Current Affairs, Renaissance Man, the World is Our Heritage

I feel badly sometimes about my distraction from current events. In reading Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book 1968 The Year that Rocked the World (yet another distraction) I was rather surprised, after canvassing many folks I know who were adults in that era, that the overwhelming majority of people were simply not involved in whatever dramatic events were shaping the world at the time. My folks for example really weren’t terribly impressed with the period. In their late twenties and early thirties it seemed ludicrous to me that they could have been so far removed from the counter culture, war pressures, and artistic movements that shaped our world. My folks couldn’t name you a Bob Dylan tune. My old man blankly shrugged off my assertion that 1968 was a more difficult time for the country than the affairs that currently face us, compiling the Vietnam War effort and the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations, the country could not have been more divided. Still my old man was unmoved, what’s on our plates at the moment, so it seems, is the most difficult thing we face. After all, those of us who survived the past no longer have to survive the past, and those who didn’t, well, they aren’t concerned about it either. Granted, we face some serious issues from the pollutants causing our global warming to the ugly elevation of populist bigotry spear-headed by the rise of a loutish and feudal celebrity president who fans the worst in inevitable national consciousness—fear and misunderstanding of foreigners. These elements, basically our stupid paleolithic tribal instincts, which belong nowhere near politics, yet are the one thing that motivated so many voters to actually get off their fat, over-entertained asses to pull the trigger for the goon. Is motivation always the same? Is the state of the citizenry always basically grotesque and frightening? Are the worst elements of our populous naturally aroused by calculated, determined stroking of their childish indignation? Does every human being naturally imagine themselves oppressed? In fact, is this personal enjoyment of indignation a human trait?
Some years ago I watched a horrifying video of a narrow street being fired on by Israeli soldiers. In the video a Palestinian man crossed the street to crouch behind a barrel or pile of boxes, I can’t remember, what I do remember is that his five year old son followed him and was shot dead, the tiny boy slumping awfully on the street. The sweeping bullets carelessly took both those lives and ultimately what for? Discussing this video with a pastor friend of mine he chuckled and suggested that Palestinians stop throwing bombs. Granted this friend of mine, despite his training, was an ugly fool, and I put little stock in his dismissive attitude, however, he’s not alone in his outlook, it is in fact a common reaction. Those victims of power deserved it. A five year old clearly on his way to becoming a bomb-thrower! Maybe it’s too difficult to actually comprehend serious horror. Maybe again our pea-brains developed over thousands of years of animal evolution aren’t really capable of giving a shit beyond our own extended families and close friends (the tribe again). Maybe in self-defense, since we are so limited, we necessarily triage the incoming horrors. We can only comprehend and deal with so much of it. I still find it distressing that my pastor friend could be so callous, that he indulged that teenage machismo carelessness, as if it were something impressive.
My old man points to a Kingston Trio song he always loved: “Merry Minuet”. A cute piece that alludes to some monumental hate and most destructive weaponry. But while, like journalism, it points us to injustice and serial human foolishness, no solutions but despair appear in the artfulness. And perhaps it’s only natural to wish to avoid despair.
Similarly, we find ourselves laughing at George Carlin’s late career social criticism, dealing in ferociously nasty reality television, our ridiculous expectations of gods and Heaven, and weird overly manipulative modern child-rearing, despite it honestly not being all that funny. It’s more like cringingly absurd and hopelessly disturbing insight into a culture twisted into ship wreckage. Carlin did enjoy giving his boot-in-the-ass talks and I found them essential listening.
Lastly, I’ve been reading a vivid account of writer Timothy Tyson’s early years in North Carolina called Blood Done Sign My Name, recounting atrocious race relations in a small town southern state, and recounting explicit bigotry on the floor of a popular religious institution. Granted no town was immune to this grossest of human power struggle, distrust, and plain irrational fear, but the tale, told expertly, makes the disappointment and hopelessness of this human social problem seem appallingly inevitable, like a house built on the side of an active volcano.
The only answer I can see ultimately is one that has often been touted as a strength of our nation though few folks seem interested in honestly making it a precept of their lives. The melting pot culture that takes all these various social metals and forges a new and lasting American citizenry proud of that particular newly-forged culture. Neil Postman often talked of it in many of his somewhat conservative but nonetheless compelling essays. Why Americans seem to be dually interested in both ancestral origin (now magnified by these DNA matching corporations) as well as a whimsically sport-like patriotic fervor for a rough and tumble American spirit wholly anathema to the commercial world most of us choose to devote to (sitting on sofas rather than on horseback), is a tricky maze to puzzle out. We want to love that aspect of America that defines us as strong, of mythic independence, and tremendous resourcefulness, fighting for the spirit of some definition of freedom for all, but we also want to call ourselves anything but American. We pretend to be from England, France, Scotland, Germany, Africa and thousands of other non-American locations even when we were undeniably born in places like Hartford, Connecticut or Winston-Salem, or nearby endless cornfields in Idaho and raised on the very same mac and cheese, bologna and ridiculous television as everyone else. We played with Mr. Potatohead, worshiped Star Wars, and filled our pea-brains with He-man and G.I. Joe data (or their equivalents depending on your age).
