Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Elephant, Anyone?

Just a quick note. This morning, Jim Kunstler published this:

"In my father's house are many mansions Surely one of them has a room with no elephants in it...."

And, if you read his piece, you may have asked yourself, "What elephants?" Well, how about this one:

Good night!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Marketing in a Small Town - Interview No. 3

Dmitry Davydov runs a popular Russian-language blog. Periodically we correspond, and publish the correspondence. [Here's the Russian original.]

DD: In the American (and not just American) media, one can periodically read about the barbaric Sharia law, according to which women can be stoned to death. Or about an eight-year-old Saudi girl who was sold into marriage to settle her family's debts. There are entire Web sites devoted to "stupid laws", especially in the southern states, according to which, for instance, it is illegal to have sex completely naked. However, few can see the absurdity and the barbarous nature of many U.S. laws on intellectual property, according to which one can be fined ten thousand dollars for downloading a song or a movie from a torrent (China, Russia and the Ukraine, where piracy flourishes, are considered uncivilized and legally underdeveloped). You once said (albeit in a different context), that those who pay for software are fools. It would be nice to know your opinion of the system of intellectual rights specifically and the U.S. legal system in general. Does it do more harm or good, and why are you convinced that the "legal-police-prison" complex will be one of the first victims of collapse?

DO: One of the main foundational insights of the Anglo-Saxon civilization (if can be honored by the use of such a bombastic term) is that unenlightened people are easier to control than enlightened ones. The effects of this can be seen in the fact that in all English-speaking countries there is a very stable layer of low-class people (the so called "underclass") and, except for a bit of lip service, it does not occur to anyone to remedy this situation. It can also be seen in the eagerness of the elites to impersonate British aristocracy by copying their strange habits and customs, as well as in the worship of the British throne by members of the general public, even in countries which shed considerable blood to win their independence from the empire. This can also be seen in the education system, which, except for the most privileged, strives to teach a trade, rules of conduct and obedience, rather than to expand the mental horizon. Not long ago, the acquisition of certain "dangerous" kinds of knowledge was even banned: for example, sailors on British vessels were forbidden to study navigation, and only officers were allowed to know how to chart a course or to pilot a vessel into a harbor. The same tendency can be observed in the Anglo-Saxon system of justice: the language of lawyers bears little resemblance to normal English, and everything is done to ensure that members of the public are not in a position to understand the meaning of not just the laws, but even of the contracts and agreements which they are forced to sign in order to gain access to employment, housing or medical care. Inconvenient laws are studiously ignored. For example, in the US court system, a jury has the right of nullification: they have the right to reject any law as invalid and to acquit the defendant regardless of his "guilt" under a law they see as unjust. So here's a proven method: If you are summoned as a juror, and you do not wish to serve, all you need to do is write the words "I believe in jury nullification" on the form, and the court will send you home at once! In the area of intellectual property rights, although the original copyright system protected the rights of inventors and authors, now it has become a way to ration access to information depending on one's ability to pay. All countries have to participate in this system to some extent in order to be able to defend and protect their own interests, but they should not be too zealous in the implementation of these laws, which are often inconsistent with the public interest. In the current situation, any attempt by the United States to enforce their system of intellectual property rights against citizens of other countries can be successfully ignored, if correctly assisted by the local governments. As for the legal-police-prison complex in the U.S., there is no longer any need to make predictions: the gaps in the budgets of many states are such that they are forced to prematurely release hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Already in several of the most depressed cities in the U.S. murders are not prosecuted due to lack of police resources. All of this is all starting to look more like ordinary lawlessness than like a system of legal terror.

DD: Recently on CNN there was a report about the U.S. mission to the moon. The Indians are planning to land there in 2020, the Russians and Americans in 2025, and the Chinese in 2030. I think that the popularity of conspiracy theories about the staging of those events is that we find it hard to imagine that we can not repeat the achievements of three decades ago without a huge effort. Meanwhile, examples similar to the lunar program are starting to occur more and more frequently. Experts say that Russia has lost the ability to produce modern weapons on a large scale for quite trivial reasons, such as lack of sufficiently skilled metalworkers, because the system of training them has collapsed. How justified are we in fearing that we (the world in general, not just Russia) are starting to slip back in time in terms of technology?

DO: In the end, the history of human trips to space will engender new myths: the primitive idols of the future will not be winged, but will sit astride rockets dressed in spacesuits. These trips were only possible thanks to large-scale industrial systems based on the use of fossil hydrocarbons, reserves which have already been exhausted, on average, about half. It will not be possible to exhaust them completely: the technological rollback has already started. It starts long before a particular resource is completely exhausted. To maintain homeostatic equilibrium, an industrial system requires a continuous flow of investment, and in order for this to happen capital must continually be created. If, say, the profitability of a coal mine is inversely proportional to shaft depth, it is enough to get to a depth at which the income is not sufficient to continue to update equipment, and the mine will close, regardless of how much coal there is left in it. But such a rational approach is rarely taken. Rather than make a difficult but timely decision, everyone begins to economize on safety, defer repairs, take on debt and so on. Periodically, the idea comes up that the situation can be improved if only everyone would show more zeal or ingenuity. We certainly all need some level of technology, and we all ought to stop to think hard which technologies can be sustained at a continually decreasing level of extraction of various natural resources. Instantly the thought occurs that aerospace technologies will not make it onto this list.

