Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, July 24, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 12

12: Positivity in the time of hysteria

Oh, I could hide 'neath the wings
Of the bluebird as she sings
The six o'clock alarm would never ring

Cheer up, sleepy Jean
Oh, what can it mean
To a daydream believer
And a homecoming queen?

-- The Monkees

My dog Otis, playing with his best friend, Misty May. Otis has friends.

Several months ago, I was out walking Otis, my golden retriever, and I met one of my dog walking friends. Actually these days most of my friends are dog walking friends. This is not because I’m a lovely guy who loves dogs and people, but because of my dog Otis, who everyone likes because he enthusiastically likes everyone. How can you not like a happy, happy dog with a positive, go out and greet the world disposition? Only if you have an aversion to muddy paws and slobber, which most people tolerate much easer than nasty human critical thinking. So, like the loser kid in grade school (I guess I was one once), I’ve learned to hang out with the popular kid that everyone likes because, inevitably, some of that “like” rubs off on me. 

Without Otis, probably not so much.

The conversation that I had with this friend illustrates why. He asked me what I thought about Trump – Trump had just said/done something outrageous – advocated killing the wives and children of enemies, asked his followers to beat up a protester, said that we should go ahead and use nuclear weapons… something that, I’m sure, now pales in comparison to many of the other insane/irresponsible/scary things he has said to curry favor with his goon-like multitude of followers, ignorant citizens who seem to have drunk a lot of toxic waste and devolved into something that resembles the Belzebub Fan Club… Anyway,  he asked me about Trump because he knows that I have political opinions and am the excitable type, and he thought it would be good entertainment to set me off.

And set me off, of course, it did. I went on about how I was horrified by Trump, but more than that I was infinitely more upset by the fact that his off-the-charts public behavior not only wasn’t hurting him, but seemed to be a big selling point to a huge chunk of the American public. Who are these people? And what the heck has happened to this country? I think I was probably close to wailing… and if I wasn’t, I think I should have been.

Having nicely drawn me out, he promptly tried to calm me down… or shut me down,  I should say, with a kind of cool, confident, sunny rationality that I’m sure he has learned to use on frothing idiots like me. “Oh, I’m sure that any minute he will say something that does him in and he’ll just fade away and be forgotten,” he said. (This was, of course, before Trump had won the nomination.)

But, but, but, but… that’s not what’s happening! I objected, again noting that his followers seemed to love his insanity, the insaner the better, because they like him “telling it like it is” (especially when he’s actually saying total falsehoods).  All the signs, I pointed out, were that this was going to get worse, not go away… what if he won the nomination?? What could happen to the country if an irresponsible madman was in reach of the presidency?

“I just prefer to look at things more positively,” he said sanely, to end the conversation. And it did, because there was nothing that didn’t involve some naughty words that I could, at that moment, say in reply.  The implication that I was just being way too negative did shut me up, because being overly negative is something no reasonable person would assume was good. I had no rational way to continue the argument, but, in fact, it was about the least effective thing he could have said to resolve the issue because I’ve been fuming and musing about it ever since. I don’t think “looking at things positively” is necessarily a superior way to approach the problems of the world, no, no, no I don’t.

A little personal history/disclosure here.

 Throughout most of my adult life, people have regularly told me that I dwell too much on the bad stuff, on things that are worrying rather than on things that are hopeful an promising and that I am unnecessarily depressing. I’m pretty sure that most readers of these essays feel this way, because I even do myself sometimes. I guess I acknowledge the truth of my negativity because I know my thinking is drawn to problems, discontents and WTF/FUBAR/SMH malfunctions of rational order like a moth to a searchlight.  The bumper sticker “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” was written for my car. 

Still, I’ve had occasion to bridle when people decide to reprimand me for looking at things darkly. Once, a coworker in the university advancement business who was trying to force me to task me with some ridiculous, unworkable request (say, get national media attention for a minor gift from a needy local donor) responded to my professional opinion that she was asking for the impossible,  “Oh, Jim, you’re always so negative!” From her perspective, I guess I was just being difficult, since she always thought that whatever she demanded should magically happen. Because that was how she wanted reality to work, it just had to. Other people should just “make it so.” No naysayers or compromisin’ on the road to her horizon. She was a princess, and princesses always get what they want, right? Me, my middle finger often began to itch fiercely in her presence.

I think this is often the way people who are “positive-thinking” and hopeful are – they want everyone to have their dreams and their hopes and they object to anyone who lives outside their fantasy and who points out that reality says “nay.” They firmly believe that the great force of their own will can order the world. Positivity can be narcissism’s best friend.

