their concern for the disruptive behaviors of less-welcome immigrants (Irish, Italians, Slavs, Jews) and African Americans by banding together to ban alcohol, which they did successfully from 1920 to 1933.  For the last 40 years, “drugs”gained a connotation of “mind altering experience” that became associated in our society with illegality, rebellion, and tragedy, but that’s nothing new either.

What is different today is the industrialization and institutionalization of mass drug consumption designed to create an emotional social fabric that breeds order, productivity, and “happiness” (not “high,” but “happy” and “productive”).  These are the legal drugs that big, powerful companies want us to take under the guise of “freedom,” the kinds of drugs that appeal to people who believe there’s something fundamentally different between the urge to eat Xanax as opposed to psilocybin mushrooms.

In this scenario, prescription drugs are the real gadgets making the future happen, and “health care reform” is the Trojan Horse that Big Pharma will ride into the future (and into our minds and bodies), a “PhRMA payoff” in the words of journalist Matt Taibbi.  The great gorging that the drug companies will continue to enjoy will fuel research and development into drugs that can normalize every possible quirk, peak, and valley of human experience.

This has been at least a century in the making:  from snake oil, to heroin (created by Bayer in 1898 as a cough remedy), to Hadacol, to the array of drugs advertised directly to you on television but which you need to make a doctor’s appointment to demand.  Whether there’s a government option for insurance in the reform won’t change this:  belief in pill-popping is one thing that everyone agrees on.

The pills we have for depression, anxiety, weak erections, high cholesterol, urine flow, restless leg, bacterial infections, low sex drive, menstruation, motherhood, and every other imaginable “malady” (a word chosen advisedly here) are what the future is about – and it’s not about change.

The future according to Pharma is about muting our experiences so that change doesn’t matter.

The original, brilliant video for “Ashes to Ashes” can be seen here (it can’t be embedded).

Epilogue

I wrote this to explore an alternative future, not to predict it.  The creative spaces opened up by the Internet and virtual lives (The truth and change, 3a) are far more interesting and preferable to me.

When it comes to the issues in this posting, there are a lot of grassroots ways to challenge the way that health reform is going on.  Changes in diet and lifestyle practices can prevent a great many problems that are currently medicated out of us.  Organizations like the Economic Policy Institute provide informative coverage of the issues with data that make sense.

A stern willingness to explore the nature of illness and suffering is another way to challenge the future:  we all get sick and must live with it.  We’ll all die.  Why not die with dignity and leave on one’s own terms?  There will be sadness as surely as there will be joy, and the latter is only made deeper and richer by contrast to our experience of the former.

Notes and Credits

The songs of David Bowie have guided my thinking along the way through these four posts on “The truth and change.”  At every turn I found another one to make me think even more deeply about these topics, forcing my mind to link further and further afield into the other areas I was reading about now or had some knowledge of in a past life.

The photo of Walgreen’s at the head of the post was taken by Monique S. Guidry.  It’s at 3004 North St, Nacogdoches, TX 75965-2858.  The photo of the Prospect Gardens Pharmacy, at 89 7th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217, was taken by the author.  That pharmacy is a nice little store in the gentrifying Park Slope neighborhood, subject of recent contretemps among the Park Slope literary and blogging community. The New York Times ran an interesting story about Amy Sohn’s novel, Prospect Park West and yet another possible TV series to shoot here (what happened to Darren Starr’s?). Local blogger Louise Crawford ran two versions of a review, one on her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” and the other in the Brooklyn Paper, where she also writes the “Smartmom” column.  Fucked in Park Slope absolutely loved the book.

In The Happiness Myth (New York:  Harper Collins, 2007), Jennifer Michael Hecht looks at the relationship between drugs and happiness, beginning with a chapter entitled “What Makes a Good Drug Bad.”  Along the way (pp. 78-79), she tells the story of Bayer’s invention and marketing of Heroin against the backdrop of an inquiry into what we really want out of drugs in our society.  The book is an unrelenting look at things that are supposed to make us “happy” and how misplaced our ideas about “happiness” today might be.  She explores her subject across time and cultures to make a pretty good case that happiness isn’t all it’s been cracked up to be.

