Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Greatest Depression

I've been taking some time off from blogging because I was starting to feel like I was channeling H.L. Mencken. But I do not have a great-enough capacity for booze and cynicism, so I am but a pale imitation.

One of my problems as a writer - indeed, one of my great problems in life has always been that I have difficulty saying things I don't believe with a straight face, and the gambit of not saying much at all, while effective socially, isn't a winning formula for a deadline warrior.


I look around myself, and see great tensions and forces and people of all political stripes trying to make sense of it all in terms they are comfortable with. If there is a parallel to be had at all, they most remind me of the generals of WWI, who bravely sent their forces to die in a muddy stalemate because they could not or would not adapt to the new realities of warfare imposed by the airplane and the machine-gun.


In aid of coming to some sort of personal understanding of our times and my place in them, I've just read "Original Blessing" - the Matthew Fox classic of theology - which came recommended to me by an Anglican student of theology, and I give significant weight to the fact that it got Fox ousted from the ranks of Catholicism by Ratzi himself. It was written in the 80s and to me says nothing very controversial at all.

On the other hand, if there is a name for what I am, in terms of faith, it would be a Christian Mystic. As I'm anti-authoritarian in matters of faith and politics alike, well, I understand why I found myself rather bored by arguments that seemed obvious, buttressed by examples I thought spoke rather better for themselves in full context. I suppose it says rather a lot that one needs to be a theologian to say such things out loud and be taken seriously and rather more that one could be ejected from the church for fairly much saying "Me Too" to the essential insights of Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart and Jesus - but then, I've always figured the red letters were pretty clear. I've never really sought out any official endorsement of the obvious, any more than I would need a climatologist to tell me that the sky is blue and clouds are white.

I learned two things of importance from this book:  First, that the biblical word that is translated as "faith" would perhaps be as well translated as "trust" - and that for the sake of getting published, it's not what you know ... it's Who you know.

Seriously, it's the most awful book to read - but read it you should. Consider it a penance.

And then there was a small, obscure history, "Red Lights on the Prairies," a yellowing paperback I found in a church thrift-store basement written about the history of prostitution in the Canadian West.

Oddly, both books speak a great deal of the distinction between ethical behavior and the imposition of arbitrary moral order - and how difficult it is to make everyday practical distinctions between the two, much less foresee the social consequences of mistaking moralism for morality. There are certain things about human behavior that are givens, and whatever you make of them, for good or for ill, they will  happen regardless of how loudly you yell or how hard you hit.

If you ever want to understand why "harm reduction" is good public policy, read this book. When young, horny, physically active men outnumber women three to one - an outlet will be found. Best be sure it's not through your own sense of propriety.

People don't stop doing what they do just because you tell them it's wrong and will hurt them if they don't obey you. They just lie about it, while siezing upon the greater profit margins enjoyed by criminals and the lower standards accepted by those resigned to having to resort to criminal sources. Moralism, it illustrates, is a pretty poor excuse for not doing the right thing.

Those who yammer on about the need for a new moral order in politics while behaving in ways that demonstrate they couldn't tell the difference between right and wrong if it stepped on their face are... well, they are nothing new in the world. That's the Greatly Depressing thing.

For a bit more context about why war cheerleaders are so eager to demonize efforts to generalize lessons from Nuremberg, see this passage from Nuremberg Diary by G.M. Gilbert, the American prison psychologist at Nuremberg who wrote the following as part of his account of an interview he did (one of many) with Hermann Goering  on April 18, 1946, in Goering's cell (pp. 278-79):

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.
"Why, of course, the people don’t want war," Goering shrugged. "Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship."
"There is one difference," I pointed out. "In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare war."
"Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in any country."

There is always some charismatic idiot who realizes that the fastest route to personal power is to gather a bunch of authoritarian followers and convince them that all their problems can be blamed on "those people" - people so morally deranged they will surely go to hell, and might even be so depraved as to vote for the other candidate. See above - or just turn on your television.

Now, if you delve into morality as stated by those for whom the morality of other people is a matter of great imporance, you will find that purity and impurity; the politics of disgust are rather more pressing to them than a working, just, functional society of the sort advocated by Jesus.

Mind you, Jesus said all kinds of awkward things, and it got him nailed to a cross during his lifetime.You don't have to be trained by Jesuits to realize that the Crucifix at the front of the church is intended as much as an object lesson as an inspiration.


The lesson of history is that rounding up those people really does little to address structural inequities or the root causes of ... well, anything. It does, however, nicely address the cash-flow issues and power needs of people who make the cattle cars and the tools to blow shit up, and employs many in the process of rebuilding after the blowing up is done and the bodies are buried. So, what are a few niggers, spics, paddies, kikes, gypsies, kulaks, pinkos, picts, scotti, imperialists, faggots or towel-heads whining about, in the face of such great social good and moral order? Someone has to be in control, or all will be chaos!