So I say watch out for people whose “positive view on life” means that they expect you to positively get in line.  Call me a bomb-throwing revolutionary against such Republican positivity. I really tend to doubt that Trump is going to “make America great again,” just by saying that it should be and the sheer, yuge force of his will.

But there’s also a larger philosophical/cultural/religious aspect to my negative outlook. I know that, to some extent, my negative worldview is an inherited belief, a kind of cultural tradition. My older brother once told me a story about a “philosophic” disagreement he had with one of his ex-partners. She complained to him that he always insisted on seeing the dark side of every situation, and that bothered her because it made everything more difficult and depressing, with him always thinking about what could go wrong. “Life is much happier,” she told him, “if you just believe that everything will come out right.” 

My brother acknowledged that it was generally easier to go on that way, but he argued that there was a virtue to pessimism: “When you worry about the bad things that can happen, you are emotionally and mentally prepared to deal with problems when they occur. “

I’m telling this reported story to show you that my negativity isn’t just me -- it’s a kind of family philosophy. Other families have grand and noble traditions, but mine has an aged and cultivated negative outlook. I have heard from other in-laws felt like our family was always depressed, and some have blamed it on our father, who, someone said, “always insisted on overthinking things.” Frankly, I don’t remember my father as being depressive or even much of a worrier – but he was a college professor and a critical thinker. (He was kind of a man’s man, and believed in living with a certain amount of bold dignity and courage. He didn’t appreciate children who cried and complained.) If you are not much of a thinker, I can see why this is both annoying and “depressing.” It’s hard to think, and it prevents a certain amount of simple enjoyment of things from occurring – thinking too much ruins the experience of blissful ignorance.

But beyond my family history, this is actually a familiar cultural debate in America, from the snarky cynicism of Mark Twain to the “sunny optimism” of Ronald Reagan and the triumphalist wing of the Republican party. The most familiar trope in the argument is the “glass half-full, glass half-empty” dichotomy, which most commonly is used to condemn “half-empty” people who see things that could be seen as normal (or even “pretty great,” if you want to be positive and “overlook the negative”) as being “awful.” With it comes a kind of religious belief that if you just believe that things will turn out well, the force of your positive will (notice how the belief in a friendly, “personal savior” God jives with the narcissistic positivism I talked about earlier) will make everything right. Debbie Downers who don’t have a sunny, positive attitude are naturally bound to fail, this credo says.  

While there is a standard religious trope that this comes from, it’s deeply embedded in American popular culture and pop-psychology, as one can see in the best selling books “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “The Secret,” which both argue mystically that you can make the world turn out right by willing it so.  This “productive positivism” is a philosophy most enthusiastically embraced by people who somehow happen to have already succeeded, of course.  People who follow this philosophy and then don’t succeed… well, they either become bitter failures or they become people who don’t care because are grateful for whatever they are left with. Positivists who have been successful tend to see those who don’t succeed as “losers” who have failed because of some inner flaw, such as a insufficient positive effort or lack of “a can-do attitude.” It’s much the same thing as the way a more religious people used to think that bad things happened to people because of their lack of faith or inner sinful failings.

I guess I’m inclined to believe that there is a lot of Pollyanna or nitwit in people who think that their rose-colored glasses view of the world will get them through life. As someone who has been trained as a humanist to try to understand the world, I think, in fact, that this attitude is dangerously cavalier.  But I also must admit that there are some undeniable positive features to it. People who believe in the power of a positive attitude are self-confident (they lack self-doubt), bold (not timid or fearful),  assertive and risk-taking (not uncertain and risk-adverse) and generally poised (not tentative, overly careful and awkward). When what they are doing happens to be on the correct/successful path, they seem accomplished and brilliant.  Positivity is a life force.

But a blunt one.  As a negativist (such as myself) would note,  so much of this really depends on actually being right, and just believing that you are doesn’t really make that so. Positive confidence is over-confidence when you are doing the wrong thing, and the positive assertion of positiveness in those circumstances is what we call “arrogance.” It’s the natural attitude of winners, and to non-winners (and the people who love them) it can seem pretty ugly. Um,  like the way the Republican party’s arrogance about its own “rightness” now is beginning to seem.

But to turn this issue over yet again, it’s really not just about winners and losers and a choice of being with one camp or the other – there’s an obvious continuum of attitudes here.  On one extreme end, you have people who are so traumatized and crippled by anxiety, by the fear that something catastrophic might happen that they can hardly do anything but tremble, cry and complain. On the other end, you have people who are insanely so self-confident of the rightness of their own path and of making a positive outcome happen for themselves that they are dangerously narcissistic, or even, perhaps sociopathic.  (Does this seem to you like anybody you have observed recently?) They are charging bulls and you had best get out of their way. (One old alpha male boss of mine loved the phrase “you are either part of the steamroller or you are part of the road.”)  Most “functioning” people are probably somewhere in the middle, with enough positive energy to get out of bed in the morning and energetically take on the day’s tasks with some hope of success, but also enough fear of some of the serious things that might go wrong as to be appropriately cautious… about the right things.