DD: How important are science and technology in modern society, as an ideology, or, if you like, a religion? Why do people prefer to believe that the problem will be solved by hanging solar panels on the roof and buying an electric car, although obviously a more simple solution would be to change the lifestyle so that one's dependence on the car is minimal?

DO: I have thought about this long and hard, and came to the conclusion that it all comes down to a very basic question: "How to please a girl?" After all, any modern, progressive, educated and attractive person begins to scoff if you take away her flush toilet and substitute a bucket, or if she has to go shopping leading a donkey, or if, instead of a shower, she is invited to go and stoke a sauna. From time immemorial status in society has been determined by access to luxury goods. As society becomes richer, luxuries turn into necessities. And when society starts to grow poorer again, it turns out that there is no going back. That is, there is a way back, but it is blocked by the innate tendencies of our clever species. My wife and I spent two years living aboard a very attractive and practical yacht slightly less than 10 meters in length at the waterline, and although the wife understands everything very well, even she cannot stop herself from casting a sideways glance when a yacht like Abramovich's walks past us, and from making some comment, like "Oh, now this I understand, this is the real thing!" And there is no point in explaining to her that what we have here on board is a very high level of civilization, while Abramovich is just an ordinary consumer. It is very hard, gentlemen, to change the lifestyle, but not change the woman! If someone succeeds in this, then he is a hero and a genius, and we should all learn from him. In the meantime, we are going to live in an apartment, and put the boat on the hard, and install all sorts of solar panels, water heaters, and other technological junk.

DD: There are quite a number of people who view the current crisis not as financial or economic, but as a moral crisis and a crisis of rationality. We have developed an entire system, or even multiple systems, that require you to constantly lie and deceive in order to make it into the upper middle class. I mean all of these brokers, bankers, brand managers and so on. This same "plague" has afflicted the academic community, where economic theories are completely independent of reality and common sense. Even in everyday life there is a huge rollback of rationality - otherwise a film like "The Secret", Tony Robbins, "positive thinking" and training for "personal growth" would never have become so popular. What's next - a new renaissance or a new Dark Age? How strong is the relationship between the crisis and questions of world-view, faith and culture?

DO: I do not see a fundamental difference between lying in financial and economic realms and lying as a moral and rational matter. Financial and economic lies are that you can endlessly stimulate economic growth, despite the fact that the natural resources and the soil are wearing out, that forests are being cut down, that the environment and the climate have been disrupted, and that investments in high technology do not pay. The moral and rational lies are that economic growth is a good thing, indeed, a necessary thing, otherwise all will be very bad. In the West these lies are taught well at prestigious universities like Harvard, and countries wishing to participate in the global economy have to recruit their graduates to help their central banks and finance ministries to lie on their behalf. Putting it politely, the ability to lie is the ability to pretend. And now our credentialed liars are all pretending that the crisis has ended. Has it really, or is this just the end of the first turn of the crisis spiral, with no end in sight? After all, whether or not you lie, you cannot run away from reality. I do not know whether the coming age will be Dark Age, but I am sure that it will be rather dim. After all, the art of lying has displaced a lot of useful knowledge.

DD: In Ireland, you talked about the fact that modern methods of warfare are economically inefficient. That is, you can equip twenty thousand rebels with Kalashnikov rifles (AK-47) and grenades, and they will successfully resist a army that uses tanks and aircraft, that cost tens of millions of dollars. However, guerrilla actions are effective only for defensive purposes, and not conquest. Theoretically, the crisis could lead to Americans being forced to curtail their activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US really are the main aggressors in the world now, but I have major doubts that, as soon as the aircraft carriers are mothballed, we will live in peace and harmony, all will lay down their arms and begin to "work the earth."

DO: People fight for all sorts of reasons, and I am sure that military actions in some parts of the world will continue after the disappearance of US from the global battlefield. There is no doubt that Kalashnikovs and grenades have given the poor throughout the world to the ability to bravely defend themselves against the most technologically equipped army. Wars either pay off or the aggressor goes bankrupt, and wars against today's poor but very successful guerrillas pay off much worse than wars against rich, peaceful and defenseless nations (of which there are none left). Americans are still fighting, because they are fighting on credit, but when at last their funding runs out, I suspect that this whole style of war will finally recede into the past. Certainly, there will be plenty of small and large-scale slaughter, particularly in heavily overpopulated and impoverished countries, but for this even Kalashnikovs are not needed. For example, in Rwanda the Hutu tribe did an excellent job with machetes, while the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia quite successfully strangled a lot of people with plastic bags. I do not know how many more countries will follow such a path, but in general I think that, thanks to the successes of modern guerrilla practice, the profitability of military action will continue to decrease.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Маркетинг в маленьком городе - Интервью №3

Дмитрий Давыдов - автор популярного русскоязычного блога. Периодически мы переписываемся, а переписку публикуем.

(For the Russian-challenged: click here for a lousy English machine translation.)

(UPDATE: My readers have successfully shamed me into providing a proper translation.)

ДД: В американской (да и не только) прессе, можно периодически прочитать статьи про дикие законы шариата, когда женщин забрасывают камнями. Или о том, как Саудовскую девочку 8 лет отдали за муж за долги. Есть специальные сайты о «глупых законах», особенно в южных штатах, где нельзя заниматься сексом полностью голым. Однако мало кто видит абсурдность и дикость многих американских законов об интеллектуальном праве, где вас могут оштрафовать на 10 тысяч долларов за скачивание песен или фильмов с торрентов (Китай, Россия или Украина, где пиратство процветает – считаются нецивилизованными и юридически отсталыми) . Вы однажды сказали (правда в ином контексте), что те кто платит за программное обеспечение – дураки. Хотелось бы узнать ваше мнение о системе интеллектуального права конкретно и юридической системе США вообще. От нее больше вреда или пользы, почему вы уверенны в том, что «юридически-полицейско-тюремный» комплекс будет одной из первых жертв коллапса?