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Another year, and we remember

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This is the view from the window next to my desk.  From that window, I took the photo that was the first masthead for this blog (it’s in the page on “the blog” if you want to take a look).

This was the view last night, from the ground, at the corner of 6th Avenue and Union Street in Brooklyn.

911-sarah-alt

My downstairs neighbor, Sarah, took that photo, and I saw it on her Flickr.

For the last three years, I have engaged a small ritual on or about September 11, when I can see the beams of light from Ground Zero over downtown from this window.

I turn out the lights.  I sit for a few minutes, 10 minutes or so.  My son is asleep in the next room, or maybe he’s at his mom’s apartment, just a few blocks away in the neighborhood.  Either way, he’s safe, while I gaze at the lights.  Irony is not the word for this.

I know my fate.  One day my name will be associated with a memory of something tremendous—a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far … Where you see ideals, I see what is human, alas, all too human.

Nietzsche’s words stream through my mind as I look at the beams and write my friends—

The clouds have cleared now and I have turned off the lights.  I just want to look out at the beams of light streaming up to the heavens.  So strange to think of the world before that day, and the world we have now.  And it made me feel like reaching out to a few people who matter to me.  I hope you’re all well.

As it happens, I never have taken a photo of the 9.11 beams from this window.  Tonight I will try, but I fear it’s going to be cloudy.  That’s unfortunate, because over the last couple of years, the view was so spectacular, iconic – and this year, 2009, will be my last at this window.  I will be moving at the end of September, to a new apartment in “Prospect Park South” which is the trendy name for what has often been called “Kensington” or simply “Flatbush” in the local dialect.

As all things happen, however, Providence gives us what we need, and Sarah’s photo from last night is such a gift.  So:  Thank you much to Sarah for this photo.  To all those who have touched my life, or whom I have touched in any way however small, I say this,

Be well and cherish those whose love you share.  We have no way to change what was, and our attempts to shape what will be never have their intended effect.  Where we are absolute, however, is the moment at hand.  Let us live that moment well, with love, and with all the peace that the world so deeply needs.  Only then do we stand a chance against the forces of darkness.  Strange as it may seem, those are pretty good odds.

Notes and Credits

Sarah’s photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/37558372@N03/3908398726/

The precise address of our building is 211 Sixth Avenue.  Or the Union Market, at 754 Union Street, Brooklyn.  11215.

The quote from Nietzsche was taken from the opening of the BBC documentary of him, which can be seen here.  See also this and this.

My own quoted email was what I sent in 2007, the first year I sat at this window.  I cannot find last year’s email, which was a little more focused.  My three years of having this view have been important to me, because this window was a starting-over in many ways.  I will miss the view – but mostly I will hold dear the fact that I have the chance to have this view for a little while.  I only hope that the folks who come next to this little apartment are able to appreciate it as well.

Personal Note

I moved to New York in May of 2004.  In 2001, I was in Rock Island, Illinois, teaching at Augustana College.  On that particular day, I was in my office early.  Jane, who was the secretary for the departments of History and Political Science, came running down the long hallway to my office – we might have been the only two people on the floor.  She told me that I needed to come to the television and see what happened.  Her husband had called and said that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  Jane and I watched the rest of it happen, in a conference room on the campus of Augustana College which from its own window had a wonderful view of the Mississippi River and America’s own “heartland” on the border of Illinois and Iowa.  We saw the second plane crash into the other tower, and we saw the buildings fall to the ground, all live.  In my office, I heard about the plane crashing into the Pentagon, live.  I was very afraid.  My wife was out of town, and she was very possibly pregnant with our child (we had this confirmed just weeks after 9.11).  My country was under attack.

I don’t know if folks in New York know what it was like to experience 9.11 outside of this city.  It was pretty dreadful.   Nothing like here, of course, but awful nonetheless.  For a little while, we had no idea where this would lead, and everyone feared bombs and flames and explosions.

A few weeks later, November 10-12, 2001, we were in New York.  My wife had some meetings and I was along for the ride and the visit.  We knew then that our child would be expected some time in May or June.  I had some good runs in the city, in Central Park, along the avenues, but not on the West Side Highway.  It was blocked, for security reasons.  As we prepared to leave on the 12th, we heard odd news suddenly:  all the bridges and tunnels were closed, and so were the airports.  A plane had crashed in Queens.