Caution… about the right things.  Therein lies the rub, right? What are the right things to be afraid of? Bad drivers? Back-stabbing bosses? Thieving neighbors? Ebola and Zika? The national debt? A domineering government? Bad schools? Violent police or husbands or boy friends? Other people’s dangerous sexual proclivities? North Korea? Iran? Israel? Russia? In one light or other, these are all dangerous to someone, and ignoring any of these (according to a person who is wary of the particular issue) is to indulge in delusion. But you can’t be afraid of everything (without spending life trembling in your closet), so you have to pick the things you are going to be deluded about, and the things you are going to be concerned about.

If you have read any other pieces in this series of essays, you know that among my central concerns are delusion, narcissism, and the relationship between these two. And yes, in case you missed it, I am labeling positivism as a kind of delusion, albeit a helpful or necessary one sometimes. It’s the delusion that the various threats and problems and difficulties of life are not going to affect you, so charge on ahead. And as I’ve also just said, extreme positivism leads to a kind of dangerous narcissism. If you don’t see anything as actually bad unless it is clearly and absolutely bad for you… well, we don’t want to play any games together that involve trust – and possible lying or cheating involving large sums of money, loaded guns or vials of poison, all of which could, uh,  help you achieve your positive goals. You get the fortune, others die horribly, but it’s all good in the end, right? Narcissists, as we see in business and in politics tend to come out on top because they are able to take shortcuts in the twisting racetrack of life.

One might argue that we have a candidate for president now who is just like that. He’s going to make everything great, just great. How?  Trust him. Oh, um, okay…

But, as we know from the Republican primary,  a lot of people recognize the attitude here and approve. Modern life, with its unspeakable complexity and constant stress and conflict encourages narcissism. The seemingly best way in a complex shifting landscape is to shorten your focus to what you truly know – yourself – and “go with your gut”  or … “tell it like it is.”  Shakespeare offers this immortal advice, which modern society is much taken with: “To thy own self be true”… The thing is, though, that most people miss the fact that the Bard puts this spiritual slogan in the mouth of the foolish, deluded, pompous Polonius, who is lost completely in the shifting illusory landscape of “Hamlet” and who is finally killed by the prince, in the confusion of the political palace mess. But Polonius is always a positive guy, and this kind of positive self-help thinking seemed to work for him… until it didn’t. Today, he could be The Donald’s campaign manager – you know, the one Trump just summarily fired because the shelf-life of his pro-Trump positivity had run out.

So we’ve come back to the dog-walking argument about Trump. I have several friends who are appalled and disgusted by the current election campaign to the point of wanting to turn it all off and walk away – they frequently refer to it as #worstelectionever. What has been going on is disturbing, and I get where they are coming from. They are, of course,  turned off by Trump and his appeals to racism, fear and hatred, his outright lying, his exhortations to violence, torture and uncivilized behavior… but they are also lately (and increasingly) turned off by Clinton as well and her negative campaign focus. Why can’t she just say nice things about her positive plans for the future…  while her opponent keeps just asserting over and over again that she is “crooked Hillary,” not offering evidence but citing delusionary conspiracy theories and then lying fantastically about his own effort and everything else. Don’t be so negative, Hillary! Nobody likes a nattering nabob of negativity!

So, friends, here we are again, turning away from all things bad, even when they are, perhaps, actually evil… and condemning those who protest and point us at them. As the old saying goes, “if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

So, I’m a negativist and sometimes -- particularly at this peculiar moment in time -- I think it is important to point out that things are going wrong, particularly when the are going so horribly, horribly wrong. If it feels unpleasant to you, that’s because it is. Sometimes you just have to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive.

Now back to your regular programming.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 11

11: Apocalypse

Following Orlando.

“Jo, get up,” pleaded Cox’s assistant, Fazila Aswat, as the politician lay dying. “No, my pain is too much,” Cox replied, her last words.

-- from a New York Times column by Roger Cohen about the assassination of MP Jo Cox and the possibility of the Brexit vote passing

It’s the first day of summer, a beautiful blue, refreshing Carolina day with warm but pleasant temperatures, following an unusually hot late spring. The first tomatoes and peppers are in in the garden, the daylilies and phlox and beebalm and blackeyed susans are in full bloom, as the fragrant oriental lilies, with their huge flowers, begin to open. It’s the green promise of life we get given every year, whether we deserve it or not.

