One of the truly great drummers. Always musical, always tasteful.
One of the truly great drummers. Always musical, always tasteful.
My dear brother, my heart is withered, I am crushed. . . . I am tempted to go and die in some foreign land where men are less unjust. I am silent, I have too much to say.
—From a letter written 7 July 1766, on hearing of the torture and execution of the chevalier de La Barre. La Barre’s body was burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique.
The only real revolution is in the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
—Will Durant, The Lessons of History
Here’s the problem.
Democracy depends on an informed citizenry: people who read, people who are educated about how law and government work, people who are well informed.
As democracy made slow progress in Europe and later in what became the United States, political power—most obviously, the right to vote and to hold political office—was restricted to property-owning men. The merchant class, who had wrested these rights from the nobles (after the nobles had wrested them from the kings) fiercely resisted expanding them to larger groups.
On the one hand, this sort of limited democracy ensured a relatively well-educated, well-informed cohort of voters and office holders by severely limiting the power of the poor and working classes. In the U.K., only gentlemen could become Members of Parliament, and only men could vote them into office. In the U.S., the House of Representatives was more broadly democratic, but the Senators were elected by state legislatures (until the 17th Amendment changed that provision of the Constitution in 1913).
These arrangements (and others like the U.S. Electoral College) did ensure a relatively well-educated electorate. On the other hand, they were clearly undemocratic attempts by an elite ruling class—white men of property—to hold on to their power. Such men, including James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other leading thinkers of the early United States, argued that a pure or complete democracy was nothing less than an invitation to mob rule. Give every ignorant, unwashed working man a vote? Unthinkable. The new nation, they insisted, would be a republic, not a democracy, and the republic would be controlled by men of education and property. Or at least, men of property.
Since then, political power has slowly, grudgingly, and imperfectly been given to previously excluded groups—first to all white males, then to women, then to people of colour. But this expansion of political power has not been accompanied by an expansion of political education. It reminds me of the reform campaigns against the horrific mental institutions of fifty years ago, which were sometimes little more than medieval prisons for the mentally ill. Public sentiment against these institutions grew until, during the Reagan years in the U.S., they were largely abolished. The poor souls previously confined so cruelly were set free. Freedom! But freedom alone meant that most of these people ended up homeless, living on the streets, with little or no care at all.
The expansion of political power without an expansion of education and social justice has had a similar result: millions of voters or potential voters who do not read, do not understand how law and government work, and who are woefully uninformed or misinformed about the facts. Such an electorate is laughably vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues.
But it’s worse than that.
The propertied middle classes, who live in decent neighbourhoods and send their kids to decent schools, are turning into the same kind of ignorant, uninformed, easily manipulated voters that the Founding Fathers and Edmund Burke feared when they warned about mob rule.
Years ago I read an essay by the Canadian-American novelist, Saul Bellow, in which he warned that the U.S. was turning into an “amusement culture.” The phrase stuck with me, and I kept noticing ways in which it seemed true. In older cultures people defined themselves by what they made or did. In the culture I saw around me, people defined themselves by what they bought. And what they bought, overwhelmingly, was entertainment. Amusement. Stimulation. Relief from boredom. I noticed, too, how closely this quest for entertainment resembled drug addiction: the dose that initially produced quite a strong effect gradually lost its power, and so had to be increased—a process whose logical end is overdose and death.
Saul Bellow’s description has now been superseded. We no longer merely live in an “amusement culture.” We now live in an addiction culture.
TV, sugar, junk food, shopping, pro sports, pop music, Hollywood movies—practically all of the major features of popular culture function as addictions. People even say “I need a fix” to explain why they must watch a TV program or eat a donut. Meanwhile, the literal addictions to alcohol and other drugs continue apace and have been multiplied geometrically in recent years by the opioid crisis.
But it’s worse than that.
The neo-Romantic idealists and geniuses who brought us the Internet and, shortly thereafter, “social media,” believed that their inventions would usher in a new era of freedom, empowerment, and global communication. Like Mary Shelley’s idealistic, naive dreamer genius, Victor Frankenstein, they have created a murderous monster. Someone should write a 21st-century version of Shelley’s novel and title it Zuckerberg, or The Modern Frankenstein. The internet has not only added to our list of popular addictions such things as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. It has also created a propaganda organ of instant, almost worldwide scope. No longer do demagogues need to print pamphlets or travel from town to town making speeches. A “tweet storm” or a series of inflammatory Facebook posts can do the work infinitely faster and better, as all of us have seen in the Age of Trump.
