Monday, June 8, 2020

The Game of Becoming

Part 43 of Prisoners of the Real

Although history illustrates that one civilization may be buried beneath the foundations of another, this isn't always the case. Sometimes only the ashes remain. If human society is to be rescued and transformed, moving from the aggressively “rational” to the receptively Dionysian, many of our psychic road maps will have to be redrawn. Dionysian capacities are latent possibilities. But they may or may not become actualities.

One step toward the necessary change is honest reflection concerning our fundamental assumption about ourselves. The heart of the rational thesis is the belief that humans are essentially self-serving beasts. This belief has produced fear of our neighbors, and led to wall-building and extreme defensiveness. It has been safer, or so it has seemed, to turn control over to impersonal structures than to trust human nature. Gradually, each village, city, state and nation has come to look upon its neighbors as threats, "aliens," competitors who will either dominate or be controlled. Domination means defeat. And defeat, at the hands of the dehumanized beast called the enemy, normally means destruction.

Fear has given power to elite competitors who claim that control over others – in other words, victory – is the only route to independence and security. But in a hostile world, independence actually turns out to mean isolation. And the "rational" people who achieve the mastery they seek so diligently through self-discipline, ethical neutrality and mechanical effort find at the end that a beast confronts them still. The arrogant dragon has become themselves.

But this beast, who also whispers that everyone else is a brute, is no more than a nightmare image brought into the "real world" by our own minds. It is imagination run amok within a psyche that fears imagination and other natural impulses.

And yet...it can be changed. Reshaped by human will into a pleasing form.

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Trust and love aren't merely options that we can take when we have finished with hard-nosed business dealings in the "jungle.” They are demands of the self for warmth and aceptance and "irrational" emotions.

To this rational managers reply, "Of course, that may be so, but it is also important to be prepared for the unexpected. We have to watch out for those who have rejected their better angels. That's why we need a strong defense to ward off predators, and an aggressive offense to push 'em back." Some also argue that intuition, while acceptable in those not in positions of power, is no substitute for facts. And after all, they will add, it's no crime to guard your flanks, lock up at night, keep a weather eye out, or even to get ahead of the game. "You see," they claim, "the name of the game is winning."

But is it? Just as we teach our children about the value of competition we also tell them that it isn't winning but how you play the game that really matters. Perhaps our task then is simply to figure out what the game of living really means to us as individuals and as a group of potentially beautiful beasts.

There is a life's work for all of us.

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In the end, the purpose of the game isn't winning. It is playing well. In order to do that in any group experience, as most athletes know, you must work both against and with competitors. The most exhilarating moments aren't those in which you devastate an unwary opponent, but rather occur when the outcome remains in play. Then you feel a dynamic tension of united opposition, a cooperative exchange in which the elation of winning emerges from the excitement generated along the way.

Overcoming the fear that others will dominate us, let us down, steal affection like some finite commodity, and rob us of time, we must begin to build a new faith. Neither time nor love is finite. When our boundaries expand far enough beyond our physical borders, they can become infinite. Dragons need not be fire-breathing beasts. They can breathe life-sustaining warmth if they wish, if they are convinced that is their purpose.
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When Konrad Lorenz wrote On Aggression, many readers confused the word "aggression" with "violence," even though the ethologist emphasized that most animals actually avoid killing. He subsequently realized that in translating his title from German the connotation of the word "aggressivity" had been lost.

Lorenz' insight is that animals and humans do seek some sort of dominance, in the form of a drive that differentiates all of us as individuals. "If you lack personal aggressivity," he wrote, "you are not an individual. You have no pride in yourself and you are everyone else's man." The collective enthusiasm that, unfortunately, produces war is also the motivator for our most creative achievements. "Without the instinct of collective enthusiasm, a (human being) is an emotional cripple; he cannot get involved in anything."

The point is that aggressivity is actually a potential force for spontaneous invention, and doesn't necessarily imply hostility or evil. But when aggressivity lacks purpose, dominance can produce devastation. Purpose tells us where we are heading, and when we have arrived. Its absence leaves us roaming the planet, searching for victories we won't even recognize.
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The key to our purpose is intuition, more reliable as a guide than analysis alone has been. The Dionysian approach – spontaneous, lunar-centered, reflective rather than reactive – rests upon the naturally aggressive nature of any inspired idea that struggles to impose itself upon reality.