… So, life is good. Then why o why am I feeling so morose and grumpy? It’s a bit like I’m seeing the world through heavily tinted glasses and I feel tired, not refreshed. My symptoms are the classic signs of depression, I know, but I also know I’m generally not prone to depression and nothing particularly horrible is happening in my personal life to bring it on.

I could blame all this on current events, I guess. It’s a week after the horrible massacre in Orlando, and just past the anniversary of the equally senseless killings in Charleston… each committed by an unhappy and disturbed and murderously angry guy… each citing some vague, wacko political excuse, but clearly each just another lost and confused and dangerous young man. The lost-confused-angry-dangerous young man is a species we now see are all over the landscape out there, like volcanic geysers, waiting to blow. 

The killings bring with them a kind of deadening feeling of futility, as public reaction inevitably gravitates to common hot-button anger topics – ISIS! Islamic extremism! Homophobia! Racism! Mental illness! Godlessness! – and, for the umpteenth time to calls for laws to prevent disturbed people from getting weapons of mass destruction… and, simultaneously, for angry opposing arguments by heavy-weaponry-obsessed gun fanatics, who, it seems, will lose all will to live unless they can stock their homes like military armories. Locked in place in this irrational policy battle, we all know nothing will change.

Then there’s the currently presidential campaign, which a severely disillusioned friend of mine keeps referring to as “the worst election ever.” I’m a democrat and don’t think that Hillary is so bad, but I acknowledge that many, many people out there dislike her with an intensity that makes the word “loathing” seem mild. I’m not completely sure why this is – a bad memory of the Bill Clinton years, perhaps, when things got creepy and selfish in this country, or a subliminal reaction to seeing a strong, ambitious woman, or simply disgust with the political class, which she definitely belongs to… for me, the foaming-at-the mouth angry reaction of people to her is even more disturbing than some of these dark echoes in the candidate. And then there is Trump.

Trump, of course, is a disturbing topic and an essay in himself, but let me say briefly that he is a shock to my sensibility, as he is to the sensibilities of so many others, in that he seems to be a complete violation of what we might call "our American ideals” -- the bedrock rules of our country’s established political culture and of public decency and discourse. While people on the right might believe, as Barry Goldwater once said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” (meaning that a certain amount of totalitarian behavior is allowable in pursuing conservative ideological principles), this guy is ugly, mean, childish, a foul-mouthed bully, an open racist, an open xenophobe, an inciter of mob violence… all in the service of nothing more than his own monstrous ego, a near satanic triumph of public narcissism that offends huge chunks of people from both sides of the political spectrum. Comparisons have been drawn to Hitler, history’s quintessential mad, monstrous leader, and, while that is perhaps still an offensive overstatement, the clear parallels are there. It hardly seems possible to imagine that someone like this could be the nominee of one of the major political parties in this country – he’s so surreal that it feels like a bad dream.

But what I (and almost everyone I know) really am disturbed by most is the fact that approximately a fifth of the country are people who are so ignorant or ugly themselves that they like this thug, and that fully a third of the country are so politically callous that they might be willing to vote for him if he just mumbles the right political doctrine. These people are all around me -- neighbors, even friends -- and the thought that they are okay with social evil and political tyranny is, well, deeply depressing.

But, in the end, I guess I’m forced to conclude that Trump and other political nightmares roaming the countryside are themselves just symptoms (rather than causes) of an overwhelming cultural ennui, as the French would call it (it’s perhaps close to what the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called “la nausee” – nausea, a kind of existential panic), that everyone seems to be feeling. Gloom, unease and discontent seem to be in the water.

Okay, we're blue. But why? And so what?

A diversion into fantasy.

As I said, it’s summer, sweet summer, and I, like many other people I know, take the time to indulge in fun, light, entertaining “beach reading.” My particular summer genre is science fiction-fantasy-horror and there are always a couple of the “usual suspects” blockbusters out there for me to read. This year, I got the new Joe Hill ( a horror/fantasy writer who happens to be Stephen King’s son) novel “The Fireman” and Justin Cronin’s “The City of Mirrors,” the last in his vampire-novel “Passage” trilogy. I finished the first and was about a fifth through the second, when suddenly I realized that the novels were very similar – they are both apocalyptic global plague novels. I guess I have a fondness for this kind of stuff, but the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that a huge chunk of sci-fy/fantasy literature these days are apocalyptic (or post-apocalyptic) novels. Zombie apocalypse – need I say anything more? It seems that when our imaginations turn to the future, that’s what it sees, not flying cars and miraculous brave new worlds. And in adolescent lit it’s the same thing – there is a whole new genre, in fact, of what is called “dystopian fiction” (“The Hunger Games,” “The Fifth Wave,” even -- in some ways -- the “Twilight” novels), in which plucky teens rebel against the monstrous new order that they have been born into.