Downstairs, we spoke to the hotel personnel.  The looks on their faces and the emotions in the air are emblazoned on my mind, in a way that makes me think of my parents’ generation when they talk about what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated.  I won’t forget that.

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The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro

house-of-tomorrow

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Indiana version

In the first installment of The truth and change, I wrote about how the Enlightenment gave us a new kind of science and social discourse that pictured a perfectible mankind, which would be the basis of real democracy and freedom in the future.  Yet it was really a Greek tragedy.

Jefferson snubbed the ancients by declaring that there will be something new under the sun, and a hundred years later the world embarked on a century that would witness versions of apocalypse previously imaginable only in epics and divine texts.  Everything that the Enlightenment made it possible to imagine, it also made it possible to destroy.  That was the dilemma of my generation . . .

Technoredemption Goes Pro

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair gave us the “House of Tomorrow,” which still stands in Indiana and at 78 years old combines the future and past in one space.  Like most dream houses created since the 1930s, it has a double garage, with a twist – one for an automobile and one for the airplane that “World’s Fair optimists assumed every future family would own …”

One can only imagine how this garage has played out of time – rumpus room, game room, massive mud room, cluttered workshop where grandpa used to build boats in bottles, and now the place where mom and dad surf the internet when the other isn’t looking.

The House of Tomorrow held out a vision of the future at odds with much of what was going on around it.  A few years earlier, World War I gave people a glimpse of the horror to be wrought by chemical warfare and bombs.  In 1933, faith in individual action and the capitalist economy was well under seige.  On February 27 of that year, Hitler burned the Reichstag and The Third Reich began.  World War II, with its multiple Holocausts of genocide, firebombing, and nuclear warfare would be soon upon us.

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

The House of Tomorrow, 1933, Berlin version

Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (published in 1973) portayed this entire destructive arc of the twentieth century.  Science fuelled a spiral of violence, which unleashed and unbound human emotions both zany and horrific.  Pynchon captured this most vividly in Brigadier Pudding’s humiliation scene, a Pavlovian experiment in the malleability/perfectibility of mankind that was a living annihilation at the border between the past and our future in which Pudding relived and relieved himself of the filth of Ypres and Passechendaele over and over again.  The ritual became the center of his being.

Brigadier Pudding on the border between past and future.

Zak Smith: Brigadier Pudding, p. 236

Still, annihilation and holocaust were not the only ideas on the table. The playfulness of Pynchon’s novel and its main character, Tyrone Slothrop, held out the competing narratives of innocence and technologial redemption, impulses ironically (and perhaps hypocritcally) present in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  This was the year of my birth and the year in which Stanley Kubrik gave us Dr. Strangelove.  At the Fair, GM’s “Tomorrow Land” provided a delightful tour of the wonders yet to be bestowed on us by reinforced concrete, steel, and plastic.  Tomorrow Land was a glimpse into the world that could be, minus the evils of nuclear war, poverty, and exploitation.

At the Fair’s Pepsi Pavilion, “Children of the World” used mechanized dolls and music to showcase a world of hope and diversity.  This became Disney’s “It’s a Small World,” leading to the installation of its relentlessly saccharine theme song in the minds of millions of people every year, some of whom must wish that Slim Pickins would ride a missile into Orlando and put an end to the little dolls and gadgets just so they could get that song out of their heads.

The world we inherited in the Reagan years was reeling between the Jetsons and Dr. Strangelove as Paul Westerberg wrote “we’ll inherit the earth, but we don’t want it.”  If we were finally, really going to do it, to blow it up, I’d at least try to spend my last years thinking of other things.

TRS80mod3

The Mighty "Trash-80"

In 1981, I bought a TRS-80, Model III.  I was 17 and had saved up the money from my job at the pizza parlor down the street.  I read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and John Nesbitt’s Megatrends.  A future of progress was much more appealing future than the one forecast by the “Doomsday Clock” on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Such was the future according to Generation X, as we stumbled between slackerism and technoredemption.