This identity problem appears magnified today, possibly because of the possibilities of distinguishing ourselves from what James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem humorously calls “North American Scum”. Our problem with identity may very well stem from the fact that American culture is homogeneously controlled by commercial forces. I could also be full of shit about that, but it’s not hard to imagine a smart young person reaching an age where the predictability and clear formula of a beloved cartoon is finally revealed as a marketing tool to sell toys. As all American television is designed to sell product of some form or other. And all our traditions are founded on some commercial base that we’ve been raised to overlook as though we live as nature intended. There are many old and long revealed examples of this manipulation story, DeBeers diamond company created the tradition of giving a diamond ring to a lady to instill the seriousness of your proposal, orange juice and bacon and eggs are no more breakfast food than anything else eaten the world over for breakfast, they were, in fact, dying food industries that successfully rebranded themselves as breakfast food just a couple of generations back-saving their hides. Many of us were read stories as kids about Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox called Babe never realizing (in fact, I’m not sure some of the teachers who used these materials realized) that these creations were corporate mascots for lumbering and mining companies. If Disney took over public school textbook creation and filled the history books with Donald Duck and Goofy it could not have been more ridiculous. The point being, Americans choose to not have a definitive culture that identifies us as anything but consumers with endless pocketbooks. Our culture is entertainment. It’s no small wonder that so many young folks hoping to develop their minds as artists or intellectuals close off the fountain of empty repetitive pablum and reach for old books and real life experiences (playing instruments, traveling, taking up martial arts). And possibly wish to identify themselves as anything but melted into that American pot of predictably bland alloy. I get it.
Current events, if I can transition back to that initial consideration, worry me in terms of overwhelming a renaissance citizen. It’s a little like kids who only hear the most current music, or old folks who imagine only the Beatles were any good. I am concerned that people get locked into their current events, that they lose track of precedent and have extremely low capabilities of reasoning with a synthesis of history, science, and social record. It’s too easy to imagine that what’s broadcast and shouted at us is in fact newsworthy and inherently meaningful by virtue of its immediacy. We are softened by ease and dulled by entertainments. We sometimes can’t recognize satire. Hell, sometimes we can’t recognize reality. Our tribal pea-brains also love to associate with the philosophies that best support our hopes and happiness (this in other words was said by Freud in his Civilization and it’s Discontents). And just as I can’t imagine dividing those ludicrous bigots from their unfounded hatred of the black folks living beside them (in fact, it basically had to eventually die out for it to really change) I also can’t imagine digging our more modern (2018!) louts out of their trenches with reason either. Because the propensity for irrational belief and fear isn’t based on reason. It is hopelessly ensconced in our loopy caveman understanding of how the world works, all of it superstitious nonsense. But now I understand how my folks avoided the rebellion and revolution of the sixties. We can’t absorb it all. We simply can’t digest that much despair. We need to live our lives, achieve what we long to do with the time we have. I’m hopeful that that’ll include expanding our consciousness and developing a more passionate and equitable world view. The competition for that effort is however powerfully seductive, passive entertainments are always available and like fat and sugar are addictive. Sam Harris points out that there are several things humanity needs to overcome for peace. One of those items is tribalism. So moving forward, how do we re-program our brains to operate non-tribally? Emphasize once again our melting-pot culture and American alloy strength. Perhaps we should offer our commercially programmed youth some other choices besides the endless clap-trap of product advertisement, maybe Public Television and Radio needs to be more deeply funded so that history, science, and arts are given a stronger and richer foundation in our marketplace. Maybe these ridiculous DNA matching businesses need to be put in their conceptual proper place. Ultimately our DNA tells us little about who we are. DNA after all, as was deftly once pointed out at a Richard Lewontin seminar I attended, is a dead molecule (this, of course, pointed out for choice evisceration of popular genetic studies), and our beings are not much revealed by what the DNA shows us. Lastly, Americans could use some things that we can wrap an identity we can enjoy (I’ll avoid the term pride for reasons Carlin expertly pointed out) around. We can share our blues and rock music traditions. We can definitely appreciate the landscape and wildlife our nation possesses and rally around the adoption of strong preservation of these resources and national parks. We could develop an entire renaissance around the myriad and fascinating cultures of the Native American peoples. We could also reinvigorate the great explorations by outstanding scientists of all fields who revealed so much about this New World. We could promote and enjoy the founding father’s radicalism and how it inspired revolution the world over. This just to name a few items that spring to mind, would certainly help young people worry less about crises of identity that America currently exploits commercially. But the truth is, in the end, humanity can be proud (reinstating in here) of all of humanity’s accomplishments. It is world heritage that we can draw on for inspiration, not just national. From the Chauvet cave art of thirty thousand years ago to Herodotus’ Histories, from Li Po to Brahmagupta, Cervantes to Walt Whitman, Darwin to Von Homboldt, the great and the small, wonders of arts, architecture, maths and sciences. Why should we be chained to a parochial outlook? It is time to expand our human and worldly consciousness. We are members of the planet, not some street gang. And it’s high time we began acting as such.
How do we be people of our time as well as all time? How do we pay attention to the current while providing appropriate depth of understanding derived from history and sciences? How do we learn to play a horn or sketch a landscape or do a successful Judo throw? Through great effort. Sorry, you’re going to have to turn off the entertainments!