So this is the fantasy that we indulge in – the world is falling apart and we are all, more or less, horribly screwed! Everything ends, badly and irrevocably -- what larks! Why so glum, America? We can't say it's Trump, or even modern dysfunctional politics, because this trend in our imaginative life well preceded all of that. "The Road," "The Stand," "Mad Max," "Waterworld" (okay, now I'm getting too dark… sorry)… bleak visions that proceed The Donald and government shutdowns.

Since I’ve been struggling to understand my own odd malaise, I’ve been considering larger answers. Yes, I’m equating a negative view of life with a negative imagination and negative future outlook and basically saying it’s somehow the same thing as feeling depressed. I know these are all apples and oranges and bananas and that I’m oversimplifying, but I also know that on a fundamental level, it's all the same when things are going rotten: it’s black fruit of the poisoned tree.

With that in mind, one of the first things I began to consider when I tried to find the root of my feelings was something basic and banal – my own physical condition. I’m approaching (if I haven’t already reached) senior citizen status and old people have what society used to call (for a reason) “complaints.” Since turning 60 a year ago, I’ve been afflicted by a number – hands and feet that ache with arthritis (or so the doctor thinks), pronounced stiffness in the joints and lack of flexibility, some memory loss (no, I’m not worried about Alzheimer’s – this is pretty typical for someone my age), some noticeable loss of strength, some sleep problems, including early morning wakefulness and mid-day sleepiness, etc., etc. Yes, I do exercise daily and try to eat right – though I’m overweight – but, contrary to the modern health myths, you can’t get older without feeling older. We are all mortal, and the body ages, some bodies faster than others. I guess I’m both a realist and a pessimist on this (more on pessimism later), but I’ve accepted my own physical decline, and I’m here to tell you that acceptance may feel honest, but it still sucks and does very little to make you feel better. When you reach the age where things hurt pretty constantly, you are constantly reminded that (1) they didn’t use to hurt that way and (2) there is no turning back. That, my friends, is depressing. This is why old people are commonly characterized as grumpy and cranky (guilty on all counts!).

So that’s part of what is making me see the world as wrecked/bad/falling apart/coming to the end, but what about everyone else? Well, I’m a Baby Boomer, and it bears remembering that my generation, by virtue of its size, has always had an unfortunately outsize influence on our culture… and we are all feeling pretty old (I’m actually one of the younger boomers). This is why you have to sit through all those Viagra/Cialis, constipation, irritable bowel, cancer therapy (etc., etc.) drug commercials on TV – we boomers are legion, and all we are thinking about are all our physical complaints, and wishing that there was a magic pill to cure them. It doesn’t help that my generation was once dubbed “the young generation” (“Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees!”). Somehow, many of us got conned into thinking it would always be that way. Bummer, man, bummer.

Neil Young, also old.
Keith Richards

So the aging of things, specifically the aging of our personal things is a large-scale negative influence that is shading our whole society. And it’s not just our bodies. It’s hardly a revelation to say that our country, both in terms of its economic health and in terms of power and global authority, is aging too. As has been said by many, we’re at the tail end of our empire, our century of glory, our Pax Americana and that is upsetting for the whole country, since we have all only known nothing but the glories of empire. Our national mythology is full of “America the Beautiful” with waves of golden grain and fruitful plains, with alabaster cities gleaming, with truth and brotherhood from sea to shining sea, and mainly with fairly non-stop growth, prosperity and expansion. As we all learned in school, this was fueled first by the open and seemingly endless frontier, “left” to us by Native Americans vanquished by disease and gun (and, yes, made affordable and profitable by slavery and cheap immigrant labor). Once that began to close, we had world war, which left us largely untouched and also militarily triumphant – in many ways, we owned the world and got to keep expanding into it.

But all things must end, and global development (which still enriches us) and globalism (which enriches only a few of us) has now brought us to the stage where the fat, easy days of empire and dominance are ending. Trump may claim that he is going to “make America great again,” but even his most gullible followers know that this isn’t really going to be so (though they like his attitude). The age of lucky, arrogant, selfish, bullying "great" is, inevitably, passing.

It’s worth noting that the passing of empires is rarely happy news for anyone. The passing of the Roman Empire led to centuries of feudal darkness, disease and violence. The slow passing of the Islamic Empire led to the colonization of it’s lands and the lasting humiliation of its peoples and contributed to the chaos that began the first world war. The collapse of the colonial empires (particularly the British Empire) led directly to the horror of the world wars and the fear of the Cold War that followed. When empires die, the world has to shift and re-arrange, and that that transition is rarely smooth and peaceful. It's the recurring historical point that Yeats talks about in "The Second Coming" where "the falcon cannot hear the falconer" and "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed." This is all dark, hysterical-sounding doom talk, of course, the stuff of poetry, not of everyday life, but it’s also something we all fear is true.