In 1989, I remember being in my kitchen, washing dishes and listening to NPR when they announced that people had climbed over the Berlin Wall and were taking it apart.  In my own mind, I replaced The Day After with Blondie and hummed “Atomic” over and over again as I felt relief wash over me.

Then in the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich started invoking Alvin Toffler at every opportunity.  1984 and Y2K came and went with neither Orwellian nor apocalyptic futures taking hold.  The most prescient glimpse of the future provided in my entire lifetime was not Space 1999 but Prince’s 1999, which accurately forecast exactly what I, and countless others around the world, were doing in 1999.  Whatever the future would be, it would be weird, and once Tim Berners Lee put the World Wide Web up, Gen X went online and, as if following Hunter S. Thompson’s consultation to our parents, we went pro.

Technoredemption provided a kind of cure-all for anxiety about the future.  Today it feeds the relentlessly positive assessments of Twitter’s contribution to revolution and freedom around the world.  Yet the same technology can bring us back to Huxley or Orwell, and we know it.  Evgeny Morozov writes that even as “activists and NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing to analyze data, map human rights violations, scrutinize the voting records of their MPs, and even track illegal logging in the Amazon”, ” governments are also relying on crowdsourcing to identify dissenters and muzzle free speech.

Technoredemption remains as much a promise now as it was in 1776, 1933, 1964, or 1989.  Rousseau’s famous line from the opening of On the Social Contract – “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains” – strikes me as quite true today, in the same sense that Rousseau meant it, and with the same consequences.

Notes and Credits

The photograph of the House of Tomorrow, Indiana version, was found on Wikipedia, in the commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:571531cv.jpg.  The House of Tomorrow, Berlin version, is in the Wikimedia commons at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Reichstagsbrand.jpg.

We didn’t need nuclear bombs alone to create armageddons of pain and horror.  Madhukar Shukla writes “The Firebombing of Tokyo was as devasting as the nuclear, Hidden in the history of that time, is an unnoticed footnote – the ‘Tokyo Fire-Bombing,’ which the Western press would not touch, and the Japanese survivors would not like to dwell upon [was an] event which happened months before the atom-bombs and with far more lethal consequences.”  Shukla’s blog is called “Alternative Perspective” and his homepage is here.

The illustration of Brig. Pudding is by Zak Smith, from his work Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Much thanks to Zak for granting me permission to use the image.  The series of illustrations was featured in the 2004 Whitney Biennial (agh, just before I arrived in New York!) and is now part of the permanent collection at the Walker in Minneapolis.  In the episode referenced above, Brig. Pudding must undergo a scatological humiliation scene with Domina Nocturna as part of his atonement for his role in Ypres and Passechendaele, a scene occupying pp. 232-36 of the book (Viking Press, 1973).  Click on the image and you will be taken to a website featuring all of the illustrations.

Among Pynchon’s themes we count the Europeans’ damning of the world to endure the repetitive future of their own racist, colonial past, which sits perversely at the heart of American innocence and condemns America (white America, especially) to this struggle between technoredemption, dystopia, and annihilation.  Like Rousseau, Pynchon sees the chains that reason has placed on mankind.  He continues to explore that theme in his writing, with impressive intensity in Mason and Dixon, in which the two famous astronomers are contracted to create an artificial boundary between two artificial entites (Pennsylvania and Maryland) that have been imposed on something like a state of nature.

Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, goes into the territory of detective fiction and film noir, two of my favorite genres.  I am giddy and cannot wait to read this book.  Expect more posts related to TP.

On August 31, 2006, Douglas Coupland posted a wonderfully ironic vision of the future as past and present on his New York Times blog.  At that point he boldly foresaw the Kindle-future, as he predicted that books will “cease to exist” and become “extinct.”  Looking at his old novels and thinking of insects, he began to think about how wasps made paper from wood, and then he used his own mouth to pulp his novels and make nests from them.  The resulting photos are quite beautiful, and the blog posting shows what Generation X looks like as a nest.

The photograph of the TRS-80 Model III comes from Stan Veit’s website, PC-History, based on his famous book, Stan Veit’s History of the Personal Computer.

I learned about Evgeny Morozov’s blog post in a Tweet from Cause Global’s Marcia Stepanek.