There are, of course, pockets of resistance. Some people do read books, exercise, eat healthy foods, avoid popular culture, play musical instruments or paint or write, go on long walks, etc. They are a small minority, vastly outnumbered by the millions of avid participants in the Addiction Culture. And since the Addiction Culture is not only self-perpetuating but self-multiplying and almost completely empowered, there’s no end in sight. No way to turn this ship around.
Which is why democracy is breaking.
If history is any guide, nothing short of a violent crisis can change the trends, and if such a violent crisis comes, it is as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. And if after all of this pessimism you think the world is worth saving and want to give it a try, I suggest that you become a teacher and inspire your students to read, think, and become well-informed.
Coda: If becoming a teacher is out of your reach, or not enough, try working on one or both of these essential problems: 1) Ensure that access to large sums of money gives zero advantage to a candidate for political office. 2) Establish an independent, publicly-funded news service that does not need to compete with commercial media.
I’ve been meaning to read this for years and finally got around to it during these holidays. It’s one of those stories that reverberates, in a disorienting way, for a couple of days after you’ve finished it. Here are some of the bits that struck me from the third part, Ghost Road:
‘Mate’ in all the dictionaries was translated as ‘dead’. ‘No mate,’ Rivers said, breathing deeply and pointing to Mbuko’s chest. There and then, across the dying man, he received a tutorial, not unlike those he remembered from his student days in Bart’s. Mate did not mean dead, it designated a state of which death was the appropriate outcome. Mbuko was mate because he was critically ill. Rinambesi, though quite disgustingly healthy, still with a keen eye for the girls, was also mate because he’d lived to an age when if he wasn’t dead he damn well ought to be.
Hallet came from an old army family and had been well and expensively educated to think as little as possible;
Though it might seem callous or frivolous to say so, head-hunting had been the most tremendous fun and without it life lost almost all its zest. This was a people perishing from the absence of war.
Rivers wondered whether Sassoon and Harrington had been too much in the forefront of his mind while he was listening to Wansbeck. At best, on such occasions, one became a conduit whereby one man’s hard-won experience of self-healing was made available to another. At worst, one no longer listened attentively enough to the individual voice.
This last one made me think of my own work. As a younger teacher, I approached every student without preconceptions. Now, all these years later, I have the benefits, but also the risks, of experience. I have to remind myself sometimes that, even if the face reminds me of other students and the behaviour reminds me of other students, the student in front of me is not those other students.
Found in John Merriman, Modern Europe: Volume One, From the Renaissance to the Age of Napoleon (1st edition, 1996):
Literature flourishes in Italy and princes there are not ashamed to listen to, and themselves to know, poetry. But in Germany princes pay more attention to horses and dogs than to poets—and thus neglecting the arts they die unremembered like their own beasts.
—Pope Pius II (1405 – 1464)
After reading Miranda Carter’s wonderful George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I, it is difficult not to connect Pius’s remark to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a.k.a. the House of Windsor, Britain’s royals, whose country houses were—are?—filled with dogs and hunting parties. Kaiser Wilhelm II was also an avid hunter. Carter describes Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for hunting, and that of his royal British cousin, the future King George V:
Wilhelm . . . kept a list of everything he’d ever killed: by 1897 it totalled 33,967 animals, beginning with “two aurochs, 7 elks” and ending with “694 herons and cormorants and 581 unspecified beasts.” George could bring down 1,000 pheasants in one day. At [the Windsors’ country estate] Sandringham the quantities of game shot were positively obscene.
And in case you think this is all in the past, do an image search for “British royals with dogs and horses.”
From Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of BeBop:
They started asking me my views about fighting. “Well, look, at this time, in this stage of my life here in the United States, whose foot has been in my ass? The white man’s foot has been in my ass hole buried up to his knee . . . ! Now, you’re speaking of the enemy. You’re telling me the German is the enemy. At this point, I can never even remember having met a German. So if you put me out there with a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot at the enemy, I’m liable to create a case of ‘mistaken identity. . . .’”
They finally classified me 4F because I was crazy enough not to want to fight, in anybody’s army.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the 20th century’s greatest novelists and a constant irritant to the communist leaders of the Soviet Union until he was expelled from the country. After a brief stay in Switzerland he moved his family to Vermont in 1974, where he avoided publicity and worked on The Red Wheel, a series of historical novels tracing the end of imperial Russia and the founding of the Soviet Union. In 1978 he emerged from his rural retreat to deliver a commencement address at Harvard University.
I remember reading press accounts of the speech and thinking that Solzhenitsyn was a man stuck in the past. Like his predecessor, Leo Tolstoy, he seemed mired in a Christianity that was largely irrelevant in the modern world. Re-reading the speech today, I find passages that support those earlier impressions. He bemoans, for example, the West’s moral decadence:
Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space. Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence, such as, for example, the misuse of liberty for moral violence against young people, motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror. It is considered to be part of freedom and theoretically counterbalanced by the young people’s right not to look or not to accept. Life organized legalistically has thus shown its inability to defend itself against the corrosion of evil.