ДО: В основу англосаксонской цивилизации (если ее можно почтить столь высокопарным словом) заложена мысль, что темным народом управлять легче, чем просвещенным. Это прослеживается и в том, что во всех англоязычных странах существует вполне стабильная прослойка низов (т. наз. "underclass") которой, кроме как на словах, никому не приходит в голову чем-либо помочь, и в желании элит примазаться к британской аристократии, копируя их странные повадки и обычаи, и в преклонении широких слоев населения перед британским престолом даже в странах, немалой кровью отвоевавших свою независимость от империи. Это можно увидеть и в системе образования, которая, кроме как для самых привилегированных, стремиться обучить ремеслу, правилам поведения и послушанию, а не расширить кругозор. Не так давно на некоторые "опасные" познания даже накладывался запрет: например, морякам на британских суднах запрещено было изучать навигацию, и только офицерам было дозволено знать, как выбрать курс и как провести судно в гавань. Та же тенденция прослеживается и в англо-саксонской юстиции: язык адвокатов мало похож на нормальный английский, и всё сделано для того, чтобы рядовой член общества не был в состоянии сам понять смысл не только законов, но даже контрактов и соглашений, которые он вынужден подписывать, чтобы получить работу, жильё или медицинское обслуживание. Неудобные законы тщательно замалчиваются. Например, присяжные в американской ситеме имеют право нуллификации: они имеют право признать любой закон недействительным и оправдать подсудимого независимо от его "вины". Так вот испытанный метод: если Вас вызывают в суд как присяжного, а служить Вам не хочется, то Вам достаточно написать на анкете слова "I believe in jury nullification" и суд немедленно отправит вас домой! В сфере интеллектуального права, хотя изначально система авторских прав защищала права изобретателей и авторов, теперь она превратилась в способ нормировать доступ к информации в зависимости от платежеспособности. Все страны вынуждены в той или иной мере участвовать в этой системе, чтобы иметь возможность отстаивать и защищать собственные интересы, но им не стоит слишком усердствовать в проведении в жизнь этих законов, часто идущих вразрез с интересами общества. В сложившейся ситуации, любая попытка со стороны США добиться соблюдения их интеллектуальных прав гражданами других держав, при должном содействии местных правительств, может успешно игнорироваться. А что касается юридически-тюремного комплекса в самих США, то тут уже и предсказывать ничего не надо: бреши в бюджетах многих штатов таковы, что они вынуждены досрочно отпускать сотни тысяч заключенных. Уже в нескольких из наименее благополучных городов США убийства не преследуются по закону из-за нехватки полицейских. Всё это больше походит на обыкновенное беззаконие, чем на юридический террор.

ДД: Недавно по CNN был репортаж об американской миссии на Луну. В следующий раз на Луну планируют приземлиться (вернее прилуниться) индусы в 2020, русские и американцы в 2025 и китайцы в 2030. Мне кажется, что популярность теории заговоров об инсценировки тех событий заключается в том, что нам трудно представить, что мы не можем повторить достижения тридцатилетней давности без колоссальных усилий. Между тем, примеры, сходные с лунной программой, встречаются все чаще. Эксперты говорят, что Россия потеряла возможность масштабного производства современных вооружений по достаточно тривиальным причинам – не хватает достаточно квалифицированных токарей и рабочих, а система их подготовки разрушена. Насколько обосновано опасаться того, что мы (мир вообще, а не только Россия) начинаем откатываться назад в технологическом плане?

ДО: В конечном счете, история человеческих походов в космос породит новые мифы: примитивные идолы будущего будут не крылаты, а сидеть верхом на ракетах и одеты в скафандры. Походы эти были возможны только благодаря масштабным индустриальным системам, основанным на использовании ископаемых углеводов, природные запасы которых истрачены уже в среднем где-то наполовину. Истратить их целиком не удастся: технологический откат уже начался. Он начинается задолго до того, как той или иной ресурс оказывается целиком исчерпан. Чтобы поддерживать гомеостатическое равновесие индустриальная система нуждается в непрерывном потоке капиталовложений, а для этого она этот капитал должна непрерывно создавать. Если, скажем, доходность шахты обратно пропорциональна ее глубине, то достаточно докопаться до глубины, при которой доходов не хватает, чтобы продолжать обновлять технику, и шахту придется закрыть независимо от того, сколько в ней еще осталось угля. Но такой рациональный подход удается редко. Вместо того, чтобы принять трудное но своевременное решение, все начинают экономить на технике безопасности, откладывать ремонт, влезать в долги и так далее. Периодически всплывает идея, что дело можно поправить, если только проявить рвение или изобретательность. Технологии всем безусловно нужны, и всем не помешало бы задуматься о том, какие технологии сохранят рентабельность при постоянно снижающихся уровнях добычи всевозможных природных ресурсов. Сразу закрадывается мысль, что космос в этот список не войдет.

ДД: Насколько важную роль играют наука и технологии в современном обществе, как идеология или, если хотите, религия? Почему люди охотней верят в то, что проблема решиться тем, что мы повесим солнечные элементы на крышу и купим электромобиль, вместо того, хотя очевидно более простым решением было бы поменять стиль жизни таким образом, чтобы зависимость человека от автомобиля была минимальной?