The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
Cause London is drowning and I, I live by the river

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The truth and change, 1: From Perfection to Dystopia

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

The House of Tomorrow, 1776

For as long as I can remember, people have been trumpeting the big changes that were supposed to occur in my lifetime.  In this span of years, roughly the 1960s-forward, change was the key ingredient of the future, which amounted to three alternatives:  progress, dystopia, or annihilation.  Looking back on the future of the last 45 years, however, it turns out that these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives.

Einstein observed that the experience of an event is subject to relational factors like who’s observing it, where, and under what conditions.  So it is with the future.  It may not be the world itself that changes, but rather how we experience it, a future that happens inside our bodies to make the world look, sound, feel, taste, and smell different.  The House of Tomorrow may well be the house of yesterday, but it won’t feel that way.

This is the first of three posts on The truth and change.  The series will look at how tangled, ironic, and weird (to invoke a favorite category of Hunter S. Thompson’s) the future will be, if it’s not that already.  The exercise in lateral thinking takes us from perfection to dystopia, annihilation, technoredemption, slacker paradise, Qoheleth, Big Pharma, and cyberchange.

From perfection to dystopia

The future, change, and progress are products of The Enlightenment.  For millennia, people were assumed to be what they were.  Thinkers in the West and the East had explored all sorts of ideas about how to create good societies, find peace, and achieve enlightenment (The Buddha’s kind) – but there was no belief in a “future” that would be different from the past.  Differences in politics, spirituality, or technology were seen as superficial, and the great wheel of history rolled along.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …
One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays …
What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.
Nothing is new under the sun.  [Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9]

Then in the eighteenth century the philosophes in France and other spots around Europe started to think about the life we could have on Earth through science, reason, and (in one form or another) “democracy.”  The twin notions of change and the future became tangible, captured in a repurposing of the word “progress.”  In The Invention of Air, Stephen Johnson shows how these ideas were tied together across science, politics, and religion.  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Joseph Priestly (the nominal subject of Johnson’s book) were scientists and radicals who imprinted the American Revolution with the Enlightenment’s vision of the future.

As Jefferson wrote to Priestly after the presidential inauguration in 1800, “We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun.  For this whole chapter in the history of man is new.”  In another context, Jefferson famously quipped, “Every generation needs a new revolution.”  Compromised as Jefferson’s revolution was, eventually even the enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans, written out at the beginning, would build their own revolution to insist on (some of) Jefferson’s ideals, among others.  The times, they would be a-changing, and the early Abolition movement itself was a part of the Enlightenment’s vision of change.

New industries and the “New World” conjured an image of humankind’s infinite malleability – we were blank slates on which a better world would be drawn.  People were, in a word, perfectible.  Yet perfection was a contestable quality, and disagreements over perfectibility would draw the lines of ideological battles that lasted from 1776 to 1989.  One of the central lines in the struggle over change was who would make change happen best — freely acting individuals, private corporate entities, or the state.

These conflicts underlay Adam Smith’s own writings.  He placed great faith in individuals and very little in either the state or corporations.  In Smith’s ideal world, we were a self-correcting society of individuals guided “by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of [their] intention.”  In other words, people following purely individual motives could create social good, almost accidentally.

Smith applied his faith in individuals to economic life, but he saw a conflict between the capacity of individual action to create a moral world and the effects of capitalism’s main motor for change, the division of labor.  Far from perfecting mankind, the nature of industrial production (and with it, the creation of wealth) would render the bulk of people ever more ignorant even as democracy expanded their ability to affect their world:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.  He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human to creature to become.  The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment … Of the great and extensive interests of his country, he is altogether incapable of judging …

This would be the product of capitalism, said Smith, “unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”  Smith never resolved this conflict in his understanding of change, and his fans have ignored it and instead dwelled on the “invisible hand” alone, taking this half-premise to logical extremes.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand made a grand dystopian plea for her version of capitalist utopia that in general (if less radical) terms is part of everyday political discourse in the United States, where faith in powerful, dynamic individuals is strong.  The fear of the state is great, and the relation to mass politics is complicated.  The masses are fickle and in general not to be trusted (even by the masses).  To wit:  In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, “going John Galt” has become the calling card of dissident financiers holding out against the reactions of the federal government and the populist fervor aimed at them, though this fervor was short-lived and now is turned against the government and health care reform.