Intuitive processes demand intimate involvement with the subject of one's attention. You can't be a detached, disinterested observer and maintain the necessary intellectual sympathy. Centuries ago rational men resigned themselves to watching and reacting to what they observed. They called it the "practical" path. In contrast, the Dionsyian path is a "romantic" alternative, one that recognizes the value inherent in the infinite variability of individual acts.
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The Receptive brings completion to the Creative.
And feels the pulsing rhythms of matter in space
which is nature.
Creativity is the light power of consciousness;
thinking and seeing.
Receptivity is the dark power of what is inside;
unconscious and
Invisible. What I cannot see may feel threatening.
By yielding, the dark mystery is revealed.
My Creative spirit soars to Heaven and leads with
energetic ideas.
As I am Receptive and absorb them in practical and
Earth-bound work.
A doubled Earth signifies fixed lasting conditions
and mysterious
Powers within that have strength to bring Creativity
to birth and nourish it devotedly.

-- Adele Aldridge, I Ching Meditations

The image of harmony within duality is the root of many knowledge systems. The first two hexagrams of the I Ching illustrate the need for both aggressive creativity and intuitive receptivity. The hexagram on which the meditation above is based, the six broken lines known as K'un, The Receptive, says that although The Creative begets things – ideas, plans, machines – they are brought to life through the complimentary action of The Receptive, which helps us to act in conformity with our situation. This bespeaks an attitude of acceptance.

As Richard Wilhelm explained in his commentaries on the Chinese oracle, the "superior" person allows him or herself to be guided, learning from each situation what is demanded and then following this intimation from fate. This calls for both effort and planning. The Receptive is a planner who uses solitude to discover plans that grow from unique experiences.
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Both formal and intuitive knowledge are valuable in building humane institutions. As Bergson wrote, instinct and intelligence, manifested through voluntary and reflex actions, embody two views of a primordial, indivisible activity which can become both at once.

"As a rule," he explained, "they have been developed only in succession...one of them will be clung to first; with this one we shall move more or less forward, generally as far as possible; then, with what we have acquired in the course of this evolution, we shall come back to take up the one we left behind." Of course, cooperation would be preferable, with each one intervening when circumstances require. But the signs don't point in this direction. For several centuries we have relied on the rational, the predictable, the efficient, the material, the absolute. Therefore, it is likely that, as we fully realize the physical and psychic costs of this approach, we will turn – perhaps too much – to the intuitive, the spontaneous, the romantic, the spiritual, the relative.

Still, there is always hope. If we are wise the pendulum will not swing too far this time around from the cool, harsh light in which we now stand toward a fiery darkness. If we are wise the rational and Dionysian will not become antagonists again.

The two are, after all, complimentary opposites. They could fuse into a new synthesis of intuition and analysis and create a community of subjects, a flexible whole in which science and art merge, in which infinity is glimpsed in its temporary structure, and through which we humanize our machines rather than allowing mechanisms to destroy us.

In such a New World, we would replace static order with dynamic tension, re-energizing the dialectic of spirit and matter. In that world, Apollo and Dionysus unite to play the endless game of becoming.

Until then, let us dream.
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Originally posted on June 3, 2010. To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Monday, April 6, 2020

Doomsday Thinking: Imagining End Times

Listen to "#7 Doomsday Scenarios" on Spreaker.

There are so many stories about the end of our civilization, too many to list, perhaps too many for our health. It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In this podcast, Greg assesses our worst presidents — the real and the imagined, and our obsession with the end of everything, or a new dark age if we’re lucky. With scenes from Mercury Theatre’s classic alien invasion on the radio. Theme by Dave Lippman.

New Video: Reign of Error

   

On Halloween Eve in 1938, a flood of terror swept the United States. Some people, believing that the world was coming to an end, tried flight or suicide, or just cringed in their homes as "aliens" from Mars attacked New Jersey, then New York and the world. 
     But it was just a prank, tapping a deep national well of pre-war anxiety, and produced for radio by Orson Welles and his Mercury Players.
  