It’s really just change, of course, and change is and always has been a constant feature of reality. But it’s also change in just one direction – aging – and we all know what that leads to. No wonder, I guess, that I am depressed, that the country is depressed, that everything is going haywire and falling apart. It’s not like this feeling is sudden or new either, because we have been building up to it. To go back to thinking about all those dystopian novels our young people are reading, it bears reminding that they are not altogether new. In my youth we already had “1984” and “Brave New World” and “The Time Machine” and then “Lord of the Flies” and “A Clockwork Orange” (“hello darkness, my old friend!”). While we still thought dreamily about “explor(ing) new worlds and new civilizations” and “boldly go(ing) where no man has gone before,” we were also beginning to sense that it might not go so well, and there was a slowly creeping feeling of gloom.

So, summer. All sing cuckoo!

One of my favorite songs from the young, folky, early hippy era of my youth (which, yes, was full of flower children and peaceful protest, but was also in the constant shadow of The Bomb) was a song by Richard Farina (a local favorite in my hometown), “Children of Darkness”:

Now is the time for your loving, dear
And the time for your company
Now when the light of reason fails
And fires burn on the sea
Now in this age of confusion
I have need for your company

For I am a wild and a lonely child
And the son of an angry man
And now with the high wars raging
I would offer you my hand
For we are the children of darkness
And the prey of a foul command

It's once I was free to go roaming in
The wind of the springtime mind
And once the clouds I sailed upon
Were sweet as lilac wine
Then why have the breezes of summer, dear
Been laced with a grim design?

The song and the feeling have always haunted me. So, this takes me back to where I began, wondering “why have the breezes of summer… been laced with a grim design?” Farina, like the rest of the generation of my youth, was of course staring into the black maw of Vietnam and, as we all know (and Neil Young sings) this dreadful, nihilistic war “did slowly go by.”

So, I fervently hope, this too shall pass. But first we have to get by Trump -- our own “Apocalypse Now.” Good luck, my fellow Children of Darkness… And snap out of your self pity -- there are still wars to fight.

Friday, January 22, 2016

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 8

8: Resistance is Futile

Modern fashion. Yes, this is how we look.

If you are fifty or older, I would like you to do a little thought experiment with me (if you aren’t that old, you can watch): Imagine your 1960’s self, magically transported onto the streets of America today. What would be the first thing that would strike you as different and strange?

No, it wouldn’t be our sleek, shiny flying cars or the giant alien spaceships floating overhead. No, I think the first thing you would notice would be all the escaped mental patients wandering around the streets.

You know, all those sloppy, undressed people walking around in t-shirts and pajamas, even in the supermarket or at the bank… not smiling and saying hello or even making eye contact with you … many of them talking to themselves, loudly, and stare right through you if you try to respond to what they are saying. Has a rogue virus turned everyone into zombies? Have the commies poisoned our water supply?

But look closer and you notice these poor are not completely undressed – some of them are wearing jewelry – a large earring that only hangs from only one ear.  Some walk slowly, stooped over, staring at some little box that looks like a cigarette case that they carry both hands in front of them like a sacred object. Perhaps it contains some small items of great personal value.

Cleary, this brave new world has given up on mental hospitals and has drugged its citizens into near catatonia so they can put them out to wander on the open range. Young and old, they’re all pretty much alike, though the young ones seem to also be afflicted by a disease that afflicts their vision, because they have hideous fashion sense.

Okay, I know you know what I’m talking about – the world we are living in has become strange, so strangely different because we are now wired in, wired to each other, wired to the globe almost all our waking hours. (I’m writing this as I wait for a plane in Boston’s Logan Airport, checking Facebook and a listserve argument that I’m part of every five minutes… thanks to wifi.) We are always connected to everyone we know (and everyone we don’t know), yet… in the world around us we are strangely disconnected and alone.

Smart phone karma… or maybe bikema.
This happened relatively suddenly to our culture, but slowly enough that we didn’t “notice” anything unusual was going on, like the fictional frog who doesn’t notice that the water he is sitting in is heating to a boil. 