Over time, dystopia transcended the narrow limitations of the conflicts between capitalism and socialism, seeing in both a massification of industrial society that used technology to dampen the very urges toward freedom and expression unleashed by the forces that Jefferson and Priestly heralded with such optimism.  Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We combined his experiences in the Russian Revolution and in the British factories of World War I to describe a true dystopia that was the forerunner of Orwell’s 1984.  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World concentrated our gaze on the manufacture of pleasure as a way of breeding conformity and social order from the “torpor of mind” that Smith lamented in 1776.

Yet numbing sameness wasn’t the only threat to Jefferson and Priestly’s House of Tomorrow.  The rocket scientists who stood on their shoulders (among so many others) eventually helped us create weapons of unparalleled destruction that could end all life as we know it.  Beyond dystopia, the future created by reason might actually annihilate us all.  These were our choices by the time I was growing up:  Smith, Marx, Rand, Huxley, Orwell, Dr. Strangelove, or Charlton Heston on a beach some time in the distant future.

The Apes were able to perfect themselves greatly with people out of the way.  The surviving humans, able to carry on through accidents of history and rocket science, became vermin and slaves until the moment in which Taylor and Nova became a new Adam and Eve under the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, now a fallen, man-made Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If you look hard enough, you can see in the background the shadows of Priestly, Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller.  Thoreau and Whitman are nowhere to be found.  They were buried by the knowledge of good and evil.

Notes and Credits

The quotation from the opening of Ecclesiastes is taken from the New American Bible, Eccl. 1: 2, 4, 9.

Jefferson’s statement setting aside Qoheleth is cited by Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 199.  Overall, this book is a real treat that shows a rare and impressive achievement of lateral thinking.  To extend your thinking, visit Johnson’s blog, where he is further ruminating on ecosystems, technology, and change.

My quotations from Adam Smith are taken from The Essential Adam Smith, ed. Robert L. Heilbronner (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 265 and 302.  Read this book, which includes abridged versions of both the Theory of the Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.  They are indispensable critiques of the world that Smith’s fans seem to adore.

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The truth and Mr. McNamara

things that get destroyed by war, Ann Arbor, January-February 1991

things that get destroyed in war, Ann Arbor, January-February 1991

“Every quantitative measurement we have shows we’re winning this war …” Robert S. McNamara, 1962

Few people with the power to make change have placed so much faith in science as a force for public good.  Few have wreaked so much havoc and destroyed so many lives with their belief in science.  Many fewer still are those who have tried to grapple publicly with the damage they did.

These were thoughts that occurred to me as I read the obituaries of Robert S. McNamara yesterday morning.  It brought me back to Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, which I recently spent three days watching, over and over, for a different project.

In Morris’s film, McNamara narrates his life around 11 “principles” that he learned from his involvement with war, both the Second World War and Vietnam.  The first is “empathize with your enemy,” and this is the vantage from which I prefer to think about McNamara himself.  Rhetorically speaking, this makes him my enemy, which I know he is not, but like any enemy he is the object of my perplexed and sometimes angry thoughts, a person I likely would have “opposed” had I been of an age to do so.

To the extent that McNamara is an object of anyone’s judgment, however, empathy is the perhaps the best way one might understand how a person as remarkable as McNamara could also be, as David Halberstam put it, “a fool.”  Yet to remember McNamara only in anger or glib, anti-intellectual sniping at the fact that brilliance is no guarantee against foolishness gains nothing for the world.  Most brilliant fools will never, in the manner of Mr. McNamara, admit and more importantly explore their mistakes for the good of the public.

McNamara’s reckoning with his own illusions of scientific truth led him to conclude, among other things, that “rationality will not save us,” that “belief and seeing are often both wrong,” and that one should “be prepared to reexamine your reasoning.”  These are his lessons from war, but they would serve us well in ordinary life, too.

From the mid-1990s forward, McNamara became immersed in debating the issues around nuclear war, as well as Vietnam, and the documentary he made with Errol Morris was released right about the time the Bush administration began the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  McNamara’s ultimate conclusion from a life of war and science was this:

“What ‘the fog of war’ means is: war is so complex it’s beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate. And we kill people unnecessarily.”