ДО: Я как раз об этом долго и упорно думал, и пришел к выводу, что всё сводится к элементарному вопросу: "Чем порадовать девушку?" Ведь современная, прогрессивная, образованная и привлекательная особа начинает фыркать, если у нее отбирают унитаз и подставляют ведерко, или если на рынок ей приходится ходить с осликом наповоду, или если вместо душа ей предлагают истопить баньку. Испокон веков статус в обществе определялся доступом к предметам роскоши. По мере того как общество становится богаче, предметы роскоши превращаются в предметы первой необходимости. А когда общество начинает беднеть, то оказывается, что назад хода нет. То есть он есть, но ему препятствуют врожденные склонности нашего хитрого вида. Мы с женой два года прожили на очень симпатичной и практичной яхте чуть меньше 10 м. длины по ватерлинии, и хотя жена всё прекрасно понимает, она не может не покосить глазом неласково когда мимо нас проходит яхта вроде как у Абрамовича, и не отпустить замечания вроде "О, вот это я понимаю, вот это вещь!" И нет смысла объяснять, что у нас тут на борту очень высокий уровень цивилизации, а Абрамович - заурядный потребитель. Очень трудно, господа, поменять стиль жизни, но не поменять при этом девушку! Если кому-нибудь это удается, то он - герой и гений, и давайте все у него учиться. А мы пока будем жить в квартире, а яхту поставим на ремонт и встроим туда много разных солнечных панелей, водогревов и прочей технологической фигни.

ДД: Есть достаточно большое количество людей, которые рассматривают нынешний кризис не как финансовый или экономический, а как морально-рациональный. Мы вырастили целую систему или даже системы, где надо постоянно обманывать и врать для того, чтобы пробиться в upper middle class. Я имею в виду все этих брокеров, банкиров, бренд-менеджеров и так далее. Эта же «чума» поразила академические круги, где экономические теории стали совершенно независимы от реальности и здравого смысла. Даже на бытовом плане идет колоссальный откат от рациональности – иначе бы фильм Секрет, Тони Роббинс, «позитивное мышление» и тренинги «личностного роста» никогда бы не были так популярны. Что дальше – новый ренессанс или новый Dark Age? Насколько сильна связь кризиса с вопросами мировоззрения, веры и культуры?

ДО: Я не вижу принципиальной разницы между финансово-экономическим враньем и враньем морально-рациональным. Финансово-экономическое враньё - это что можно до бесконечности стимулировать экономический рост, невзирая на то, что недра и почва изнашиваются, леса вырубаются, экология и климат подорваны, а капиталовложения в высокие технологии не окупаются. Морально-рациональное враньё - это что экономический рост вещь хорошая, более того, необходимая, иначе всем станет очень плохо. На западе этому вранью хорошо учат в знаменитых университетах вроде Гарварда, и страны, желающие поучаствовать в мировой экономике, вынуждены назначать их выпускников заведовать своими центральными банками и министерствами финансов, чтобы было кому за них врать. Выражась вежливо, умение врать - это умение делать вид. И вот сейчас наши дипломированные вруны делают вид, что кризис закончился. Но закончился ли он, или это только закончился первый виток кризисной спирали, а конца ей не видать? Ведь, ври не ври, а от реальности не убежишь. Не знаю, будет ли грядущий век темным, но уверен, что он будет серым. Ведь искусство врать получено вместо каких-либо стоящих познаний.

ДД: В Ирландии вы говорили о том, что современные методы ведения военных действий являются экономически неэффективными. Мол, можно выделить двадцать тысяч повстанцам на Калашниковы и фугасы, и они будут успешно сопротивляться армии, которая использует танки и самолеты, которые стоят десятки миллионов долларов. Однако партизанские действия эффективны только в оборонительных целях, а не наступательных. Чисто теоретически, кризис может привести к тому, что американцы свернут свою деятельность в Ираке и Афганистане. США действительно являются основными агрессорами в мире сейчас, однако у меня большие сомнения в том, что как только «авианосцы встанут на прикол», мы заживем в мире и согласии, все сложат оружие и начнут «пахать землю».

ДО: Люди воюют по разным причинам, и я уверен, что военные действия в той или иной части света будут продолжаться и после исчезновения США с мирового поля боя. Бесспорно, что Калашниковы и фугасы дали беднякам всей планеты возможность доблестно защищаться против самой технологически оснащенной армии. Войны либо окупаются, либо агрессор банкротится, а войны против современных нищих но весьма успешных в бою партизан окупаются куда хуже, чем войны против богатых, миролюбивых, и беззащитных (каковых в мире осталось очень мало). Американцы всё еще воюют, потому что они воюют в долг, но когда их финансовые ресурсы наконец иссякнут, подозреваю, что и весь этот стиль войны отойдет наконец в прошлое. Безусловно, будет много мелкой и крупной резни, особенно в сильно перенаселенных и бедных странах, но для этого и Калашниковы не нужны. Например, в Руанде племя Хуту прекрасно справлялось с помощью мачете, а в Камбодже Красные кхмеры вполне успешно передушили кучу народа пластиковыми мешками. Не знаю, сколько еще будет таких неблагополучных стран, но в целом я думаю, что, благодаря успехам современной партизанской практики, доходность военных акций будет продолжать идти вниз.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beg Like a Pirate

On a calm and sunny autumn Monday, the old pirate awoke in his berth on his anchored derelict vessel with the usual fierce rum-induced hangover. He rowed himself ashore in his little dink, pirated a spot for it at a private dock, took the bus downtown to the Social Security office, hobbled up to the counter on his peg leg, thrust forward his arm-hook, glared at the clerk with his remaining eyeball, and said: "Arr! I want my disability compensation!"