He also condemns, not just communism, but any form of socialism:
Having experienced applied socialism in a country where the alternative has been realized, I certainly will not speak for it. The well-known Soviet mathematician Shafarevich, a member of the Soviet Academy of Science, has written a brilliant book under the title Socialism; it is a profound analysis showing that socialism of any type and shade leads to a total destruction of the human spirit and to a leveling of mankind unto death.
And in remarks on the Vietnam War, which had finally drawn to a close in 1975 after thirty years, he expresses a view that would have been welcomed by the most right-wing generals in the Pentagon.
Your short-sighted politicians who signed the hasty Vietnam capitulation seemingly gave America a carefree breathing spell; however, a hundredfold Vietnam now looms over you. That small Vietnam was a warning and an occasion to mobilize the nation’s courage. But if a full-fledged America suffered a real defeat from a small, Communist half-country, how can the West hope to stand firm in the future?
Such views seemed retrograde and wrong-headed to me in 1978, and still seem so to me now, even though his condemnations of the moral decadence so obvious in American culture, and of the amoral materialism of capitalism, resonate undeniably. Other portions of the speech, however, read today almost like a guide to understanding the initially puzzling sympathy for Russia that Donald Trump’s supporters express.
Distrust of Journalists
Trump has consistently trashed the media, calling every news report that puts him in a bad light “fake news” and even calling the press “enemies” of America. Here is what Solzhenitsyn says about journalism in the West:
What sort of responsibility does a journalist have to his readers, or to history? If he has misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? No, it hardly ever happens, because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist always gets away with it. One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance. . . .
The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus we may see terrorists made heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan “everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era: people also have the right not to know, and it is a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information. . . .
Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. One would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the Communist East, a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified: one gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment and there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership, because newspapers mostly give emphasis to those opinions that do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West, fashionable trends of thought are carefully separated from those that are not fashionable. Nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally, your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.
It is easy to find these themes being echoed today by Trump and his followers.
It is easy, too, to see the appeal of Solzhenitsyn’s views for conservative Christians:
However, in early democracies, as in American democracy at the time of its birth, all individual human rights were granted because man is God’s creature. That is, freedom was given to the individual conditionally, in the assumption of his constant religious responsibility. Such was the heritage of the preceding thousand years. Two hundred, or even fifty, years ago, it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual could be granted boundless freedom simply for the satisfaction of his instincts or whims. Subsequently, however, all such limitations were discarded everywhere in the West; a total liberation occurred from the moral heritage of Christian centuries, with their great reserves of mercy and sacrifice. State systems were becoming increasingly and totally materialistic. The West ended up by truly enforcing human rights, sometimes even excessively, but man’s sense of responsibility to God and society grew dimmer and dimmer.
Solzhenitsyn closes his speech by imagining a future that revives the best features of the Middle Ages without repeating the mistakes of that era:
It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge: we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more important, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the modern era.
Instead of this utopian spiritual revival, however, current events suggest a good old-fashioned upsurge of authoritarianism, tribalism, and nationalism. And so far, at least, Christian conservatives have distinguished themselves only by their craven support of a blatantly immoral leader, not least at his most racist, white-supremacist moments. “Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism,” Solzhenitsyn said in 1978. Forty years later, his dream seems even more naive while his distrust of liberal democracy is echoed far and wide—even in the Oval Office itself.
Notice that the racist ideology of white supremacy, an ideology that permeates U.S. history, does not appear on my list except marginally (see #1). That’s because I actually think that, given demographic change (more brown people!) and generational change (“What is all this racist shit about?!?) white supremacy could suddenly flip, in the same way that opposition to gay marriage suddenly flipped. Here’s the problem: even if that happened, all four items on my list would still pertain. Because the success myth, anti-intellectualism, the worship of Freedom!, and the sacred military budget cross all classes, races, genders, and sexual preferences in American society. Those values and beliefs are not going to flip, and sooner or later they are going to bring down the empire.
I wish Hedges could write without hyperventilating, because his inflated rhetoric undercuts his message.
I share his pessimism about the future of America, but I think the reasons for pessimism go deeper than the surface-level events he lists.
I can imagine even white supremacy finally being overturned, just as homophobia has been. But I can’t imagine the success myth, anti-intellectualism, or the religious worship of Freedom disappearing from American culture, and it seems to me that these values, deep-baked into the culture, produce most of the ills that Hedges writes about.