In his dreams and goals and desires, in his patriotism and sense of duty, McNamara was no different than most people.  His own peculiar acumen, however, put him in an extraordinary position to affect the lives of others.  The hubris of his belief in science was perhaps no more or less than Richard Dawkins’s own arrogance, but circumstance and ambition have placed Dawkins in a relatively benign position that mainly involves preaching to his own choir of fellow travelers.

We might serve Mr. McNamara, and ourselves, best – whether from the view that he was an inhuman monster or the more reflective position that he seemed to wish we would have – by listening to the things he had to say during the last 15 years of his life, from the time of his autobiography, In Retrospect (1995), forward.

Late or not – 27 years elapsed between the end of McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense and his autobiography – McNamara at least tried to help the world understand what he did, without making excuses for himself or (for the most part) fudging the facts in a self-serving way.

One could only wish that other powerful true believers would do the same, but the likelihood is that Alan Greenspan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld won’t go where Mr. McNamara finally chose to go.

Personal disclosure

I was not yet born when Robert McNamara assumed the post of Secretary of Defense.  My first memories of television, however, are of war reporting.  I recall a picture of an empty field, with the rat-a-tatt-tatt of machine guns firing in the distance and the gravelly voice of a war correspondent trying to explain what we weren’t seeing.

The first time I went to Washington DC was in 1990 or 1991, quite possibly for the Washington Mall protest against the Persian Gulf War, part 1 (Desert Storm), though I don’t recall.  There was a wedding I went to around that time, which might have been the first trip to DC.

What I do remember is this:  As we drove from Michigan to Washington, we listened to the 10,000 Maniacs album Blind Man’s Zoo.  “The Long Parade,” a song about watching people pass along the Vietnam Memorial, stuck in my head.  By the time I reached the end of my own walk along the wall, I was in tears, as much for the tragedy spelled out in the 50,000+ names on the wall as for the one name I knew was not there.

My own father served in the US Army from 1962 to 1967.  He wasn’t sent to Vietnam, though he trained soldiers who went there from the place of my birth, Fort Hood, Texas.  Later, he was sent to West Germany where, for a couple of years, he stood with the first line of defense in the event of Soviet invasion.

Notes and Credits

These are the obituaries I read in preparation for this posting:  Thomas Lippman in the Washington Post, Tim Weiner in the New York Times, and Fred Kaplan in Slate.com.

The photograph at the head of this post is of a wall that I helped to build in Ann Arbor at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, the First Persian Gulf War, in 1991.  The idea for this piece of public art was Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s.  At the time, Jeff and I were both graduate students in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  A group of us built the wall and attached to it all of the things that get destroyed in war.  It was located on the central lawn of the Ann Arbor campus, the “Diag” as we called it, for the the diagonal pathways that cross the lawn to connect the buildings.

things that get destoyed in war, close up

things that get destoyed in war, close up

The wall stayed up for only a few days, being torn down by ROTC members on the one night that people didn’t camp out there to protect it – at the time, it was terrifically cold, in the single digits every night.

The university, however, didn’t clean it up, and it remained for another few weeks.  As a pile of rubble it actually accomplished its goal even more effectively.  During this time, no one crossed the Diag without stopping to talk about the war.

Richard Dawkins is among the best and brightest evolutionary scientists of his generation.  I’ve read some of his books and have enjoyed them – The Selfish Gene, The Ancestor’s Tale – but I have found his unoriginal assessments of religion and the stupidity of people who choose to believe in God (even if they also believe in evolution) to be, at the most generous, tiresome.  For an example of hollow, rude intellectual badgering, see his video on Google.  It’s like a supernerd bully picking on crippled jock bullies and, frankly, I found the original much more entertaining.

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The truth and Twitter, part 1: The Mix Tape

twitter-iran1

The truth will be digitized.

Last week, I went to the 140 Characters Conference here in New York.  There, hundreds of people met to explore how Twitter, new media, and micro-blogging are disrupting life these days.  People were asking important questions of all this new technology:  What do we get out of it? Is it changing anything that matters in any interesting way?  Where’s it going?  What does it mean?