     Times have changed so radically since then that, in the face of real disasters like the Three Mile Island “partial meltdown” in 1979, the explosion and fire at Chernobyl in 1986, the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami-sparked disaster in Japan, the election of Donald Trump, or even a deadly virus, many people are deceptively calm. Some simply refuse to believe it.
      Are we really so confident about our ability to cope and recover, or have we given in to an overarching pessimism about the fate of the planet and future of humanity?
     According to a survey by the Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1980 nearly half of all US junior high school students believed that World War III would begin by the year 2000. If you consider the last decade, it looks like the youth of that period – in their 50s today – were only off by a few years.
     Many futurologists, an academic specialty that emerged about 40 years ago, continue to warn that the environment is critically damaged. Yet this sounds positively cautious when compared to the diverse images of social calamity projected through films, books and the news media. Long before Covid 19, pandemics and outbreaks were at the center of dozens of novel and films. Of course, there have always been such predictions. But in the last few decades they have proliferated almost as rapidly as nuclear weapons during a Cold War. Some dramatize a “big bang” theory –global devastation caused by some extinction level event.
     Fortunately, a few do chart a slightly hopeful future, one in which humanity either smartens up in time to save itself or manages to survive.
     Rather than a desire to be scared out of our wits, the attraction to such stories and predictions may reflect a widespread interest in confronting the likely future. The mass media may, in fact, be producing training guides for the coming Dark Age -- if we're lucky.

Variations on a Theme

Sometimes humanity – or California – is saved in the nick of time by an individual sacrifice or collective action. Sometimes, as in the classics On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove or The Omega Man (remade as I am Legend), we are basically wiped out. Occasionally there are long-term possibilities for survival, but technology breaks down and the environment takes strange revenge. In some cases the future is so dismal that it is hardly worth going on, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
     In a few cases the end of humanity is just a piece of cosmic black humor.
     All of these are speculative visions, many adapted from ideas originally developed in pulp science fiction or from prophetic statements by figures like Edgar Cayce. The films usually offer a way out (audiences generally favor hopeful endings), while deep doom and gloom tend to gain more traction in print. But both scenarios share the assumption that the track we are on leads to a dangerous dead end.
     We seem to keep asking the same basic questions: How do we get to catastrophe? And what happens afterward? One obvious way to get pretty close is to misuse technology, especially when the mistakes are made as a result of greed – for power, knowledge or cold cash.  
Vermont's Nuclear Plant
      The classic anti-nuclear film The China Syndrome presents a textbook example: greedy corporations ignoring public health and shoddy construction in pursuit of profit. It was a powerful statement in its day, especially given the Three Mile accident just weeks after the film's release, yet predictable in a way and inconclusive on the prospects for health or quality survival in a nuclear-powered world. We are just beginning to have this discussion again.

     An earlier “close call” film, The Andromeda Strain, had a more inventive story and placed the blame on a lust for knowledge (the old Frankenstein theme). But this early techno-triller provided no real solution to the problem of disease or disaster created by scientific discovery. In Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain the threat was a deadly organism brought back from outer space, the same kind of self-inflicted biological warfare that heavy doses of radioactive fallout can become. But in the book and film the blood of victims coagulated almost instantly, avoiding the prolonged agony of dying from a plague or the long-term effects of radiation.
     Fear of nuclear power is by no means new. Radiation created many movie monsters in the 1950s, from the incredible 50-foot man and woman to giant mantises, crabs and spiders. But the threat was usually related to the testing or detonation of weapons, not the ongoing use of what was then called “the peaceful atom.” That mythical atom was going to be our good friend in a cheap, safe, long-term relationship.
      Since then, and especially since the nuclear accidents of the 1970s and 80s, nuclear plants have provided a basis for various bleak scenarios. Not even Vermont has been spared, though it sometimes appears as a post-disaster oasis. In the 1970s novel The Orange R, however, Middlebury College teacher John Clagett extended nuclear terror into a future where the Green Mountains is inhabited by radioactive people called Roberts. They are dying off rapidly in a country where apartheid has become a device to keep the Roberts away from the Normals.
     Using a pulp novel style Clagett lays out the overall situation about halfway through:
     “For many years every nuclear plant built had been placed in Robert country, ever since, in fact, the dreadful month in which three plants had ruptured cooling systems, spreading radioactive vapor over much of Vermont, New Hampshire and West Massachusetts. After that no more plants had been built near populated areas; before long, the requirement that the plants should be located on running fresh water and in lightly populated country had brought about the present situation. Norm country was surviving and living high on the power generated in Robert country, where radiation grew worse, year by year.”
     In The Orange R Normal people who live in radioactive areas wear airtight suits and laugh hysterically when anyone mentions solar power. All of Vermont’s major streams and bodies of water have heated up, and the deer have mutated into killer Wolverdeer. Still, the book offers a hopeful vision at the end: the Roberts rise up and take over Vermont’s nukes and successfully dismantle the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well as a corporate state that is only vaguely described. Most Vermonters have terminal radiation sickness, but for humanity it turns out to be another close call.