To which you might say, "What?! Why should we devote scarce public resources to the support of, of all people, a pirate? Sure, he lacks stereoscopic vision and is missing the odd appendage, but he could still sober up long enough to do some pillaging, and, with the help of a certain blue pill, even some raping. Even if that proves to be too much for him, he can still stuff ships into bottles for the tourist souvenir shops."

Traditionally, mutinous dogs who espouse such notions would be lashed to the mainmast and given fifty strokes with the cat o' nine tails. However, in the prevailing sadomasochistic political climate, neither the physical pain nor the public humiliation of corporal punishment can be guaranteed to have the expected salutary effect on morale. In fact, the scurvy perverts might find the experience enriching, blogging about it, posting tantalizingly fuzzy cell phone videos of their flogging on YouTube, and auctioning their bloodied shirts on Ebay. No, they would have to be made to walk the plank, or, if the sea is calm, swing from the yard-arm, thus saving a bullet.

The pirate's claim for disability compensation rests on a clinical diagnosis of chronic pain. The idea of honest work can be observed to make his phantom limbs twitch. Also, he suffers from a possibly false but nevertheless emotionally distressing memory of being sexually assaulted by his parrot. The Social Security check would be helpful, of course, but, beyond that, he craves recognition. He would like to regularly see a neurologist, a psychiatrist and an acupuncturist. He feels that there must be a popular syndrome that accounts his unique condition perfectly. He has correctly surmised that pain and suffering are this society's most important form of social capital, more important than wealth or achievement.

When Bill Clinton, in 1992, spoke the words "People are hurting all over this country. You can see the pain in their faces, the hurt in their voices," which he later synthesized into the memorable and mantra-like "I feel your pain," he tapped into something rather powerful that had been gestating in the popular subconscious for some time. In effect, he put into circulation a new coin of the realm. It is wonderful to have a leader who feels your pain! Of course, you had to have pain for him to feel, so you went out and got yourself some. How you got it didn't much matter. Hard work and heroic self-sacrifice were the best, but in the end it didn't matter whether it was through overwork, overexercise, substance abuse, overeating, self-abuse - almost any sort of abuse gained you admission to a nationwide orgy of shameless public blubbering about one's pain.

Beyond a superficial sense of physical well-being, how we feel about ourselves and the world is mediated and conditioned by our culture. In the richer cultures, the feelings are highly refined, and their expressions are couched in complex, culturally specific terms. This creates a problem for an inclusive, multicultural society, because refined feelings, between two mutually unintelligible cultures, seem idiosyncratic and subjective, and serve to alienate rather than to create common ground. So why not leave the complex feelings of love, sympathy, pride, respect, honor and shame and so forth behind, as so much cultural baggage, and standardize on the simpler feeling of pain? Unlike these other feelings, pain can be made objective, because it is subject to pharmacological effects.

At the National Cathedral of Pain, you confess to pain, you are absolved, and you receive communion in pill form. And so we have a nation that gobbles painkillers. The hardest workers have the biggest bottles of Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen displayed proudly on their desks, and may be abusing oxycodone in private. People as disparate as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Jackson share a predilection for painkillers. The rich have access to prescription medications, while the poor self-medicate with illegal drugs and alcohol.

The interesting thing about pain is that it is not objective it all. There is a fine line between pain and pleasure, and it seems to have a lot to do with whether we sense that physical harm is being caused. That is, pain is really not so bad provided you know that there is nothing wrong with you. On the other hand, if you think that you have caused yourself irreparable harm, then your brain will furnish you with undeniable symptoms of it. For instance, a herniated disk is often benign physically (like a bit of toothpaste pushing against a garden hose), but if you disagree with that, then your brain will cut the blood flow to the surrounding tissues, giving you chronic pain (but still no physiological damage). It is often sufficient to convince yourself that there is nothing physically wrong with you for the pain to subside. This psychological mechanism could very well be behind the strangely increased incidence of chronic back pain in a society that does less back-breaking work than ever before.

A good question to ask, then, is whether people who suffer pain because of their need to be recognized for their suffering, and to feel included, should be compensated for it financially. Perhaps they should be. Doing so might cause us all some additional financial pain. But then Dr. Geithner at the US Treasury Clinic seems perfectly happy to oblige with a script for financial morphine whenever anyone asks for one, and Pharm. D. Bernanke at the Federal Reserve Pharmacy always fills Mr. Geithner's scripts no questions asked. Nobody knows how much financial morphine Dr. Bernanke has left in stock, but let's not ask him any questions about that either. For an economy in hospice care, that is far too painful a question to even think about.

And now for the really hard question: Are you ready and willing to do the backbreaking work that's needed to bring this country around? To make it easier, let's make it multiple-choice: A. Yes; B. No; C. Ouch!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Caution, White People

Update March 2010: It took six months for the mainstream to catch up, but now Frank Rich is saying pretty much the same thing in the NYT: white people are upset that they are not in charge any more.