The conference couldn’t have been more timely, though this was completely an accident of fate:  On the very days of the meeting, June 16 and 17, the Iranian people were using Twitter, cell phones, and other inventions to coordinate and narrate a national uprising to protest the (allegedly) fraudulent results of the recent presidential elections.  The story is available only over the internet, because Iranian control of the press and media have made it impossible for regular journalists to cover the events on the ground.  Thus we turn to Twitter and bloggers to understand what’s going onHuffington Post’s Nico Pitney is singularly inserting himself into the moment by providing the only comprehensive, live blog of the event.

These are the largest and most disruptive public demonstrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when masses of Iranians overthrew the US-backed Shah of Iran.  The Iranian Revolution was one of the few documented true revolutions (to use a political science term!), in which the structure of society itself, and not merely the regime, was changed in a rapid convulsion of political will.

Something similar might be happening today.

The events of 1979 have an interesting parallel to the present, for the earlier Revolution was spurred along by the innovative application of a radical new technology that not only subverted the regime but also fit neatly into the lifestyles and habits of regular Iranians.  The new technology was accessible to everyone, regardless of education, age, gender, or geographical location.  I am referring, of course, to cassette tape recordings, which in the 1970s took the entire world on a quantum leap of do-it-yourself cultural production, re-production, and mashing-up.

In the West, this took the form of the mix tape.  We used the songs of our favorite bands to declare love or war, to apologize for insensitivity, to make a stand, break up, explain any of the preceding, or simply state the case for plain, animal lust.   The truly radical could even place Yes, The Clash, and Air Supply on the same tape, just to make a point.  The mix tape reached its all-time high with Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, in the mid-1990s, which was later immortalized on the silver screen with John Cusak at the very moment in time when the cassette tape itself was tossed into the dustbin of history by the arrival mix-CDs, MP3 playlists, and (a few years later) the iPod.

At the same time that mix tapes reshaped the possibilities for personal expression in the West, Iranians were gathering in private, often hidden, rooms to listen to cassette tapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a prominent religious leader who was exiled from Iran in 1964.  Khomeini took refuge first in Iraq, which has a large (majority) population of Shiite Muslims, and later in France.  His sermons were smuggled into Iran, where they met a large audience, hungry for his words.

Khomeini’s message was both religious and social.  He married basic Islamic piety to a consciousness of poverty, economic injustice, and outrage at the atrocities of the Shah’s violently repressive state.  The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was deeply tied to Islam’s notions of charity and essential human equality (not the same as “freedom” in any Western sense), tenets of belief that the Shah’s regime violated so openly and egregiously. Cassette recordings overcame the literacy barrier and brought this message to wide audiences that might have missed him had he been restricted to paper texts and photocopies.  Cassette tapes were the samizdat of the Islamic world in the 1970s.  Anyone could listen.

Cassette tapes allowed the Iranian opposition to gather, communicate, and plan for a better day.  When that day came, in the heady rebellion of 1978-79, it seemed as if the world exploded, just like it did this week as Iran commanded center stage everywhere.  It’s no small coincidence, it might be added, that some of the chief protagonists of the present turmoil – Ayatollah MontazeriMir Hossein Mousavi, and Hashemi Rafsanhani were there in 1979, in similar roles, only as much younger people.

So Twitter brings us full circle, from cyber space and cell phones – whose ubiquitous flip-top form bears more than a passing resemblance to the original Star Trek Communicator – back to cassette tapes.  Déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once noted.

Today, Twitter and cell phone videos are our cassette tapes of Iranian change, bringing us the haunting images of people shouting Allahu Akbar from the rooftops at night, just like they did in 1979.  Then, as now, regular people sang the traditional Muslim declaration, “God is great,” to indict the regime in power.

That’s the original cultural source of change in Iran.

Note

This is the first of 3 postings on “The truth and Twitter.”  More to come…

Credits

Opening photo:  www.life.com/image/ugc1002722/in-gallery/28782/eyewitness-from-tehrans-streets.  LIFE has several dramatic series of photographs from the current events; other photographs are here. Looking at these photos, I can feel, in my bones, what “history” means.

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