Prophecies Go Mainstream

There are simply too many novels about the end of the current civilization, too many to list and perhaps too many for our psychological health. It could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
     Only a few decades ago people who accepted the prophecies of Nostradamus or Edgar Cayce were mocked by mainstream society and even some of their close friends. Cayce predicted that the western part of the US would be broken up, that most of Japan would be covered by water, and that New York would be destroyed in 1998 (perhaps he meant Mayor Giuliani’s remake of Times Square). Nearly 400 years earlier Nostradamus, whose benefactor was Henry II of France, said that western civilization would be under heavy attack from the East in 1999, with possible cataclysmic repercussions. Not far off, it turns out.
     But what is “lunatic fringe” in one era can become mainstream, perhaps even commercially viable, in another.
     The destruction of the West Coast has been featured in numerous books and movies. Hollywood has of course excelled in creating doomsday myths, from the antichrist’s continuing saga in countless unmemorable installments, to total destruction in the Planet of the Apes franchise, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 and many more.

     Japanese filmmakers have been equally and famously preoccupied with mass destruction. Decades before the current disaster, they even turned Cayce’s prophecy about their country into a 1975 disaster movie called Tidal Wave. Starring Lorne Greene and Japanese cast, it was imported to the US by Roger Corman. Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) describes it this way:
     “Racked by earthquakes and volcanoes, Japan is slowly sinking into the sea. A race against time and tide begins as Americans and Japanese work together to salvage some fraction of the disappearing Japan.” Close, but they missed the nuclear angle.
     Predictions to the contrary, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove remains one of the most memorable doomsday movies. Its black humor and naturalistic performances by Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden combine with a devastating premise – that The End may come through a mixture of human error (a demented general) and flawed technology (an extinction level bomb that can't be disarmed).
     There haven’t been many stories based on Nostradamus’ Eastern siege prophecy, although there certainly could be. But a number of films have adapted Cayce’s visions of environmental upheaval. Oddly enough Charlton Heston appears in several, usually as Cassandra or savior. In Planet of the Apes he is an astronaut who returns to Earth only to find his civilization in ruins, apes in charge, and humans living below ground as scarred mutants who worship the bomb. In The Omega Man he is a disillusioned scientist who has survived bio-chemical war and spends his days exterminating book-burning mutants. He discovers an antidote to the plague, but only a handful of people are left to give humanity another chance. The same basic story is told in I am Legend, the book and Will Smith movie. In the latter, Bethel, Vermont serves at the end as a gated refuge from the Zombie apocalypse.
     And then there is Soylent Green, a film that presents the slow road to environmental pollution and starvation. This time Heston is a policeman who eventually discovers that the masses have been hoodwinked into cannibalism. They are also so depressed that suicide parlors are big business.
     Most of the Heston vehicles were big budget B-movies, exploiting popular anxiety but much less affecting than Dr. Strangelove or Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. On the other hand, they deftly tapped into growing doubts about the future with a Dirty Harry-style response.