UPDATE: This article has attracted the usual trickle of informative and thoughtful reader comments, which are always welcome, plus a torrent of venomous stupidity, which, unfortunately, I have had to look at in order to reject. It is quite clear that the US is headed in the direction of very stupid, hurtful and dangerous politics. What is also clear is that I have neither the time nor the interest nor the stomach for it. I regret having to do this, but I am disabling comment submission.

I happened to be in Washington, DC last weekend, and on the way to and from the National Gallery I had the opportunity to observe the March on Washington, which was in full swing. Once upon a time I had joined demonstrations, not out of some misplaced idealism, but to pick up women (I was still single at the time). The demonstrations were always full of pretty, high-spirited young women, and the context of marching and chanting slogans together rendered them approachable. And so my first question concerning the crowd marching around the Mall last weekend was, "Where are all the pretty young women?" There weren't any! Surprised, I observed some more. What I saw only deepened my consternation. Not only were there no pretty women to be seen, but the crowd included exactly zero blacks, Latinos or Asians. I don't believe I have ever before seen so many middle-aged, obese, shabbily dressed, melanin-challenged individuals gathered in one place!

What political interests bind over-the-hill flabby white people to the exclusion of all other ethnic groups? What is the shabby white agenda? Perhaps the signs the marchers carried might offer a clue? Most of them carried white corrugated cardboard signs stapled to a sharpened pine stake, of the sort designed for displaying on suburban front lawns. The slogans they scribbled on them were of their own devising, but the form factor of the signs was identical throughout. The slogans related to disparate interests: health care, monetary policy, constitutional law. I eventually stumbled on a pile of the stock they used to make their signs. These were printed signs: the printed side said either "Office Space for Lease!" or "Condos for Sale!". The demonstrators would pry the cardboard off one sign, staple it to another sign face down, and scribble on the blank side of the one in the front. These people are refugees from foreclosure-land that somebody organized and shipped in, together with their props!

Although the topic of war did not seem foremost on their minds, some of the men, and even a few of the ruddy, rugged-looking women, were clad in warrior garb of one of two varieties: quite a few aging road warriors sported motorcycle gang leathers decorated with Harley-Davidson insignia, while others wore frumpy US Military camouflage pyjamas. One very large would-be warrior paraded with a sign that read "I will defend the Constitution by any means necessary." He could certainly snuff one or two enemies of the republic by belly-flopping onto them with his gigantic gut! But this wasn't a rabidly militant crowd, unlike some of the pro-war demonstrations I've witnessed. For this bunch, militarism is clearly just part of the clutter in their mental attic.

The one theme that seemed to tie it all together could be summed up by the statement "Obama is bad". This message was often couched in laughable, preposterous bits of hyperbole: "Obama is a socialist/Marxist/fascist". (To my knowledge, Obama holds no Marxist credentials whatsoever.) Interestingly, some of the signs were decorated with the hammer and sickle, but I did not see a single Swastika. I would venture a guess that this was to avoid mistaken identification; it is probably easier for these people to be mistaken for fascists than for communists. Not that they are either of these: clearly, they are just some regular old shlubby people, self-organized along strict ethnic lines, self-selected by their hatred of Obama.

Since Obama happens to be a politician, a superficial assumption is that these people joined forces in opposition to Obama's politics. It is, however, difficult to see much daylight between Obama's politics and those of his predecessor. There is a dearth of ideas on how to reverse the country's economic slide and point it in a new, more promising direction. Instead, there is a great deal of continuity: in financial bail-out strategies that benefit large financial institutions and wealthy investors (who are part of Obama's base of support just as they were of Bush's), in the policy of open-ended military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Obama's refusal to investigate and prosecute the previous administration for war crimes, and in most other areas of policy as well, Obama has tuned out to be a Bush in sheep's clothing.

The latest, desperate effort to avoid national bankruptcy at the hands of the medical-industrial complex is not a new initiative. Medical reform has been attempted before, and the outcome can be foretold with some accuracy: efforts at reform will fail because any meaningful reform would be financially damaging to powerful vested interests, and so national bankruptcy will have to be an essential part of the work-out. Feelings of the electorate on the matter are irrelevant. But opposition to medical reform is a convenient ruse to hide the real motivations of these self-selected white demonstrators. Now, could these perhaps have to do with... racism?

Jimmy Carter has recently blundered into the fray, making the following statement on CNN: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man,” Carter told NBC News." This has caused a bit of an uproar. Captain Obvious was immediately paged but declined comment. The Obama administration immediately started to distance itself from Jimmy. Jimmy does say the darnest things, such as calling Israeli policies toward Palestinians "Apartheid". (Speaking truth to liars is a dangerous sport, because if you do, their lying turns vicious. Everyone knows that anything short of a glowing endorsement of Israeli policies brings an automatic charge of antisemitism. When is Jimmy going to learn?)

Obama's ethnic and racial identity is ambiguous. He is a self-described mutt. If he is black, then he is black in the way a puppy born of a black Labrador and a golden retriever might be black, not the way a lot of the US prison population is black. He is a cross between a Kenyan and an anthropologist, and a privileged, pampered member of America's ruling class. His people did not come from Africa in slave ships to be auctioned at Charleston and work on plantations.

He may not be particularly black, but he is definitely not of the same tribe as the Washington demonstrators, who were predominantly of Scots-Irish or English or German descent. This is who America's proud owners and proprietors have been through most of American history, the ethnic groups that have built the American empire, driving slaves, running factories, fighting the natives and driving them into reservations, driving the Mexicans out of the Southwest, and manning the police departments, the military bases and the prisons. They are the ones who worked to impose Pax Americana on the Americas, and, for a short while, almost succeeded in having their way with the rest of the world.