That's not just sacasm - it's an important thing to realize; that the need to control others comes as much from fear as from greed. Indeed, I think that the "lesser," or at least more socially acceptable sins of lust and greed are more agreeable excuses for the need to have power over others. Much of the time, for many people, it seems to be much more a visceral, incohate fear of what would happen if "those" people were allowed to "do their own thing."  


The great problem of times such as these (and if you look back, it always seems that to some degree, it always is a time like this) - the people who know enough to know they aren't fully competent for the task stand back - leaving a path to apparent greatness yawning for some fearful and witless incompetent who's quite sure they know how to fix a complicated and delicate situation with some combination of brute force and ignorance.

And in a sense, it does work. It generally results in a transformation - because the idiot succeeds in breaking things badly enough that there can be no serious argument over the need for a new system. Take Mao's Cultural Revolution. In a bass-ackwards sort of way, it actually did work. Or, more than likely, it worked out as it had to work out, quite aside from the marching and waving and credit-taking. Shit rolled downhill, as it tends to do, and Mao was clever enough to get behind it and cry out, "See, this is what I've done!"

But then, I'm a cynical man. And quite frankly, that's rather more than most people do, for good or for ill. An honest record of the man and his times will record that there was rather a lot of each, and when possible, he did bias toward the good he understood, and avoided the bad things that he could foresee. Like all great leaders, he benefited from the loyal efforts of those who were rather better than he honestly deserved for the pay he offered.

But that is not the role of one such as myself, and I think I sleep better for it.

I've long since decided that I am unlikely to be able to affect much change from within. Consider the object lesson of Obama. If he ever was sincere about effecting the sorts of change needed to avoid some form of transformative catastrophe by working from within - he's clearly found out why that almost never happens.

An era is ending, and it will end. It has nothing whatsoever to do with nations, or politics or faith. It has to do with change. Not change brought to washington, or change that can be forestalled by an election for a few years - we are dealing with changes in energy generation, changes in trade, changes in weather, changes in economic realities, changes in the importance of various core goods and services and almost none of this can be changed from Washington, Paris, Bejing or the United Nations.

We can, at best, adapt with some grace, perhaps a bit better than did the Neanderthals, hopefully with more grace than the Church did, faced with the Enlightenment.

But I wouldn't bet against stupidity.

Obama  is strapped into a socio-political space shuttle, along with everyone else. Now, it will cease to be airborne one way or another, and rather soon. The philosophy of piloting ain't going to make a hell of a lot of difference, but competence will. And that goes to some practical understanding of why things fall, and how you can affect where they land.

Ethics - and most of life, if you want to live through as much of it as possible - deals with an appreciation of cause and effect in human terms. In terms of the current situation in world affairs, instead of looking to Glenn Beck for advice - look to the people that Glenn Beck advises. Then if you live in an area where such people form a majority and control your government, sell them your basement as a food, weapons and gold cache location and hie thee hence, for when the levees break, they will be arguing as to who's fault it was, or whether the rescue effort should concentrate on "good" or "bad" people rather than getting on with the job at hand.

It's not that emergency preparedness is a bad idea. But when it comes at the expense of preventing the disaster in the first place, well now. Then I have a problem. You prepare for unforeseeable emergencies. The foreseeable ones, those you fix, or you avoid.

You can predict a great deal about how people will deal with a large crisis by seeing how they react to a small one.

Those who tend to assign blame, deny factual information that contradicts their world-views; those who indulge in obvious hypocracy, those who cannot manage to get through an entire paragraph without tripping over their own cognitive dissonance - well, it doesn't matter what "philosophy of governance" or religious faith they claim to share with you, because even if they understand it as well as it may appear, they couldn't apply it in any useful way when the bolts come loose.

You see, at the end of the day, the whole point of the exercise is ensuring that life goes on, and if your way of securing the future for you and yours depends on denying a future to them and theirs, sooner or later there will be a reconing and the outcome will come down to raw numbers.

If less than 20 percent of the people control more than 80 percent of the wealth - you don't need a spreadsheet to see where this could lead. 

Well, in point of fact, that wealth WILL be redistributed. Regardless of what I think of it or what you believe, regardless of any question of justice or fairness, that's simply going to happen, by one means or another.

There's too much water and not enough dam.

Whether or not social justice occurs will likely be a question of local circumstance, dependant on many factors. But for most people in most parts of the world, the obvious question is this - is there any reason why I should care if those people live or die, if I should pay one more penny to fuel their yaughts?

And in point of fact, in order for that amount of wealth to stay that concentrated; a great deal of people need to shrug and not begrudge the few grains it takes from their ricebowl.

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