I say “notice” because of course we did notice, but decided to ignore it as an inevitable change going on in the world. (here is nice piece the NYT’s Tim Egan has written about his own struggles with this) I noticed when my teenage kids would sit at the dinner table texting their friends,  impervious to adult questions until parents got angry … and then would shout “hold on!” as if we were interrupting them at brain surgery (the phones, of course, were eventually banned at dinner, though often they snuck back, under the table).  I noticed when the person standing in the pasta aisle at the supermarket would seem to say something and when I’d turn around to ask “pardon me?” they would stare right through me and carry on their disembodied conversation with their virtual ghosts. I noticed the first dozen times I had to dive out of the way to keep myself from being killed by someone in an SUV,  talking on their cell phone (or texting or surfing…) as they cruised at 30 mph through a parking lot, only dimly aware of the wraith-like shadows of the actual human reality around them.  For those of us brought up in a more socially-dependent age -- where we were ferociously schooled in the importance of being polite to others and raised to feel self-conscious in public -- this change was jarring, as we found ourselves suddenly living amidst the half-present – people who looked superficially the same, but who wandered like zombies, heads and minds elsewhere, seeing things we did not see, hearing voices we did not hear, and nearly oblivious to people (us!) who were physically nearby.

At the same time I began noticing such strange public behavior, it also struck me that other, more subtle things were going on with the intellectual habits of the people around me, but it also seemed churlish to say so. I noticed that people stopped reading. Until they were well into college, my kids never read a newspaper article, unless it was given to them and required, and, to this day, I think, have never picked up a physical newspaper and read through it.  They aren’t completely uninformed – they read news snippets constantly online, in text alerts, on Twitter,  in Yahoo news alerts or on Buzzfeed, but they never read long, in-depth articles. They watch shows on TV or Netflix that don’t require their full attention – like the Kardassians or re-runs of something they have seen a dozen times before, a kind of video wallpaper, generally with a phone on or another screen open and some trivial conversation going on in the background. 

They are paying attention to everything and nothing at the same time. I notice that everyone, adults and children alike, are often caught up in the moment-to-moment news of the world, but generally seem to have no time to examine it, to think about what it means, to really understand it in detail, to have a conversation with someone else about it. Now don't get grumpy as I say this: I hear you. I hear that most people “don’t have the time” to “really get into that”…  though they seem to spend larger and larger chunks of their day distracted, doing things that are pretty meaningless or irrelevant. When engaged, these aimless strivers are easily bored and impatient. People get really annoyed if you demand that they listen to you say something for five minutes, like you have sucked them into some kind of unbearable vortex of emptiness and irrelevance, while they are engaged in some vital mission, like say dashing through the supermarket to buy chips and bean dip to be home in time to cue up the DVR for the latest episode of The Bachelorette.
Coffee shop conversation.

Think about coffee houses. Back-when-I-was-a-kid, the coffee shop (a venerable Western institution that dates back at least into the 18th Century), was a place where the central purpose was to get together with your neighbors and talk. Whether it was a lunch counter or a diner or a soda shop, it was a place where people went to be in public, to hang with people as much as the food. In some ways, the contemporary Starbucks still is this quintessential public space, but with one critically important difference – the store is as much required to have free wi-fi as much as it is to have coffee. Walk into any coffee shop you can find today and you’ll find most of the tables occupied by single people staring into their laptops, with perhaps a few couples having “business meetings.“ People want to be seen in public without actually interacting with other people in public, they want the sense of belonging to society without actually being social. “Social” takes place in virtual space, in vacuous text message interchanges, in Facebook lurking and occasionally the brief comment there (or on Twitter). Lengthy comments or extended exchanges on internet sites are somehow disturbing and troubling… like the kind of exchanges you might have had at the town coffee shop with your neighbors and friends. In those exchanges, you had to interact – they were there right beside you, talking to you. We used to like that but now it’s frightening and… creepy.

I chew on this strange disconnectedness and muse and complain about it fairly frequently, but the reaction of my friends and family is that I am just being a grumpy old person, telling everyone to getoffmylawnyoudamnkids. Until recently, I accepted this wisdom, knowing that it is a fact that every generation thinks that the generation after it has gone-to-hell. But now, suddenly, I’m reading everywhere people saying the same things I’ve been saying and thinking.  In particular, Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, has a book out about how technology is messing up our ability to think and interact with each other, including a fairly incisive piece in the New York Times. Turkle’s basic argument is that multi-tasking is a myth, and that we act like it’s not when we play with a cellphone, allowing technology to interfere with our ability to interact with each other, to think deeply, or even to mature as human beings and feel empathy with other people. Among the crotchety older faculty in academia, there has been a fair amount of similar comment, frequently filling the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education with screeds arguing for banning technology from the classroom because it keeps students from paying attention and participating.