And now they have grown old, fat and sick and are mired in debt. Their time is over, and they are every bit as upset about it as they ought to be. I can't fault them for it. Up until last year, they could comfort themselves by thinking: "We may be poor, but at least we ain't black!" But now they have a black President. What a shock that must be!

What is lost on many simple minds is that the concept of racism is actually a lot of ridiculous nonsense. The term should be retired. It initially presupposed the existence of some sort of natural hierarchy, with a master race (English aristocracy) at the top and semi-evolved animal-like barbarians (Africans, Asians and such) near the bottom. This theory was responsible for a great deal of misery and injustice, but now it has been thoroughly discredited by genetics. The human genome is not differentiated according to race or skin color: we are all one race.

What remains of the concept of race is irrational racial hatred, but racial hatred is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce ethnic strife. Privileged ethnic groups do not have to hate ethnic groups they oppress any more than I have to hate chickens in order to steal and eat their eggs. Ethnicity-based feelings of entitlement and a clan mentality work just as well to divide a multi-ethnic society into warring factions. You might think that intermarriage and a long history together might mitigate against this risk, but there was plenty of intermarriage and a very long history together between Serbs and Croats in Yugoslavia, and between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, and look at where that got them. Multi-ethnic societies are fragile entities, and have a tendency to explode. When they do everyone loses.

Whenever two or more ethnic groups live side by side, the danger of ethnic strife, civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide is always present. What usually triggers it is the presence of politicians who are willing to exploit ethnic differences in order to grab or hold on to power. Do we have any of those here? Do they even know that they are playing with fire? The poor people I saw parading around Washington last weekend didn't seem so threatening, but where there is smoke there is fire.

It is possible to excuse those who are upset with the way things are in the country. It is, after all, a sad state of affairs. It is also possible to forgive people for being upset that their leader doesn't look or act like them. Bush did his best to appease them by playing a redneck on TV, cutting up logs with a chainsaw, driving a pickup truck around his ranch during his lengthy and numerous vacations, and cultivating a fake Texas twang to mask his New England upper-class roots.

But what of those in positions of influence who are willing to exploit public frustration and stir up ethnic hatred, all in order to defeat health care reform? Isn't that exactly what we should expect of those who want to continue to extort money from sick people in order to make profits even while the country teeters toward bankruptcy? Are they too stupid to realize how dangerous a game that is? Or do they think that it might not be too bad for them, and that a bloodletting might be good for their business, making it even more profitable?

In the US, politics is a stupid, pointless, but mostly harmless game. Let's all do our best to make sure that it stays that way.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Time's Up!

Time's Up! An Uncivilized Solution to a Global Crisis
by Keith Farnish
Green Books, September 2009

Keith's book is a reader challenge: the reader is tasked with developing a survivable future for her progeny. Very carefully and delicately, with many references to academic research and a rich bibliography, Keith lays out the case that extinction is the default choice – unless you, dear reader of such books, along with a few other people, people like Keith, who would like to help you, come up with a better plan.

Keith points to two of the narratives that are becoming prevalent in thinking about our lack of future. The first of these is the vision of technological apocalypse: the complex, highly interconnected technology-based life support system crashes, stranding us in a dead landscape that is not survivable. The second is the vision of environmental catastrophe: methane bubbles out of the tundra, the ice caps melt, the oceans rise, the forests burn up, fields turn to desert, harvests fail, and, along with most other species, humans go extinct. Keith asks us to create a third narrative – one in which our children stand a chance, as members of an uncivilized, and perhaps an endangered species, but not an extinct one. Keith asks us to start taking steps toward making this vision a reality.

A worthy goal, although one rife with difficulties and internal contradictions. The first of these is that such a consummately civilized book is an odd vehicle for promoting the destruction of the civilization that is leading us all to perdition. Another is that his presentation, true to fact though it is, due to its dark subject matter, is enough to drive most people to melancholy. Questions of survival and extinction are hard for us, for we civilized humans are a sentimental lot: we bake cupcakes and play with kittens and babies, and prefer to think that the big world out there is just an extension of our little safe haven with its security and its comforts, where we can go and play if we want to. We worry about all the little baby animals out there, the cute, sad-eyed, furry ones especially, but we leave the dirty, planet-destroying work of providing our security and our comforts to specialists – soldiers, the police, politicians, businessmen, engineers and industrial workers. These, being professionals, generally feel that they need not concern themselves with matters outside their purview, such as their forthcoming extinction.

As for those whose purview does include the minor matter of our continued viability as a species, the list now includes anyone who seriously studies ecology, climatology, natural resource physics, crisis economics, or any of the other disciplines that tell us of crisis, danger, or catastrophe. For them, deep and abiding melancholy has become something of an occupational hazard. Scientists are professional problem-solvers, and tend to choke on the idea that their problem-solving happens to be responsible for having caused much of the problem. If all you can do is study something to death, then die, then why on earth bother? But Keith does come up with a very simple, powerful idea that cuts through all of this sentimental fog like a laser beam.