Read Hedges’ article here: https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-coming-collapse/.
George Eliot on the suspicions of country folk:
In that far-off time superstition clung easily round every person or thing that was at all unwonted, or even intermittent and occasional merely, like the visits of the pedlar or the knife-grinder. No one knew where wandering men had their homes or their origin; and how was a man to be explained unless you at least knew somebody who knew his father and mother? To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untravelled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft. All cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself suspicious: honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly not overwise or clever—at least, not beyond such a matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring.
—From Silas Marner, Chapter 1
This is a great article about James Baldwin!
For Baldwin, the whole mythic racial nightmare was based upon “economic arrangements of the Western world [which] are obsolete.” People’s identities as Americans are built on fraudulent terms, terms founded upon criminal economic arrangements. Of the latter, Baldwin told Jamal, “Either the West will revise them or the West will perish.” This was especially acute for white folks gripped in “European hangovers” who fantasized that they had more in common with villagers in Scotland or Ireland than they did with black folks who had been their neighbors (and closer than that!) for generations. Economics and race were mutually reinforcing false witnesses.
I suggest the OPB interview first, and then the Radio Open Source podcast. Fascinating and important insights.
Another great interview by the invaluable Christopher Lydon on his Radio Open Source podcast. The “cult of wellness” is actually the inevitable result of making healthcare a capitalistic enterprise. It’s why the U.S. spends more per capita than any other nation on healthcare, with indifferent results.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
—from “The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats
Bridges. Airplanes. Political systems. Things fall apart.
“The social media giant has swallowed up the free press, become an unstoppable private spying operation and undermined democracy. Is it too late to stop it?”
“We shouldn’t be asking Facebook to fix the problem. We should be fixing Facebook. It’s our collective misfortune that this perhaps silliest-in-history supercorporation – a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain – has dragged us all to the very cliff edge of modern technological capitalism.”
From December 2016:
When my mother died in 1978, after a long illness, it was not a surprise. It was a blessed relief for her, and for her sons. Thus I was totally unprepared for the tsunami of grief that hit me. Slowly I realized that I was not grieving the death of my mother, but the loss of my childhood. I would never “go home” again; I would never be a kid again.
All of us want unconditional love, and for most of us that means mom, and childhood. If you cut through the mishmash of conflicting political impulses behind Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!” boils down to this: “Let’s re-wind to when I was a kid and I didn’t have all these problems and uncertainties.” Unconvinced? Try asking someone bemoaning the terrible state of the world today, “What era, exactly, would be a better age to live in than this one?” There isn’t one.
Similarly, the howls of outraged grief that follow the death of a pop star from our youth has its roots in the same nostalgia for childhood. Most of us never met these people, and had no personal relationship with them. They function as pieces of furniture decorating our younger, happier days. We are mourning the loss of our youth, not the loss of those people we never knew.
And so as 2016 winds mercifully to a close, we can perhaps find some solace in recognizing that the grieving fans of Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, etc., have more in common than they might imagine with the angry, desperate people who voted for a man who promised to make everything better again.
“In Women and Power: A manifesto, Mary Beard reveals the ancient roots of misogyny with new and characteristic clarity. Meanwhile, Kate Manne makes the logic of misogyny her subject in Down Girl.”
His actual presence gave me, in a sense, a shock, and I much regret to have to admit to finding something of the barbaric in his violent stage mannerisms.
The young Jewish element at the back was enthusiastic.
As for Armstrong himself, he was
the ugliest man I have seen on the music-hall stage. He looks, and behaves, like an untrained gorilla.
This savage growling is as far removed from English as we speak or sing it—and as modern—as James Joyce.
—Pops, by Terry Teachout, pp. 186-87
“This documentary tells the story of a 250-year-old choral tradition from the coast of Labrador. When German Moravian missionaries sailed into Inuit communities with freshly written musical scores by Bach, Handel and others, they couldn’t have forseen the longlasting impact that music would have on the identity of the Inuit of Nunatsiavut. Musicologists now know that many hymns made their North American debut in the wooden churches of Makkovik, Nain, Okak and Hopedale and that some of the music credited to Germans was in fact written by Inuit composers. The first half of the documentary takes place in the small Inuit community of Hopedale where a choir camp has gathered the new generation of singers. The second half takes place in St. John’s where two choirs, an Inuk soprano and 25 symphony players are preparing for a massive concert celebrating this music. Angela Antle is a member of one of the choirs and tells part of this story as a singer, learning the Inuktitut text and discovering that the Inuit left much more than seal oil thumbprints on the corners of the scores, they used the music to help define their identity.”