But even as I nod my head and agree with this cranky worrying, I also begin to see my friends’ point that change is just change, and, well, inevitable. What’s so precious about complex thinking and human interaction when we can have SnapChat and… all those cool game apps! Old Babylonians probably whined and moaned about how people were losing their fine memory skills when cunieform was invented and everyone just played with clay tablets rather than memorizing night-long stories to sing over the campfire. Besides, it’s not really so much that technology is changing us as it is that technology is fulfilling what we really wanted after all. If we wanted to spend our time talking to each other rather than texting, internet surfing and playing Candy Crush, well, these thing wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t buy them and use them. We really want this.

I remember moving to Arizona and being struck by the fact that though every house had a pool and a deck, it also had a yard just large enough to contain these, walled off from the neighbors by a cement block fence, at least 8 feet tall. Inititially, that seemed unattractive and I mentioned this to our realtor, saying it felt a little claustrophobic to me, and he quipped back that the developers only built the houses that way because it was what people wanted. I have to admit that in the 20 years I lived there I was perfectly happy to be secluded from my neighbors and, in fact, the only neighbors whose names I learned were those whose kids played with my kids. We are perfectly happy being left alone to do our own thing, un-observed, un-commented upon, un-social.

What technology has allowed us to do is to move our minds freely into the vast empty spaces of the internet where we can be like that, looking at only what we feel like looking at, interacting only with those who we want to interact with and only as much as we feel like, keeping it light and undemanding, keeping it fun, keeping it private. Our real selves, we keep to ourselves. We aren’t ambitious, and the technology makes it so we don’t have to be – we can play easy, undemanding games, watch easy, undemanding shows and movies, and have easy, three-misspelled-words-at-a-time conversations with our friends and those very things, in fact, are what is most popular. Whenever we are bored (which is nearly always), we can just switch to something else. You can be yourself and lose yourself in this.

“Resistance is futile.” The title of this essay, you may have noticed, is taken from the (now terribly dated but nostalgically remembered) TV show, “Star Trek: the Second Generation.” It’s a bit of geek cliché, the phrase The Borg -- a threatening machine collective intelligence, a society and culture where individuality does not exist – use to threaten humans. Back when the show was first created, this is what we imagined was the coming threat of technology – that it would conquer us and our individuality would be lost in the powerful machine singularity.  In a sense, it is what has happened – our tools have grown powerful and have conquered us, but only, ironically, by giving us exactly what we individually all want. We want to be free and left alone to be ourselves… and that leaves us lost in the nearly empty shells of ourselves. It’s the curse in that old warning: be careful in what you ask for – you won’t be able to resist the gift once it’s given.

There’s a temptation to see this self-isolation as a pernicious feature of the internet age and information technology, but I think there is evidence that it runs deeper and older than that. 

One of the first people to look closely and think deeply about American culture was the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, in his two-volume work, “Democracy in America,” begun in the early 1830s and finished in 1840. In volume II, book 2, chapter 2, de Tocqueville goes on a brilliant riff about the culture of “individuality” that American democracy has fostered. De Toqueville, who (as I said) is an aristocrat, admires the self-determining power of American individualism, but he sees problems for long term health of a society where individualism is a defining value. He concludes the chapter:

As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who, although they are neither rich enough nor powerful enough to exercise any great influence over their fellow-creatures, have nevertheless acquired or retained sufficient education and fortune to satisfy their own wants. They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.
Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart. (the italics are mine)

Sound familiar? Well, the rugged individualist is, of course, in our national character. Melville’s Bartleby the scrivener or Captain Ahab. Henry David Thoreau.  John Wayne. Clark Gable. John Galt. Politics and advertising recognize this as a given: “you deserve a break today,” “have it your way.” And so we now live in a country where a good (and ever growing) chunk of the population doesn’t understand why they should have to pay taxes, contribute to the welfare of others or even bother to have a government. With public narcissism growing, they live in what we metaphorically call “echo chambers” or “bubbles,” where basically all they hear echoed back to them are the sounds of their own narrow thoughts, with their own un-examined, self-validated perspective steadily amplified. They really are, as de Toqueville says, “confined..,entirely within the solitude of (their) own hearts.” It is interesting that de Toqueville, speculating about American culture almost 200 years ago, could see this coming so clearly.
 I guess, in many ways, that’s because this solipsism was inevitable. In a sense, it’s our core national character. It’s what we really most wanted when we first came to this be ourselves in this “empty wilderness” (the fact that we couldn’t acknowledge that it was neither empty nor a wilderness says volumes in itself) and it is what we have asked for all along… and it’s what we have been given. Even our tools, our technology now are designed to enable it. Resistance is futile. God bless us, each and everyone.
We are Borg, though not together but alone, each and everyone.

From Walt Kelly's great ode to solipsism, "The Prince of Pompadoodle." The last two panels.