This is perhaps the most powerful idea of his entire book. We – all of us – should just follow our genetic programming a little better. As bits of biological hardware executing a genetic program, it is our primary function to pass our genes on to the next generation. This part is not controversial, and there are several billion of us on hand to attest to the program's success. But unlike, say, yeast, some of us are also capable of understanding an important principle: that just blindly creating progeny doomed to extinction is not as clever as we like to imagine ourselves to be. If we leave no viable habitat for our children, then we could give birth to countless numbers of them and still fail to reproduce successfully. (Yeast are actually somewhat clever, and when their environment becomes too polluted with their main waste product, alcohol, for them to function, they fall dormant and wait for an improvement, whereas we just kick the bucket.) The key question is not whether to breed, it is where to breed, and just as many animals range far and wide to find a place to breed and rear their young, we need to look beyond the cupcake-and-kitten universe with its plastic baby car seats and baby formula, and reconcile our effort with the big picture, or we are only doing half the job of parenting.

As always and with everything, there is a problem with this approach as well. It is quite possible to take the position that while the cupcake-and-kitten universe is undeniably real, first-hand experience, and is all that makes your life interesting and fun, the big scary world of ecological and economic catastrophe is an ever-changing carnival show of horrific visions that our apocalypse-addled culture serves up as popular entertainment. It seems that there is always something out there to moan about in public. It used to be nuclear winter, but now it's global warming summer, with some killer asteroids lurking about to spice things up. Sure, lots of children might go extinct, but who's to say they will be my children? Mine might turn out to be particularly clever – much more clever than you or me – so why not let them sort this out for themselves? Indeed, when it comes to planning our own birth, what advice would any of us want to have given to our own parents, beyond "Oh, please, don't think about it, just get on with it!" And while, simultaneously, some of us may wrinkle our noses at all the stupid people who pop out babies with no means or plans to bring them up properly, that, you see, is part of their genetic programming as well: in a heterozygotic species such as ours, breeding is a matter of chance, nobody knows which two crabapples might produce a Golden Delicious, and if none of the numerous idiots among us were allowed to breed, there would be even fewer geniuses among us.

While "Please, just get on with it!" sums it up nicely, some sort of plan might still be called for. We want our children to be grateful, not just weak with relief for being born at all. And while the introduction declares bombastically that "Part Four contains the keys to human survival" [p. 8] by the time Part Four rolls around, Keith is quick to offer a disclaimer: "These are just thoughts, ideas, imperfect sketches for something that could work if it's done properly. I can't predict how things are going to turn out, even if what I am going to propose does succeed; nobody can predict something that hasn't started yet." [p. 182-3] Keith's practical thoughts and considerations are not unhelpful, including all the usual steps toward self-sufficiency, such as constructing your own shelter and growing and gathering your own food, but they really are (as perhaps they should be) just baby steps.

Keith also talks about the task of destroying industrial civilization in order to allow life on earth to return to equilibrium. A worthy goal, perhaps, although none of what Keith proposes is particularly radical or effective, or it would be illegal and his book would be banned. Is it a goal worth pursuing? If we try and succeed, would we feel proud of ourselves, and wear "I collapsed industrial civilization" T-shirts? (Unlikely, since by then we would be clad in skins, furs or homespun cloth, or, if global warming comes through in time, perhaps a simple loincloth would suffice.) Won't industrial civilization collapse in any case, and so shouldn't we devote our scarce energies and short lives to more constructive pursuits? The forces that maintain industrial civilization do so at the cost of ever-increasing complexity, an approach that, once it reaches the point of diminishing returns, only hastens its own destruction. A more worthy goal might be to insulate yourself and your children from this wave of destruction that is about to befall industrial society, by freeing yourself from its enslavements. Indeed, I believe that inside Keith's somewhat ambiguous and tentative message of conscious destruction lurks a far more potent and coherent message of emancipation from mental slavery.

The chapter on "connecting" elaborates one part of this message. "Connecting" is a process of liberation that allows a person to pierce the veil of objectivity, to cease being a part of objective reality, subject to objective judgment and evaluation, and to enter a realm of direct, subjective meaning and experience. It can start with something as superficial as a trip to the seashore and exposure to the timelessness of surf and wind and sand. It can be as significant as dissolving in the life of a forest, drawing all inspiration and sustenance from it, to the point of being ready to defend it with your own life, which no longer has a significance that is separate from the forest itself.

The next chapter contains a fairly complete description of the elements that prevent connection. Keith calls these mind control methods of modern society the "tools of disconnection." The machinery is subtle and advanced, and the work of emancipation difficult. We are all brainwashed: the rhetoric of freedom is so ingrained in us that breaking through it requires a great deal of effort. Serfdom is obsolete, and old-fashioned slavery is a crime against humanity. To become modern, the slave must be upgraded to new and improved wage-slavery, complete with consumer rights. Freedom requires slavery for it to have meaning. Those who are truly free have no use for the word, and do not know its meaning. Keith's clear exposition of the mind control techniques involved in making this neat little hat trick work helps to break the spell.

But my favorite part of the book is Part One: The Scale of The Problem, in which Keith gives a meticulously researched exposition of life at all scales at which life on Earth has been observed and studied, from the microscopic to the gigantic. In each case, he shows how human industrial activity has impacted and destabilized the web of life, usually with inevitable and dire consequences for our own chances of survival. Each one of us is tied up in this unfolding drama of wrenching change, as both the perpetrator and the victim, in a web of such stunning complexity that such simplistic labels become meaningless, including many others, such as "environmentalist" or "industrialist".

To rediscover meaning in this context, what is needed is direct contact, outside of the limits set by society and officially sanctioned roles. Keith's book is a progress report from one man's search for this meaning. I encourage you to join efforts with him, and to work on discovering a future in which you and your children might find a place.