After The End

Ecologist George Stewart wrote his novel Earth Abides in 1949, before the Atom bomb scare took hold or the environment seemed like something to worry about. But his story of civilization destroyed by an airborne disease took the idea of rebuilding afterward about as far as anyone. In this prescient book the breakdown of man-made systems is traced in convincing detail, in counterpoint with a story of survival without machines, mass production and, ultimately, most of what residents of developed countries take for granted.
     Not many recent books or films are as optimistic about our prospects once humanity has gone through either its Big Bang or Long Wheeze end game. In Margaret Atwood’s multi -volume science fiction saga, for example, man-made environmental catastrophe and mass extinction in Oryx and Crake is followed, in The Year of the Flood, by marginal survival in a strange mutated world.
     The optimism of Earth Abides about the ability of human beings to adapt may be a reason why it did not develop the cult following of more dystopian tales. The more dismal the forecast, it seems, the more enthusiastic the following. Apropos, one of the most popular science fiction books downloaded in recent years was The Passage, Justin Cronin’s compelling mixture of vampires run amuck, government conspiracy, and post-apocalypse survivalism.
      What most of these stories and films have in common is a basic idea: the inevitability of radical, cataclysmic change. Should we manage to get beyond annihilation, apocalypse, Armageddon or whatever, they predict that we are very likely to enter a new Dark Age. Like most things, this too isn't a new idea. At the end of his life J. B. Priestley, the British novelist who founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, contemplated such a future. Calling it a “slithering down” he forecast that industrial civilization would one day come to an end.
      But even in a Dark Age there is some hope. The life of the planet will likely continue and equilibrium can be reestablished in time. At least many of us continue to hope so. If the devastation is not total, perhaps a new culture can emerge. The main question thus becomes not whether the Earth will survive but how human beings fit in.
     Near the end of his life H. G. Wells, the master of science fiction who produced optimistic visions in The Shape of Things to Come and The Time Machine, turned pessimist and wrote Mind at the End of Its Tether. “There is no way out or round or through,” he concluded. Life on Earth may not be ending, Wells believed, but humans aren’t going anywhere. Well, at least for the next few months, for most of us that will literally be true. 
     Yet compared with the darkest forecasts, the prospect of a post-modern Dark Age starts to sound more hopeful. Maybe it will just be a long Time Out.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Top Stories: Maverick Media Reader Favorites

Here are the most-read articles published on this site from 2008 to 2019, based on pageview statistics from blogspot.com. Most of them were also published on other websites, including Center for Global Research, Toward Freedom, VTDigger, ZNet, Truthout, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. However, this list doesn’t consider statistics from other sites. Maverick Media posts have more than 300,000 views. 

Two of the most popular stories have had staying power for several years - on psychopaths and Lockheed Martin in Vermont. Until recently "Remembering MLK" was also near the top; it’s an unusual take on the Civil Rights leader's death and a woman from his "secret" life. "Do Psychopaths..." is a wide-ranging "rant" originally developed for radio.
     The new #2 article looks at Jane Sanders' impact on Burlington College, which closed in 2016 after a disastrous land deal. Several posts on this site have focused on Bernie Sanders, but the one on his relationship with Sandia Labs, a Lockheed Martin subsidiary, went viral as he launched his presidential campaign. Also widely viewed is an article focusing on Bernie's first victory and accomplishments as Burlington mayor, expanded from my book, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution

   
Companion website
Perennially popular are chapters from Prisoners of the Real like "Fear Factors," on counter-terrorism and disinformation in the late 1970s. 
It's especially satisfying to continue seeing key chapters from Prisoners of the Real on the list, along with its table of contents. Recent additions to the Top Ten include a look at the potential of a Progressive-Libertarian movement and “It Can Happen Here,” on the threat of a modern form of "friendly fascism." On companion site Preservation & Change, a study of Burlington College, Campus Paradise Lost, tops the list.

VERMONT FOCUS
Burlington Mayor James Burke’s allies considered him honest and fearless, driven by civic pride and a sense of duty. His political enemies questioned his motives and called him a demagogue. He sometimes called them “corporate interests” or “foreign capitalists.” This series of essays about the Queen City's early progressive era is excerpted from The Vermont Way, a multi-platform history of Vermont.